Felix Weingartner: Symphony No. 1 in G

performed by the Basel Symphony Orchestra under Marko Lentoja

 So this is (perhaps thankfully) where our saga of the Beethoven quote ends. It’s been with us for around a month now, and it’s time we close that chapter. Mahler 3 was enormous, and I find the potential association with Rott to be moving and beautiful and inspiring.

That’s not to say, though, that there isn’t some definitive association between these two composers. Weingartner was, after all the first person (or at least one of the first) to perform Mahler’s enormous third symphony, albeit only selected movements, (second, third, and sixth) and he quite admired it, even complimenting his work (in so many words) as greater than that of Strauss. 
In some ways, I’d think he should know. Weingartner was a celebrated conductor and interpreter of some of the most classical works in the repertoire. What perhaps isn’t as well known is that he was also a composer. I can’t speak with any authority to the quality of his other recordings, but as I was looking around, his name came up, and his first symphony was instantly pleasant.
As mentioned in our last post, this similarity between the two men as being conductors/composers makes for an interesting perspective, and there aren’t many double threats like that in music history. Carl Nielsen memorably was sitting in the second violins for the premiere of his first symphony, which somehow endears him to me. I would imagine most conductors should be capable of performing their own works, but Weingartner and Mahler are two who are really known for their conducting, and until recently (with Mahler) perhaps more so for their conducting than their compositions. That all being said, I was curious to explore Weingartner’s works, as much

to explore this perspective as much as it was because he complimented Mahler so highly. Granted, I haven’t studied his entire oeuvre, but his first symphony is very pleasant, perhaps more like one of Brahms’ works than Mahler, but not even really that.

Three years Mahler’s junior, he was born in what is now Croatia, but what was then Austria-Hungary. He studied with Wilhelm Mayer in Graz. They moved there shortly before Weingartner’s father died. He abandoned a philosophy study in Leipzig to pursue music, and then moved to Weimar. He ended up being one of Franz Liszt’s last students. He had a string of conductorships with opera companies and eventually found himself in Munich. In 1902, the year of the world premiere of Mahler’s third in Krefeld, Weingartner was busy conducting all nine Beethoven symphonies at the Mainz festival, and in 1908 he succeeded Mahler as principal conductor of the Vienna Hopofer (until 1911), and the Vienna Philharmonic (until 1927). 
He was also the first to make commercial recordings of all nine Beethoven symphonies, and the second to do the same with Brahms. His conducting style was described as being far more like Toscanini’s strict adherence to the score than Fürtwangler’s more ‘subjective’ interpretations. 
After that very brief but quite dense list of accomplishments, one would think he would be quite happy with his success as a conductor, but he apparently considered himself primarily a composer. I don’t know how common his works are, but I’ve never seen or heard of them on any program anywhere ever, and didn’t know he had composed anything until I did some digging. 
This first is one of seven symphonies he wrote. There are at least five string quartets, a few concertos, a sinfonietta, and apparently one opera, which Liszt helped get premiered in 1884, to no great success. 
His first symphony was written in 1898 and published the following year. It is considered, with his first two symphonies, to be one of the “symphonies of his youth” at least according to J Scott Morrison in a review of a recording of the work on Amazon, actually the very recording in the video above. The same reviewer also talks about a few things I would tend to agree on: the idea of a “rustic wedding without the wedding,” seemingly based on folk themes, but apparently all the brainchild of Weingartner himself. They feel folksy, which leads us to the other good point he makes about the piece, that I’ll actually talk about below. 
The movement opens tranquilly, and is very pastoral, but not in a trite way. It’s peaceful and refreshing. As a proper pastoral piece should, it opens with a clarinet (in A), followed by flutes, bassoon, oboe, English horn all taking their turns at this opening melody over strings. It flows and winds. It’s so pleasantly beautiful that one almost worries if it will turn out boring. It doesn’t. The strings pick up the opening theme, and it builds to a beautiful, Romantic kind of climax, leading into what perhaps is the second theme of the sonata form (?), but rehearsal mark four brings us a dramatic change in mood, about two and a half minutes in, where we go from earthy and pastoral to ethereal and kind of magically otherworldly. It sounds like something out of a fairytale. It’s really catching, and it’s more than enough to keep the ear engaged and pull me along without going overboard and changing direction entirely. The development contains recognizable but not identical bits of the two themes, and returns to these two subjects for the recapitulation. This movement is about eleven and a half minutes long. but the movement closes with the opening pastoral woodwinds. There doesn’t appear to be a key change in the piece, certainly not to the dominant, so maybe I just wasn’t paying attention and the second theme (or some theme) is in the relative minor…? Dunno.
The second movement is a march, also in G. I kind of like that for some reason. It starts solidly, stable and metered and rhythmic and satisfying. Again, woodwinds lead the way here, with strings on pizzicato, but not for long. There’s a middle section that seems very related to the first movement. It’s softer and more lyrical. This guy really knows how to write this gushy, billowy, shimmering stuff. The march theme returns in a beautifully-written contrapuntal passage (mark 21), before the real showstopper appears before mark 22, marked ‘very measured’ (in Italian). French horns herald a regal kind of call (Austrian!) and it gets the whole thing going again. It’s sublime. Triumphantly, the opening theme returns in full glory to close the whole thing out, but no. It pauses awkwardly, and then gives its final end. It’s a little more than seven minutes, so by now we’re past the halfway point of the symphony.
The third movement is, traditionally, a scherzo, in Bb. Again, we are introduced to the main theme by oboe and clarinet, and then the rest of the woodwinds over strings. It’s lively and playful, but honestly, it feels not to have much substance. There’s some cool textural stuff with flutes and piccolos and pizzicato strings, but this piece feels like a really fun, very interesting interlude. The B section is clarinet and solo string playing peacefully (pastorally) over background accompaniment. There’s another ethereal section with cellos, and there’s also apparently a harp. This lyrical middle bit almost makes up for the boring scherzo that bookends it. This movement is plenty long enough, at nine-ish minutes, and I won’t say I don’t like it; it’s pleasant enough, but it never feels like it really gets going, and it’s quite repetitive.
The final movement is back in G, and marked Allegro vivo. I love this one. It sounds crisply, confidently Beethovenesque. It’s wonderful, and almost instantly makes up for what I felt to be a rather flat scherzo. The opening subject is lively and bold, but there’s a playful, almost comical subject after it. This feels like great writing to me. It’s jubilant and contrasting and terribly interesting. As much as I enjoy this movement, as the final movement, with all its energy and excitement, it is fittingly brief, and it has its roars and its frolics, but the whole thing ends on a positive, exciting note.
There’s a fine line between unity in theme or atmosphere, and plain old repetition. If a four-movement work like this is too one-note in its expression and mood, there’s no contrast, but if the individual movements (or even their sections) are too dissimilar, the whole thing becomes disjointed and illogical.
After listening to this piece and having a cursory look at the score, I’m curious whether the rest of his symphonies give the kind of limelight to the woodwinds like this piece did. It would be fitting for a pastoral, bucolic work like this, and I’m wondering if the decision was 100% stylistic, or if he tends to favor that kind of orchestration. The orchestration, while nothing earth-shattering or novel, is interesting and varied, but what’s even more interesting is what Mr. Morrison mentions in his review from above. Weingartner’s ability to invent memorable, instantly-likable tunes and melodies is, at least with this piece, seemingly without end. In my opinion, relying on that alone is almost gimmicky, and it’s using those melodies in an inventive, interesting way that makes a piece a real winner. Weingartner does it here brilliantly, and even though I don’t care a ton for the third movement, the whole thing has a voice, a personality that is easy to grasp and stick with.
That being said, I feel this piece is… well, in many ways, I think, quite traditional. Compare this piece, published in 1899, to Mahler’s third of last week with a small army of horns and other not-so-traditional things like two choruses and a vocal soloist, and this piece sounds crisply classical and dainty. There’s nothing at all wrong with that. This entire piece is about as long as the first movement of Mahler’s third, so it’s a nice kind of palate-cleanser, something not so overwhelming. It feels more like Brahms’ second, and the final movement reminds me very much of something from Beethoven.
As mentioned, this is one of Weingartner’s ‘youthful’ works. I suppose that’s only relative, because by this time, he was already in his late thirties. He was only three years younger than Mahler. In any case, perhaps he was more youthful or less experienced as a composer, but this symphony makes me feel he really has potential as a great symphonist. That’s not coming from any position of authority, but one would imagine that with six symphonies still to hear, there would certainly be greater things beyond this.

This symphony is nowhere near being on any of my top-ten or top anything lists, but I don’t dislike it. It’s quaint, and pleasant and enjoyable, and even more so since it’s kind of one of those I discovered on my own. It’s not a cliche showpiece played everywhere, so it feels like it’s a little gem I’ve uncovered, even though professionals are probably already familiar with it. Many of my thoughts in Tuesday’s post were as a result of thoughts prompted by this work, by a man who thinks of himself primarily as a composer, even though his greatest successes were as a conductor. Perhaps he will earn the recognition that Mahler later got as foremost a composer, and a great one at that, one of the greatest. For now, we have on our hands a fine, pleasant symphony to enjoy and ponder over. I look forward to hearing more from Weingartner, from the composing desk, not the podium.

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