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A letter from Karl C. Weigl, Karl Weigl's grandson

Karl and Vally Weigl

Reflections on my Grandparents

Karl C. Weigl

I never knew my grandfather, as he died in New York just two years before I was born, but I was named after him. He emigrated to this country in 1938, fleeing the Nazi regime that had swallowed and transformed his beloved Vienna. He came with my grandmother and their young son, my father – and settled in a small apartment on the upper West Side – their story in so many ways like millions of other displaced émigrés. But, despite their forced circumstances, they were exceedingly fortunate in that they had their lives and retained their optimism, ideals, and even the trappings of their Viennese lifestyle. For example, they managed to have most of their furniture shipped to NY, including the Bechstein grand piano at which my grandfather did most of his composing. Exactly how they got it out of Austria is one of the enduring mysteries of our family.

As a boy and young man, I would visit my grandmother in that apartment where she resided for 40+ years, the ambiance essentially unchanged from the way they established it upon first arriving to America. The experience for me never really changed either: entering the unfamiliar but dignified – and to my sensibilities, vaguely quaint – re-creation of a bygone era. Over-stuffed formal settee, uncomfortable straight-backed chairs, imposing wooden chests stuffed with manuscripts, the little tea cart used for serving sherry, tattered turn-of-the-last-century rugs, matching cloisonné vases atop the bureau, hanging pictures of old Europe before the war, the halls and walls lined with endless rows of first edition books in German, and the ever-present portrait of Beethoven looming over (but not quite welcoming) visitors. This was, for me, the Viennese life my grandfather had left behind. The life-reflection that he needed in order to compose.

And as I looked back in time through the lens of that apartment, I could imagine my grandfather at the peak of his career in Vienna. He composed his third string quartet in 1909, as a young man of 28, as a milestone on his assent to prominence. It won him the coveted Beethoven Prize and a contract with Universal Edition, the preeminent publishing house. For the next 25 years, my grandfather’s career soared as he crafted 3 more string quartets, 4 symphonies, dozens of chamber works, and hundreds of songs – and he gained fame as a theoretician and teacher, living in comfort within a musically-inclined culture where he was greatly admired.

I can also imagine my grandfather’s unbelieving pain as he was yanked from the honored lifestyle in Vienna and exiled. I can imagine the hardships he faced trying to establish himself in an utterly new society that had no appreciation of his past prominence. I can imagine the inner joy he must have felt walking through Central Park as he played back memories of his weekly walks in the Vienna Woods. And, I can imagine his contentment as he sat down to compose at his Bechstein within the preserved Viennese ambiance of that 95th street apartment – two more symphonies and three more string quartets – as he continued to celebrate the musical heritage he was forced to leave behind.

What was Karl Weigl like personally? He was a man of short stature like myself, at 5’4”. I have one of his jackets and a pair of his hiking shoes – and they are just a bit too small for me. He was a nature lover and an athlete -- an amateur mountain climber and accomplished skier. By all accounts, he was also quite a show off: I have many photos of him doing handstands on the beach, showing off for the ladies I think. From all reports he was a quiet and reserved man, and did not seek the public limelight. Although modest on the outside he was confident in his musical path even though many of his colleagues went in different directions. One family story is that – as a boy of 14 or 15, when my grandfather had already begun composing for the piano – his father introduced him to Brahms at a café. Brahms of course was an imposing figure with his massive beard and reputation, who apparently terrified the boy – who refused to say a word to the great man, much to his father’s dismay.

Another story shows both his modesty and his fearlessness at attaining the position of Mahler’s voice coach at the Vienna Opera, from 1904 to 1906. In his own words: “Blissfully unconscious of my own lack of skill and experience, I was applying for the position of coach for soloists that had been made vacant by Artur Bodanzky’s engagement as a conductor in Paris. A friendly introductory letter from my old teacher at Vienna University, Professor Guido Adler, must have helped, for after a few minutes I left with the promise of an audition.” Weigl later told the story of his meeting with Mahler: he was asked to play Die Walküre on the piano for a singer’s audition. Mahler, dissatisfied with the singer’s performance, tore the score away from the piano and began to demonstrate. Suddenly, he realized that Weigl was still playing, and said, “But you’re playing without music!” The young composer responded, “Naturally, I know the piece.” Mahler hired him on the spot.

My grandmother I knew well, as she died only in 1982. She was truly a Renaissance woman, indefatigable and determined to make her mark wherever she set her sights. She had a lifelong devotion to the promotion of her husband’s oeuvre, and after his death she forged her own twin paths as composer and music therapist. Even so, I would say she self-identified first and foremost as a peace activist and advocate for social justice. During the Vietnam War era, not only did she participate in marches on Washington but she corresponded passionately and persistently with a broad spectrum of politicians and civil rights groups. Balanced on her piano she kept stacks of clippings, carbon copies of letters written, and files of correspondence with organizations ranging from peace groups to various political advocacy groups. Believing in the power of music to bring people together, she founded Arts for World Unity through the Quakers. No doubt as a result of her own exile experience and the loss of her only sister in the camps, she was steadfast in her belief that one person could make a difference, that it was important to act, to not stay silent.

What I recall most about her musicality is her sense of rhythm and, as an extension, her intuitive, physical connection to other people – being attentive to how they moved, how they expressed themselves, how they responded to her and their environment. She would pick rhythmic patterns from thin air and punch them out with her fingers against an invisible instrument as she spoke, pulling others along into a shared experience with a satisfied and knowing smile. She had many admirers and would host informal afternoon soirées where she would hold sway, always discussing ‘serious’ topics of the day, and always there was music and that seductive rhythmic undertow to lighten things up.

My grandmother – we called her “Vally Mutti” – was indeed a serious person. It’s not that she didn’t have a sense of humor; indeed her enthusiasm could be infectious. But there was little time in her life for levity because there was so much to be done! She was a whirlwind of activity, never idle. If she was not at the piano, composing, she was bent over writing an earnest postcard, or at the typewriter spitting off sharp critiques, or on the phone trying persuasively to arrange a concert. Some would say she was self-centered but knowing her I would say she was self-possessed: focused, proud, and resolute.

What a pair the two of them must have made.

- September 11, 2018 -


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