Composer  Hugo  Weisgall
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


One of America’s most important opera composers, Hugo Weisgall’s output also included orchestral, chamber and choral works, eight major song cycles, and music for ballet. His opera Six Characters in Search of an Author brought Weisgall national acclaim when it was first performed by the New York City Opera in 1959. The same company commissioned and performed his Nine Rivers from Jordan in 1968, and later staged his Esther, based on the biblical story. His other operas include Athaliah, The Gardens of Adonis, Jenny/or The Hundred Nights, Will You Marry Me?, The Tenor, and his most frequently performed opera, The Stronger.

A descendent of four generations of cantors, Weisgall was commissioned by the Friends of the Library of Jewish Theological Seminary to write a song-cycle for the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Among his more personal works were children’s pieces written for his grandchildren.

Born in Czechoslovakia on October 13, 1912, he came to the U.S. in 1920 with his parents. During World War II, he was assistant military attaché to the governments-in-exile in London, and later served as cultural attaché in Prague.

His work was recognized by the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He twice served as composer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome, was President of the American Music Center for 10 years, and also served as President of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Former director of the Composer-in-Residence program for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, he at various times served on the faculty of Queens College, the Juilliard School, and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Hugo Weisgall died in March, 1997, in the year of his 85th birthday celebration.

We met in June of 1986 following a long day of workshops and discussions about a work-in-progress by William Neil, the Lyric Opera of Chicago Composer-in-Residence.  Despite the late hour, Weisgall made it clear he was pleased to speak with me, and his voice and demeanor were energetic. 

Bruce Duffie:    How has the teaching of composition changed in the time that you have been doing it?

Hugo Weisgall:    I do know that it has changed actually.  I have been teaching for at least 40 years, though I did not teach composition on any regular basis at all until 1956 when I went to the Juilliard School, and I did not teach particularly much composition.  Teaching really has never been the center of my activity at all.

BD:    The composing has been?

weisgallHW:    Well, that would be nice to say.  No, I made my living as an honest musician before I turned to teaching.  I conducted, performed, coached; I did all that kind of stuff – a vast amount of stuff.  I did not get my first full-time teaching job until 1959 and that was quite by accident.  I never truly thought I would be a teacher.   Then I went to Queens College in 1961 and stayed until I retired.

BD:    Is musical composition something that can be taught or is it something that must be innate?

HW:    I do not know; you can teach a lot.  First of all, the technical things can be taught.  I can teach counterpoint until I get blue in the face.  One thing my students can always do is get a job teaching counterpoint.  They may not be good composers, but they damn well know their counterpoint by the time they finish!  Those technical matters are matters that can be taught.  You do it by doing a tremendous amount of exercises and work, and you work at it until it becomes second nature.  Nobody can give you ideas.  You certainly can teach some elementary things about composition such as ‘do not be boring.’  That is a big lesson.  There are ways of achieving not being boring.

BD:    How do you learn not to be boring?

HW:    First of all you are self-critical, second you change the tempo occasionally.  The moment you think things are starting to get boring, be sure to change the tempo.  Go faster, go slower.

BD:    In musical composition where is the balance between technique and inspiration?

HW:    A very difficult question to answer; I do not think there is an answer.  I should think that anyone who composes long enough can compose.  You learn to put music together; whether it is of highest quality of course is another question.  None of us knows that.  I think it is a very indistinct borderline because there are so many things that you learn to do.  I am never at a loss for an idea.  All I have to do is sit down at the piano and I have an idea.  I never have any problem with that; it is my business to have ideas about music, so that happens.  They may not be great ideas, I did not say they are.

BD:    What do you as a composer expect of the public that comes to hear your music?

HW:    I do not expect anything from them except I hope they like it.  I do not expect every much.  I hope that I reach an audience somehow or other.  I hope that I can communicate something, and that the sounds I put together have some significance for the people who are listening
not meaning, but significance.  I hope that I can move them if I possibly can.  I try very hard.  I use all the tricks I know.  I take my audience very much into account.

BD:    Let me turn the question around.  What can the audience expect of you the composer?

HW:    That I do the best I can all the time.  That is all they can expect, and it is usually the very best.  I never finish with a piece.  I work like crazy and I am very careful before I put a double bar line.  Even then, I frequently erase and start again.

BD:    Once you get finished with a piece…

HW:    Then I still mess with it.

BD:    Then are you upset that people go back and look for an Urtext?

HW:    No, I do not care; that does not matter to me.  There are not any Urtexts.  Actually, as a matter of fact, that is a nice, interesting question.  I compose on one side of the page, and on the other side I have my ideas that I may or may not use.  I am very stingy about music paper.  I do not scratch things out.  I have them on the side, and once they get on this side, they stay.  One can frequently find what the germinal idea was.  It will be on the left hand side of the two pages, and on the right hand side you will find what it ends up.

BD:    Would that be a tremendous tool for other composers?

HW:    I do not know.  I never thought of it that way.

BD:    How do you balance the works you write between opera, concert, and chamber?

HW:    In the past, I don't know how many years, I have tried to write only works that are commissioned.  Therefore, I usually write only what has been commissioned.  I am at the moment writing a piece for the Baltimore Symphony which is due August first.  I just had a big premiere of a piece done in April – an orchestral piece, 23 minutes long.  Then I had in the fall a premiere of a 55 minute song cycle.  The same week there was a 10 minute cello piece, and prior to that there was a flute and marimba piece.  That is all in less than a year!

BD:    Do you work on more than one piece at a time?

HW:    No, I work on once piece at a time.

BD:    Is the time of each piece specified by the commission?

HW:    Yes.  They say give us a 15-minute piece and I am always very generous in giving 20.  I guess I am very conscientious.  I do not write short pieces.  My music is fairly long.

BD:    Your song cycle of 55 minutes is a whole half of a recital!

HW:    It is practically a whole recital.  As a matter of fact, when it was premiered at the Library of Congress, it was the only thing on the program.  The poet came to read the poetry, and I spoke about the ‘song cycle-hood.’  It worked very well.  When it was done in New York, the Copland-Dickinson songs were also on the program, and I had a feeling that the program was long.  55 minutes is an awfully long time for a song cycle; you have to get crazy to write something that long.

BD:    Would you be offended then if somebody decided to cut 12 or 15 minutes out of it?

HW:    I do not care.  No, I would prefer if they did the whole thing, but I am not sure anyone at all will sing any of these things.  But I am prepared for them to sing individual songs.

BD:    Do you not expect your music to last?

HW:    No.

BD:    [Geuninely surprised]  Really???

HW:    No.

BD:    Why?

HW:    Well, really what music lasts?  Very little lasts, I am not that good and besides, once you are dead, who cares?  I do not care.  No.

BD:    But it seems when you go to a concert practically all the music is by composers who are dead.

HW:    That is for sure.  Maybe I will be dead soon too.

BD:    I hope not!

HW:    I have no idea about things like that.  Those things do not bother me.  I write and I do the very best I can.  That is all.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me the secret for writing for the human voice.

weisgallHW:    Well, you have to love the voice, and you have to sing.  I have sung my entire life.  My father, grandfather and greatgrandfather were singers.  We have been singing for a long time, so it is my natural mode of expression.  I sometimes think that I should have been a singer because I had a very good voice, but I actually did not get a good voice until I was 28.  Suddenly at 28 my voice came.  I would have been a great singer and I love to sing and to hear singing.  I treat the voice in what I hope is a gentle fashion.

BD:    You never ask it to do things you should not ask it to do?

HW:    I do not.  I try not to ruin voices; my tessituras are not abnormally high.  It is not that the music is not difficult; it is very difficult, but I do not demand impossible things from singers.  I try very carefully not to abuse the voice.  I do not want to push in the direction that so many contemporary composers have pushed in – in illicit, what we call ‘non-musical tones’ out of the voice.  I do not want them to scream or things like that.

BD:    Now you say your music is difficult, do you write it to be difficult, or does it come out difficult?

HW:    It comes out difficult.  I do not have much time to write simply.  It takes even more to write simply.  It comes out difficult.

BD:    Do the performers of your music find things in the score that even you did not know were there?

HW:    I do not know.  Sometimes my students find things I did not know.  That happens a great deal.  Oh yes, they point out things that I am not aware of, but performers I would not say.  Performers have not talked to me that much.  For instance, my singer David Hamilton, a fine musician who just did my songs and is going to do my new piece with the Baltimore Symphony, simply does not tell me anything I do not know already.  He says it is well written, easy for the voice, and that is all I am happy about.

BD:    Are you pleased with the performances you have heard of your music?

HW:    That is a very touchy question.  No one really is ever satisfied.  But, for instance, with the little cello piece I wrote, I was really enthralled by the cellist’s performance.  I did not realize that the piece could sound so good.  He asked me if I was a professional cellist.  Well, I played the cello once when I was very young.  He found it very difficult but extremely playable and very gratifying.  I have always had a great fear of writing for the piano because I am a lousy pianist, yet I have been writing quite a good deal for the piano and the pianists again tell me how well the music lies for the hands.  They say it is difficult, but it works and that is the important thing.  I love when oboe players come and say, “Oh what a gorgeous solo I have.”  I love that!

BD:    I would think that would be the ultimate compliment from someone who specializes in that in that instrument.

HW:    Yes it is.  In this piece that I just finished in April, there happens to be two different oboe solos and the oboe player just loved playing them.  He said it was so much fun to play because it sounded well and lay well.  It was challenging and he had a good time.  

BD:    You have written quite a number of operas.  Is it special for you to write a stage work?      

HW:    Yes, I am basically a theatrical composer – a stage composer.  That is my real business.  My great regret is that my operas are not performed.  They are too difficult I suppose.  Either that or they are no good!  I do not know which it is, but it is one of the two.

BD:    Is it not just the general malaise of not performing many contemporary works?

HW:    That is of course part of it, but there are contemporary works
including operaswhich are performed.  I am perfectly willing to assume that those that are performed are better than mine – except those in many instances where I know they are not better than mine!  So the only thing I can say is that they are much easier to perform than mine.  I am sure that is a very important constant.  Opera companies do not have the time, inclination, or money to tackle a problematic work.  I think that is generally true, especially in this country.  The American works that are performed here are musically not challenging.  The reason you can perform them is because they do not pose technical or performance difficulties.

BD:    Should a stage work present difficulties?

HW:    Wagner is pretty difficult, but so is Verdi, Alban Berg, Stravinsky.

BD:    Is Verdi’s Traviata particularly difficult?

HW:    Oh God yes!  The octaves in the Prologue are never in tune.  Of course it is difficult to give it a good performance. 

BD:    Is it easier that the other works of that period? 

HW:    Sure it is, but I think that to perform any work is difficult.  Puccini is very difficult.

BD:    Is it just that the companies and singers perform them so often that they have worked out the bumps?

HW:    Sure.  There is no trick in learning the tradition because it continues to exist.

BD:    Do you feel that you are part of a line of composers that are traditional?

HW:    I wish I could say that I did.  Yes, I definitely belong to a line, but I cannot say that I feel that way strongly.  I wish one could connect oneself with a line because I am terribly historically minded.  I like to think that I belong to a line.  I wish I were Italian.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Ugo Weisgalli?

HW:    No, Janko Gallo!

BD:    Might a work of yours be more successful if it were penned by
Janko Gallo?

HW:    No, I do not think so, for it would still be difficult.

BD:    A number of your works have been done at the New York City Opera.  Have you been pleased with those performances?

HW:    No.

BD:    Why not?  Is it one thing or a combination of things?

HW:    First of all, there is never enough rehearsal time.  When Six Characters was done at the City Opera, the damn chorus could not learn the music.  Of course it was difficult 30 years ago; today it is nothing.  So they would make cuts, and many times they would be behind a screen with the music in their hands.  There would be a conductor for the chorus and a conductor down in the pit.  You would have to look in the pit to see what the tempo was.  Some of the casting was pretty ghastly.  Nine Rivers was a total fiasco, so bad that I could never listen to the work for almost 15 years.  I thought also that it was all my fault, but a number of years ago I did listen, and I discovered that it is not Don Giovanni, but is not that bad.  Whatever is bad is production, lack of rehearsal time and of imagination.  That is an overwhelming realization.

BD:    So this would be perhaps something you could get it done at the university level where there is a lot of time for rehearsal?

HW:    If the university level people have the voices to do it.  My music is not for amateurs.  My stage works are difficult.  Of course the work of mine that is done the most is the opera The Stronger which is done all the time badly.  I went to a performance in New York a few months ago and it was absolutely horrendous.

BD:    Do you tell them at the time that it was a bad performance?

HW:    Well, sure.

BD:    Are you pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music?

HW:    They are not too bad.  There are two recordings of The Stronger.  I did the second one and it is very good.  The tempi are correct.  The principal singer does a fine job and everything comes out.  The other recording with a more dramatic singer has the tempi wrong, although it is not the fault of the singer, it is the fault of the conductor.  Overall, I am generally pleased with the performances.  My Yiddish songs are absolutely beautifully performed, and also the singer in End of Summer is beautiful.  My recordings have not been bad.  Of course there have been no orchestral works really recorded.  I think really that my music is very passionate.

BD:    You build this passion in?

HW:    I hope so.  

BD:    Do you do your own texts?

HW:    No.  I wish I could.  That is a talent that eludes me, and regretfully because if you can do your own texts, you do not have to pay royalties and you do not have to argue with the librettist.

BD:    Does opera belong on television?

HW:    Yes, absolutely.  I think television is a very good medium for opera.  I wish there were more operas specifically designed for television, operas that would make good use of close-ups and things like that.  I think television has not done what it should with commissioned works.  Of course, the same problem comes up again, namely the more challenging the work, the less likely it will be performed.  It has nothing to do with quality.  If it is challenging the likelihood of its being done is very slim.

BD:    That just seems cock-eyed.

HW:    Yes, but it is so.

BD:    Is there any way we can rectify this?

HW:    I do not know.  Maybe if there were different people running things, but it is not very likely.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are performers today better than they were 30 or 40 years ago?

HW:    Yes, no question.  The technical proficiency is staggering.

BD:    Are composers better than they were 40 years ago?

HW:    I think the average 3rd–rate composer today has more technical command than the 3rd–rate composer of 40 years ago.

BD:    Are there too many composers today?

HW:    Yes, because anybody can be a composer today.  There was a time when you had to learn something, but today you do not.  You really do not!  I have people coming to me who have had performances by major orchestras who want to take counterpoint lessons from me.  That is when it begins to be shocking.  There are very few standards.  Actually, we are completely permissive about art.  When you think that the United States Census lists millions as artists, you have got to know something is wrong.  It is silly. 

BD:    Who is to say what is art and what is not art? 

HW:    I spoke about that a great deal today and got quite hot talking about it.  I do not think that anything that everybody does is art.  There is a difference between high art and popular art, high art and low art, and popular art and no art at all.  I think that the higher one’s standards are, the better in the long run, but then I do now know.

BD:    Is commercial art ‘low art’ or is it another category?

HW:    It is a difficult category, but what kind of commercial art are you asking about?

BD:    Music for commercial jingles, perhaps.

HW:    That is not art, that is a product.  It should not be an art, though it is perfectly something that one can do.  If you ask me to write a 16-measure tune, I will do it.  I only need 5 minutes.  Just ask me and I will do it if you pay me.  I love to write for the movies.  I have done so in the old days.  I used to write for television and enjoyed it very much.  I enjoyed writing ‘functional’ music.

BD:    Do you feel that is at all desecrating your creativity?

HW:    No, good heavens no!  I do not believe in things like that.  I believe a composer should be as functional as possible.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Where is opera going today?

weisgallHW:    I do not know, really.  American opera I think has a great many difficulties facing it.  The biggest are those that we have already talked about
.  There are very few productions because it is very expensive, but the easier the work is, the better the chances are.

BD:    Have your works been done in Europe as well?

HW:    I have strangely been avoided in Europe; however, The Stronger has been done quite a bit in Europe.

BD:    In translation?

HW:    Yes, in Swedish, in German, in all sorts of things, mainly because it has an orchestra of seven, so you do not really have to worry about that.  And there is only one voice.

BD:    It is really mono-drama?

HW:    It is definitely a mono-drama, a small mono-drama.

BD:    Does opera work in translation?

HW:    Sure, of course.  I like operas in English.

BD:    Have you have seen this new gimmick of the supertitles in the theater?

HW:    Yes.

BD:    Do these work?

HW:    I am not prepared to give an answer on that because I really do not know.  I think that in some cases they work, though they are distracting.  You cannot go up and read and at the same time see what is going on the stage.  And yet of course it is very important to know the meaning of the words because they are the thing that set the composer going in the first place.  That is why I like operas in the language of the country where the people are sitting.  I sat through a performance of Meistersinger here in Chicago.  I was sitting in the first row right behind the conductor, and it was an absolutely fantastic experience because I got every word – since I understand German.  It was so wonderful hearing those damned words.  But I looked around at the people next to me and they did not get a thing.  They seemed to be having a good time but I know perfectly well I had a much bigger bang out of it because I heard and I knew what was going on.  I just regret very much when operas in English are provided with supertitles these days.  That simply makes things more careless.

BD:    Do you like the current trends in stage direction?

HW:    I do not like the fact that opera directors think they composed the opera, no.  It all depends what trends you mean.  I do not like when directors get into the act and think that they are the chief creative force, because they are not.  I can perfectly go along with whatever they want to do, but leave the work as intact as possible.  Otherwise do not do the thing.

BD:    When orchestral pieces of yours are being done, is it better to have them on concerts with standard works or an all-contemporary evening?

HW:    I prefer it being mixed.

BD:    So you do not want it to be all Hugo Weisgall?

HW:    I certainly do not.  There are very few composers who can stand alone.  Beethoven does pretty well and I imagine there are a few others.  I like my music mixed with other pieces.  Sometimes I wish they would play different things.  My new piece is going to be followed by the Mahler Sixth Symphony.  I do know how in hell anybody can stand up to that.  It is going to be an interesting challenge.

BD:    So you are the first half of the program?

HW:    Yes.  They got to get rid of me fast, and then they will have the Mahler which goes on forever.

BD:    Is composing fun.

HW:    When it goes well I suppose.  [Thinks a moment]  Fun?  No.  It is very hard work, but it is something I want to do.  I obviously would not do too much of it if I did not enjoy it, but
fun is the wrong word.  There are certain things that are fun, but I do not know if composing falls into that category.  I do not know why, but it does not.

BD:    What is composing for you, then, if not fun?

HW:    It is just something that I have to do because I want to do it.  It is self-indulgent, I suppose.  I try to earn as much money as I can by being self-indulgent.  That is my justification for it.  I do earn some money from it.

BD:    What is the ultimate purpose of music in society?

HW:    Art shows the human being what the human spirit is capable of doing.  I think that is the purpose of art
– it is a mirror which the human being can hold up to itself.  In the case of a great work of art, we can see what the human being is capable of.  Good art is a very ennobling experience.

BD:    Should we put The Stronger into that group?

HW:    Oh good God no!  Do not embarrass me!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask you about a few of your other operas.  First, Purgatory.

weisgallHW:    Funny story about Purgatory.  I remember reading the play, and I came downstairs to my wife and said, “I have my next libretto.”  It is W.B. Yeats’ last play.  The funny thing is that I did not understand it.  If I had known it was about the rape of Ireland, I do not think I would have written it.  What is Ireland to me, or me to Ireland?  It is a very challenging play.  I think Purgatory is an opera in which the text is better than the music.  No question, I think Yeats’ play is probably better than my music.  That is probably the only opera of mine about which I would say that.  In other words, I do not think I came up to what Yeats deserves.  I think I did fairly well for Pirandello and Six Characters.  I was very complimented once when Luchino Visconti told me the opera was much clearer than the play.  I was flattered by that.  But Purgatory is another matter.  It is a very great poetic play, and the music is good, not bad.  It works very effectively on stage, but I do not think it is up to the level of the play.  I am being utterly candid.

BD:    Is One Hundred Nights up to its text?

HW:    That opera is really called Jenny or the One Hundred Nights.  It is based on a Noh Play by Mishima, and John Hollander did the libretto for me.  That is a work of which I am very fond.  Again, it only had its initial production and was never produced again.  I listen to it frequently.  It works very well on the stage.  I think it is the best orchestrated opera I every composed.  It is a very special orchestra, a kind of Japanese orchestra.

BD:    Are there a lot of pentatonic scales in it?

HW:    No, no, no.  It is the most colorful operatic score that I have ever written.  I am very fond of it, it is a good piece.

BD:    What about Gardens of Adonis?

HW:    It has not been produced yet.

BD:    It is listed in the book, but it has not been produced?

HW:    It is listed in the book, yes.  It has been written now forever, and I would love to get a good production, but it is very difficult.  All the demands are not great
it is a small orchestra with only six voices and no chorus.

BD:    If it has not been produced, why did you write it?

HW:    It was commissioned, then that opera company went bankrupt.  It was a commissioned work; I would not have written it otherwise.  There are some interesting aspects to Garden of Adonis because I actually began it many years ago
in 1959and for a variety of reasons dropped it, mostly because the New York City Opera wanted a new work from me.  We just never could get around to it; we just could not agree on libretti.  Before I gave them a new opera, I had written another opera in between, a big oneAthaliahin between, but never got back to Venus and Adonis.  It was when it was commissioned later that I picked it up and tried to disguise the scenes between 1959 and the time I picked it up.  I think I have been successful; I do not think anyone can tell where I left off.  That is one of the greatest artistic mistakes I have ever made in my lifeto stop writing that opera for a measly $10,000 because the City Opera was commissioning a new piece of mine.

BD:    If you were doing it now, you would ask the City Opera to wait?

HW:    Sure, I would not interrupt a work today.  It is a terrible thing to stop a big work in the middle.  Some composers I am sure could manage, but I cannot.

BD:    Wagner stopped The Ring.

HW:    He had to, but he did not stop in the middle of an opera, did he?

BD:    Yes, in the middle of Siegfried.

HW:    Oh sure, of course.  Well, he is a pretty good composer.  [Both laugh]

BD:    One early work, Night.

HW:    Oh, there is nothing to say about that.  I wrote it when I was 18.  No, there is nothing to say about it.  I cannot even remember what it is like; no idea.

BD:    What happens when all of a sudden you see a review that such and such an orchestra or opera company has performed this or that from your catalogue?

HW:    Oh, that does not happen.  I always know what is going on and am never surprised.  I am a little surprised when it is a good review, but that does not occur too frequently either.  No, I am not surprised.  I am pleased when people decide to do my things, and I am even more pleased when audiences seem to enjoy it.

BD:    One of the books says your music has “inoffensive modernism.”

HW:    Oh that sounds like Slonimsky.

BD:    It is.

HW:    That is very funny.  Some people find it very offensive, so I am glad he finds it inoffensive.  I asked him what it meant and he said he was trying to be funny.

BD:    Thank you for being a composer.

HW:    Thank you for the interview.  It was lots of fun, and I hope I have not been too frank.

Hugo Weisgall was born on October 13, 1912, in Eibenschutz, Moravia (now Ivancice, Bohemia). At the age of eight, Weisgall immigrated to the United States with his family. He studied at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Maryland and at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Later, Weisgall earned a Ph.D. in German literature at Johns Hopkins University. During World War II, Weisgall was assigned to General S. Patton as an assistant military attache. From 1949 to 1951, Weisgall was the director of the Baltimore Institute of Musical Arts. He later became a professor at Queens College, the Julliard School, and the Jewish Theological Seminary, all located in New York City. In 1952, he founded the Hill Top Opera Company.

Weisgall was raised in a family of several generations of cantors. Throughout his life, he would maintain an interest in both sacred and secular Jewish music. In 1992, Weisgall was appointed by the Friends of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary to compose a song cycle, Psalm of the Instant Dove, commemorating the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

Weisgall is best known as a composer for opera and vocal music; although he has also composed ballets, chamber music, and choral works. Among his most famous works is his most elaborate opera, Athaliah, and his very popular opera, Six Characters in Search of an Author.

In 1955, he was awarded the Columbia University William Schuman Award. Weisgall died on March 11, 1997, in New York City.

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Although he wrote a substantial body of music for a number of media, Hugo Weisgall (1912-97) is probably best remembered as one of Americas most important composers of opera and large-scale song cycles, reflecting his intense lifelong interest in both western and Judaic literature. "I am attracted by the verbal, I am sucked aside by words," he once said, "and I want to deal ideologically and musically with difficult problems." The literary merit of his compositions, their original vocal style, and their serious attention to musical and dramatic detail all mark a significant contribution to American music.

weisgallThe scion of a highly cultured family that boasts several generations of cantors in the Bohemian-Austrian orbit (and the nephew of the illustrious Zionist leader and producer Meyer Weisgal), Weisgall lent his artistic gifts on many occasions to the expression of historical, literary, biblical, and liturgical Jewish themes and subjects. In a class by himself, he belongs among the highest ranks of the American musical establishment, but he also championed the perpetuation of authentic Jewish musical tradition and of the Central European cantorial legacy. Among serious American Jewish composers, his singularity extended even further to the practical realm. Not only was he fully conversant with the entire range of American and European synagogue choral repertoire, which he taught to cantorial students for more than forty years, but he knew the intricacies of the modal formulaic system of Ashkenazi liturgical rendition known as nusah hatfilla, and he functioned as an authoritative baal tfilla (lay cantor or precentor) well into his retirement.

Weisgall was born in Eibenschitz (Ivancice), a town in Moravia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now the Czech Republic), where he claimed to have begun singing in a synagogue choir at the age of three or four. His father, Abba Yosef [Adolph Joseph] Weisgall (who added the second l to his name in America, though his brother Meyer did not), was both a cantor at the local synagogue and a classical lieder and light operatic singer. From childhood, Hugo Weisgall absorbed the Central European liturgical traditions and the western lieder and operatic canons from his father, whom he also accompanied on the piano. The family immigrated to America in 1920 and soon afterward settled in Baltimore, where Abba Yosef served for more than four decades at one of the citys oldest and most prestigious synagogues Chizuk Amuno Congregation. From his earliest years in Baltimore, Hugo Weisgall became intimately involved in the musical life of that congregation. For many years he conducted its choir; and he also organized and directed a mixed chorus, based there and known as the Chizuk Amuno Choral Society, which performed concert works as well and with the esteemed cantor Jacob Barkin issued one of the most artistic LP recordings of classic and contemporary cantorial-choral repertoire.

Apart from some consultations abroad (he went to Europe shortly before the Second World War hoping to study with Bartók, who was unwilling to take on further students), Weisgall received all of his formal education in America. He studied at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and then intermittently with Roger Sessions. At the Curtis Institute he studied with Fritz Reiner and Rosario Scalero and earned diplomas in conducting and composition, but his variegated interests led him to pursue a doctorate in other academic areas, and in 1940 Johns Hopkins University awarded him a Ph.D. for his dissertation on primitivism in 17th-century German poetry. After the war, Weisgall returned to the United States where he founded and directed the Chamber Society of Baltimore and the Hilltop Opera Company; directed the Baltimore Institute of Musical Arts; and taught at Johns Hopkins University from 1951 until 1957all the while continuing his work with synagogue choirs. But dearest to his heart was his forty-four-year involvement with the Jewish Theological Seminary. He established and stewarded the foremost curriculum in America for education and training in cantorial art. From its opening in 1952 until his own retirement in 1996, Weisgall was chairman of the faculty at the Cantors Institute and Seminary College of Jewish Music (now the H. L. Miller Cantorial School). In that capacity he functioned as a de facto co-director of the school, especially vis-a-vis its musical (as opposed to Judaica) parameters. He devoted a major portion of his energies to that role, bringing both his broad worldview of Jewish music and his exacting western musical standards to bear upon the Seminarys approach to cantorial studies. He also taught graduate level composition and was the doctoral dissertation advisor for such important American composers as Herman Berlinski and Miriam Gideon. His legacy at the Seminary is permanently etched.

In 1961 he simultaneously became a professor of music at Queens College in New York, retiring in 1983 as Distinguished Professor. And he taught for thirteen years at The Juilliard School.

Projects on Weisgalls desk at the time of his death included the beginnings of a second set of settings of Yiddish folk melodies; operatic versions of two plays by Jean Anouilh, several scenes of which were sketched out to libretti by Charles Kondek, the librettist for Esther; and a new opera based on John Herseys novel The Wall, about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (according to Kondek, they had almost finished a draft of the complete libretto), which was to have been produced by New York City Opera. He was also sketching out a group of liturgical settings for the typical format in Conservative synagogues. Weisgalls earlier style has been appraised as a fusion of non-tonal neoclassicism with certain influences of the Second Viennese School of composers, such as Alban Berg, colored by the general opulence of that period. But his later music more closely approaches that Second Viennese School, especially its most lyrical aspects. Even at its most rigorous-sounding moments, however, it is generally more a matter of strident, even severe chromaticism than actual atonality although Weisgall himself was never comfortable with such classifications.

In 1958 the eminent American composer George Rochberg described Weisgalls music as leaning towards free tonality; he is never quite atonal. But nearly twenty years later Weisgall assessed his own approach from another perspective: "Generally my music is considered complex, he said. It is texturally thick and multifarious; rhythmically disparate; and [it] has harmonic lines that move along on their own. It is what is commonly called atonal, but it is not non-melodic." Rochberg also astutely summarized Weisgalls basic artistic credo at that time: "Among American composers he is one of the few who remain heedless of the musical clichés which superficialize and debilitate American music. There is strength and hope in such an independent attitude. Weisgall remained steadfast to those principles for nearly forty years more. He never succumbed to popular tastes or the lure of wider acceptance; and he never strayed from his own artistic integrity."

Neil W. Levin and Bruce Saylor

© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on June 6, 1986.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB the following year, and again in 1990, 1992 and 1997.  This transcription was made and published in SONUS magazine in their Spring 2008 issue.  It was re-edited and posted on this website early in 2012.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.