The Kennedy Center

Serenade, Op. 3

About the Work

Leo Weiner Composer: Leo Weiner
© Paul Laki

In 1908, the writer and music critic Géza Csáth enthused about the 23-year-old Leó Weiner (who at the time went by the name Leó Vándor-Weiner): "Greeted by the unmistakable enthusiasm of the audience and the rapturous praises of the critics, Leó Vándor-Weiner is the Hungarian symphonist we have all been waiting for." And he concluded his article: "By all indications, this man was born a genius." In the first decade of the 20th century, Weiner was as highly regarded in Hungary as Bartók and Kodály, if not more so. He later became a legendary teacher of chamber music at the Budapest Academy of Music, but his star as a composer began to wane, in spite of the great success of certain individual works, such as his incidental music to Mihály Vörösmarty's drama Csongor and Tünde.

The reason for these changing critical fortunes was that Weiner was more conservative than his two colleagues and remained unshakably committed to his stylistic roots in German Romanticism. Yet this doesn't in any way diminish his impeccable craftsmanship and his first-rate melodic invention; the time is certainly ripe for a re-evaluation of his oeuvre in the more pluralistic climate of our time.

The Serenade in F minor, written when Weiner was only 21 years old, took its Hungarian inspiration from those semi-popular urban sources that Bartók and Kodály rejected – this inspiration is evident, for instance, in the syncopated theme that opens the first movement. However, even the two older composers were only starting to explore authentic, rural folk music in 1906, and this new orientation had barely begun to register in their works. British musicologist Kenneth Chalmers is quite right to point out the similarity between the rhapsodic clarinet solo from the slow movement of Weiner's work with the parallel passage for bass clarinet in Bartók's Suite No. 2 of 1905-07.

The Serenade follows classical models in all four of its movements, but individual touches abound, especially in the second-movement scherzo which contains a number of unusual rhythmic intricacies. Weiner won two major prizes with this work, which is filled with well-contrasted melodic ideas and is brilliantly orchestrated. The enthusiasm of critics and audiences in 1906 is not hard to understand, and can be fully shared by listeners even 102 years later.