Hugo David Weisgall, 84, composer who specialized in operas

March 13, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Hugo David Weisgall, the Baltimore-born composer and conductor who specialized in opera, died Tuesday at North Shore Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., from complications of a fall Friday. He was 84 and lived in Great Neck, N.Y.

Mr. Weisgall, who was descended from four generations of Central European composer-cantors, once said of his work, "I can sing anything I write. If I can't sing it, I don't write it."

The New Grove Dictionary of Music called him "perhaps America's most important composer of operas."

His opera "Esther," based on the biblical book of Esther, had its first performance in 1993 at the New York City Opera and will be revived there Oct. 12, one day before what would have been Mr. Weisgall's 85th birthday.

Before the opera's premiere, he told the New York Times: "I think Esther is completely of our age. She's the only heroic female role I've ever written, despite the fact that in most of my operas the dominant figure is a soprano. I don't know why -- I love the soprano voice, but I like women, too."

His first opera, which brought him critical and perhaps enduring fame, was his adaptation of Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author," which was presented by the New York City Opera in 1959.

The opera remained a personal favorite of Mr. Weisgall, who modestly described it as "good."

Born in Ivancice, in Bohemia, Mr. Weisgall settled on Chauncey Avenue near Eutaw Place with his parents in 1920. As a boy he sang in the choir of his father's synagogue, Chizuk Amuno. A 1929 City College graduate, he began formal musical instruction at Peabody Conservatory in 1928 and studied at Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he earned degrees in composition and conducting. Mr. Weisgall was awarded Columbia University's prestigious Bearns Prize for young composers.

"The funny thing is, he was asked to leave Peabody and told he had no musical talent," said his son, Jonathan Weisgall of Bethesda. "The irony is that a half-century later he was asked to return when they presented him with an honorary degree."

He enlisted in the Army in 1941. Discharged at war's end with the rank of sergeant, he served as cultural attache in the U.S. Embassy in Prague, Czechoslovakia, from 1946 to 1947.

Returning to Baltimore in 1948, he informed his parents that he wanted to be a composer. His mother, who hoped that he would be a doctor or a lawyer, exploded in tears and said, "You'll die in the poorhouse."

He quickly proved her wrong with his 1948 opera, "The Tenor." It was followed in 1952 by "The Stronger," which earned him early critical acclaim and respect.

While living in Baltimore, he taught at the Peabody and was director of the Baltimore Institute of Music. He was a founder of the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore and the Hilltop Opera Company. In 1960, he left the city for New York to teach at Queens College and the Juilliard School.

After the death of his father in 1975, Mr. Weisgall returned briefly to Baltimore to conduct High Holiday services at Chizuk Amuno.

"From the beginning I knew I'd be an opera composer. I hoped I'd become America's Benjamin Britten," Mr. Weisgall told The Sun in 1986.

"Weisgall's music is much less tonal and less harmonically complex than Britten's, but both composers have sophisticated appreciation for the English language and an uncanny ability to make sung words understood," Sun critic Stephen Wigler wrote. "Like Britten, Weisgall is a composer whose vocal settings a listener does not need a libretto to follow. And like Britten -- and unlike most composers -- he really knows how to make music work theatrically to embody subjects that are significant, not trivial. In the words of the distinguished musicologist-critic Joseph Kerman, Weisgall's operas are 'really about something.' "

In discussing his life and his work, Mr. Weisgall told the newspaper, "My Jewishness is the strongest part of what I am."

Services were held yesterday at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, with interment in Rockland, Maine, where he spent summers.

He is also survived by his wife of 55 years, former Baltimorean Nathalie Shulman; a daughter, Deborah Weisgall, of Lincoln, Mass.; and four grandchildren.

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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