Weinberger – Polka and Fugue from the opera Schwanda the Bagpiper

by Max Derrickson

Jaromir Weinberger     (b Prague, January 8, 1896; dSt. Petersburg,FL, August 8, 1967)

Polka and Fugue from the opera Schwanda the Bagpiper

It’s ironic that the composer who had written such exuberant, earthy, witty and jocular pieces as the Polka and Fugue in his opera Schwanda the Bagpiper would eventually succumb to depression and suicide.  But such is the tragic tale of Czech composer Jaromir Weinberger.  After his Prague Conservatory years (to which he was admitted at age 14), Weinberger soon began to gain international recognition for his compositions. At age 25 his reputation earned him a teaching post in America at the Ithaca Conservatory.  Returned to Prague in 1926, a year later Weinberger premiered his most beloved work, (and for Opera, the 20th Century’s most successful box office hit) the folk opera Schwanda.  By 1931 it had been produced over 2000 times in multiple cities and languages.  Yet at the height of his achievements, Weinberger’s peers described him as excessively gloomy, and what was most likely manic-depression had begun to present.  After Schwanda, only one of his other works, the oratorio Christmas, ever achieved more than moderate acclaim in comparison, and in essence he became a victim of his own success.  When war in Europe made the Jewish Weinberger a refugee (one of his sisters died in a concentration camp), he could find only modest approval for his late-Romantic esthetics in his new home ofAmerica, despite his highly refined craft.  By 1949 he and his wife moved toSt. Petersburg and spent the rest of their lives in relative seclusion.  His fame having ebbed away, his musical principles unappreciated, and diagnosed with cancer, his last days were spent in depression and at the piano, playing ceaselessly, until an overdose of sedatives ended his life.

Weinberger’s two act opera Schwanda the Bagpiper, however, is anything but gloomy.  Based on a well known Czech folk tale, it tells the audacious and fantastic story of a simple farmer who is a notoriously gifted bagpiper.  He and his wife are visited by a thief, Babinski, on the run.  His tales of adventure lure Schwanda to agree to play his pipes for a mysterious Queen vexed with melancholy (Polka).  Happy again, her spell broken, she proposes to Schwanda, who agrees and gives her a kiss.  The original wife arrives unpleased, and Schwanda swears that if he kissed the Queen, he would go directly to hell.  Hell obliges, of course, and there Schwanda is tricked into giving the Devil his soul.  The thief Babinski then arrives to save the day, bringing Schwanda his pipes, beating the Devil at cards, and trading his winnings for Schwanda’s soul and triumphant release (Fugue).


The music of the Polka and the Fugue became early companion pieces in the concert hall and are good examples of why the opera was so incredibly popular.  The Polka is instantly engaging, full of chromatic surprises, and as joyous as any piece in the repertoire.  Some of its most fun-loving moments to listen for are,
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