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Adolph Weiss

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Biography

Born: September 12, 1891; Baltimore, MD   Died: February 21, 1971; Van Nuys, CA  
Adolph Weiss was the first American student of Arnold Schoenberg, and consequently helped to introduce the technique of twelve-tone composition in the United States; his authorship of a 1930 article published in the magazine Modern Music was especially important in this regard. Weiss worked patiently to dispel prevailing myths about twelve-tone composition and was renowned as a teacher of high distinction. Among Weiss' students were composers Read more Wallingford Riegger, John Cage, and guitarist Theodore Norman.

Weiss was born into a Baltimore family led by a German blue-collar worker who stressed the importance of musical instruction. Weiss' father also led an amateur chorus and played wind instruments in community symphony orchestras. The younger Weiss progressed most rapidly on the bassoon, and by the age of 16 was playing in the Russian Symphony in New York City. By 1909, Weiss was bassoonist with the New York Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler, although in 1910 he moved over to the New York Symphony under Walter Damrosch, staying until 1916. Weiss then moved to Chicago to play under Frederick Stock. While in Chicago Weiss took private lessons in music composition, most notably under Adolph Weidig. In 1921, Weiss relocated to Rochester, NY, playing in the Rochester Philharmonic under Eugene Goossens and in the Eastman Theater pit orchestra headed by Alfred Coates. In May 1925, Weiss had his first major orchestral work, I segreti, performed under Howard Hanson.

Also in 1925 Weiss departed for Berlin to study with Schoenberg. During this time Weiss made quick progress under Schoenberg's tutelage, composing two string quartets, a Chamber Symphony for ten instruments (1927) and his Twelve Preludes for piano (1927 - premiered by Richard Buhlig). Returning to New York in May 1927, Weiss became secretary of the Pan American Society of Composers founded by Henry Cowell. Weiss also founded an ensemble known as the Conductorless Orchestra, serving as its musical director and bassoonist. In 1930, the Conductorless Orchestra premiered American Life (1929), likely the only piece of classic symphonic jazz composed with twelve-tone techniques, and by far Weiss' best known work.

When the New Music Quarterly Recordings series was instituted around 1930, Weiss' Seven Songs for Soprano and String Quartet was one of its first features. Weiss departed from twelve-tone music to compose his cantata, The Libation Bearers (1930); it earned him a Guggenheim grant to return to Europe for two years. In New York in 1933, Weiss composed his most significant orchestral piece, Theme and Variations (1933). Afterward, Weiss concentrated to a large extent on chamber music, returning to orchestral music only in the Suite for Orchestra (1938) and his Trumpet Concerto (1951). In 1941 Weiss toured South America under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation. In the 1950s Weiss composed a variety of mixed chamber pieces under the blanket title of Vade mecum. This proved to be Weiss' valedictory cycle, as by 1960 he was in retirement and had stopped composing.

Adolph Weiss is one of the least known composers in the Cowell/New Music circle; had he not taught John Cage, his name might not be remembered at all. However, American Life has attained the status of a minor classic of the American avant-garde, and is revived with some regularity as such. Read less

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