Mieczyslaw Weinberg

Mieczysław Weinberg’s flight from Nazi-occupied Europe was rather different from the customary exile to the West - to England or the United States. His move to the Soviet Union meant a second period of threat and discrimination under Stalin. But unlike many of his émigré colleagues in the West, Weinberg did enjoy considerable success as one of his adopted country’s most fêted and frequently performed composers, especially during the 1960s and 1970s when Emil Gilels, Mstislav Rostropovich. Kiril Kondrashin, the Borodin Quartet and Leonid Kogan all recorded and performed his works. Weinberg’s massive ouevre, which includes over 150 opus numbers, found favour on the opera stage, on movie soundtracks and in chamber and orchestral programs. However his music was known only in the USSR, its spread stifled by the Iron Curtain and the restrictions imposed by the cold war. His career foundered completely when the USSR fragmented, and it is only over the last five to ten years that Weinberg has found a growing number of enthusiasts outside Russia. Following a pioneering series of releases on the Olympia label (unfortunately no longer available) there have been a slew of new recordings, including issues by the Danel Quartet (on CPO) and the Polish National Symphony Orchestra (on Chandos). Peermusic have reissued a number of his works and Weinberg’s significance is now being reassessed, to a point where several critics argue that the century’s greatest Russian music was composed by a triumvirate that consisted of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Weinberg.

Some confusion has attended Mieczysław Weinberg’s surname. In Poland he was Wajnberg, in the Soviet Union, Moisey Samuilovich Vaynberg — “Matek” to those who knew him well. A few traditionalists still cling to the other Cyrillic-derived version: “Vainberg”.  But there have been a number of other variations, including Wajnberg, Vaynberg or Vijnberg. The music-historian Per Skans has written of the composer’s preference for the standard Westernised version, “Weinberg”, and this spelling is now becoming the norm. 

Weinberg was born in Warsaw on December 8, 1919. His father Shmuel had left the Moldavian town of Kishinyov (Chişinău) ten years earlier following a series of anti-Semitic attacks that had killed both his father and grandfather. In Warsaw he worked as a violinist and conductor in Yiddish theatre and it was he who provided Mieczysław with his initial practical experience, and exposed him to the traditional and liturgical Jewish music that was to inform his work for the rest of his life.

Eight years at the Warsaw Conservatory, then directed by Karol Szymanowski, provided Weinberg with a thorough traditional grounding. Under the tuition of Józef Turczyński he became an exceptional pianist, and it was generally assumed that once he had graduated, Weinberg would become a touring virtuoso in the tradition of Polish legends like Leopold Godowsky, Ignaz Friedman and Ignaz Paderewski. War changed these expectations, and his departure (on foot) from Warsaw in 1939, shortly before Hitler’s Panzers swept through Poland, marked the beginning of a series of well-timed re-locations. By 1940 he was in the White Russian capital of Minsk, 300 miles east of Warsaw (Belarus) studying composition with Vassily Zolotaryov, a protégé of Rimsky-Korsakov and Mily Balakirev. The day after his final examinations in June 1941 the Wehrmacht rolled into Russia and Weinberg was again forced to flee. He found work as a coach at the Tashkent opera house, 2000 miles away in eastern Uzbekistan. Many intellectuals and artists had been evacuated here, among them the illustrious actor and theatre director Solomon Mikhoels, a Latvian Jew whose daughter, Natalia Vovsi, Weinberg would soon marry. At Mikhoel’s behest Shostakovich examined the score of Weinberg’s First Symphony. Immensely impressed, he organized for Weinberg to come to Moscow. Here Weinberg re-established his friendship with Nikolay Myaskovsky, Professor of Composition at the Moscow Conservatory whom he had first met in 1940.

After 1917, the emerging Soviet Union had offered Jews living conditions superior to anything they had ever previously enjoyed. But this dispensation was short-lived and a renewal of repression in the 1930s saw the banning of Jewish newspapers and periodicals, and the closure of Jewish theatres and educational institutions. During the Second World War — still known in Russia as “The Great Patriotic War” - the reins of anti-Semitism were relaxed again, this time by Joseph Stalin, who wanted to encourage Jewish support for the war within the Soviet Union as well as to access funds from American Jewry. It was during this period of relative tolerance that Weinberg found refuge in Moscow. Official permission to reside in the city, a rarity during the war, was granted thanks to Shostakovich’s influence. He arrived in the capital in 1943 and remained there until his death in 1996. A lifelong friend, Shostakovich’s enthusiasm for Weinberg’s abilities grew and he came to describe him as "one of the most outstanding composers of today".

In turn, Weinberg revered Shostakovich, for his generosity and humanity, as well as his gifts as a musician. Although he was already an accomplished composer by the time he arrived in Moscow — his Piano Quintet completed in 1943 is one of the most extraordinary in the repertoire - Weinberg claimed that Shostakovich had introduced him to “a new continent” in music, and despite the 12 year age difference and Shostakovich’s burgeoning reputation, the nature of their relationship was collegial rather than that of master and student. They lived in the same Moscow apartment block; saw each other regularly, and played through one another’s compositions, often in arrangements for two pianos. Weinberg performed the four-hand piano-reductions of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony (with Shostakovich), and his Twelfth (with Boris Tchaikovsky, another Shostakovich student) when the works were auditioned by the Composers’ Union, and Weinberg and Shostakovich also played the Babi Yar Symphony in this arrangement. There are also many mutual musical “borrowings”: the two-note motif that appears in Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony is re-applied in Weinberg’s Fifth, composed shortly after its premiere, while Weinberg’s Seventh Symphony shares a similar formal design with Shostakovich’s Ninth String Quartet. Shostakovich’s Tenth Quartet, dedicated to Weinberg, draws on the latter’s Seventh Symphony.

Weinberg performed in the premieres of Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok op. 127 (collaborating with Galina Vishnevskaya, David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich) and the Violin Sonata op. 134, standing in for Svjatoslav Richter. Weinberg worked as a freelance composer and pianist, outside the organizations that would have required him to become a party member, and therefore without the protection of the state. His status became increasingly precarious after 1948 when some of his compositions joined a list of prohibited works that included pieces by Shostakovich and Prokofiev.


When Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges began again in 1948, Andrei Zhdanov — Stalin’s deputy with responsibilities for “ideology, culture and science” — began a campaign aimed at extinguishing works with creative connections to Western musical developments; those works that exhibited traits of “cosmopolitanism and formalism” and in particular anything produced by Jewish artists and thinkers. Instead Zhdanov wanted works that could be easily assimilated by the public and glorify the achievements of the Soviet Union. This was nothing less than a communist incarnation of the Reichmusikkammer’s similarly repressive credo. Weinberg was not banned under the Zhdanov decree, unlike his colleague and friend Myaskovsky.

On the same day as the announcement, Solomon Mikhoels, Weinberg’s father-in-law, was murdered by the Cheka (the state secret police), his corpse run over by a truck and his death described as “an accident”. In a bizarre but not unusual volte face, the murder was then blamed on the CIA. So began a particularly depressing period in Soviet musical history. Weinberg himself was arrested in January 1953 and charged with conspiring to establish a Jewish republic in the Crimea — a concoction that although absurd, was still accompanied by a death sentence. The truth lay in Weinberg’s connection to Miron Vovsi, a close relative of his wife and the principal defendant in Stalin’s trumped-up “Doctor’s Plot”. It was assumed that Weinberg’s wife and sister-in-law would be arrested as a matter of course, and Nina Vasilyevna, Shostakovich’s wife, was given power- of-attorney for the Weinbergs’ seven-year-old daughter Vitosha, as well as the family’s possessions. With scant regard for his own safety, Shostakovich, wrote to Stalin and to his equally unpredictable security chief, Lavrenti Beria, protesting Weinberg’s innocence. Weinberg, incarcerated in sub-zero temperatures was deprived of sleep and interrogated. It was only Stalin’s propitious death on March 5th 1953 that led to Weinberg’s public rehabilitation and ultimate release. The account by his wife makes fascinating reading:

“Soon after this Shostakovich and his wife went to the south on holiday, making me promise to send a telegram as soon as Weinberg was released. And shortly we were able to send them this telegram: ’Enjoy your holiday. We embrace you, Tala and Metak.’ Two days later the Shostakoviches were back in Moscow. That evening we celebrated. At the table, festively decked out with candles in antique candlesticks, Nina Vasilyevna read out the power of attorney that I had written. Then Dmitri Dmitriyevich got up and solemnly pronounced, ’Now we will consign this document to the flames,’ and proposed that I should burn it over the candles. After the destruction of the ’document’, we drank vodka and sat down to supper. I rarely saw Dmitri Dmitriyevich as calm, and even merry, as he was that evening. We sat up till the early hours of the morning. Nina Vasilyevna laughingly recounted how I was worried that Vitosha would get a bad upbringing in the orphanage; it was then that I discovered that they had decided to take her into their own home.”

Weinberg lost many relatives in the war, including his parents and sister who died at the Trawniki camp, about 90 miles south east of Warsaw. His   experience of hate and racism inform his music to a very considerable degree. He contemplates the horrors of repression, the suffering of the Jews, and in particular the loss of children in many of his works. He once wrote: "Many of my works are related to the theme of war. This, alas, was not my own choice. It was dictated by my fate, by the tragic fate of my relatives. I regard it as my moral duty to write about the war, about the horrors that befell mankind in our century."

But Weinberg’s personal response to the attacks on himself and those close to him remained stoical and positive, and he was relentlessly prolific in almost every musical genre. There are 26 complete symphonies — the last, Kaddish, written in memory of the Jews who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. Weinberg donated the manuscript score to the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel. There are also four Chamber Symphonies. Weinberg and Shostakovich had a light-hearted but long-running rivalry as to who could compose the most string quartets: Weinberg ultimately composed 17 (two more than his friend). There are also 28 instrumental sonatas, either for piano solo or with violin, viola, cello or clarinet. The sonatas for solo cello are particularly ingenious, as is the sonata for solo double bass, one of the most unusual and effective modern works for the instrument. His seven concertos include one for cello, which was programmed by Rostropovich during the 1960s (a live recording is included in EMI’s recently-released set of CDs devoted to the cellist), a brilliant concerto for trumpet, a violin concerto championed by Leonid Kogan and a fine concerto for clarinet. There are over 150 songs ranging from Yiddish laments to settings of poems by Julian Tuvim and Shakespeare; a Requiem (drawing on secular texts), seven operas, three operettas, two ballets, and incidental music for 65 films, plays, radio productions and circus performances.

Although his language is occasionally uncannily close to Shostakovich’s, Weinberg’s resourcefulness and the wealth of his musical ideas render the epigone accusation baseless. His works often possess a wry humour, a strong sense of irony and, in Symphonies like the Seventh and Twelfth, an uncompromising severity and strength of purpose. But rarely do these qualities overwhelm an overall feeling of contained human acceptance and gratitude. Weinberg also drew liberally on folkloric, Polish, Moldavian and in particular Jewish sources, musical ideas which, some say, resonated with Shostakovich and manifested themselves in his Second Piano Trio and, notably, in From Jewish Folk Poetry composed at the height of Zhdanov’s repressive regime. Although Weinberg’s life and music are becoming increasingly more familiar, his operas remain completely unexplored. The Passenger, set partly in Auschwitz was very highly regarded by Shostakovich and a new production of this and other stage works would mark a new chapter in our appreciation of the composer.

By all accounts Weinberg was a modest and generous man, somewhat removed from the Soviet mainstream — he never joined the Communist Party — and with his heavily accented Russian destined to remain, at least in part, an émigré. Shortly before his death in 1996, dispirited by Russia’s disregard for him and weakened by a long battle with Crohn’s disease, Weinberg converted to the Russian Orthodox Church.

A much-anticipated biography of Weinberg will be published by Toccata Press in 2011. The work, begun by the late Per Skans is being completed by Prof. David Fanning and Michelle Assay.