Veniamin Fleishman

Veniamin Fleishman [Вениамин Иосифович Флейшман] (1913-1941) was a Russian composer and a student of Dmitri Shostakovich. After Fleishman was killed during the Siege of Leningrad, Shostakovich completed his opera, Rothschild's Violin, considered by many to be one of the finest works of its time.


The composer Veniamin Yosivovich Fleishman (also spelled Fleischman, Fleischmann, and Fleyshman) was born in Bezhetsk, a town situated near Moscow in the Tver region, on July 20, 1913. In 1941, during the Siege of Leningrad, he voluntarily joined the city's civilian defenses, called the People's Volunteer Brigade or Home Guard, and died on September 14 of the same year in Krasnoye Village, a Leningrad suburb in the district of Luga. He left behind a wife, Lyudmila, who relocated to Kirov after the war with their young daughter, Olga.

As described by Solomon Volkov, Fleishman died in battle:

With two other composition students, Fleishman fired on enemy tanks from a pillbox that was finally surrounded and blown up. The home guard consisted of hastily selected, ill-trained, and poorly armed workers, students and intellectuals of Leningrad. Zhdanov used them during the siege as cannon fodder; almost none survived (490).

In the following excerpt from Testimony, Dmitry Dmitryevich Shostakovich (1906-1975) confirms this fate of the civilian brigades:

He [Fleishman] went into the People's Volunteer Guard. They were all candidates for corpsehood. They were barely trained and poorly armed, and thrown into the most dangerous areas. A soldier could still entertain hopes of survival, but a volunteer guardsman, no. The guard of the Kuibyshev District, which was the one Fleishman joined, perished almost completely (225).

As a child, Fleishman studied violin, and later worked as a school teacher after completing his studies. He moved to Leningrad in 1935, where he began studying composition with Mikhail Yudin at the Mussorgsky Music College; in 1937, he entered Shostakovich's first composition class at the Leningrad Conservatory. This group of students included Orest Alexandrovich Yevlakhov (1912-1973), Georgiy Vasilyevich Sviridov (1915-1998), Yuriy Abramovich Levitin (1912-1993), and Galina Ivanovna Ustvolskaya (1919-2006). Although the only one of Fleishman's compositions to survive is his opera Rothschild's Violin, he reportedly composed a variety of works, including piano preludes, songs, and romance cycles based on texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov (1814-1841).

Rothschild's Violin and Shostakovich

As soon as Shostakovich suggested to Fleishman that he compose an opera after “Rothschild's Violin” (also translated as “Rothschild's Fiddle”), a short story by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904), Fleishman set to work on it in 1939. According to a number of sources (a select list includes Laurel Fay, Allan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov, Ronald Weitzman, and A. Livshits), Fleishman reshaped the story into the opera's libretto himself. Elena Silina, who wrote the booklet essay accompanying the Avie Records release of the opera, however, contends that the libretto was written by Alexander Preis, the librettist for Shostakovich's 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Her contention remains unique. Fleishman worked on the opera until 1941, and was able to orchestrate some of the piano score before he died.

In October 1941, Shostakovich and his family were evacuated from Leningrad to Moscow and then to Kuibyshev. While in Kuibyshev, Shostakovich learned that Fleishman, who had been one of his favorite students, had disappeared in combat and that the opera's manuscript was still in Leningrad. Fleishman's wife, Lyudmila, had left the score at the Leningrad Composers' Union. In May 1942, Shostakovich wrote to his student Yevlakhov:

Dear friend, if the opera is still at the Leningrad Composers' Union, please take care of it, and still better make a copy of it and if possible send it to me in Kuibyshev when the occasion arises. I like the opera very much and am worried it may get lost (130).

Shostakovich received the piano score and partial orchestration from another former student, Boris Lazerevich Klyuzner (1909-1975), an army captain, who while stationed near Leningrad, was able to retrieve the score and deliver it to Shostakovich in 1943.

This original piano score has never been located (Shostakovich Reconsidered, 131). Moreover, Shostakovich may not have used Fleishman's original manuscript to complete the orchestration, but a piano score written in both Fleishman's hand and that of a copyist. These issues confound the task of determining how much of the opera was initially completed by Fleishman, and how much ultimately was polished and orchestrated by Shostakovich. Still, in the preface to his orchestration, signed Moscow, February 5, 1944, Shostakovich maintained that

Fleishman worked on the score of Rothschild's Violin from 1939 to the summer of 1941, when the war broke out. By that time the piano score of the opera and the bigger part of the full score were completed…At the end of 1943 the manuscript was delivered to me. All I had to do was to complete the orchestration and copy the author's pencil score.

Shostakovich's notes in the orchestra score are more specific: “From the start to 17, m. 7, the orchestration is my own. From 18, mm. 1 to 91, I have copied V.I. Fleishman's score. From 92, m. 1, to the end, the orchestration is my own.” In Testimony, Volkov writes that Fleishman “allegedly finished the reduction. But the only thing available to researchers is the score, written from beginning to end in Shostakovich's characteristic nervous handwriting. Shostakovich maintained that he had merely orchestrated the work of his late student” (xiii). Later in the book, though, Shostakovich admits not only to having orchestrated the opera, but to completing it as well. He concedes that Fleishman “sketched out the opera but then he volunteered for the army” and was killed (225). Indeed, Ho and Feofanov, citing a March 1995 interview with Yakubov, emphasize that the purportedly untouched sections of the opera were likely edited by Shostakovich, who “completed some portions of the vocal score and the orchestral episode at the end [which is lacking in the piano score]” (Shostakovich Reconsidered, 129). In Dmitry Shostakovich: The Composer as Jew, Timothy Jackson supports these claims, concisely labeling Rothschild's Violin as an opera “ostensibly composed by the Jewish composer Veniamin Fleishman and edited and orchestrated by Shostakovich” (604).

Elena Silina provides further detail, specifying that Fleishman sketched the concluding violin theme, which Shostakovich developed into eight symphonic variations (from rehearsal number 124 to the end). Shostakovich apparently also modified Fleishman's orchestration, adding a harp and expanding the brass and percussion sections. As further proof of the senior composer's editing, Silina, like Weitzman, offers that “Shostakovich's orchestration at the end of the opera bears many of the typical hallmarks of his symphonic finales…particularly his Fifth Symphony and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; both were written in the mid-1930s, not long before Fleishman began work on Rothschild's Violin” (liner notes, 5). She concedes, however, that these stylistic overlaps also may have been the result of the two composers' similar personalities, as manifested in their mutual admiration for Chekhov. In Testimony, Shostakovich admits that “if I were suddenly expected to write a dissertation on an author, I would choose Chekhov, that's how close an affinity I feel for him” (178). Shostakovich also reveals that “I love Chekhov…I like everything he wrote,” and that Fleishman, too, “had a fine rapport with Chekhov” (225). Another overlap is evidenced by both composers' attraction to Jewish music and culture. Chekhov's story may have prompted Shostakovich to suggest it as an opera subject, as well as attracted Fleishman, because of its nuanced treatment of the relationship between Christians and Jews. Fleishman was himself Jewish, and infused the opera with klezmer elements and melodic figuration typical of Jewish music.

These traditional elements are apparent in the opera's opening and central dance episodes, where the action takes place at a Jewish wedding. In Testimony, Shostakovich admits that

Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me…it's multifaceted, it can appear to be happy while it is tragic…This quality of Jewish folk music is close to my ideas of what music should be. There should always be two layers in music. Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair. They express despair in dance music (Testimony, 156).

In working on the opera, Shostakovich likely added to his understanding and admiration of the Jewish idiom. As such, it is not farfetched to link Shostakovich's interest in Jewish music with Rothschild's Violin. Indeed, Silina, like Joachim Braun, writes that “Shostakovich discovered Jewish culture for himself only after completing Rothschild's Violin” (liner notes, 6).

Timothy Jackson, however, takes issue with this timeline, contending that while Fleishman “seems to have played a crucial part in sensitizing Shostakovich to Jews and Jewish plight” (606), Shostakovich's identification with Jews may have occurred as early as 1936—the year when “Muddle Instead of Music,” the editorial in Pravda attributed to Joseph Stalin, attacked Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Jackson promotes the idea that this identification was an autobiographical gesture, a symbol of Shostakovich's destiny—one of alienation, fear and persecution under Stalin and the Soviet system—tied to the universal fate of the Jewish people: “It meant being an outcast and doing what was necessary to survive while inwardly attempting to remain true to himself” (607). As a result, Fleishman's “Jewishness” may have been of paramount interest to Shostakovich, and may have influenced Shostakovich's first use of Jewish quotation in 1937, in the Largo of the Symphony No. 5. Jackson signifies this influence by noting that 1937 was the very year when Fleishman became Shostakovich's student (608). Still, in keeping with Jackson's timeline of Shostakovich's interest in and use of the Jewish idiom, the power of influence was mutual, as the suggestion to compose an opera based on Chekhov's story originated with Shostakovich.

Following the opera, Shostakovich used Jewish quotations in a number of works, including the Symphony No. 7, Op. 60 (1938-1941), inspired by the Psalms of David, the Piano Trio, Op. 67 (1944), the Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 77 (1947-48), the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, Op. 79 (1948), the Quartet No. 4, Op. 83 (1949), the Quartet No. 8, Op. 110 (1960), and the Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar,” Op. 113 (1962).

Rothschild's Violin: notes on the story and libretto

Shostakovich proclaimed that, for Chekhov,

all people are the same. He presented people and the reader had to decide for himself what was bad and what was good. Chekhov remained unprejudiced. Everything inside me churns when I read “Rothschild's Violin.” Who's right, who's wrong? Who made life nothing but steady losses? (Testimony, 225)

The issue of losses is central to both story and opera, and is repeatedly lamented by the main protagonist Yakov Matveievich Ivanov, nicknamed Bronza. In each of his prolonged monologues and arias, Bronza bemoans his continued losses: as a coffin maker in a town where people die infrequently, as a laborer who cannot work on holidays, Sundays, and Mondays (because this is a bad day to work), and as a violinist in the town's Jewish orchestra, where he seldom plays, especially after having insulted the flautist Rothschild. In the story, he is exasperated with his fate, and is “never in a good humor, because he always had to endure the most terrible losses” (98). In the libretto, after Bronza's wife, Marfa, announces to him that she is dying, she begins to recall their young daughter, who died fifty years earlier. He dismisses what he (mistakenly) believes to be her overactive imagination, and immediately proceeds to catalogue his added losses: “tomorrow is St. John Damscene, then St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker, then it's Sunday and then Monday. Four days of forced rest and I am sure Marfa is going to die on one of them.” At the same time, he shows a degree of nostalgia and regret as he meditates over the irrevocable passage of time: “I haven't had time to live with my old wife, to talk, to care for her. I've spent fifty years with her and I've never looked after her, I've never cuddled her.” Instead, he has frightened and scolded her, although, as written in the story, never beaten her.

When she dies in the story, Bronza arranges for her funeral and builds her casket. Before she is buried, his last words are not directed to her but to his handiwork: “That's a fine job!” (102). Yet his apparent callousness turns quickly into distress as he walks home from the cemetery. He again remembers his mistreatment of Marfa, how

he had never once thought about her at all or noticed her more than if she had been a dog or a cat. And yet she had lit the stove every day, and had cooked and baked and fetched water and chopped wood, and when he had come home drunk from a wedding she had hung his fiddle reverently on a nail each time, and had silently put him to bed with a timid, anxious look on her face (102).

Marfa is not the only target of Bronza's rage. For no overt reason, he “little by little began to conceive a feeling of hatred and contempt for all Jews, and especially for Rothschild. He quarreled with him and abused him in ugly language, and once even tried to beat him” (98). This characterization is missing from the libretto, perhaps because it is too obviously anti-Semitic, given Fleishman's softened treatment of Bronza's antipathies. Fleishman, however, retained the episode where Bronza, in anguish as he walks from the cemetery, encounters Rothschild, who has been sent by Shakess, the village orchestra's leader, to summon Bronza to work. Bronza rages at Rothschild, and the latter runs away, chased by dogs—one of which bites him—and by children shouting “Jew, Jew!” It is only after this scene, in which Bronza as a bystander witnesses his own potential brutality, that he comes to understand the consequences of his prejudice. He realizes that his losses were not determined by an indiscriminate fate, but were no more than missed opportunities, ones that possibly he could have capitalized upon had he not been so angry and self-pitying. Finally, he is left only with questions:

Why did people always do exactly what they ought not to do? Why had Yakov scolded and growled and clenched his fists and hurt his wife's feelings all his life? Why, oh why, had he frightened and insulted that Jew just now? Why did people in general always interfere with one another? What losses resulted from this!…If it were not for envy and anger they would get great profit from one another (104).

What immediately follows in the story is resignation and death. Bronza's ultimate regret is that he will leave behind the one object that sustained him in life, his violin: “He was not sorry then that he was going to die, but when he reached home, and saw his fiddle, his heart ached…He would not be able to take his fiddle with him into the grave…Everything in the world had been lost, and would always be lost for ever” (104). Bronza expresses his monumental grief by playing a sorrowful melody. Rothschild reappears to summon Bronza once again, but this time Bronza is kind to him. In fact, through music, Bronza communicates an understanding of their shared suffering, an empathetic eulogy of reconciliation between Christian and Jew. In response, Rothschild can only weep and murmur, “Okh - okh!” (105). Once their commonality is thus established, Bronza, in both story and libretto, bequeaths his violin to Rothschild, who abandons his flute and continues to play Bronza's melody to great acclaim in the town. Giving away his violin is Bronza's most meaningful act, what transforms his indulgent self-pity into compassion and generosity. Forgiveness for those actions that hurt both Marfa and Rothschild becomes possible, and Bronza can die knowing that his life did not pass without some profit. In this way, the violin is a symbol of redemption: through it, Bronza transcends violence and selfishness, and Rothschild rises from indignity and humiliation.

This is Bronza's legacy, and much like Rothschild the Jew sustained it, Shostakovich the Russian memorialized Fleishman. Music and memory must be communicated, so that all struggles against death and annihilation are never forgotten. In Shostakovich's words, “too many of our people died and were buried in places unknown to anyone, not even their relatives. It happened to many of my friends. Where do you put the tombstones…? Only music can do that for them…that's why I dedicate my music to them all” (Testimony, 156).

Performances of Rothschild's Violin

The opera's premiere was a concert performance by the soloists and members of the Moscow Philharmonic at the Moscow Composer's Union on June 20, 1960. This was followed by a radio broadcast by the same ensemble in February 1962. The first staged performance was in Leningrad in April 1968, inaugurating Volkov's Experimental Studio of Chamber Opera. Maxim Shostakovich conducted. Despite extremely positive reviews, “the official administrators of culture accused all of us of Zionism…and it meant an irreversible closing of the production. This was a defeat for Shostakovich as well as for me [Volkov]…But the opera was never staged again…neither Fleishman nor his work was to be resurrected” (Testimony, xiii-xiv).

Outside of Russia, the Berlin Konzerthaus produced the opera in 2003. In the UK, the Jewish Music Heritage Trust, Thameside Opera, “semi–staged” the work in November 1997. The first full staging, however, took place in May 2007 by the Second Movement Ensemble at Covent Garden Film Studios. The Juilliard Opera Center organized the New York premiere in February 1990.