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Whitman and Democracy

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert A Walt Whitman Sampler, which will be performed on October 17, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Among the most arguably difficult of literary enterprises is the art of translation. Vladimir Nabokov was obsessed about the matter; his complicated and controversial views on the processes of transferring the sensibilities evoked by one language to another have themselves inspired volumes of commentary. The challenge resides in an irresolvable paradox: if the translator aims for laser-like accuracy of meaning, the intangible qualities of linguistic usage that allow us to employ language in more subtle ways than Google Translate are lost; but if one aims to replicate the artistry of the work, then the result is something other than the “original” work. This is evident in many of the great translations made by poets of the works of other poets. These are valued not as “accurate” but as artistic works in their own right: Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation of The Divine Comedy, August Wilhelm Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck’s German translation of Shakespeare. These translations achieved recognition as autonomous new works. Fidelity to the original was no longer the main critical criterion. They became cherished because they resembled the translator’s other beloved original works.

To take it even further, because language is not a stable human instrument, within a single language, distance in time and place between author and reader may affect comprehension. Translating from one language to another over a wide timeframe deepens the problem. Modern English speakers from the American East Coast cannot comprehend the English of Shakespeare or even Jane Austen without some reflection. (Indeed, even the space between one generation and the next can be daunting.) But this is because language is a living thing. There is a decided family resemblance over time within a language, but the differences in usage and meaning and in rhetoric and significance are always developing. Hence reference works such as the Oxford English Dictionary or Vladimir Dahl’s dictionary of the Russian language (Nabokov’s favorite) are so essential to readers—even native speakers.

The barrier that exists between languages has been responsible for one of the most powerful modern uses of language—the establishment of discrete large-scale national identity, particularly in the nineteenth century. The standardization of language in post-unification Italy or in Napoleonic France and certainly after the unification in 1870 of Germany was a crucial instrument in forging a unified modern national consciousness. Dramatic regional differences in these countries came under scrutiny and weakened. The masters of a national language—writers and poets—were celebrated as giving voice to a consciousness that was quintessentially emblematic of a nation; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alexander Pushkin, and Charles Baudelaire shaped the shared self-image of Germany, Russia, and France. Although the works of these writers have been translated into numerous other languages, these translations are often accompanied by a discouraging tagline, especially dear to “native” speakers: “You can’t really appreciate them unless you read them in the original language.”

One would be hard put to argue persuasively that Walt Whitman does not belong in the category of poets and writers who helped shape the dominant vision of the American nation. He expressed a quintessential American voice. His ecstatic, arresting eloquence celebrated democracy, freedom, and individuality that continues to capture American readers. What made Whitman’s poetry truly American was not mere patriotism or chest-beating about how great the country was (or could be), but rather the unspoken values of the country from which he came that allowed him to express individual and dissenting reflections of love, nature, sexuality, and humanity in poetry, just as his contemporary Herman Melville did in prose. Whitman’s poetry could only have come from a land that believed that it valued freedom, democracy, and plurality.

As we celebrate the bicentenary of his birth, the influence of Whitman has not diminished. Saul Bellow once jokingly constructed a genealogy in American letters in which Allen Ginsberg, the author of Howl, was actually a direct descendent of Walt Whitman. Whitman’s vision inspired generations of artists, painters, and photographers, notably the circle around Alfred Stieglitz (Georgia O’Keefe, Paul Strand, and Walker Evans, for example), as well as politically progressive composers such as Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. And Whitman was a favorite among émigrés fleeing autocracy and dictatorship in Europe.

Indeed, what is extraordinary about Whitman is the extent to which he gained an enormous following in Europe in translation. It was reminiscent of the European enthusiasm for Edgar Allan Poe. Many of these Whitman translations were rather undistinguished, but somehow, the essence got through. Whitman inspired German and British composers to set his words to the medium of music that demands no translation, at least on the surface. Whitman’s international influence debunks the myth that translation cannot work and is without value. Indeed, Homer and Virgil have triumphed in translation, as have all the Greek tragedians. The Divine Comedy has made its way beyond readers of Italian. For all the complaints leveled at Constance Garnett’s translations of Tolstoy, the popularity and reputation of War and Peace and Anna Karenina in the English-speaking world owe a permanent debt to her work. The music you will hear tonight sidesteps the controversies about translation and nationalism in favor of an example of the universality of the humanistic sensibilities contained in Walt Whitman’s poetry.

Three of the composers on tonight’s program came from German-speaking Europe, albeit from distinct linguistic regions. Kurt Weill was born in Dessau. Franz Schreker had his roots in Austria and spoke a Viennese dialect, and Othmar Schoeck was a proud Swiss with a lifelong allegiance to the peculiarities and beauties of Swiss German. The main work on tonight’s concert is by an Englishman with political sympathies that were easily associated with Whitman.

Whitman was one of the first American poets to gain a foothold as a major literary figure with readers who are not native English speakers. It is the international reputation of Whitman, his role as a conveyor of the most cherished of American hopes and dreams—democracy and inclusion that inspired a unique aesthetic—that the ASO celebrates in this bicentenary. Whitman’s success in speaking to peoples well beyond the borders of America speaks well for the enterprise of poetry—the power of language, despite the difficulties of translation. Poetry, like music, can communicate, despite seemingly unbridgeable differences in history, religion, geography, and ethnic identity. Whitman’s poetry was a natural candidate for music. The composers on our program shared divergent political views, but Whitman inspired them to create a common ground of the imagination.

Othmar Schoeck, Trommelschläge

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert A Walt Whitman Sampler, which will be performed on October 17, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Born September 1, 1886, in Brunnen, Switzerland
Died March 8, 1957, in Zürich, Switzerland
Composed in 1915
Premiered on March 5, 1916 at Tonhalle, Zürich, with the Tonhalle-Orchester
Performance Time: Approximately 5 minutes

The horrors of the First World War intruded upon the Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck personally: the only manuscript copy of one of his songs was destroyed when a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania on May 7, 1915. The song was lost at sea forever, along with over a thousand men, women, and children. Of course, Schoeck was far more horrified by the loss of life and the barbarism unleashed by the war than by the loss of a single song. He clearly understood that this cataclysm had changed everything, including, as it turned out, his own lush late-Romantic musical idiom.

Schoeck’s turn toward Expressionism can first be heard in his brief, violent, and harrowing Trommelschläge, Op. 26, for chorus and large orchestra. German-speaking composers who sought to comment musically on the First World War faced a paucity of German-language poetry that dealt with war, so Schoeck turned to the American verse of Walt Whitman. Sometime before August 1915, Schoeck’s friend, the painter and poet Gustav Gamper, introduced the composer to Whitman’s poetry through Johannes Schlaf’s 1907 German translation. Schoeck turned to “Beat! Beat! Drums!,” one of Whitman’s Civil War poems, finishing the score of Trommelschläge (“Drum Taps”) on August 16.

Schoeck wrote pessimistically to a friend, “I have vented all my anger about the present into a choral piece. It will perhaps break the neck of my position in Zürich.” The position to which he was referring was his conductorship of the Lehrergesangverein, one of Zürich’s leading choral ensembles. Predictably, the singers detested Trommelschläge, which they considered to be a bewildering example of musical ultra-modernism. Some of the singers ceased attending rehearsals as a protest. The choral society’s president begged the choristers to refrain from criticizing the score publically before its premiere. Despite these ill omens, the work proved to be a critical and audience success. Schoeck’s conception of a five-minute work that transformed both chorus and orchestra into a gigantic demonic drum proved overwhelming to its first listeners. In later years, Schoeck proudly asserted that Trommelschläge was his “first piece of modern music.”

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Kurt Weill, Four Walt Whitman Songs

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert A Walt Whitman Sampler, which will be performed on October 17, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Born March 2, 1900, in Dessau, Germany
Died April 3, 1950, in New York City
Composed in 1942–47
Premiered in 1947 for Concert Hall Records, with tenor William Horne and pianist Adam Garner
Performance Time: Approximately 18 minutes

Unlike some émigrés who fled Europe ahead of the Nazi menace, Kurt Weill never indulged in backward glances or nostalgia. Even before he became an American citizen on August 27, 1943, Weill had proudly declared in a radio broadcast that he had “never felt as much at home in my native land as I have from the first moment in the United States.” Musicologist Kim H. Kowalke has related that in 1937, Weill declared to the playwright Paul Green, “I have the feeling that most people who ever came to this country came for the same reasons which brought me here: fleeing from the hate, the oppression, the restlessness and troubles of the Old World to find freedom and happiness in a New World.”

That same year, Green sent a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to Weill as a celebratory gift. The choice of poet was hardly at random, as Green gave Weill the work of the most American poet imaginable, a book that eloquently welcomed aspiring future citizens of the United States just like Weill. The composer had certainly encountered Whitman in Germany—German readers were familiar with Leaves of Grass through a number of expert translations. In 1926, years before his emigration, Weill saluted an upcoming broadcast recitation of Whitman’s verse in Der deutsche Rundfunk: “Walt Whitman was the first truly original poetic talent to grow out of American soil.”

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Weill quickly composed three settings of Whitman’s Civil War poems: the first, “Beat! Beat! Drums!” is martial and defiant; the second, a setting of Whitman’s famous poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” is touching and poignant, with gentle echoes of Mahler’s Lieder; and the last, “Dirge for Two Veterans,” is both bluesy and deeply moving. In 1947, Weill revisited Whitman with a setting of “Come Up from the Fields, Father.” He positioned this as the third of his Four Walt Whitman Songs, which were recorded by tenor William Horner for Concert Hall Records. (“Another émigré composer to America, Carlos Surinach, orchestrated “Come Up from the Fields, Father” in Weill’s manner.)

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Franz Schreker, Vom ewigen Leben (From Eternal Life)

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert A Walt Whitman Sampler, which will be performed on October 17, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Born March 23, 1878, in Monaco
Died March 21, 1934, in Berlin, Germany
Composed in 1923
Premiered in 1929
Performance Time: Approximately 20 minutes

Franz Schreker was celebrated principally as a dramatic composer during his lifetime: his first success came in 1908 with a pantomime, Der Geburtstag der Infantin, based on The Birthday of the Infanta by Oscar Wilde. In 1910, Schreker completed his masterpiece, the opera Der ferne Klang, which enjoyed a veritable triumph at its 1912 premiere in Frankfürt am Main. Schreker consolidated his reputation as a leading German opera composer in 1918 with Die Gezeichneten. Music critic Paul Bekker ignited a firestorm of controversy by comparing Schreker to Wagner. In 1920, Schreker was appointed director of the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, one of the most prestigious music posts in Germany.

By 1923, however, when he composed his two “lyrische Gesäge” on passages adapted from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Schreker’s reputation had begun to wane. His 1924 opera Irrelohe garnered only an equivocal success; his next opera, Der singende Teufel, which premiered in 1928, was a disastrous failure. Due to right-wing pressure that resulted from his father’s Jewish heritage, Schreker was forced from his post at the Hochschule in 1932. This humiliation, combined with mounting financial difficulties, placed Schreker under enormous emotional and physical stress. He died of a stroke in December 1933, just short of his fifty-sixth birthday.

Schreker was extraordinarily responsive to literature: he wrote his own libretti for his operas. His two settings of Whitman’s verse, translated into German by Hans Reisinger, are testaments to Schreker’s ability to evoke fully poetry through music. These two songs resemble a concise lyrical cantata more than two disparate lieder. The text of the first song of Vom ewigen Leben comes from the twelfth poem of Calamus—“Roots and Leaves Themselves Alone”—in the ordering found in the final 1892 edition of Leaves of Grass. The text of the second is found in the sixth section of Song of Myself: “A child said, ‘What is the grass?’” Using a sensuous harmonic idiom hovering delicately on the brink of atonality paired with shimmering orchestral timbres, Schreker probes the metaphysical import of Whitman’s poetry in a manner both insightful and achingly beautiful.

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, A Sea Symphony

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert A Walt Whitman Sampler, which will be performed on October 17, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Born October 10, 1872, in Down Ampney, England
Died August 26, 1958, in London
Composed in 1903–09
Premiered on October 12, 1910 at the Leeds Festival, England
Performance Time: Approximately 70 minutes

In 1892, Bertrand Russell recommended Walt Whitman’s poetry to a fellow undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge: the aspiring young composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Whitman’s poetry was well known in Britain by that time. William Michael Rossetti, brother of both Christina and Dante Gabriel, published a bowdlerized selection of verse drawn from the fourth edition of Leaves of Grass in 1868. Whitman later repudiated these excisions, exclaiming, “Damn the expurgated books! I say damn them!”

Vaughan Williams, who had been searching for poetry that transcended the parlor-bound interiority of much Victorian verse, recognized at once that Whitman’s celebration of panoramic vistas and pantheistic rapture was exactly what he needed in order to escape from the world of polite oratorios, cantatas, and anthems that made up the bulk of British choral music in the 1890s. While his teachers Charles Villiers Stanford and Charles Wood had tentatively begun setting Whitman’s poetry at the end of the nineteenth century, Vaughan Williams’ passionate love of this verse—he carried a pocket volume of Whitman into the trenches during the First World War—resulted in a series of visionary scores. His “choral song,” Toward the Unknown Region, was successfully performed at the Leeds Festival in 1907; three years later, his massive and original choral symphony, A Sea Symphony, was premiered at the same festival, conducted by its nervous composer on October 12, his thirty-eighth birthday.

Despite the precedent of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Mahler’s Second and Third Symphonies, there was no choral symphony as such by a British composer when Vaughan Williams began to sketch A Sea Symphony in 1903. Unlike its German predecessors, the chorus and vocal soloists were integral parts of Vaughan Williams’ conception of all four movements from the beginning and pervade the texture throughout. The majestic opening is like the sudden revelation of a teeming seascape that evokes Turner’s grandiose nautical canvases. A quotation from Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, at the words “And on its limitless, heaving breast,” announces that this symphony is not mere tone-painting, but rather a transformative voyage of the spirit into transcendent and mysterious realms.

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Intolerance

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Intolerance, which was performed on March 1, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

It would be hard to imagine a work more pertinent to our times than Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza 1960. It is a work of musical theater that tells the story of an emigrant worker who encounters prejudice, injustice, incarceration, and violence. It assumes a political context in Europe of the threat of a return to fascism. Intolleranza 1960 suggests that none of us can afford to assume that we are immune to the character of the public life we not only live in, but passively and actively helped create.

Whatever one’s politics may be, there is no question that the tolerance of immigrants, the subject of Intolleranza 1960, is declining in the present day, and the distinctions we make between ourselves and “others,” the basis of anti-immigrant sentiment, is on the rise both in Europe and the United States. We are also witnesses to the steady rise of illiberalism in politics, an appetite for violence, and a populist embrace of autocracy. We seem content with a growing inequality of wealth and are reluctant to address the economic and social realities that have emerged since 1960, particularly as a consequence of new technologies and that overused and poorly understood term, globalization.

What distinguishes 1960 from 2018 is that in 1960 the central element in politics was the critique of capitalism. That is not the case now. We no longer accept the idea that socialism and communism might challenge the unrestrained embrace of the market and private property. The contrast between “left” and “right” in 1960 still derived from World War II and the experience of fascism in Italy, Germany, and Spain. Members of Luigi Nono’s generation believed in the possibility, if not the necessity, of radical political change. Rightly or wrongly, they were in part inspired by countries behind the Iron Curtain. Stalinism seemed in retreat (despite the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956). In the post-world war West, two contradictory sentiments prevailed: the belief in Communism as a viable alternative, and the fear of it as an ominous evil threat from Eastern Europe. Both of these beliefs strengthened the case in the West for the welfare state and social democracy. In America, the New Deal remained until the late 1960s, a glorious example of how fairness and justice—the realization of Roosevelt’s four freedoms of speech and of religion, and from fear and want—might be possible within the framework of democracy.

When Nono wrote Intolleranza 1960 the trauma of fascism and the World War had not become a faded memory. The two questions—why the catastrophe that had come to an end in 1945 had happened in the first place, and how a repeat of that disaster could be averted—were the central preoccupations of the composers, artists, and writers who rose to prominence in the 15 years between the end of the war and 1960. As result, it seemed implausible to simply continue aesthetic traditions that had flourished before the 1930s. If the making of art still had relevance, it needed to work against continuity, tradition, and complacency. Art needed to be unsettling and not merely affirmative of the status quo. It needed to challenge traditional notions of beauty. It had to be adequate to the dangers of contemporary life and confront the contradictions, absurdities, and brutality of the historical moment, including the threat of nuclear war that marked the Cold War. It is no surprise then that 1960 was a high water mark of 20th-century modernism in the arts. Nono’s score seeks to be resolutely new and defiant of conventional expectations. It still evokes the mix of enthusiasm and shock that accompanied its first performances. It celebrates the departures from late Romanticism and Neo-classicism in sound and form pioneered by modernism.

A singular irony of Nono’s modernism is that during the Cold War, radical innovations in music composition were celebrated in the West as markers of a free society. Despite Nono’s overt political intent, his manner of music making was in stark contrast to the kind of music supported by the Soviet state and dominant throughout Eastern Europe. That music (Shostakovich, for example) was viewed in the West as regressive and conservative, even though it was thought to be populist and acceptable by Communist ideology. The irony was clear. Nono was using his freedom to make a case with music that never quite gained a wide following, whereas in the presumably progressive albeit autocratic socialist state, a regressive conservative music was cherished by the public. Progressive politics in the West was briefly tied to an innovative and radical aesthetic. Its credibility was enhanced by the idea that Nono’s modernism was evidence of the power and potential of the freedom of the individual, to whose protection the West was committed.

Nono has much to say to us in Intolleranza 1960, because we live in a time when his synthesis of radical politics and aesthetics is very pertinent. 1989 and the end of the Cold War did not usher in a new golden age of democracy, freedom, and justice. The challenges we face once again suggest that art needs to be more than a decorative enterprise. It must possess an ethical and political dimension, as well as an obligation to speak independently and truthfully. In 1960 Nono understood how to electrify and shock the concert and opera audience; the continuities with 19th-century practices had not been entirely broken. In 2018 those continuities no longer dominate, and the entire enterprise of concert and operatic music carries less significance. Furthermore, Nono’s musical modernism is, at best, in retreat. It retains whatever currency it has mostly as a noble fragment of the past. Nevertheless it is an intense, innovative, and passionate experiment in sonority that pervades the listener’s consciousness. It is a reminder that for Nono, art and music mattered, that literature and philosophy needed to inform the making of music and help shape music so that it might challenge the public to address injustice and inhumanity. These beliefs need to be cherished and emulated. Intolleranza 1960 is a unique masterpiece that can inspire music and theatre in our own times. Its startling relevance today justifies Nono’s faith in the ethical power of the aesthetic imagination.

Luigi Nono, Intolleranza 1960

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Intolerance, which was performed on March 1, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Born January 29, 1924, in Venice
Died May 8, 1990, in Venice
Composed in 1960–61
Premiered on April 13, 1961, at Teatro della Fenice in Venice with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bruno Maderna
Performance Time: Approximately 75 minutes

Fifteen years after the end of World War II, the wounds of Europe were far from being healed. Italy in particular had barely begun to come to terms with the legacy of fascism; the country had a profound economic and political crisis to overcome. Luigi Nono came of age as a composer during these turbulent times. His first mature composition, written in 1950, was a series of variations on a tone row by Arnold Schoenberg, whose daughter Nuria he married five years later. Nono, who joined the Italian Communist Party in 1952, combined his revolutionary agenda with the avant-garde style of the Darmstadt school of which he was a prominent member.

Intolleranza 1960 is the culminating work of Nono’s first artistic period. The composer called this one-act opera an azione scenica, a “stage action” in which the plot proceeds in brief episodes resembling a series of snapshots. The protagonist (The Emigrant) is an innocent miner returning home from a period of work abroad. He is arrested on his way, tortured, sent to a concentration camp, and finally released, only to reach his home at the precise moment when a new disaster—a catastrophic flood—strikes. The stages of the Emigrant’s journey are marked by two women—one who becomes his enemy when he leaves her behind, and another who joins him as his new Companion. There are five main characters in all, representing five voice types to cover the entire spectrum of the human voice: the two women (soprano and contralto), the Emigrant (tenor), an Algerian who joins him during his escape (baritone), and a tortured man (bass-baritone).

Nono had originally conceived the work in collaboration with poet Angelo Maria Ripellino, who was also a scholar of Russian language and literature. Ripellino composed an extensive libretto, of which Nono ended up using less than half, causing a major rift between the two former friends. Ripellino augmented his original lines with quotes from various sources, including Paul Éluard’s famous poem Liberty, Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Our March (concluding Part I), and Bertolt Brecht’s To Those Born After (concluding Part II). The spoken excerpts describing or reflecting on torture are by Henri Alleg, a French-Algerian journalist who fought for Algerian independence and was tortured by the French; Julius Fučík, a Czech journalist killed by the Nazis; and Jean-Paul Sartre, in whose seminal philosophical oeuvre an entire era of violence and devastation found its most eloquent expression. This textual collage broadens the work’s scope of references to include World War II; the atomic bomb; the Algerian war of independence; the reappearance of neo-fascist elements in Italy; the mining disaster in Marcinelles, Belgium, where more than 300 people were killed in 1956; and the 1951 flood in Polesine in the North of Italy, where a hundred people died and more than 180,000 lost their homes.

Man-made disasters exacerbate natural ones throughout Nono’s “stage action,” which makes clear that it is only a small step from intolerance to torture and annihilation. The composer’s message of protest is expressed by means of vocal and instrumental lines spanning a wide range and projecting extreme dramatic tension. The sounds of the live musicians are complemented by choruses relating “absurd scenes from contemporary life.” The original production was a real Gesamtkunstwerk involving sets and costumes by Emilio Vedova and stage direction by Josef Svoboda, the founder of the world-famous Laterna magica theater of Prague. The stage was divided in up to six different areas in which simultaneous actions were taking place.

The world premiere of Intolleranza 1960 took place at the Teatro della Fenice in Venice on April 13, 1961, at the 24th International Festival of Contemporary Music held during the Venice Biennale. The performance, with Bruno Maderna conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, caused a scandal. The great poet Eugenio Montale, future Nobel Prize winner, was in attendance; in his review published two days later, he wrote:

      The work’s reception was stormy as one could expect, given the plot and the provocations in the music. The two
      acts came off with great difficulty, among boos, shouts, altercations, fascist flyers raining down from the       galleries…

It should be remembered that in the early 1960s the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (Italian Social Movement) was the fourth-largest party in Italy, and violent clashes between rightist and leftist forces were rather frequent in the country.

Following this premiere, Intolleranza 1960was not performed again in Italy in the original Italian for 50 years, although it had several successful stagings in German translation, mostly in Germany. In 2018, intolerance is once again, unfortunately, a timely topic, and Nono, who fought against cruelty and injustice with his music, has much to say to those who, in the words of Bertolt Brecht quoted in the piece, were “born after.”

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at the Bard College Conservatory of Music.

The Courage of Friendship: The Composer as Jew in the Soviet Union

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Hollow Victory, which was performed on January 28, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

The historical thread running through this concert program is the presence and persecution of the Jews of Poland and Soviet Russia in the mid-twentieth century. The nearly total annihilation of the Jews that began in 1939 with the Nazi invasion of Poland and proceeded with increased intensity after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 had an unexpected and grim epilogue. In 1948 Stalin launched his post-war campaign against the surviving Jewish population in the Soviet Union. Each of the three composers on this program struggled to come to terms with this extended period of unparalleled brutality in the history of anti-Semitism.

Veniamin Fleishman, at age 23, began to study with Dmitri Shostakovich. Fleishman was both Jewish and a Soviet patriot. He volunteered to join in the defense of Leningrad in 1941 and was killed early on in the siege of the city. The protracted and savage Nazi attempt to eradicate Leningrad deeply affected Shostakovich. He was evacuated to safety in the East but wrote what quickly became internationally his most famous symphony, the Seventh. Its popularity inspired Bartók to quote it sardonically in the 1945 Concerto for Orchestra. Shostakovich’s Seventh was written in response to the siege, the suffering of its inhabitants and the heroism of the city’s defenders.

While in exile during the war, Shostakovich also went to great lengths to get hold of Fleishman’s incomplete manuscript of a one-act opera based on Anton Chekhov’s short story “Rothschild’s Violin.” He completed and orchestrated the work in 1944. It was a labor of love and admiration. But the persistence if not increase in anti-Semitism after the war made any performance of the work impossible despite Shostakovich’s advocacy. Only four years after the 1956 start of de-Stalinization and the “thaw” in communist Russia, a concert performance was arranged in 1960. The first staged performance occurred in 1968 at the Leningrad Conservatory, the place where Fleishman had been a student and Shostakovich his teacher.

Shostakovich’s relationship to the Soviet regime, both under Stalin and after, until his death, has remained a subject of intense scrutiny and debate. To what extent was he an “official” voice of the regime? Is there a subtext of dissent beneath the frequently affirmative aesthetic surface of his works? Amidst the controversy, one salient fact remains beyond dispute. Shostakovich was free of anti-Semitism. And that was apparent in his devotion to Fleishman’s memory, and in his steadfast friendship with Mieczysław Weinberg, the Warsaw-born Jewish composer who fled east into the Soviet Union after the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Shostakovich met Weinberg during the war. He persuaded Weinberg to move to Moscow and remain in the Soviet Union. Weinberg became Shostakovich’s closest musical colleague and a dear friend for the rest of his life. When Weinberg was arrested in 1953 during the height of Stalin’s anti-Jewish campaign, Shostakovich showed extraordinary courage. He intervened with Lavrenti Beria, the head of the KGB, to seek Weinberg’s release, but to no avail. He pledged to place Weinberg’s daughter under his personal protection, thereby putting himself at risk. Only Stalin’s death in March 1953 secured Weinberg’s release and restoration to professional life. From then on, throughout the subsequent two decades, Shostakovich encouraged and promoted Weinberg’s work as a composer.

It would be hard to imagine a biography that reveals the complexities and contradictions associated with being Jewish and an artist in interwar Poland and in Soviet Russia before, during, and after the Nazi defeat in 1945 more vividly and subtly than that of Weinberg. Weinberg’s parents were professionals in the Yiddish theatre: his father was a musician and his mother an actress. They fled to Warsaw from Kishinev (in the province of Bessarabia) in response to the massacre of Jews in 1903 and 1905. The Kishinev pogrom became notorious throughout the world. It was marked both by its startling violence and the thinly veiled, tacit consent of the Czarist regime. It spurred mass emigration on the part of Jews and was easily exploited on behalf of the Zionist cause. The pogrom helped justify the idea that a Jewish state in Palestine was the only solution to the precarious position of Jews in Europe; it also lent credence to those Zionists who argued that Jews in the meantime should form paramilitary organizations to defend themselves.

But Weinberg’s parents were not Zionists. They mirrored the views of the majority of Russian Jews. They did not dream of a Jewish state in Palestine and their daily language was not a rapidly evolving Hebrew. They were Yiddish speakers and ardent defenders of Yiddish as the national language of the Jewish people. They were determined to remain in Eastern Europe and were sympathetic to socialist organizations that saw a different path from that of Zionism to overcome anti-Semitism in Europe. The solution lay not in the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, but in a socialist revolution at home after which neither religion nor national identity would remain a cause of discrimination and oppression.

The sympathies of Weinberg’s parents also represented the view of most Jews in interwar Poland in the years in which the young Weinberg grew up. In the Polish Census of 1931—completed when Weinberg was 14 years old—out of nearly 32 million Poles, roughly 10 per cent were Jews. Out of these 3.1 million Jews, 2.5 million identified their primary language as Yiddish; only 250,000 claimed Hebrew as their main language. The large Jewish community in Warsaw, where Weinberg came of age, represented 30 percent of the city’s population. Weinberg’s parents chose to settle in Warsaw (then part of the Russian Empire) because it was the single largest Jewish urban center in Europe, and second in size only to New York. On the eve of World War II, in 1939, the year Weinberg graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory (where he displayed brilliance as both pianist and composer), there were 350,000 Jews in Warsaw. The Warsaw Jewish community was exceptionally diverse, and contained everything from fully assimilated and well-to-do, Polish-speaking, Jewish inhabitants to a large Yiddish-speaking, poor, working-class population, a vocal group of Zionists and devout orthodox adherents to religion.

The sheer size of the Warsaw community made it possible for it to support a thriving Yiddish theatre world, Yiddish newspapers and journals, and publishing houses. Weinberg began to work as a musician in the Yiddish theatre at age 10. But this vital Jewish community met its tragic end at the hands of the Nazis. Weinberg’s parents and sister perished. But Weinberg, as a vigorous 20-year-old, understood that staying behind was not a promising option. Furthermore, like many non-Zionist, Yiddish-oriented Jews, he admired socialism and the Soviet Union.

Indeed for many Jews the Soviet Union during the 1920s and even the 1930s seemed a potential paradise, a place—whatever its faults—that was built on an ideology that promised a better future, a world of equality, free of superstitious religion prejudice. The Soviet Union after 1921 offered a contrast to a Catholic and conservative, authoritarian, independent Poland, where anti-Semitism flourished. Fleeing Poland was not merely a concession born out of necessity. Weinberg survived the war in Soviet Russia, and no matter how poor the treatment he received in the post-war years was, or how extreme the danger from anti-Semitism he lived under, he remained loyal to the ideals of the regime and the promise of socialism.

Early on, the new Soviet regime defined Jews as a nation equivalent to the many other legally recognized national and ethnic groups in the Soviet Union. Yiddish was deemed the language of the Jewish nation. The state supported Yiddish publishing houses, theatres, and Yiddish culture and even sponsored a revision in Yiddish orthography. Yiddish culture flourished under Soviet rule until the mid-1930s, and once again during the war and briefly thereafter. The creation of the State of Israel in 1948, which the Soviets legally recognized, however, offered Stalin the chance to pursue a dream he had harbored for years: to pick up where Hitler had left off. One of his first acts was to have Weinberg’s father-in-law, the great Yiddish actor, Solomon Mikhoels, a prominent and popular figure, assassinated. Weinberg would later be arrested as a subversive “bourgeois Jewish nationalist” who supposedly supported the creation of a Jewish state within the Soviet Union.

Nonetheless, after his release Weinberg remained optimistic, prolific, and courageous. A large part of his compositional output dealt directly with Jewish themes, particularly its folk heritage, its Yiddish culture, and, of course, the suffering Jews endured. His last symphony, his No. 26, was a memorial to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. And he wrote an opera based on a Sholom Aleichem story. Yet Weinberg’s range was astonishing. He wrote for the movies, the radio, the circus, the theater, and the concert stage. He set texts by the Polish poet Julian Tuwim (also a Jew), Nikolai Gogol, G.B Shaw, and Mikhail Lermontov. The ASO has performed several of his works, including the trumpet and cello concertos, and the 1963 Sixth Symphony that calls for a children’s chorus singing Yiddish songs. In the current Weinberg revival, long overdue and welcome, the 1968 opera The Passenger, which deals with the Holocaust, has become Weinberg’s most visible work. Weinberg’s 1985 opera The Idiot, based on Dostoyevsky’s novel, deserves the same recognition.

Weinberg’s reputation has ironically also suffered a bit by too close a connection to Shostakovich. He is quickly set aside as an imitator who was too enthralled by his patron’s aesthetic. But the influence went both ways. No doubt Weinberg was in awe of Shostakovich and deeply grateful for the role he played in his career. But in the immense catalogue Weinberg produced are works that mark Weinberg’s individual style. These range from the film music for The Cranes are Flying from 1957; the 1949 Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, a work made possible by Weinberg’s childhood memories of the music from the region from which his parents came; and the Fifth Symphony of 1962, inspired by the 1961 revival of Shostakovich’s once suppressed modernist and ambitious Fourth Symphony, composed in the mid-1930s.

The music on this concert is therefore a tribute to friendship: Shostakovich’s capacity for loyalty and his absence of prejudice, and the rich legacy of Weinberg’s music, which stands as a validation of that friendship. The concert also puts into sharp relief the constraints and possibilities surrounding the making of art for all composers in a regime where music was controlled through the monopoly of the state. Through the prism of two pieces by Weinberg—one tied to the Soviet preference for folk-based affirmative music writing, and the other a novel exploration of symphonic form, a “formalist” work that risked condemnation as heterodox and contrary to state ideology—one encounters conflicting strands in the life and work of a composer under Soviet rule. The final irony in the life of this remarkable composer, whose life was dominated by both his Jewish heritage and his belief in the potential of the Soviet Union, was that before his death, crippled by Crohn’s disease, Weinberg converted from Judaism to the Russian Orthodox faith. Fleishman’s death and Weinberg’s conversion poignantly underscore the tension, terror, tragedy, and triumph that relentlessly accompanied survival as a Jew in Poland and Russia during the mid-twentieth century.

Mieczysław Weinberg, Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Hollow Victory, which was performed on January 28, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Born December 8, 1919, in Warsaw, Poland
Died February 26, 1996, in Moscow, Russia
Composed in 1949
Premiered on November 30, 1949, in Moscow by the All-Union Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Gauk
Performance Time: Approximately 12 minutes

During the last decade or so, a true Mieczysław Weinberg renaissance has begun in the concert halls of the world. Weinberg, who fled the Nazis from Poland to the Soviet Union and spent most of his life in Moscow, composed seven operas, 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, and more than 100 other works, large and small, in just about every possible genre of classical music. He was a close friend and frequent duo-piano partner of Shostakovich, who thought the world of him. During his lifetime, Weinberg’s music was performed by the greatest musicians in the Soviet Union and he received numerous awards, but, except for a single visit to his native Poland, he never travelled abroad and his work was, for many years, a well-kept secret outside the country.

Weinberg was born in Warsaw to parents who were originally from Bessarabia, the present-day Republic of Moldova. His father was a violin player and composer working for Jewish theater troupes in Bessarabia before migrating to Poland, where he and his wife raised their two children. With the exception of Mieczysław, who escaped in time, his parents and his sister were murdered by the Nazis after the invasion of Poland.

The Soviet Communist Party always urged composers to use melodies from the country’s various ethnic traditions. It was natural for Weinberg to turn to Moldavia, his parents’ birthplace, which had been annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, the year after Weinberg’s flight from Poland. (The region had been part of the Russian Empire before the revolution, although most of it belonged to the Kingdom of Romania during the interwar years).

Obeying political directives was more vital than ever in 1949, one year after an infamous Party resolution had not only harshly denounced but physically threatened the country’s most famous composers. Weinberg, only 29 at the time, was too young to be singled out for censure, but he was implicitly included in the ranks of the condemned “formalists.” And in his case, the general calamity had been compounded by an even more disastrous event involving his immediate family: in January 1948 his father-in-law, the famous Yiddish actor Solomon Michoels, was murdered in Minsk on direct orders from Stalin. It was under such historical circumstances that the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes was written.

The Rhapsody strings together a number of folk songs from Moldavia, a country that is culturally and linguistically very close to Romania. Most of the melodies Weinberg used belong to the majority population, but the fiery final section is an unmistakable Jewish klezmer dance tune. According to a 1903 statistic, the inhabitants of Moldavia’s capital, Chișinău (Kishinev), were almost 50% Jewish. That year, a devastating pogrom took place in the town, with 49 dead and 1,500 homes damaged. It is hard to imagine that Weinberg should not have thought of that tragedy, at least secretly, when he composed this brilliantly orchestrated work that contributed significantly to his growing reputation in Moscow.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at the Bard College Conservatory of Music.

Mieczysław Weinberg, Symphony No. 5 in F minor

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Hollow Victory, which was performed on January 28, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Born December 8, 1919, in Warsaw, Poland
Died February 26, 1996, in Moscow, Russia
Composed in 1962
Premiered on October 18, 1962, in Moscow by the Moscow Symphony, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin
Performance Time: Approximately 42 minutes

Weinberg’s Fifth Symphony may be seen as the composer’s response to Shostakovich’s Fourth, which was first performed publicly in 1961, 25 years after it was written. Weinberg had been familiar with the work long before the official premiere, as he and Shostakovich had played it through on two pianos, for an invited audience, as early as 1946. The Fourth is one of Shostakovich’s boldest creations, using modernistic means to convey a rather bleak artistic vision. That is where Weinberg took his cue (the allusion is particularly clear at the end of the symphony), although he also incorporated lessons learned from Shostakovich’s more classically oriented Fifth Symphony.

Shostakovich and Weinberg were among a mere handful of composers in the 1960s who still believed that the symphony, with its capacity to express and reconcile sharp musical and emotional contrasts, was still a viable genre with plenty of unrealized potential. Weinberg wrote no fewer than 22 symphonies over the years (leaving the last one unfinished at the time of his death). The Mahlerian concept of the symphony as an all-embracing mirror of human experience proved particularly relevant in the Soviet Union where there was so much human suffering to process. And Weinberg, as David Fanning pointed out in his biography of the composer, took up the torch from Shostakovich at a time when the latter’s symphonic production began to slow down after his monumental No. 13 (“Babi Yar”). These were also the years when a young generation of Soviet composers, with Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Edison Denisov appeared on the scene with their radically new ideas; Weinberg suddenly found himself as part of the “old guard,” yet he was undeterred and wrote the music he believed in, reaching the apex of his creativity during the 1960s.

Weinberg’s Fifth is written in F minor, a key with traditional associations of gloom. It is clearly not a “triumphant” work in the sense of Orthodox Communist doctrine; it is a product of the “thaw” under Nikita Khrushchev. (It is interesting that its first performance, in October 1962, was within weeks of the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). Weinberg had learned from Shostakovich the art of working with extremely short motifs such as the trumpet motif at the beginning of the first movement, which basically consists of a single interval, the perfect fourth. Like Shostakovich, Weinberg was able to present such pithy material with great dramatic force and build a complex sonata movement in which a distant, idealized world clashes head-on with brutal reality. The second movement is an extended lament in a very slow Adagio tempo, featuring a number of orchestral soloists (oboe, flute, cello), in which grief becomes a very personal matter. The third-movement scherzo brings some relief with its cheeky melody first presented by the piccolo to an accompaniment of soft timpani strokes (suggesting some latter-day pipe and tabor), but even here, the playfulness cannot be maintained indefinitely as the tone of the music becomes more strident and what seemed a joke at first increasingly takes on the character of an unsettling mystery. The finale steadfastly clings to a relatively slow Andantino tempo; there is no question of a joyful, triumphant conclusion. Weinberg allows only small deviations from what essentially seems a neutral emotional state. The gently undulating rhythm of the music changes only briefly to more martial accents before settling into the mysterious noises of the conclusion. According to the recollections of his friends, Weinberg was a very reserved person who always kept his innermost thoughts to himself; something of this secrecy (or shall we call it shyness?) comes through in the strangely understated final movement Weinberg wrote for what was his most ambitious symphony to date.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at the Bard College Conservatory of Music.