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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.

Veniamin Fleishman, Rothschild’s Violin

by Peter Laki

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

Born July 20, 1913, in Bezhetsk, Russia
Died September 14, 1941, in Krasnoye Selo, near Leningrad
Composed by Fleishman in 1939–41, completed by Shostakovich in 1944
Premiered on June 20, 1960, in Moscow
Performance Time: Approximately 40 minutes

Shostakovich called Veniamin Fleishman his favorite student at the Leningrad Conservatory. At his teacher’s suggestion, Fleishman was working on a one-act opera based on Chekhov’s short story “Rothschild’s Violin” (he himself had written the libretto) when, following the Nazi invasion of Russia, he enlisted in the Red Army. A few weeks later, he was killed.

Shostakovich took it upon himself to complete his student’s unfinished project. Evacuated from Leningrad to Kuibyshev, he went to considerable trouble to obtain Fleishman’s manuscript and finished the composition and orchestration in 1944. However, because of its Jewish subject matter, the opera could not be performed for many more years. The music was played in concert in Moscow in 1960, but the staged premiere had to wait until 1968, when it was produced by the Experimental Studio of Chamber Opera under the artistic direction of Solomon Volkov. Volkov later recalled that after a single night, a Party official, apparently unfamiliar with Chekhov, forbade further performances because he thought that the violin in the title belonged to a member of the Rothschild banking family who were considered evil Zionist conspirators and supporters of the state of Israel.

In reality, the fiddle in question is owned by a dirt-poor Jewish musician in a small provincial town in Russia, who inherits it at the end of the story from an equally penniless Christian coffin-maker named Yakov Ivanov (who, as it happens, plays in the town’s Jewish orchestra). Chekhov’s story shows how dire poverty almost kills all human feeling in Yakov, who only undergoes a spiritual transformation when at death’s door. Yakov’s life philosophy may be summed up in the most memorable line in the short story and the opera: “Life is all loss, only death is gain.” Having quarreled endlessly with Rothschild the flute player, Yakov ends up bequeathing his fiddle, his only prized possession, to the young Jew, who will play on it melodies so plaintive and sad that everyone who hears him weeps, and he himself at last raises his eyes and murmurs: “Okh-okh!” This new song has so delighted the town that the merchants and government officials vie with each other in getting Rothschild to come to their houses, and sometimes make him play it ten times in succession.

Fleishman showed an excellent theatrical sense in dramatizing Chekhov’s narrative. He cut all secondary characters and retained only the four essential ones: Yakov; Rothschild; Shahkes, the leader of the Jewish band; and Yakov’s wife, Marfa. Right at the beginning of the opera, he created a lively ensemble with the band rehearsing, Yakov chastising Rothschild for playing a merry tune sadly, Rothschild screaming back, and bandleader Shahkes vainly trying to keep peace. As Yakov storms out, we follow him back to the porch of his house, where he sings his first monologue about all the losses in his life.

Marfa appears and, without any introduction, says to her husband: “Yakov, I’m dying.” As soon as she has made this tragic announcement, the Jewish band next door strikes up a merry klezmer tune. Then the band leaves and Rothschild, staying behind by himself, plays a sad tune on his flute.

Throughout the opera, Fleishman superimposes simultaneous events on one another, as when Marfa reminisces about the child she and Yakov lost 50 years ago, while Yakov, who doesn’t even seem to remember, is thinking of losses of a very different kind (monetary ones). Meanwhile, the klezmer band resumes its practice. Dissatisfied with his musicians, Shahkes sends Rothschild to Yakov’s house to request (or, rather, to demand) that the coffin-maker come right away to help out the group. But when Rothschild appears, interrupting Yakov’s meditations about how he mistreated his wife for 50 years, he receives an extremely unfriendly welcome and leaves in a hurry. The ensuing, animated orchestral interlude shows him pursued by nasty street urchins shouting “Jew! Jew!” as they pursue him with their dogs.

Yakov’s transformation takes place in his third and final solo scene. Revisiting the willow-tree by the river where he sat with Marfa when they were young, he suddenly remembers everything and, in the culminating scene of the opera, discovers where his life went wrong. When Rothschild reappears, begging him to come play in the orchestra that can’t do without him, Yakov gifts him his fiddle, and Rothschild immediately begins to play his sad tune on it. The powerful orchestral postlude drives home the transcendent significance of Yakov’s act.

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