Mieczyslaw Weinberg

Mieczyslaw Weinberg

By David Fanning, University of Manchester

Written for the concert Uncommon Comrades, performed on June 3, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) – A Brief Profile

Mieczyslaw Weinberg—to use the Germanised spelling he himself reportedly preferred—had a remarkable life, even by the standards of those many composers buffeted by the political storms of mid-twentieth-century Europe. Otherwise known as Moysey (alternatively transliterated Moisei, and known to his friends by the familiar Polish diminutive Metek) Vaynberg (or Vainberg, or even Wajnberg), he was born in Warsaw, and his early musical experiences were as pianist and music director at a Jewish theatre where his father was a composer and violinist. From the age of twelve he took piano lessons at the Warsaw Conservatory from Yusef Turczynski, himself a pupil of Anna Esipova and Busoni, and in later life his fluency as a sight-reader and score-reader was much vaunted. Among his recordings is one of his own superb Piano Quintet with the Borodin Quartet. A possible continuation of his studies in America with Josef Hofmann was ruled out by the outbreak of war, and in 1939 Weinberg fled the German occupation of Poland, first to Belorussia, where a Russian border guard apparently inscribed his documents with the stereotypically Jewish first name, “Moysey.” In Minsk he attended the composition classes of Vasily Zolotaryov, one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s numerous pupils. Following the Nazi invasion of the USSR, in which Weinberg’s parents and sister were murdered, he moved on to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Then at the invitation of Shostakovich, who had been impressed with the score of Weinberg’s First Symphony, he moved to Moscow, where he lived from 1943 until his death in 1996, making his living largely from a sizable body of music for films, theatre, and television.

There were to be many more intersections with Shostakovich, including premiere performances as pianist and a famous recording of the duet version of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony alongside the composer. When Weinberg was imprisoned in February 1953 because of family connections at the height of Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges, Shostakovich took it upon himself to write to Lavrenty Beriya, the feared head of the KGB, and Weinberg was released at the end of April, not long after the death of Stalin. Throughout the years of the Khrushchev Thaw, Brezhnev’s stagnation, Gorbachov’s glasnost, and the break-up of the Soviet Union, Weinberg declined to exploit any image of victimhood, preferring merely to recall with pride that his music had been championed by many of the starriest musicians in his adopted country. Official recognition came in the form of honorary titles in ascending order of prestige: Honored Artist of the Russian Republic in 1971, People’s Artist of the Russian Republic in 1980, and State Prize of the USSR in 1990.

Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra, Op. 94 (1967)

Weinberg composed concertos for cello, violin, flute, trumpet, and clarinet, but curiously not for his own instrument, the piano. The Trumpet Concerto was written for and dedicated to the Russian virtuoso Timofey Dokshitser, who gave the first performance on January 6, 1968 in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, with the Moscow Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra under Kirill Kondrashin. Though rarely heard nowadays, the piece is in fact one of the finest of its kind—certainly one of the most intriguing and elusive—since the concertos of Haydn and Hummel. Though the movement titles suggest fragmentation and playfulness, they are in many ways belied by the music itself, whose strong sense of continuity and nervous tension prompted Shostakovich to dub the work (with only a little exaggeration) a “symphony for trumpet and orchestra.”

According to one of his pupils, Shostakovich had himself embarked in his mid-twenties on a Trumpet Concerto, which then mutated into his Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and Strings. In style and tone-of-voice Weinberg’s work could almost be taken for a recreation of that unrealised project. The opening “Etudes” are the closest to Shostakovich in their mordant wit (referring specifically to the Op. 7 Scherzo for Orchestra, which Shostakovich recycled in the film score, New Babylon), though there is also something of Bartók’s delight in schematic imitations, and something of the bluff urbanity of the Englishman Malcolm Arnold. The jagged quality of the thematic ideas and the music’s fast metabolic rate both present obstacles to the structural line that are ingeniously and unobtrusively overcome.

The central “Episodes” strike a darker, more introverted note. Here the trumpet’s lyrical unfolding is seemingly shadowed by unspoken anxieties, and the music rarely crawls out from its shell. The concluding “Fanfares” follow without a break. The movement opens with a paradoxical accompanied cadenza, which punningly quotes fanfares from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the “Wedding March” from Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas The Tale of Tsar Saltan and The Golden Cockerel, the “Chœur des gamins” from Bizet’s Carmen, and Stravinsky’s Petrushka, blending in references to the opening Etudes. Elements of all these ideas haunt the hobbling waltz that seems destined to provide the main material of the finale but which somehow never gets past its nervy testing of the water. This reluctance—and ultimately failure—to deliver emerges as the Concerto’s main narrative thread, and the work ends in a peremptory, poker-faced dismissal.

Symphony No. 6 for Children’s Choir and Orchestra, Op. 79 (1963)

Though never enrolled as one of Shostakovich’s official pupils, Weinberg readily acknowledged the inspiration: “I count myself as his pupil, his flesh and blood.” For his part Shostakovich lost no opportunity to commend Weinberg’s music both in public and behind the scenes. Both composers worked across a wide range of genres and styles, from folk (including, especially for Weinberg, Jewish) to twelve-tone elements, and they routinely showed one another their latest compositions before their public unveiling. Both left an imposing body of symphonies and string quartets, in Weinberg’s case numbering 26 and 17, respectively. Yet for every unmistakable echo of his role-model, one could point to a pre-echo of Shostakovich’s subsequent works. In fact Weinberg retained a greater individuality than most of Shostakovich’s official pupils, distancing himself both from official academic conservatism and from the younger Soviet generation’s fervent embrace of once-forbidden Western-style modernism.

The Sixth is the first of a half-dozen Weinberg symphonies with voices and/or chorus. As a genre the Soviet song- or cantata-symphony to ideologically approved texts had been much cultivated in the 1920s and ‘30s, but less so in the succeeding two decades. With Shostakovich’s Thirteenth (“Babi Yar”) in 1962, it revived with a vengeance and in a flurry of official disapproval. Composed just afterwards, Weinberg’s Sixth emulates Shostakovich’s five-movement layout with the last three movements running continuously (a template established in Shostakovich’s wartime Eighth Symphony). But the voices are confined to movements two, four, and five, the first being a long-drawn meditative introduction that establishes the atmosphere and sets out a number of musical themes destined to recur throughout the work, while the third is a highly concentrated scherzo. Instead of bass soloist and male chorus, Weinberg allocates all three vocal movements to children’s—specifically boys’—chorus. Like Benjamin Britten (Spring Symphony, War Requiem, and many other works), Weinberg frequently used children’s voices for their associations with violated innocence.

The second movement sets words by Lev (Leib) Kvitko (1890-1952)—successor to Sholom-Aleichim of Fiddler on the Roof fame—who wrote in Yiddish but was widely read in Russian translation. In its description of a violin fashioned directly from the materials of nature and able to entrance living creatures, the poem inhabits an idyllic fantasy world of the kind that has been foreseen, albeit in a more questioning tone of voice, in the preludial opening Adagio movement. The rollicking instrumental scherzo is modelled equally on Jewish village dance music and the scherzos of Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony and First Violin Concerto.

Weinberg’s fourth movement then turns to the dark side, with a poem by Samuil (Shmuel) Galkin, whose words he had previously set in his Six Jewish Songs, Op. 17. As in the fifth of those songs, the text speaks of the Holocaust, a theme Weinberg would return to repeatedly in the 1960s, not least in his opera Passazhirka [The Passenger] and his multi-language Requiem. As in the other vocal movements, the setting is direct, level-headed, and devoid of sensationalism.

For the finale the words come from the more mainstream Soviet author, Mikhail Lukonin (1918-76), chosen no doubt because they touch on the images of peace, childlike innocence, and the symbolic presence of violins. Weinberg frames his setting by evoking the vaguely discomforting atmosphere of the first movement, and at the very end his radiant but otherworldly A-major harmony points forward to the conclusion of Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony eight years later.