Mieczysław Weinberg: how the scars of war and Soviet politics shaped his music and life

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 3, 2024

The powerful work of Mieczysław Weinberg, a composer who lived through war and imprisonment, is at last being celebrated, says Erik Levi

The life of composer Mieczysław Weinberg was irretrievably scarred by his displacement during the Second World War. He referred to this experience as being absolutely fundamental to his creative outlook.

When describing the background to a trilogy of symphonies composed during the 1980s, Weinberg declared: ‘I believe that it is my moral duty to write about the war, and about the terrible things that happened to people in our century. This, alas, was not my own choice. It was dictated by my fate, by the tragic fate of my relatives.’

When was Weinberg born?

Mieczysław Weinberg was born in Warsaw, Polandon 8 December in 1919.

Did he come from a musical family?

Yes. His father was a theatre director, composer and pianist, and his mother is also a pianist.

Weinberg’s initial cultural milieu was the Jewish theatre where his father worked. Demonstrating extraordinarily precocious talents as a pianist, he entered the city’s conservatoire at the age of 12.

At the same time, he started to dabble in composition, but without undergoing any kind of formal training. Nevertheless, his natural creative talents blossomed to such an extent that as a teenager, he not only completed the first of his 17 string quartets, but he also scored the music for a Polish comedy film Fredek uszczęśliwia świat (Fredek makes the World Happy). This capacity to write so effectively in two very different mediums was to prove invaluable later in his career.

Why did Mieczysław Weinberg leave Poland?

Weinberg hoped to establish himself as a successful virtuoso pianist and composer in his native land. But these early ambitions were thwarted in the autumn of 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland.

As the German army marched towards Warsaw, his family urged him to leave the city as quickly as possible. Setting off by foot eastwards, he eventually crossed the Polish border, making his way to the Belorussian capital, Minsk. Somewhat later, he discovered that the family he had left behind had perished in a Nazi concentration camp.

While in Minsk, Weinberg enrolled at the conservatoire, studying composition with a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov. He graduated two years later, but the major experience of these years was performing in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Hearing this work for the first time, while seated in the middle of the orchestra, proved overwhelming. ‘I was staggered by every phrase and by every musical idea, as if a thousand electrical charges were piercing me.’

On the run again

Mieczysław Weinberg likened this encounter to ‘the discovery of a new continent’. And it spurred him to try and contact his new musical idol. But this plan had to be put on hold following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Once more Weinberg was compelled to escape from the Nazis by moving further east.

Taking the first available train out of Minsk, he eventually arrived in Tashkent, the poverty-stricken capital of Uzbekistan. He remained there for the next two years, earning a meagre living by coaching singers at the local opera houses.

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When did Weinberg move to Russia?

Despite having little idea as to his future prospects, Weinberg composed prolifically during this period. He wrote chamber works, songs and stage music. A major breakthrough was his First Symphony (1942).

The score was sent to Shostakovich, who was so impressed by the Symphony that he urged the Soviet authorities to grant official permission for Weinberg to move in 1943 to Moscow, the city in which he spent the rest of his life.

Weinberg and Shostakovich

Once he had settled in the Russian capital, Mieczysław Weinberg became an increasingly close confidante of the older composer. Although he never officially studied composition with Shostakovich, he once declared that ‘I count myself as his pupil, his flesh and blood.’

Yet in reality, the relationship was not that of teacher and pupil. Instead, it was one based on mutual respect. Both men engaged in regular and intensive discussion about all sorts of musical issues. Both were committed to showing each other their latest compositions.

Weinberg also played an important role in supporting his colleague, by joining forces with Shostakovich in 1953, for example, to perform a piano-duet version of the latter’s Tenth Symphony when the work was being auditioned at the Composers Union. Fourteen years later he stepped in for his ailing friend to perform the piano part in the world premiere of Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok.

Early Weinberg: abrasive, neo-classical

Like Shostakovich, Weinberg’s compositional development was shaped by the changing political and cultural climate in the Soviet Union. In the first phase, from 1943-47, he pursued an abrasive neo-classical style, producing an impressive series of chamber works whose high points were undoubtedly the emotionally powerful Piano Quintet (1944), the deeply unsettling Piano Trio (1945) and the monumental Sixth String Quartet (1946). However, only the Quintet and Trio received public performances during this period and there was a gap of several years before either of these works were published.

Whether such delays in the wider dissemination of his best works were down to institutionalised anti-Semitism, or to the fact that Weinberg was still widely regarded as an outsider by the Soviet musical establishment, is unclear.

The desire to cement a permanent base in Moscow meant that Weinberg could ill afford to ignore the post-war clampdown on composers such as Shostakovich who were publicly vilified in 1948 for writing overtly complex music.

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Accordingly, Weinberg simplified his musical language during this period. He skilfully exploited folk idioms sourced from his own Jewish heritage, as well as from Poland and Moldavia, in a series of short and attractive rhapsodic works, and also fell in line with the requirement to write patriotic socialist-realist music such as the cantata In my Native Land.

When and why was Weinberg imprisoned?

But complying with these directives could not protect him from an increasingly paranoid wave of anti-Semitism that engulfed the country during Stalin’s final years.

Weinberg’s position was particularly vulnerable since his father-in-law, the Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels, had been assassinated in 1948 on the orders of Stalin, and another relative by marriage was one of the many leading Jewish surgeons falsely accused by the regime of trying to kill Soviet political leaders in the notorious Doctors’ Plot.

After being placed under continual surveillance, Weinberg was eventually arrested and imprisoned in 1953 for three months on trumped-up charges of promoting ‘bourgeois Jewish nationalism’. His release was only secured thanks to Stalin’s death and the courageous intervention of Shostakovich, who sent a letter in defence of his colleague to the chief of security Lavrentiy Beria.

What did Weinberg do later in life?

Mieczysław Weinberg never fully recovered from the traumas of his imprisonment. Nonetheless, during the cultural thaw in the post-Stalin era of the 1950s and ’60s, he was able to restore some of the equilibrium that he enjoyed during his first years in Moscow by burying himself in intensive creative activity. He was astonishingly productive, with a burgeoning catalogue of works in many different genres. Not only that, but his musical language also became bolder and more expressive.

Since Weinberg did not take up a teaching position, he supported his family by writing vast amounts of film and cartoon music (including a delightful score for Vinni Pukh), radio plays and musical material for the circus.

As far as his concert music was concerned, he demonstrated increasing mastery as a symphonist through the vibrant yet classically proportioned Fourth (1961), the wide-ranging and expressionist Fifth (1962) and the moving anti-fascist and anti-war choral Sixth (1962-3). Weinberg continued to be astonishingly prolific in his later years. His works from the 1970s and ’80s, though, assume an increasingly austere and harmonically bleak style.

Did Weinberg compose opera?

It seemed only a matter of time before Weinberg would gravitate towards writing opera. In discovering the novel The Passenger by Polish writer Zofia Posmysz about the fateful encounter on an ocean liner travelling to Brazil between a former Nazi concentration camp guard and a survivor from Auschwitz, he believed he had found the ideal topic with which to make his operatic debut.

Weinberg regarded this powerful work, which owes much to Berg’s Wozzeck and to Britten’s operas, as his most significant composition. It was a bitter disappointment to him that, through a mixture of political circumstances and bureaucratic difficulties, a staging of the work never materialised during his lifetime.

Why was Weinberg’s work neglected outside the Soviet Union?

Several prominent Soviet artists enthusiastically championed his music. These included Russian conductors Kirill Kondrashin, Rudolf Barshai and Vladimir Fedoseyev, pianist Emil Gilels, violinist Leonid Kogan, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and the Borodin Quartet. But Mieczysław Weinberg’s output remained practically unknown outside Russia until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.

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The reasons for this neglect lie in both the composer’s naturally modest and self-effacing personality and the cautious external cultural promotion of the Soviet authorities, who preferred to highlight known entities such as Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khachaturian. Tragically, by the time the enterprising British record company Olympia promoted Weinberg’s cause, he was too ill to be able to enjoy belated recognition.

When did Weinberg die?

Mieczysław Weinberg died in Moscow on 3 January 1996, having been housebound by Crohn’s disease for three years. His last symphony, No. 22, remained unorchestrated at his death.

How is he remembered?

Today, as more performers and record companies mine his vast output for unexpected musical discoveries, Weinberg’s reputation grows apace. Today he has at last taken his place as one of the major compositional talents of the second half of the 20th century.

What is Mieczysław Weinberg’s music like?

Here are some key features to listen out for in Weinberg’s music.

Jewish themes

Weinberg often made stylistic allusions to his Jewish heritage. References to Klezmer abound in high-spirited movements like the Fourth Symphony’s finale. In stark contrast, melancholic laments appear in slower more reflective passages. Equally characteristic is his fondness for the solo clarinet and violin in his orchestral works.

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The Shostakovich factor

Mieczysław Weinberg was candid in declaring his indebtedness to Shostakovich. However, this debt is just a small part of a highly personal lyrical style. There is also strong evidence that the Jewish element in Weinberg’s music had a profound impact on expanding Shostakovich’s own expressive horizons.

Structural concepts

In his earlier chamber and orchestral works, Weinberg largely adopted Classical sonata and rondo forms. His later works are more open-ended and elliptical, and he explored extended one-movement compositions divided into several contrasting but often thematically related sections.

Tonality vs dissonance

Dissonance and Texture Weinberg largely adhered to writing music with strongly defined tonal centres. From the late 1960s onwards his music explores a more dissonant style, in works like the Tenth Symphony for strings.

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