MIECZYSLAW (MOISEY) WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Polish, Soviet and Russian composer. People’s Artist of the RSFSR (1980), winner of the USSR State Prize (1990)
On December 8, 1919 in Warsaw a boy called Mieczysław, and affectionately Mietek, was born into a Jewish family of immigrants from Chisinau (the Russian Empire). His father Samuil fled to Poland after the pogroms of 1903 and settled in Warsaw. Father of the future composer Samuil Weinberg worked in the Jewish Theater – he conducted, composed music for plays and Mietek started to help him in this since he was as young as six. He learned to play the piano and the violin, composed music for plays and eventually began to act as a pianist at the theater and cafés.
At the age of 12 Mietek entered the Warsaw Conservatory to study piano under the tutelage of Józef Turczyński. Weinberg’s pianistic abilities were quite uncommon. Turczyński presented Mieczysław to Joseph Hoffmann, who arranged for him an invitation from the American Conservatory. The fate of Weinberg might have been very different if not for the Second World War.
In 1939, 19-year-old Weinberg immigrated into the Soviet Union after the German occupation of Warsaw. His parents and younger sister Esther remained behind and died in the Trawniki concentration camp. When crossing the border Mieczyslaw Weinberg was registered as Moisey and it took him 40 years to return the name given at birth.
Having emigrated, the young man found himself in Belarus. He joined the composition department at the Minsk Conservatory from which he graduated in two years. He studied under Vasyl Zolotariev, a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov. It was him that Weinberg dedicated his graduate symphonic poem. After the Nazis invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 the Conservatory was evacuated to Tashkent. Moisey wasn’t drafted into the army because of poor health; in the evacuation he worked as concertmaster at the Opera and Ballet Theater and composed music for plays. During this time he married Natalia Vovsi-Mikhoels, the daughter of actor and director Solomon Mikhoels.
Symphony No.1 composed in these years played an important role in his life. In 1943 composer Yuri Levitin, a friend of Weinberg, sent the score of the opus to his teacher Shostakovich hoping to hear his opinion. The answer was an invitation to come to Moscow organized for Weinberg by Dmitri Shostakovich. Since then Weinberg lived and worked in Moscow.
In 1948, Weinberg, along with Shostakovich and Prokofiev, were criticized for pessimism in music and its “anti-people character”. Weinberg’s relatives on his wife’s line fell one of the first victims to the campaign against “Jewish bourgeois nationalism”. Mikhoels was murdered. Both his daughters, including Weinberg‘s wife, and Weinberg himself were put under surveillance. On February 6, 1953 Weinberg was arrested and put in the Butyrka prison on suspicion of being involved in the so-called “Doctors’ Plot” (Weinberg’s wife was the niece of Kremlin doctor Vovsi). The composer remained in prison for 78 days and throughout this time he wasn’t allowed to sleep and had bright spotlight directed in this eyes. Shostakovich is known to have written a letter to Beria to intercede on behalf of the composer. Weinberg was released soon after Stalin’s death.
Weinberg’s Creative Activity
Starting from the 1950s Weinberg composed a lot for movies and cartoons, for the theater and circus. His music for circus shows remained in the repertoire of the Moscow Circus for decades; thanks to it, dozens of movies gained immense popularity (over 40 works). Among the most famous are the films The Cranes Are Flying, Tiger Girl, The Last Inch, The Garin Death Ray, Honeymoon, the cartoon Winnie the Pooh and others.
In the 1960s Weinberg comes to prominence in the Soviet Union. This is the peak of his creative activity, his “stellar years”, as the composer himself described the time. Reviews on performances of his music and articles in newspapers and magazines kept appearing, and in 1972 L. Nikitina’s study devoted to his symphonies was published. During these years Weinberg composed the operas: The Passenger on a story by Z. Posmysh (1967–68); The Madonna and the Soldier on a story by Vladimir Bogomolov, Zosya about love of a Polish girl and a Soviet officer in the last days of the war (1970–71, staged at the Leningrad Opera and Ballet Theatre in 1975). The comic opera The Love of d’Artagnan after the novel by Dumas was staged at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater (1974); Congratulations! (based on a play by Sholem Aleichem) at the Boris Pokrovsky Theater in Moscow (1983); The Portrait on a story by Nikolai Gogol (1980) in Brno (1983). Weinberg’s last opera, The Idiot (1985–86), was premiered at the Boris Pokrovsky Chamber Theater in 1991.
Weinberg’s works were published in the Sovetskii Kompozitor (Soviet Composer) and Muzyka (Music) Publishing Houses and in Die Muzikverlangsgruppe Sikorski and the Peermusic Classical, abroad. Melodiya (Melody) Record Firm released his symphonic works; British Olympic Studios released 17 CD albums of his works; his opuses were recorded by British Chandos Records, the German labels Classical Produktion Osnabrück and Neos, the Swiss label Claves Records, and by Naxos international label, among others. His compositions were performed by outstanding Soviet musicians, including David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich, Leonid Kogan, Daniil Shafran, Emil Gilels and The Borodin Quartet. His symphonic scores were conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov, Kirill Kondrashin, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Rudolf Barshai, Vladimir Fedoseyev, and others.
Weinberg’s heritage, extremely voluminous and diverse in genres, includes 22 symphonies, 2 sinfoniettas, 4 chamber symphonies, 7 operas, 4 operettas, 3 ballets, 17 string quartets, a piano quintet, 5 instrumental concertos, a lot of sonatas, cantatas, choruses and songs, etc. Many works are devoted to the topics of the Holocaust, war and violence. These include the opera The Passenger after a story by Zofia Posmysh, Symphony No. 6 about the victims of fascism and the tragic fate of the Jewish people, Symphony No. 8 Kwiaty Polskie (Polish Flowers) to the words of Julian Tuwim (1964), Symphony No. 18 War, there’s no word more cruel (1982–84), Symphony No. 21 dedicated to the memory of those killed in the Warsaw ghetto (1992), and others.