Mieczysław Weinberg (also Moisey or Moishe Vainberg, Moisey Samuilovich Vaynberg, Моисей Самуилович Вайнберг, Mojsze or Mieczysław Wajnberg;
December 8, 1919 - February 26, 1996) was a Soviet composer of
Polish-Jewish origin. From 1939 he lived in the Soviet Union and Russia
and lost most of his family in the Holocaust. He left a large body of
work that included twenty-two symphonies and seventeen string quartets.
According to one reviewer, he ranked as "the third great Soviet
composer, along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich".
Weinberg was born in 1919 to a Jewish family in Warsaw. His father,
Shmil (Szmuel or Samuil Moiseyevich) Weinberg (1882–1943, Russian), a
well-known conductor and composer of the Yiddish theater, moved to
Warsaw from Kishinev in 1916 and worked as a violinist and conductor for
the Yiddish theatre Scala in Warsaw, where the future composer joined
him as pianist at the age of 10 and later as a musical director of
several performances. His mother, Sonia Wajnberg (née Karl, 1888–1943),
was an actress in several Yiddish theater companies in Warsaw and Lodz.
The family had already been the victim of anti-semitic violence in
Bessarabia - some members of his family were killed during the Kishinev
pogrom. One of the composer's cousins (a son of his father's sister
Khaya Vaynberg) - Isay Abramovich Mishne - was the secretary of the
Military Revolutionary Committee of the Baku Soviet commune and was
executed in 1918 along with the other 26 Baku Commissars.
Weinberg entered the Warsaw Conservatory, studying piano, at the age of
twelve, and graduated in 1939. Two works (his first string quartet and a
berceuse for piano) were composed before he fled to the Soviet Union at
the outbreak of war. His parents and younger sister Esther remained
behind, were interned at the Lodz ghetto and perished in the Trawniki
concentration camp. He settled in Minsk, where he studied composition
for the first time at the Conservatory there. At the outbreak of the
World War II on the Soviet territory, Weinberg was evacuated to Tashkent
(Central Asia), where he wrote works for the opera, as well as met and
married Solomon Mikhoels' daughter Natalia Vovsi. There he also met
Dmitri Shostakovich who was impressed by his talent and became his close
friend. Meeting Shostakovich had a profound effect on the younger man,
who said later that, "It was as if I had been born anew". In 1943 he
moved to Moscow at Shostakovich's urging.
Weinberg's works were not banned during the Zhdanovshchina of 1948, but
he was almost entirely ignored by the Soviet musical establishment; for a
time he could make a living only by composing for the theatre and
circus. On January 13, 1948, Weinberg's father-in-law Mikhoels was
assassinated in Minsk on Stalin's orders; shortly after Mikhoels's
murder, Soviet agents began following Weinberg. In February 1953, he was
arrested on charges of "Jewish bourgeois nationalism" in relation to
the murder of his father-in-law as a part of the so-called "Doctors'
plot": Shostakovich wrote to Lavrenti Beria to intercede on Weinberg's
behalf, as well as agreeing to look after Weinberg's daughter if his
wife w?re also arrested. In the event, he was saved by Stalin's death
the following month, and he was officially rehabilitated shortly
Thereafter Weinberg continued to live in Moscow, composing and
performing as a pianist. He and Shostakovich lived near to one another,
sharing ideas on a daily basis. Besides the admiration which
Shostakovich frequently expressed for Weinberg's works, they were taken
up by some of Russia's foremost performers and conductors, including
Emil Gilels, Leonid Kogan, Kirill Kondrashin, Mstislav Rostropovich,
Kurt Sanderling, and Thomas Sanderling.
Towards the end of his life, Weinberg suffered from Crohn's disease and
remained housebound for the last three years, although he continued to
compose. He reportedly converted to Orthodox Christianity less than two
months before his death in Moscow (on January 3, 1996).
Ten years after his death a concert premiere of his opera The Passenger
in Moscow sparked a posthumous revival. The British director David
Pountney staged the opera at the 2010 Bregenz Festival and restaged it
at English National Opera the following year, earning considerable
acclaim while dividing critical opinion on the quality of the music and
its suitability to the subject.
Weinberg's output includes twenty-two symphonies, other works for
orchestra (including chamber symphonies and sinfoniettas), seventeen
string quartets, eight violin sonatas (three solo and five with piano),
twenty-four preludes for cello and six cello sonatas (two with piano and
four solo), six piano sonatas, numerous other instrumental works, as
well as more than 40 film and animation scores (including The Cranes are
Flying, Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, 1958). He wrote seven
operas, and considered one of them, The Passenger (Passazhirka) (written
in 1967-68, premiered in 2006), to be his most important work.
His piano quintet, piano trio and cello works have received performances
in concert series and festivals across Europe and the USA in recent
years, and the British record label Olympia has released over fifteen
compact disc recordings of his music, consisting of both original
recordings and remasterings of earlier Melodiya LPs.
Weinberg's works frequently have a strong programmatic element:
throughout his life he continually referred back to his formative years
in Warsaw and to the war which ended that earlier life. Typically,
however, this darkness serves as a background to the finding of peace
through catharsis. This desire for harmony is also evident in his
musical style; Lyudmilla Nikitina emphasises the "neo-classical,
rationalist clarity and proportion" of his works.
Although he never formally studied with Shostakovich, the older composer
had an obvious influence on Weinberg's music. This is particularly
noticeable in his 12th Symphony (1975–1976, Op.114)), which is dedicated
to the composer's memory. Explicit connections include the pianissimo
passage with celesta which ends the Fifth Symphony (1962, Op.76),
reminiscent of Shostakovich's Fourth and written around the time of that
work's premiere. Another Weinberg work, his sixth piano sonata (1960,
Op.73), quotes one of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues. More general
similarities in musical language include the use of extended melodies,
repetitive themes and extreme registers. This has been one of the main
criticisms voiced of Weinberg: Alexander Ivashkin has argued that
composers such as Weinberg damaged not only their reputations, but also
that of Shostakovich himself: "these works only served to kill off
Shostakovich's music, to cover it over with a scab of numerous and bad
Nevertheless, Shostakovich was not the only influence on Weinberg's
style. Nikitina identifies Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, Bartók and Mahler as
other influences, while the trumpet concerto quotes Mendelssohn's
well-known Wedding March. Ethnic influences include not only Jewish
music, but also Moldavian, Polish, Uzbek, and Armenian elements.
Weinberg has been identified by some critics as the source of
Shostakovich's own increased interest in Jewish themes.