Mieczysław Weinberg

A Soviet composer of Polish-Jewish origin, Mieczysław Weinberg (Mojsze Wajnberg in Polish; Moisey Samilovich Vay(i)nberg in Russian) is considered one of the most successful Soviet composers of the last century along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Weinberg wrote 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, seven operas, six concertos, three ballets, 30 sonatas and more than 200 songs as well as 60 film scores and incidental music for theatre and circus. Weinberg’s music was not performed internationally during his lifetime, partly due to his dislike of self-promotion and his perceived unmarketability (at least in the eyes of the Soviets) as a Polish Jew, although his works were performed extensively within Russia by leading musicians and conductors. In recent years Weinberg has enjoyed posthumous success, and releases of recordings of his works and premieres of previously unperformed compositions outside Russia (including a concert performance of his opera The Passenger in Moscow 2006, and his Requiem in 2009) have encouraged a re-evaluation of his significance as a post-modern composer.

Born to a Jewish family of musicians and actors in Warsaw, Weinberg showed talent as a pianist and joined the Warsaw Conservatory at the age of 12, studying with Jozef Turczynski. The Weinberg family had experienced anti-Semitic persecution during the 1930s, and when war broke out in 1939 Mieczysław was forced to turn down the opportunity of travelling to Philadelphia, USA, to work with the Polish-American composer Josef Hofmann. Instead Weinberg travelled east to Minsk: at the border, guards filled out his name in his paperwork as ‘Moisey,’ a version of his name that would stick with him until 1982 when he was officially allowed to readopt his Polish name. Weinberg’s mother, father and sister who had stayed behind in Warsaw perished in the Trawniki concentration camp.

In Minsk Weinberg studied with Vasily Zolotaryov (a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov) until the Germans arrived in Russia in June 1941 and he was once again forced to relocate, this time to Tashkent (now the capital of Uzbekistan), where he met and married Natalia Vovsi, the daughter of the famous Soviet-Jewish actor and intellectual, Solomon Mikhoels. Whilst in Tashkent Weinberg wrote his First Symphony and his cycle of Children’s Songs using Jewish texts and taking inspiration from Klezmer and Ashkenazi music. The composer sent a manuscript of his First Symphony to Dmitri Shostakovich, who invited him to Moscow; Weinberg was granted permission to live in Moscow from 1943, where he became very close friends with Shostakovich. Although Weinberg was never his pupil, the former described himself as ‘[Shostakovich’s] pupil, his flesh and blood.’

Even after the Second World War, Weinberg had not escaped persecution. Though anti-Semitism had relaxed somewhat under Stalin (who had wanted Jewish financial support during the war), anti-Semitic purges took place from 1946. On 13 January that year, Weinberg’s father-in-law was murdered on Stalin’s orders, and his death staged as an accident. On the same day Central Committee secretary Andrei Zhdanov extended the zhdanovshchina – a cultural policy designed to rid the Soviet Union of creative works that could be associated with Western culture – to include composers as well as writers and intellectuals. Zhdanov’s policy implicitly included associations with Jewish artists and thinkers. Many influential composers including Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Popov and Myaskovsky were singled out as ‘formalists’ and had their work banned. Although Weinberg’s music wasn’t officially prohibited at first, he was ignored by the musical establishment in the Soviet Union and was denounced in speeches, primarily because of his association with Shostakovich. During this time Weinberg made a living composing incidental music for theatre and the circus. In 1948 his Sixth Quartet, Festive Pictures for Orchestra and Six Sonettes after Shakespeare were banned by the Soviets. 

In 1953 the composer was arrested and charged with plotting to establish a Jewish republic in Crimea, a charge that was not based in any real fact but that nevertheless carried a death sentence. Shostakovich arranged to have power of attorney for the Weinbergs’ daughter in case she was sent to an orphanage, and also wrote a personal letter to Stalin’s Deputy Premier, Lavrentiy Beria, asking that Weinberg be released. Fortunately for the composer, Stalin died later that year and Weinberg, along with many other prisoners, was released.

Although Weinberg lived through two dictatorships, he did not see himself as a victim and took pride in the fact that many of his compositions were performed by ‘starry’ Russian performers. Many of his compositions, however, dealt with war as a subject matter, and his style was influenced by – and often quoted – Jewish folk music. ‘Many of my works,’ he wrote, ‘are related to the theme of war. This, alas, was not my own choice. It was dictated by my fate, by the tragic fate of my relatives. I regard it as my moral duty to write about the war, about the horrors that befell mankind in our century.’ The composer’s Symphonies Nos. 17, 18 and 19 form a trio entitled On the Threshold of War, and his final (completed) orchestral symphony, No. 21, Kaddish, is dedicated to the Jews who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. Weinberg dedicated the manuscript to this work to Yad Vashem. He considered his opera, Passazhirka (The Passenger), which takes place partly in Auschwitz, to be his most important work.

Weinberg’s musical style was influenced by his close friendship with Shostakovich, as well as by Prokofiev, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Myaskovsky and Bartók, and influences including Jewish, Polish and Moldovian folk music. After the zhdanovshchina Weinberg began to include more folk influence and simpler structures to his works, perhaps because this was more in line with Soviet cultural policy. Weinberg’s Sinfonietta No. 1, completed in March 1948, was prefaced with a quotation from his father-in-law which was later removed on publication: ‘In the kolkhoz fields a Jewish song also began to sound; not a song from the past, full of sadness and misery, but a new, happy song of creation and labour.’ The quote simultaneously references the piece’s Jewish influence and can be read as Soviet Realist propaganda.

Weinberg is almost always characterised by (and often criticised for) his similarity to Shostakovich, although the influence was certainly reciprocated, and Weinberg is thought to have inspired Shostakovich’s interest in Jewish folk music. The composers share similarities in orchestration, instrumentation, gestures, subject matter, exploration of register and use of long themes, and occasionally quote each other’s compositions: Weinberg quotes the two-note motif in Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony in his own Fifth Symphony, for example. Shostakovich’s cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry was composed shortly after the two composers met, months after Weinberg composed his Jewish folk-inspired Children’s Songs cycle. Weinberg would often help Shostakovich to present his new compositions to the Composer’s Union by performing the new works as four-hand piano duets; their recital of the latter’s Tenth Symphony in 1954 has been released on LP and CD.

By Abaigh McKee


Anderson, M. ‘Mieczysław Weinberg (Moisei Vainberg),’ published by Classical Net at www.classical.net (accessed 25/5/2016)

Fanning, D. (2010) Mieczysław Weinberg: In Search of Freedom (Holfheim: Wolke)

Fanning, D. (2010) ‘What counts is his music: Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s life and work,’ published by Eurozine at www.eurozine.com (accessed 25/5/2016)

Reilly, Robert R. (2000) ‘Light in the Dark: The Music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg,’ in Crisis Magazine (Catholic Information Centre)

Wynberg, S. ‘Mieczyslaw Weinberg,’ published by The OREL Foundation at www.orelfoundation.org (accessed 25/5/2016)

Photo of Weinberg from around 1965 provided by Tommy Persson; copyright: Olga Rakhalskaya.

Irina Shostakovich and Alexander Raskatov - a conversation about Mieczysław Weinberg "Open Secret: The Jewish Sound in Soviet Music", Professor James Loeffler talks about Weinberg from 34m 52s