Weinberg grew up surrounded by artistic influences. His father Szmuel (1882–1943) was a violinist, conductor and chorus master in several Jewish theatre companies. After moving from Kishinev, Moldova, to Warsaw following a series of antisemitic riots, during which his father and grandfather had died, he made his living as a musician, playing – among others in the Central, Skala and Elyseum theatres. When his daughter Esther was born on 1921, he took on a job in the Jewish music department of the Syrena Rekord recording company. There is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the profession and origin of Mieczysław’s mother Sonia (also named Sarrah or Sara in certain sources, 1888–1943). It is quite likely, nevertheless, that she was an artist too and probably met Szmuel Weinberg during her career.
Weinberg himself grew up in an environment of music, especially traditional Jewish one. Initially, he started teaching himself to play the piano, accompanying his father in theatres but also playing in coffeehouses, at weddings and cinemas. At the age of twelve, he was admitted to the Warsaw Conservatory, where he studied under the famous professor and pianist Józef Turczyński, who – at that time – was giving performances all over Europe. It was to him that Weinberg dedicated his first compositions: Mazurka Op. 10 and 10a. It is beyond any doubt that Weinberg was a highly talented pianist seen by many as an artist following the famous Polish tradition of artists such as Leopold Godowsky, Ignaz Friedman and Ignacy Paderewski. In the spring of 1939, Weinberg was offered by Josef Casimir Hofmann (1876–1957) to continue his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where Hoffman worked as the director at that time. But war changed everything. What was supposed to be a promising solo career was interrupted by Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 – an event that started the incredible life story of a composer of mere nineteen years at the time.
Thorny path to freedom
Together with seventeen other students of the Warsaw Conservatory, Weinberg walked the three hundred kilometres to Belarus to flee the invading forces. It is not certain if the rest of his family accompanied him. According to some sources, his parents and his sister (or at least his father Szmuel) went with him as far as Luninets in the Polish Polesia. There, they were murdered during the liquidation of the local Jewish ghetto on 4 September 1942. Other sources speak of their lives being extinguished in 1943 at the Trawniki SS training camp near Lublin. Nevertheless, it remains certain that Mieczysław was the only one from his family to survive the war. As he himself later remembered: “It was 6 September 1939, the sixth day of the war against the Germans. I came home after playing at Adria – a posh coffeehouse in the aristocratic quarter of Warsaw […] I turned on the radio and I heard colonel Umyastovsky announcing that the Germans have broken through our defences and would be in Warsaw by morning […] whoever was capable was advised to flee eastwards. So, I took my sister and we fled immediately. But my sister’s feet started hurting from her shoes after a few hours, so she went back. And that was, eventually, the end of her. I walked for seventeen days. Bullets and bombs all around me, without proper food or drink.” In later years, Weinberg devoted a number of compositions to the memory of his relatives, including Sonata No. 3 Op. 126 for solo violin dedicated to his father Szmuel, his one-movement Thirteenth Symphony Op. 115 of 1976 and Sonata No. 6 for violin and piano Op. 136 of 1982 to his mother and the String Quartet No. 16 Op. 130 of 1981 to his sister Esther on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of her birth. Also, the violin solos in the "Kaddish” symphony are an allusion to his father.
Having fled the occupied Poland, Weinberg settled in Minsk, where he was allowed to study composition at the Belarusian State Conservatory as a pupil of Vasily Andreyevich Zolotarev (1872–1964). Studying in the same class, Vladimir Olovnikov later reminisced on the lessons and personality of professor Zolotarev: “He [V. A. Zolotarev] was a most interesting and colourful personality. In him, intelligence and a natural talent for music merged flawlessly. He had vast general knowledge of culture and his education included deep theoretical knowledge. He was demanding and detested ignorance and laziness. But, at the same time, he possessed empathy and kindness, was a witty, modest and selfless teacher.” Under Zolotarev’s guidance, Weinberg composed two song cycles, String Quartet No. 2 Op. 3, First Piano Sonata Op. 5 and two pieces now lost to us: Yolka for soloists, chorus and orchestra, and music composed for the radio play Timur and his Squad based upon a short story of the same name by Arkady Gaidar. His last, graduation, work composed at the conservatory was the Symphonic poem for grand orchestra Op. 6 (the score bears an alternative title of the Chromatic Symphony) dedicated to professor Zolotarev. The score of 110 pages was performed by the Belarusian State Philharmonic on 21 June 1941. On the next day, 22 June, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and it was time again for Weinberg to flee. Accompanied by his classmates from the conservatory, Weinberg was evacuated to Tashkent, where he worked as a repetiteur, while carrying on with his work of a composer (among other works, he completed his Symphony No. 1 here, as well as his first – now lost – opera). It was in Tashkent, where he also met his first wife, Natalia Mikhoels-Vovsi, a daughter of an elite stage director, actor and the head of the Jewish GOSET theatre in Moscow and later also the head of the Solomon Mikhoels Jewish Antifascist Committee. They were married in 1942 and their daughter Victoria was born from the marriage.
Friendship with Dmitri Shostakovich
In 1943, a copy of Weinberg’s First Symphony found its way into the hands of Dmitri Shostakovich, thirteen years Weinberg’s senior, in whom the young composer was to find not only an established colleague but also a lifetime supporter and close friend. It was Shostakovich, who made it possible for Weinberg and his family to move to Moscow in 1943 – something quite unusual in the middle of the war. The two composers met almost daily, discussing their work, playing the piano together and assessing their works before presenting them to the public. “I am a pupil of Shostakovich. Although I never took lessons from him, I count myself as his pupil, his flesh and blood,” Weinberg said of himself. As for Shostakovich, he considered Weinberg to be among the most original composers of their time. He dedicated his String Quartet No. 10 Op. 118 of 1964 to him and, in return, it was for him that Weinberg premiered his Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok, Op. 127 in collaboration with Galina Vishnevskaya, David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich in 1967 and, two years later, Violin Sonata Op. 134 with David Oistrakh, “substituting” for Sviatoslav Richter.
It was probably Weinberg, who inspired Shostakovich to take interest in Jewish music, resulting especially in the composition of the soprano, mezzosoprano, tenor and piano song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, Op. 79 and the Thirteenth Symphony Op. 113 “Babi Yar” of 1962. At the time, when Shostakovich was working on Babi Yar, Weinberg was composing his impressive Sixth Symphony dedicated to murdered children and war orphans. Of that monumental work, Shostakovich said: “I wish I could sign my name to this symphony.”
However close those two composers were, the styles of their work were very different. Like Shostakovich, Weinberg’s compositions do not lack irony, however not of the extreme, hurtful kind characteristic for the works of his older colleague and friend. True, Weinberg’s music can be wild and desperate, nevertheless a sense of hopefulness remains always present on some deep level. His compositions often “fade out” but invoke peacefulness rather than resignation. He was also much more of a romantic composer than Shostakovich, composing more colourful and even lyric works, often contemplative and firmly grounded in classic forms. In the New Grove Dictionary of Music, Boris Schwarz described Weinberg as a “conservative modernist” but a “modern conservative” description as used by Simon Wynberg, a guitarist and curator of the Music in Exile series at the Royal Conservatory of Music, in one of his articles, would probably be even more fitting. It is quite clear that the use of traditional harmonies was quite natural for Weinberg and his skill when composing melodies was extraordinary.
The Vovsi Affair
But let us return to the war years. After moving to Moscow, Weinberg became a member of the Union of Soviet Composers in 1943, which helped him secure his family’s livelihood without the need to join the Communist Party (whose member Weinberg never was). His colleagues Dmitri Shostakovich and Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950) strongly pushed for his works being performed and published. Unfortunately, due to his Polish-Jewish origin, discrimination against Weinberg intensified after the end of the war. This was partially due to his family’s ties to Solomon Mikhoels, who was murdered by Cheka (All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage under the Council of People's Commissars of the RSFSR) in a staged car accident. Weinberg found himself under nonstop surveillance with his music boycotted by concert organizers, media and publishing houses. To support his family, he returned – and very successfully, it should be stressed – to his roots, composing music for circuses and other entertainment businesses. In the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, you will not find Weinberg under the letter “V” (as in “Vainberg”) but under “C” for “Circus”.
On Friday, 6 February 1953, one day after the premiere of Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes Op. 47 with the violinist David Oistrakh, Weinberg was arrested and imprisoned based upon absurd charges of conspiring to establish a Jewish state in Crimea. The real problem, however, was the relation between Weinberg’s wife Natalia and her cousin Miron Vovsi, one of the main defendants in the fabricated “doctors’ plot” political trial. This was a campaign started by coerced confessions of the first arrested suspects, which led to the imprisonment of a total of 28 physicians, of whom 13 were Jewish, between 1952 and 1953. The family feared that Natalia might be arrested too, which led to her signing a power of attorney authorizing Shostakovich’s wife Nina Vasilyevna to act as her daughter’s guardian if necessary. Disregarding the risk for his person, Shostakovich wrote a letter to Stalin and his chief of security, Lavrentiy Beria, vouching for Weinberg’s innocence. In prison, Weinberg was subjected to temperatures up to minus 30 degrees and sleep deprivation. He was saved by Stalin’s death in 1953. He was released from custody on 25 April 1953, but his already fragile health never fully recovered. In later years, Natalia remembered those times: “Soon after this, Shostakovich and his wife went to the south on holiday, making me promise to send a telegram as soon as Weinberg was released. And shortly, we were able to send them this telegram: ’Enjoy your holiday. We embrace you, Tala and Metak.’ Two days later the Shostakoviches were back in Moscow. That evening we celebrated. At the table, festively decked out with candles in antique candlesticks, Nina Vasilyevna read out the power of attorney that I had written. Then Dmitri Dmitriyevich got up and solemnly pronounced, ’Now we will consign this document to the flames,’ and proposed that I should burn it over the candles. After the destruction of the ’document’, we drank vodka and sat down to supper. I rarely saw Dmitri Dmitriyevich as calm, and even merry, as he was that evening. We sat up till the early hours of the morning. Nina Vasilyevna laughingly recounted how I was worried that Vitosha would get a bad upbringing in the orphanage; it was then that I discovered that they had decided to take her into their own home.”
In mid 1950s, Weinberg started composing music for live-action and animated films. His gained his first experience in this field back in Poland in 1936, when he participated in composing music for a “sci-fi” Fredek uszczęśliwia świat (Fredek Makes the World Happy) with a videophone as the protagonist. His major works done for the cinema include music for the war drama Летят журавли (The Cranes Are Flying) directed by Mikhail Kalatozov in 1957, which was awarded the Palme d'Or in Cannes, as well as music for the animated film Винни-Пух (Winnie-the-Pooh) directed in 1969 by Fyodor Khitruk based upon Alan A. Milne’s stories.
In the 1960s, Weinberg focused especially on vocal music and the themes of exile and the Holocaust. “Many of my works 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”. He composed the Biblia cygańska (The Gypsy Bible) Op. 57 and the Eighth Symphony “Kwiaty polskie” (Polish Flowers) Op. 83 on poems by Julian Tuwim (1894-1953), cantata Pamiętnik miłości (The Diary of Love) Op. 87 on poems by Stanisław Wygodzki (1907-1992) and others.
In 1968, he composed one of his most important works – the opera Passažirka (The Passenger) Op. 97. Libretto by Alexander Medvedev (1927-2010) is based upon a radio play Passenger from Cabin Number 45 by the Polis author Zofia Posmysz (*1923). The opera tells a story of Liese, a former Auschwitz guard, who travels by boat to Brazil with her husband. During the voyage, she meets a passenger, who reminds her of an inmate she thought to be dead. Even though Shostakovich himself fought for the opera to be performed, it was premiered only after Weinberg’s death, during the Bregenz Festival in 2010, directed by David Pountney and co-produced by Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki, London’s English National Opera and Madrid’s Teatro Real (the opera was performed in Moscow in 2006, however only in a concert version). The production was also recorded (with the Prague Philharmonic Choir) and published by Arthaus Musik on DVD. The story of the inmate Martha was also performed by the Houston Opera (2014), Lyric Opera in Chicago (2015), Detroit Opera House (2015), Florida Grand Opera in Miami (2016) and other opera houses in Karlsruhe, Frankfurt am Mein, Yekaterinburg, Moscow and Dresden.
Two years after the completion of the Passenger, Weinberg divorced his first wife Natalia and, after two more years, married a friend of his daughter, Olga Rakhalskaya. In 1971, his daughter Anna was born from the marriage. Both Natalia and Victoria emigrated to Israel in 1971. As for Weinberg, he only left the Soviet Union on two occasions after 1945 (in 1966, he was among the first delegates to attend the Warsaw Autumn since 1939 and in 1983, he came to Brno for a production of his opera The Portrait). He spent his last years in seclusion. Due to a severe case of Crohn’s disease, he was hardly capable of leaving his flat. Shortly before his death, he made an effort to revert to his official Polish first name Mieczysław instead of Moisey as stated in his Soviet papers. Two months before his death, on 3 January 1996, he converted to Russian Orthodoxy. He died in Moscow on 26 February 1996.
In the 1970s, Weinberg’s popularity was on the rise, albeit only among a narrow circle of admirers. His music was performed by personalities such as Emil Gilels, Mstislav Rostropovich, Kirill Kondrashin Leonid Kogan or the Borodin Quartet, whose cellist Valentin Berlinsky said about Weinberg: “I see Weinberg in three incarnations, tightly bound to each other as inseparable companions: the cosmopolitan, the pianist and the person. […] His extraordinary talent manifested itself in everything, starting with his human qualities. His striking nobility, modesty, decency and intelligence find reflection in his compositions.“
Legacy of music
Weinberg’s talent as a composer spanned over practically all existing genres. He completed twenty-six symphonies, including the Symphony No. 21 “Kaddish” that was performed as a part of the Musica non grata project, dedicated to the victims of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. There was also an ongoing contest between him and Shostakovich regarding the total number of string quartets composed. Weinberg managed to complete seventeen, outdoing his friend by two. He also wrote thirty sonatas for solo piano, violin, viola, cello, double bass or clarinet. Of his seven instrumental concertos, we should mention his brilliant trumpet concerto or his violin concerto made famous by Leonid Kogan. Weinberg’s portfolio also includes 150 songs ranging from laments to poems by Julian Tuwim or William Shakespeare, chamber ensembles, Requiem, cantatas, seven operas, three operettas, two ballets, film and incidental music, music for radio plays and circus performances. To a significant extent, his work mirrors the story of his life, years of the Second World War, Stalinist years and post-Stalinist era infected by constant abuse by the communists. Still, he is remembered as “a man, who could always see the bright light in dark circumstances” (Tommy Persson, Weinberg’s friend from Sweden). He himself summarized his attitude towards life in one of his letters to his second wife Olga: “All things considered, being a composer is not fun. It is a permanent dialogue, eternal search for harmony in people and in nature. This search is the meaning and the duty of our short wandering on this earth.”