Mieczysław Weinberg - Biography

Mieczyslaw Weinberg and his family suffered the fate of innumerable Jews in the 20th century. At Easter time in 1903 a dreadful pogrom occurred in the Moldavian capital Kishinyov (Chisinau): many Jews were slain by their usually peaceful neighbours. Among the victims were the great-grandfather and the paternal grandfather of Mieczyslaw Weinberg.

After the German attack on Poland in 1939 the Nazis killed his parents and his sister, and in 1948 Stalin's secret police murdered his father-in-law, the famous Jewish theatre director and actor Solomon Mikhoels, who was regarded as a danger to the régime. Finally, on February 6th, 1953, Weinberg himself was arrested on vague anti-Semitic charges. Stalin's death a month later saved his life. Fate granted him a life of 43 further years, and in spite of his foreign origin he managed to reach a distinguished position among Soviet composers.

It probably is impossible to imagine how a human being manages to rise again and to attain artistic greatness after such heavy strokes of fate. We can however establish that his works frequently are related to the Jewish fate, that they portray the tragedy of children amidst war and murder with exceptional empathy, and that they display a general pacifist approach. This also applies to those works which have no programmatic agenda, outspoken or secret. The composer once said: "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."

Mieczyslaw Weinberg was born in Warsaw, where his father was a composer and musician at a Jewish theatre. Both parents were Jewish, with roots in the south-western part of the old Tsarist empire. At the age of just ten he made his own début as a pianist and music director, and when he was twelve, he began his piano studies with Jozef Turczynski at the Warsaw Conservatory. When the theatre closed down, Weinberg's father got out of work, so Mieczyslaw was more or less forced to support his family by working as a musician alongside with his studies. It seemed that he was facing a future as an international piano virtuoso, but right after his final examinations in 1939 the war broke out, and he had to escape from the advancing German forces, leaving Poland. He reached the White Russian capital Minsk, where he studied composition with Vassily Zolotaryov, who in turn had studied with Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov. On the day after his final examinations in June, 1941, the Germans attacked the USSR, and Weinberg had to flee once more. This time he travelled to the union republic of Uzbekistan.

In the Uzbek capital Tashkent he worked as a coach at the opera house. Together with Uzbek colleagues he also composed stage works, and in the large city he made the acquaintance of numerous artists, who had equally been evacuated, among them Solomon Mikhoels, whose daughter Nataliya he married. Indirectly, Dmitry Shostakovich had heard of Weinberg's great talent, and upon receiving the score of the first symphony he was so impressed that he got an official permission for Weinberg to reside in Moscow, which was very valuable under wartime circumstances. In 1943 the couple moved to the Soviet capital, where Weinberg was to spend the rest of his life, and at the same time a close friendship began between the two composers. They mutually showed each other every new composition, and Shostakovich paid Weinberg the compliment of calling him "one of the most outstanding composers of today"; Weinberg returned by saying that he had learnt infinitely much from his older colleague: "Although I never had lessons from him, I count myself as his pupil, his flesh and blood".

In Moscow, Weinberg mainly worked as a freelance composer and also made occasional concert appearances as a distinguished pianist. His freelance status granted him certain elements of liberty, one of the most important being that he never was forced to become a member of the Communist Party. But he also ran certain risks, such as not being able to count on the support which was automatically granted by the authorities to the loyal members of the system. In his case, it was his numerous friends among the foremost musicians of the country who took the initiative of performing almost all of his works. Sometimes he had financial problems, and it is known that Shostakovich occasionally unselfishly supported him with cash money.

In 1948 the political leadership of the USSR put pressure on the composers - as indeed on other creative artists. To put it simply, they wanted music to be more popular and readily comprehensible in the spirit of "Socialist Realism". Optimism was important, and the Soviet Union should be properly glorified. Weinberg was not subjected to particularly hard personal criticisism, but some of his works appeared on a prohibition list, together with music by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and other great colleagues. This was sufficient to create a certain fear of programming his music among concert organisers, and for some time he was forced to earn his living by writing film and theatre music. However, his arrest in 1953 had nothing to do with his music, but rather with the fact that his wife was a close relative of Miron Vovsi, the main defendant at the planned anti-Semitic trial against the "murderers in white coats", concerning the "Kremlin doctors' Plot", which had been forged by Stalin and the secret police. Courageously, Shostakovich sent a petition for Weinberg to the infamous NKVD chief Beria, but it was really Stalin's death that liberated Weinberg from prison.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg was an extremely productive composer. His list of works contains more than 150 numbers; in addition there are innumerable compositions without opus numbers, many of them for cinema, theatre and radio plays. He composed an astounding 26 symphonies, he wrote more than a dozen stage scores, there are 17 string quartets and 28 sonatas for various instruments, and vast amounts of solo instrumental and vocal music, the latter with a very broad selection of international text authors. Humour and tragedy are equally important elements in his work, which ranges from a Requiem to music for the circus. Lyricism and powerful drama are further essential and very captivating aspects of his music, completing its overall architecture to an image of rare humane profundity.

Per Skans