The name of Mieczysław Weinberg is still in need of the recognition it deserves. An element which certainly does not help to disseminate knowledge about this twentieth-century composer is also the very variability under which his name appears. Since Weinberg was a Polish Jew, who later moved to Russia, as we will shortly see, in Russia his first and his family name were spelt in Cyrillic, and eventually re-transliterated into the Latin alphabet. The result is a puzzling Babel, with something like 25 possible different forms of his name and family name among which to choose.
Weinberg’s family was prominently artistic; his father was a respected composer of stage music for the Jewish theater, while his mother had been an actress. Already in the early twentieth century, the family had been deeply marked by Antisemite persecutions, with several of its members finding their deaths in the horrific pogroms in the city of Kishinev. This, obviously, left a mark, which was destined to become even deeper with the Nazi Holocaust, and with the ideologically inconsistent, but physically all too consistent, persecution of the Jews by the Stalinist regime.
Weinberg’s musical talent manifested itself soon, and he was enrolled at the prestigious Conservatory of Warsaw, where he wrote his first valuable compositions. His familiarity with the language of music, however, did not derive only from his academic studies, but also by the live and lively practice of performed music, as experienced at his father’s theatre.
Soon, however, the Nazi troops were encircling the Warsaw ghetto with their dreadful firepower. Weinberg and his sister fled the city, heading eastwards; while the composer managed to reach the Soviet Union, his sister decided to get back. She would be killed, along with their parents, during the Nazi occupation of Poland; Weinberg would come to know this with certainty only many years later.
The Nazi, however, did not stop their (initially unstoppable) march at the Polish border; when they began to invade the USSR, Weinberg was forced to leave again, seeking refuge, once more, to the East; thus, in spite of his bad health (he suffered from tuberculosis) he was saved from the Nazi camps by the rigid winters of Tashkent.
Still, if the weather conditions were terrible, human warmth was not missing: Weinberg found his fiancée, later to become his wife, there. In the meanwhile, he was composing abundantly; and – with an effort of courage – he sent the score of his First Symphony to the unanimously recognized spiritual guide of the Russian composers, Dimitry Shostakovich. The work impressed Shostakovich so much that he invited the young émigré to join him as soon as possible, moving – once more! But this time the journey’s end was Moscow, the great capital, where virtually all members of the intelligencija could be found and were in contact with each other.
Weinberg never studied with Shostakovich, but undeniably took great profit from their proximity; in turn, however, the older composer looked with evident favour to his young colleague’s efforts, and was ready to humbly learn from him, as is testified by the numerous hidden (and purposeful?) citations from Weinberg’s works which Shostakovich did include in his own works.
Notwithstanding this, and in spite of Weinberg’s undeniable talent and skill, the young composer’s life was far from easy. His only sin was his Jewish blood, but this, in the USSR as in Nazi Germany, was enough. During Stalin’s rule, many Jewish intellectual and artists were marginalized, exiled, brutally tortured and killed, on false charges, basically fabricated to hide the true reason for this persecution – their ethnicity. Weinberg did not escape this fate, though with comparatively minor consequences. He was imprisoned and detained by the dreaded secret police, and could have been sent to Siberia or killed at any moment. With a really appreciable effort and proof of courage and loyalty, Shostakovich laid down on the table his popularity in his favour. In the end, what saved Weinberg was Stalin’s death, after which some kind of thaw appeared.
Notwithstanding this, Weinberg was never much appreciated by the communist regime, and his works (which by then had become very numerous and ambitious) did not receive the attention they deserved. Weinberg was not alone, in this: most of the greatest Soviet composers of the era (including Schnittke and Gubaidulina) were in a similar condition. Like them, Weinberg earned his living with film music. It had some undeniable pros – first and foremost, it wasn’t conditioned to the approval of the Composers’ Union, the all-powerful State committee in charge of approving or disproving the composers’ works (and therefore of allowing or prohibiting their performance).
On one such occasion, writing film music, Weinberg had the opportunity of familiarizing himself with the Lord’s Prayer, from the Christian gospels. Possibly, this was one of the reasons leading him to receive the Baptism in the Orthodox Church a short time before his death.
A relatively hidden, but also very profound, spiritual vein is also present in many of his other works, which include some 22 Symphonies, 17 String Quartets and 6 Piano Sonatas, besides many pieces for unaccompanied string instruments, and seven operas. One of them, The Passenger (1967-8, but premiered nearly 40 years later) displays a very touching moment which is deeply related to the Solo Violin Sonatas recorded in this Da Vinci Classics album. A Jewish-Polish prisoner in a Nazi camp is required by an SS to play on the violin a light and cheerful Viennese Waltz. To this request, the prisoner responds by playing Bach’s Chaconne instead. This act provokes the destruction of his violin and the killing of the musician; however, the dramaturgical idea is extremely powerful and highly symbolic.
It represents the feeble but at the same time indestructible power of beauty, embodied in the violin’s voice – seemingly frail and thin, but transformed by Bach into something akin to a whole orchestra. It represents art’s vocation: and probably this was the reason for the silence surrounding The Passenger for four decades. In the Soviet Union, music had to be cheerful, positive, “realistic”, optimistic – and it was against these parameters that the composers’ scores were evaluated by the Union. Weinberg claimed for music the right, and the duty, to be “sacred”, in both a religious and a secular meaning.
Like Bach, he found that the solitude embodied by the unaccompanied violin could beautifully express the quest for meaning of all human souls, facing – in their bare nakedness – the mystery of Infinity, of God, in their depths.
These three works are very different from each other. The first two surround, by their composition date, that of The Passenger, and thus we may safely affirm that the highly symbolic value of the Chaconne in the opera is mirrored by Weinberg’s own efforts in the domain of solo violin music.
All three share some common traits: the technical difficulty, which, especially in the first and third, reaches peaks of virtuosity particularly as concerns the use of double- and multiple stops; the complexity of the musical language, which is harder and less immediate than in other of Weinberg’s works, while remaining “understandable” thanks to its links with tradition; the profundity of their inspiration and expressivity. The First Sonata consists of five movement, distributed to constitute a palindrome. It was premiered on New Year’s Eve 1965, by violinist Mikhail Izrailevich Fichtenholz: he was a musician of genius, but in turn he was persecuted for his Jewishness, to the point that no recording of his performances has survived.
The Second Sonata, op. 95, is divided into even more section: seven, in this case, constituting a set of miniatures, each capable of standing on its own feet, but also receiving light and interpretation from those surrounding it. It was written in 1967, and we have no information about its premiere – whether it took place at the time, whether it was given by Fichtenholz, if, where, and when…
By way of contrast with the preceding ones, the Third Sonata is written in one single movement, though it is clearly articulated into distinct and distinguishable subsections. The work is touchingly dedicated to the memory of Weinberg’s father, who had been a violinist in turn. As we saw earlier, he had lost his life during the Nazi persecution, and the tragedy of the Shoah clearly underwrites the emotional complexity and spiritual atmosphere of the piece. The frequent alternation between rash or rough sections, and moments of tenderness and expressiveness, perfectly embodies the two-sidedness of the son’s tribute to his father: compassion and love, on the one hand, and outraged woundedness for his fate, on the other.
Together, these three Sonatas constitute one of the pillars of twentieth-century violin literature, even though they still have to enter the mainstream repertoire of the concert hall. However, they offer the full palette of what can be required of a Sonata for unaccompanied violin: sheer virtuosity, the possibility of displaying one’s technique in full, intense and rich affective content, expressive variety, and profound spirituality, with the occasional touch of irony and laughter.
This Da Vinci Classics album, therefore, is a further milestone in the reception of Weinberg’s oeuvre, disseminating his output and providing a fresh interpretation of three of his masterpieces.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022
He was born in Venice, Italy. He began studying the violin with Sirio Piovesan, at the state conservatory of music “Benedetto Marcello” in Venice, where he graduated summa cum laude in violin and viola, contemporarily studying piano and composition. In the following years, he continued to study violin with Sandor Vegh, at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, and chamber music with Antonio Janigro and Franco Rossi, cellist of the Quartetto Italiano. In 1978 he was the only violinist receiving a prize in the competition Auditorium, performing a live recital on the Italian national radio (RAI), broadcasted from the Auditorium concert hall in Turin. In the same period, he obtained several first prizes, for 5 years in a row, at the Rassegna of Vittorio Veneto, which was the foremost competition for young violinists in Italy. He also performed in trio with Mario Brunello and Massimo Somenzi, obtaining important prizes at the international chamber music competitions of Paris and Colmar. At a young age, he was appointed as a violin professor at the conservatory of music of Venice, at the same time continuing a very intense activity, performing in many countries: Japan, Australia, China, South America, USA, New Zealand, Europe and Middle East countries, in the most prestigious concert halls as the Carnegie Hall in New York, the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Moscow, to name a few. He has performed as concertmaster in some of the major Italian orchestras, like the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, RAI orchestra in Rome, Orchestra Sinfonica Abruzzese in L’ Aquila, Orchestra Regionale di Udine, the Italian-Slovenian Youth Orchestra, and the Orchestra d’ Archi Italiana conducted by Mario Brunello, also performing as a soloist.
His interest in the music of the twentieth century led him to perform works by A. Berg, K. Weill, A. Schnittke, B. Bartok, Weinberg, and many others. Also noteworthy is his world-premiere recording of the Concerto Romantico by R. Zandonai. Numerous is also his contribute to the baroque music, which includes collaborations with many ensembles: I Virtuosi di Roma, I Solisti Veneti, I Sonatori della Gioiosa Marca, performing with Cecilia Bartoli at the Musikverein in Wien. He has recorded for the labels Erato, Decca, Cpo, Divox, Fonè, and Denon. Claudio Abbado invited him to play in the first stands of his Orchestra of Lucerne Festival for a series of concerts at the Musikverein in Wien, with Maurizio Pollini. For many years he has been a jury member of violin competitions as the Postacchini in Fermo, the Vittorio Veneto, and the Musica Goritiensis competitions.
Recently, he has published 12 etudes for the violin, 4 pieces for violin and piano inspired by the novel Le città invisibili by the Italian writer Italo Calvino, and a Paganiniana for solo violin. Since 1980 he is a violin professor at the state conservatory “Benedetto Marcello” of Venice.
Moisey [Mieczysław] Samuilovich Weinberg [Vaynberg],
(b Warsaw, 8 Dec 1919; d Moscow, 2 Feb 1996). Russian composer of Polish origin. He began writing music in early childhood and at the age of 10 played the piano in the theatre where his father worked. Two years later he entered the Warsaw Conservatory where he studied with Jozef Turczinski, who had been a pupil of Osipova in St Petersburg. Weinberg’s pianistic talent was noticed by Joseph Hoffman who arranged for the boy to study in America, a plan which was forestalled by the outbreak of World War II. Weinberg then emigrated to the Soviet Union. Although he had written his first two compositions in Poland (the Berceuse for piano and the First String Quartet, of 1935–7), serious study only began in 1939 when he joined Zolotaryov’s class at the Minsk Conservatory, graduating in 1941. During the war he settled in Tashkent where he married the daughter of the actor and director of the Jewish Theatre, Solomon Mikhoels. It was then he met Shostakovich whose ideas about music shattered Weinberg’s conception of art: ‘It was as if I had been born anew …. Although I took no lessons from him, Dmitri Shostakovich was the first person to whom I would show each of my new works’ [Nikitina]. This friendship lasted until Shostakovich’s death.