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How Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Music Survived Dictators

There are few more intense pleasures for music lovers than to see a long-underrated composer finally receiving a deserved place in the sun. Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Russian composer of Polish-Jewish origin who died in 1996, has long flown under the radar as one of the most accomplished of modern composers. Usually lost in the shadow of his friend Dmitri Shostakovich, Weinberg has recently been honored with an eloquent new biography by the British musicologist and critic David Fanning, “Mieczysław Weinberg: In Search of Freedom,” available in English and German versions from the publisher Wolke Verlag. A landmark new production of Weinberg’s 1968 opera “Passazhierka” (“Die Passagierin,” or “The Woman on the Ship”) triumphantly received its first-ever staging at last summer’s Bregenz Festival in Austria. This production has since toured to great acclaim to the Warsaw Opera this October and is scheduled for 2012 performances at the English National Opera and Teatro Real Madrid.

Fanning aptly describes Weinberg’s score for “Passazhierka” as “hard-edged and uncompromising… the dramatic effect is enormously enhanced thanks to tonal passages such as folk- or folk-like songs…” Stylistically, “Passazhierka” is comparable, and not inferior, to Shostakovich’s 1932 opera, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” an expressionist tale of unhappy provincial eros. “Passazhierka,” adapted from a 1962 novel by Polish author and Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz, “recounts how, during a 1960s cruise to Brazil, a concentration camp survivor named Marta encounters Lisa, a former SS guard at Auschwitz. Musical flashbacks from the horrific past are contrasted to contemporary Brazilian dance rhythms, light German classics and more starkly wrenching music.

The most emotionally stunning moment of “Passazhierka” occurs in Marta’s memory. Her fiancé, Tadeusz, a violinist, is ordered to play the commandant’s favorite waltz at a camp concert but instead performs Bach’s “Chaconne in D minor” for solo violin, which is played with high drama by a string ensemble. Tadeusz is then murdered for his disobedience. Weinberg’s orchestration of the “Chaconne,” for multiple violins in unison, adds emotional impact, as Fanning puts it, “in effect throwing German high-culture back at the Nazis… [in] one of the great moments in twentieth-century opera.”

Why did such a deeply moving work have to wait decades for its first full staging? Fanning plausibly opines that Soviet authorities “always had problems with commemorations of the Holocaust, which they tended to regard as one-sided, in view of the colossal scale of Russian losses during the War.” (Most historians agree that there were over 20 million military and civilian deaths in the USSR during World War II.) Weinberg himself was always grateful to the Soviet Union for saving his life, and while he often expressed Jewish themes in his music, and suffered for his Judaism at the hands of Soviet authorities, he always accentuated the positive aspects of life in the Soviet Union, even to his closest friends.

Weinberg’s parents and sister were murdered at Trawniki concentration camp, about 40 kilometers southeast of Lublin, as Weinberg would learn after his escape. So, simply surviving the war was an all-powerful incentive to creative work, as Weinberg wrote in a letter to his second wife about the “preservation of [his] life,” noting that “it is impossible to repay the debt, that no 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week creative hard labour would take me even an inch closer towards paying it off.” Fleeing Poland to the USSR in 1939, Weinberg was stopped by a border guard who insisted on registering his name as “Moisey” (Moses), to mark him as a Jew, to which Weinberg replied (as quoted by Fanning): “Moisey, Abram, whatever you want, if I can only enter the Soviet Union!”

Early on, Weinberg composed settings to poems by the Polish Jewish writers Julian Tuwim and I.L. Peretz. In 1942, he married Nataliya Vovsi-Mikhoels, the daughter of the great Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, who would be murdered in 1948 on orders from Stalin. By the late 1940s, Soviet apparatchik composers like Grigory Bernandt were attacking Weinberg (and other disfavored composers, like his friend, Shostakovich) for works that supposedly fostered mediocrity in the tyrannical Soviet music world. Tikhon Khrennikov wrote in 1948 that Weinberg’s piano works for children were “disgusting in their falsity.”

Weinberg preserved his faith in the Soviet system, even after he was briefly jailed in 1953, at the height of Stalin’s notorious anti-Semitic Doctors’ Plot. Weinberg was still seen as Mikhoel’s son-in-law and was accused of expressing “Jewish bourgeois nationalism” through his works. He once asked a Soviet investigator, ironically: “Since I don’t know a single letter of Yiddish but own two thousand books in Polish, shouldn’t that be Polish bourgeois nationalism?” A few weeks into Weinberg’s imprisonment, Stalin died and, like many other arrested citizens, the composer was allowed to return home.

His health, already compromised by spinal tuberculosis, was further weakened by his imprisonment. Nonetheless, Weinberg continued to work, inserting a heightened klezmer influence into his 1950s “String Quartets,” numbers 7 and 8, as well as his late 1950s song cycle, “The Gypsy Bible,” set to poems by Tuwim, and his “Fourth Symphony,” which share thematic material. Weinberg’s massive 1964 “Eighth Symphony” (“Flowers of Poland”) mourns the Nazi destruction of his homeland and includes a setting of a Tuwim poem, “Kwiaty polskie” (the “Polish flowers” of the subtitle). As Weinberg told an interviewer in 1965: “In the war, my entire family was murdered by Hitler’s executioners. For many years I wanted to write a work in which all the events would be reflected… the horrors of war, and at the same time the deep faith of the poet in the victory of freedom, justice and humanism.”

Among his last works would be “Symphony No. 21,” composed in the early 1990s and, dedicated to the “victims of the Warsaw Ghetto,” subtitled “Kaddish.” To make a living, Weinberg also composed music for circus performances (which are taken more seriously as artistic endeavors in Russia than elsewhere) and animated films, like his charming 1969 “Winnie-the-Pooh,” made for Soviet children.

Given the tragic circumstances of Weinberg’s life, it is understandable that he should be rediscovered as a composer through thematically serious compositions such as “Passazhierka,” but much of his finest work is surprisingly light-hearted, including the short comic opera “Mazel Tov!” (1975), based on a play by Sholom Aleichem about a Jewish cook and maid wooed and wed by a traveling book peddler and a household lackey. Audiences worldwide soon may have a chance to sample such works, following the powerful impression made by “Passazhierka.” The leading Polish daily, Rzeczpospolita, praised the October Warsaw staging, noting the “startling impression” it made through music that has “no heroism in it, but rather profound tragedy. Even in his melodic waltzes, [Weinberg] becomes a harbinger of doom, which indeed had engulfed his entire family.”

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

Watch an Austrian TV news report on the Bregenz Festival staging of Weinberg’s opera Die Passagierin, now available on DVD from Neos Music below:

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