monday to friday afternoons (2nd to 6th june), 12.00-1.00pm, on bbc radio 3 (repeated 6.30pm)
mieczyslaw weinberg (1919-1996) “the greatest composer you’ve probably never heard of” (in the composer of the week series)
“Over the past seven decades, Composer of the Week has delved into just about every major composer in classical music, and plenty of less well-known ones too. As the programme reached its 70th birthday last year, Donald Macleod challenged listeners to come up with the name of a deserving composer who had never previously been featured.
Suggestions flooded in, over four-and-a-half-thousand of them, and of these, more than 20 made the case for an obscure Soviet composer of Polish-Jewish origin, Mieczyslaw Weinberg.
Weinberg’s music is well represented on CD, and as Donald heard more and more of it, his astonishment that he hadn’t come across it before grew commensurately. So all this week, Donald Macleod explores the life and work of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, in the company of writer, broadcaster and champion of unjustly neglected composers, Martin Anderson.”
“1. With the Nazis on the horizon, Weinberg flees for his life – first from Warsaw to Minsk, then from Minsk to the central-Asian city of Tashkent, where he composed his First Symphony.
The score came to the attention of Dmitri Shostakovich, who was so impressed that he arranged for Weinberg to move to Moscow; he would live out the rest of his life there, with Shostakovich a lifelong friend and supporter.
That fateful symphony was to be the first of more than 20. Weinberg also wrote 17 string quartets; we’ll hear from the second of them, composed in Minsk but bearing no obvious traces of the traumatic experiences its composer had recently lived through.
In Tashkent he also composed a poignant set of Children’s Songs, which he followed up a year later with the first of his Children’s Notebook collections, written for his own instrument, the piano.
The highlight of the programme is a recording of Weinberg’s Piano Quintet with the composer himself at the keyboard, joined by the Borodin Quartet in its legendary original lineup.”“2. Weinberg settles in to his new life in Moscow.
He had escaped the Nazis – twice – but now he had another threat to contend with: Joseph Stalin, whose grip on the Arts was becoming tighter with every new decree. Stalin regarded writers – and, increasingly, other artists – as ‘engineers of the human soul’, and he was determined to engineer their output.
In 1946, the composer Khachaturian complained that Weinberg “turns to the national melos so extremely rarely” – a hint that his music was insufficiently tuneful and patriotic. Perhaps it was with this criticism in mind that Weinberg wrote his Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, a work the authorities heartily approved of; strangely, its essentially Jewish character seems to have escaped their attention.
Jews were officially tolerated by the regime but increasingly singled out for opprobrium – and worse; Weinberg’s father-in-law Solomon Mikhoels, artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theatre, had been under surveillance for years when he eventually met his end in what was officially billed as a ‘car crash’.
Weinberg must have sensed that his Cello Concerto, written in the year of Mikhoels’s demise, would not find official favour; he withheld it till after the death of Stalin, when it was premièred by Mstislav““3. A late-night knock at the door heralds an unwelcome visit from the KGB – the pretext, an allegation that Weinberg was part of a conspiracy to establish a Jewish republic in the Crimea.
He was incarcerated “in a solitary cell, where I could only sit, not lie down“.
But for the death of Stalin a month later, our story might well end here; Weinberg could easily have gone the way of his father-in-law Solomon Mikhoels, whose state-sponsored murder five years earlier had been officially passed off as a car crash.
In the event, after a further six weeks in jail Weinberg was released, doubtless in no small part due to the intervention of Shostakovich, who had put his own neck on the line to vouch for his friend.
Weinberg’s imprisonment seems to have put a considerable dent in his productivity. It took him several years to return to both the symphony and the string quartet, but when he did, the results were remarkable.”“4. Music from Weinberg’s most productive period, the 1960s.
He termed them his ‘starry years’, although in that light he may well have viewed 1966 as something of an aberration. This was the year of his first and, as it would be, only return to Poland after his escape from the country almost three decades earlier.
Now he was a respected member of a Soviet cultural delegation, but by all accounts it was a dismal trip for him; his music was seen as old-fashioned, and the limelight was occupied by the Polish avant-garde, who paid little attention to him. He must have had his suspicions for years, but it was around this time that he learnt definitively of the fate of his family.
When he had fled from Warsaw in 1939, his parents and younger sister had stayed behind; now he discovered that they had died in the Treblinka extermination camp.
This terrible knowledge must have fed into the choice of subject for his first opera, The Passenger, about a woman who survives Auschwitz then, years later, encounters her former gaoler on a cruise-ship.
Weinberg never saw this extraordinarily powerful and disturbing work performed; it wasn’t premièred till 2010, 14 years after his death.”“5. Donald presents a brief sampling from the music of the composer’s last two decades: a pair of concertos, for clarinet and flute; the 12th Symphony, written in memory of his friend and mentor Shostakovich, who died in August 1975; his final violin sonata; and an extraordinary trio for flute, viola and harp, of which Donald remarks, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard the kinds of sonorities that Weinberg extracts from these three instruments”.”
(if you miss it, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b045by5n)