Mieczysław Weinberg, photo: East News
 

Composer and pianist. Born December 8, 1919 in Warsaw, died February 26, 1996 in Moscow.

He was born into a musical Jewish family, and his father Samuil Moiseyevich and mother Sonia were well-known figures in the Yiddish Theatre. His father served as the director of the Jewish Theater in Warsaw and was also a composer and violinist, while his mother was a pianist. A child prodigy, Mieczysław performed his first concert at ten years of age, two years later he began piano studies under the tutelage of Józef Turczyński at the Warsaw Conservatory, directed at the time by Karol Szymanowski. At the age of 16, he wrote his first film score. Józef Hoffman predicted a wonderful piano career for Weinberg.

After Hitler's invasion of Poland, Mieczysław was the only member of his family who managed to flee eastward. Those closest to him died in the Trawniki camp. Weinberg found himself in Minsk, Belarus, where he studied composing under Vasyl Zolotariev, a pupil of Nikolay Rimski-Korsakov. After war broke out between Russia and Germany, he escaped to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, finding work in a local opera house. It was from Uzbekistan that he would sendthe manuscript of his Symphony No. 1 to Dimitri Shostakovich, who soon invited him to Moscow. Weinberg settled in the Russian capital and lived there until the end of his life.

As a composer, Mieczysław Weinberg didn't manage to build a sizable public during his lifetime. He often performed as a pianist. A legend has built up around the concert that took place in October 1967, when Weinberg stood in for Dimitri Shostakovich, who was unwell. He thus took part in the premiere performance of Shostakowich's Seven Romances After Aleksandr Blok, along with Galina Vishnievskaya, David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich.

Weinberg managed to escape persecution by the Nazis, but he was imprisoned by Soviet authorities. His father-in-law, the acclaimed actor Salomon Michoels, was murdered on January 12, 1948 on Joseph Stalin's order.

All his life, Mieczysław Weinberg spoke Russian with a Polish accent and his friends, including Shostakovich, called him by the Polish diminutive of his name: Mietek. In his compositions, he often made use of texts by Polish poets, especially Julian Tuwim. The list of his works is impressive, yet most of them remain unknown to the greater public. There are relatively few recordings, of which the most notable are albums produced by the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Gabriel Chmura. He left behind 26 symphonies, 7 concertos, 17 string quartets, 19 sonatas, at least 150 songs, 7 operas and 2 ballets. He also created 65 film and animation scores, musical scores for theatre and radio shows. Many of these were published only after his death and today they appear in both Russian and Polish concert programmes and in orchestras all over the world.

Over the past few years, Mieczysław Weinberg's works have enjoyed a growing interest. Warsaw Music Academy Professor Michał Bristigier has dedicated a few essays and seminars to his compositions, and the British musicologist David Fanning is currently working on a biography. The Austrian Bregenzer Festspiele 2010 organised a Weinbergian symposium to accompany the world premiere of his opera The Passenger based on Zofia Posmysz's novel of the same title. In 2011 the opera, directed by David Pountney, premiered at both the Warsaw National Opera and the English National opera to a full house and rave critical reviews. In 2012 the English staging was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award, the most prestigious British prize in the field of theatre. 

As part of the Polska Music programme, the NEOS music label together with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute released five albums of Weinberg's works recorded at the Bergenzer Festspiele in 2010. 

The Passenger is the first of seven operas by Weinberg, a Polish Jew who escaped from Poland, without his family, to the Soviet Union when the Nazis invaded in 1939. The Passenger is based on the real-life experience of Holocaust survivor Zofia Posmysz, who was imprisoned in Auschwitz during World War II. Posmysz’s book, The Passenger, forms the basis of the libretto by Alexander Medvedev.

While sailing to Brazil, Lisa, a former SS Officer from Auschwitz, believes she sees a former inmate and confesses her past to her husband. Interwoven with the story are flashbacks to her time in the concentration camp. Weinberg’s opera was effectively banned in the USSR and only received its premiere in Bregenz fourteen years after the composer’s death.

An encounter between two women - one a former Auschwitz guard, the other a former prisoner - plunges them both back into the horrors of the Holocaust, pitting perpetrator against victim in a moral battle between guilt and denial, retribution and absolution.

For more on Mieczysław Weinberg, see: www.demusica.pl.

Major works:

  • String Quartet No 2 (1940)
  • Comrades in Arms, operetta (1942)
  • Three Romances after Adam Mickiewicz, Op. 22" (1945)
  • String Quartet No. 4, Op. 20 (1945)
  • String Quartet No. 5, Op. 27 (1945)
  • Moldavian Rhapsody No. 3, Op. 47 (1949)
  • Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 61" (1957)
  • Symphony No. 6, Op. 79 (1962-63)
  • Symphony No. 8 'Flowers of Poland' after J. Tuwim, Op. 83 (1964)
  • Piotr Plaksin, Cantata after Julian Tuwim, Op. 91 (1965)
  • Triptychon after Leopold Staff, Op. 99 (1968)
  • Passazhirka ("The Passenger"), opera in two acts for the libretto of Aleksandr Medvedev, based on the novel by Zofia Posmysz (1968)
  • Sonata No. 1 for viola solo, Op. 107 (1971)
  • Symphony No. 13 Op. 115 (1976)
  • The Idiot, opera after Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Op. 144 (1985)
  • Six Children's Songs, Op. 139 (1986)
  • Chamber Symphony No 3, Op. 151 (1991)
  • Kaddish Symphony, Op. 154 (1992)

Author: Aleksander Laskowski, June 2010.