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Weinberg, Mieczysław

(1919–1996), composer and pianist. Mieczysław Samuilovich Weinberg (Moisei Vaynberg) was born in Warsaw, the son of a violinist and Yiddish theater music director. Graduating from the Warsaw Conservatory with a degree in piano in 1939, Weinberg fled the Nazi invasion of Poland that year, settling in Minsk, where he studied composition under Vasilii Zolotarev at the Belorussian state conservatory. After Hitler’s invasion in 1941, Weinberg relocated to Tashkent in Soviet Central Asia. There he met his wife, daughter of the Soviet Jewish theater director and political leader Solomon Mikhoels. In 1943, Weinberg’s first symphony came to the attention of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The result was an immediate friendship that subsequently defined Weinberg’s musical and personal life. With Shostakovich’s assistance, he moved to Moscow, quickly establishing himself as the latter’s junior colleague in the world of Soviet composers of the 1940s and 1950s.

The relationship between Shostakovich and Weinberg proved to be decisive for the young composer. For decades the two were very close friends and even shared an extremely similar musical style. Many scholars have noted that this musical dialogue extended to the point at which each quoted the other’s compositions in their own works, generating broad speculation about their mutual influence. Both adopted an avant-garde compositional style that combined a bracing modernism with a romantic attachment to the folk traditions of Eastern Europe.

Particularly striking is their parallel interest in themes of Jewish folk music, evident already from the mid-1940s. At that time, Weinberg began to explore Jewish themes in his works, most notably through two song cycles, both named “Jewish Songs,” based on the texts of Yiddish poets Y. L. Peretz (op. 13) and Shmuel Halkin (op. 17). To avoid political censorship, Weinberg often disguised many of his Jewish works. The Peretz song cycle, for instance, was renamed “Children’s Songs” for publication in 1944, while the 1949 Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes for Orchestra (op. 47, No. 1) drew heavily on klezmer music without overt Jewish identification.

By the late 1940s, Weinberg had begun to establish a strong reputation as a Soviet composer. However, he soon found himself personally caught up in the Stalinist antisemitic repression against Jewish cultural and intellectual figures and institutions. Weinberg’s half-camouflaged Jewish musical explorations together with familial links to high-profile regime targets such as Mikhoels and the physician Miron Vovsi led to his arrest and imprisonment in February 1953. Upon the death of Stalin one month later, he was released and went on to a highly successful and prodigious career as a composer of numerous chamber and orchestral works, including 17 string quartets, 26 symphonies, 4 operas, and more than 60 film scores, among them Soviet classics such as Letiat zhuravli (The Cranes Are Flying; 1957) and Poslednii diuim (The Last Inch; 1958). In 1980, he was honored as People’s Artist of the Russian Soviet Republic in 1980, and in 1990 he was awarded the Government Prize of SSSR.

Beyond Jewish themes, Weinberg also incorporated several other East European folk music styles in his work, including Russian, Belorussian, Polish, and Moldavian musical traditions. His songs included the writings of Polish poet Julian Tuwim and the Russian symbolist Aleksandr Blok. World War II and the Holocaust also figured prominently in his compositions, especially since his parents and sister were victims of the Nazis. In 1962, the same year that Shostakovich premiered his thirteenth symphony, Babi Yar, Weinberg introduced his own epochal sixth symphony that explicitly evoked child victims of the Holocaust. Thirty years later, Weinberg dedicated his twenty-first and penultimate symphony, Kaddish (op. 152; 1991), to the memory of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

Suggested Reading

ARC [Artists of the Royal Conservatory] Ensemble, On the Threshold of Hope: Chamber Music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, 1 CD (New York, 2006); Joachim Braun, Jews and Jewish Elements in Soviet Music: A Study of a Socio-National Problem in Music (Tel Aviv, 1978); Ernst Kuhn, Andreas Wehrmeyer, and Günter Wolter, eds., Dmitri Schostakowitsch und das jüdische musikalische Erbe / Dmitri Shostakovich and the Jewish Heritage in Music (Berlin, 2001), in German and English; Per Skans, Composer in a Cold Climate: Miecysław Weinberg, Stalinism and the Triumph of the Human Spirit (London, forthcoming).