Mieczysław, Mojsze, Mietek from Warsaw
Mieczysław Weinberg, also internationally known as Moisey or Moishe Weinberg, or Vainberg, was born in Warsaw in 1919. The question of the exact date of his birth, his official name, and the spelling of his surname arouses controversy. The composer claimed that he was born on December 8, 1919, as Mieczysław (in the 1980s, and he used this argument to change the name of Moisey assigned to him by the Soviet authorities). The application for admission to the conservatory found by Danuta Gwizdalanka in the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music archive shows a different date of birth (January) and the name Mojsze. These are not the only issues that remain unexplained. Though we know that the composer’s father was named Shmuel Weinberg and that he was a violinist, conductor, and composer of theatre, revue, and film music native to Chisinau; the name of his mother appears in documents and memories of the composer in very different versions. However, we assume that these documents were treated with greater freedom then, and “aging” could have been a necessary condition for being admitted to the Music Conservatory.
The application mentioned above bears the name of Sura Dwojra Stern; the composer later claimed that his mother’s name was Sara Kotlicka. Weinberg’s daughter from the first marriage, Victoria Bishops, confirms this version of the name, adding that Weinberg’s mother was an actress. Perhaps a kind of lack of transparency around this figure results from the fact that for a long time, it was believed that the actress Sonia Weinberg (who today we known as Shmuel’s sister), who also hid under the pseudonyms of Sonia Karl and Sara Kotlicka, was the same person. Thanks to the research of several musicologists, in particular Verena Mogl and her search at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, we are confident that Sonia and Sara were two different actresses.
Shmuel Weinberg composed music for Jewish theatres, revues, and films. He often collaborated with the famous Scala theatre, and his works Lebedig un luster (“Live and Joyful”), Beimwohla, and Joszke Muzikant were extremely popular at that time.
From an early age, Weinberg learned about music, the sound of instruments, and the expression characteristic of his father’s theatrical work. He often helped his father during performances and made money playing at Jewish weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. At the same time, Weinberg studied classical piano under the supervision of pedagogues – initially Ms. Maciulewicz (first name unknown), and then in the class of the well-known pianist Józef Turczyński, who was considered the best piano teacher in Poland. From 1931, Weinberg attended the Warsaw Music Conservatory, where he studied solfeggio, principles of music, harmony, and music history in addition to the piano. Interestingly, these did not include composition classes. However, in the mid-1930s, he first attempted to write music, and the String Quartet No. 1 (dedicated to Turczyński) was composed as early as 1937. Above all, however, Weinberg was a remarkably talented pianist, and it seemed that he had wonderful career prospects. A few months before the outbreak of World War II, the famous pianist Józef Hofmann came to Warsaw and offered Mieczysław a chance to study under his guidance at the renowned Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, as well as help in obtaining an American visa. It is difficult to say how Weinberg’s fate would turn out if he had managed to leave.
Meanwhile, September 1939 came, and the Warsaw chapter of the composer’s life closed forever.
As he remembered years later, on the night of September 6/7, after returning from the Adria café, where he earned money playing the piano, he heard a radio appeal that all men who are fit to fight should leave Warsaw and head East for future mobilisation.
The whole Weinberg family panicked and decided to head East in the morning.
Walking in a crowd of refugees, they accidentally split up and never reunited again. Mieczysław finally found himself at the border with the Soviet Union after seventeen days of exhausting march under the fire of planes. After a short conversation, the border guards checked Weinberg’s documents, changing his name from Mieczysław to Moisey, and allowed him to enter the USSR.
Since then, Weinberg's fate was intriguing: refugees from Poland were granted Soviet citizenship, and some of them were given special permits to stay and work in a given city. After being admitted to composition studies in Minsk, we can assume that Weinberg also obtained such a document, which likely helped him avoid deportation deep into Russia. He was assigned to the class of Vasily Zolotarev, who studied with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, which significantly influenced his compositional skills and aesthetic interests. During his studies, Weinberg also encountered the work of his later friend and mentor, Dmitri Shostakovich. Thanks to him, he moved to Moscow after several years spent in Minsk and Tashkent.
In Tashkent, where he fled in 1941 after the German attack on a recent ally, Weinberg met his future wife, the daughter of one of the most prominent representatives of the Jewish community in the USSR – Solomon Michoels. Thanks to the support of several people, Shostakovich got acquainted with the score of Weinberg’s Symphony No. 1 and took action to allow the composer and his family to move to Moscow.
In the meantime, Mieczysław tried hard to determine whether his parents and sister had survived the war. He knew that it was almost impossible – even if they could avoid being taken to a concentration camp, they would probably die in the ghetto. People shared unconfirmed information about their alleged death in the Trawniki camp near Lublin for many years. Today, we know that this was probably a mistake – it is assumed that Mietek’s mother and sister died in Warsaw, while his father died in Luninets in Belarus.
For the Weinbergs, the first years spent in Moscow were peaceful. They moved into a tenement house, which belonged to the Michoels family before the war, and soon after, Natalia’s parents and her sister joined them.
Immediately after the move, Weinberg finally managed to arrange a meeting with Dmitri Shostakovich, during which the young composer could play his Symphony No. 1 to the master and show him his other works. Shostakovich invited Weinberg to his house, willingly showed him his new pieces, and was always curious about his friend’s compositions. As Weinberg was still a brilliant pianist, he and Shostakovich often played their four-handed works, either new or hitherto unknown to a broader audience. Thus began their long-standing friendship and creative cooperation.
Weinberg created new works at an extremely fast pace – it was then that Weinberg composed four string quartets, sonatas for violin, cello, piano, and clarinet, Symphony No. 2, trio, and piano quintet, among other works. The composer also wrote another cycle of Jewish Songs (after earlier Children’s Songs to the lyrics of Perec), this time to poet Shmuel Halkin. This cycle is significant in Weinberg’s works – the theme of the songs refers to the Holocaust. Especially the last piece Tife griber, royte leym is a metaphor for the events that took place in Babi Yar. Nearly 20 years later, he wove the same song into the fourth movement of Symphony No. 6 in an orchestral version. In addition to Jewish-themed songs, Weinberg composed Three Romances to Adam Mickiewicz’s poetry.
Weinberg’s wife reminisced that her husband and Shostakovich had a great friendship – they often visited each other and invited one another to family celebrations, dinners, and concerts. Shostakovich’s respect for the young composer may also be reflected by the fact that he dedicated his String Quartet No. 10 to Weinberg. While teaching his composition class at the Leningrad Conservatory, he presented works by Weinberg, along with compositions by, among others, Benjamin Britten.
The year 1946 came, which was extremely difficult for most artists. Since the end of the war, communist totalitarianism deepened. The USSR authorities sought top-down control over all aspects of life – from the economy to the arts. Literary, visual, and musical works were supposed to be simple, joyful, and understandable for everyone, even the most primitive audience, while glorifying the new politics of the party and Stalin, the “Great Leader.” Music was to be optimistic (in their works, artists were supposed to praise everyday life in the USSR), while vocal-instrumental pieces were to be written to contemporary poems, preferably inspired by the simple and work-focused life of an ordinary worker. Any deviation from this standard was to be severely punished.
This hate campaign affected many composers. Weinberg was also not immune to the charges. During the Union of Soviet Composers session, held in October 1946, he was criticised for “an excessive concern for form at the expense of melodic ideas.”
The year 1948 brought more tragedies. In January, the secret police murdered his father-in- law Solomon Michoels by staging a fake car accident. The authorities accused him of acting to the detriment of the Soviet state, and the very fact of Michoels’ Jewish heritage was to prove his hostile, cosmopolitan attitude towards the USSR.
Weinberg’s life revolved around countless Union of Soviet Composers meetings, to which NKVD agents constantly escorted him. The influence of the new policy can be seen in his compositions from this period. In March 1948, he wrote Sinfonietta for a chamber orchestra, one of his most famous works. The composer intended to dedicate this piece to the friendship between the peoples of the USSR. This time, he managed to satisfy everyone – the music was melodic, accessible, striking, and based on folk themes (interestingly, Jewish folklore is very strongly distinguishable here). It did not require a large orchestra and, perhaps most importantly, was positively assessed by Tikhon Khrennikov, leader of the Union of Soviet Composers. He decided that Weinberg had finally turned away from the erroneous modernist path and was engaged in composing for the people. Danuta Gwizdalanka rightly observes a paradox here – the incredible popularity of Sinfonietta fell during yet another rise in anti-Semitism.
bringing a new score, the composer had to consider that the official would ask him for another composer’s recommendation. At that time, it was challenging because the vast majority of outstanding artists (including Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Miaskovsky, and Shebalin) were already “on notice” because of their alleged formalism – their opinion could therefore do more harm than good.
Weinberg, however, did not give up, and not even for a moment did he stop composing. During this period, he wrote works such as the Cello Concerto (nine years after he completed the score, Mstislav Rostropovich performed the solo part) or Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes (originally developed for orchestra, later also arranged for solo violin and orchestra). However, to make a living, he had to write music for the theatre (just like his father), television (mainly cartoons), and circus.
From a concert to Lubyanka
As early as 1953, one of the USSR’s most extensive political, anti-semitic provocations began. Its main goal was to introduce widespread terror and subsequent purges (similar to the Stalinist purges carried out in 1936-1938). In January 1953, the newspaper Pravda, issued by the Communist Party, reported on an alleged “doctors’ plot” with its objective to assassinate prominent Soviet leaders by providing improper treatment. The long list of suspects began with the name of professor Miron Wowsi, Solomon Michoels’ cousin. According to the authorities, one of the victims of this conspiracy was Andrei Zhdanov, and the doctors belonged to “the international Jewish bourgeois-nationalist organisation Joint, allegedly recruited by American intelligence to show international aid to Jews in other countries.” Throughout the country, Jews were widely insulted, with even physical assaults. The sick did not want to be treated by Jewish doctors; many people lost their jobs.
He did not stop writing, composing, among others, In the Homeland cantata, in which the choir sang patriotic poems written by Soviet children; and a version of Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes for violin and orchestra. During the composition’s premiere on February 6, 1953, in the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, the great violinist David Oistrakh played the solo part. The concert ended with great applause, and the composer and his family and friends returned home to celebrate his success. The family of Mieczysław’s wife lived in constant fear and anticipation of imminent arrests. Around two o’clock in the morning, there was a knock on the door, and two officers entered the apartment with a warrant to search the premises and arrest Mieczysław Weinberg. As the composer’s wife recalled, being arrested often meant leaving forever in those days, and the whole family was subjected to social ostracism.
Weinberg was imprisoned in Lubyanka. Today, the charges against him seem completely senseless: he was accused primarily of “bourgeois Jewish nationalism,” allegedly presented in Sinfonietta No. 1. Upon hearing the accusation, he asked:
“If I don’t know a single word in Yiddish while owning two thousand Polish books, shouldn’t I rather be accused of Polish bourgeois nationalism?” He was given the following answer: “We know better.”
Weinberg was locked in a one-person cell, with a powerful spotlight on his face at night, preventing him from falling asleep.
Meanwhile, Dmitri Shostakovich wrote a letter to Lavrentiy Beria, vouching for Weinberg’s honesty. Shostakovich’s wife asked Natalia Wowsi-Michoels for a power of attorney, which, in the event of her and her sister’s arrest, would allow the Shostakovichs to take care of the Weinbergs’ daughter.
However, the events of 1953 were very dynamic. On March 5, Stalin died (this probably swayed the authorities to release Weinberg earlier). On March 17, the guards of Michoels’ daughters disappeared from the tenement house where the Weinbergs lived. From the beginning of April, the doctors accused of participating in the conspiracy (including Miron Wowsi) slowly began to be released from custody. On April 25, Mieczysław Weinberg – reportedly again thanks to Shostakovich’s intervention with the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, Kliment Voroshilov – was released from prison. Throughout the Soviet Union, the period of Thaw began.
At that time, Weinberg did not compose works for large orchestras – he wrote two more string quartets (No. 7 and No. 8), two piano sonatas, and a violin sonata dedicated to Shostakovich. He also started working on films. In 1958, he composed music for the famous Russian war melodrama The Cranes Are Flying, awarded with the Palme d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival.
Still, these were not the composer’s best years. As he recalled:
“It was hard because nobody purchased any pieces from me for a few years.” Although maybe I should put it this way: it was hard, but I was surrounded by the best performers in the world, who were also my friends. They played my pieces. I wouldn’t say I was persecuted, unlike some other composers. I would put it another way: the authorities deliberately failed to popularise my works. Everything that was performed was done not against the Ministry of Culture’s will, but without its help, only thanks to the performers’ involvement.”
The 60s were finally a time of peace and artistic appreciation for Weinberg. The news reached even Poland that after Prokofiev’s death, Weinberg was considered the most interesting composer in the Soviet Union after Shostakovich. The Soviet leading artists more and more often performed his works: apart from David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich, they were played by Leonid Kogan, Mikhail Vaiman, the Borodin Quartet, and Daniil Shafran. Working with such outstanding musicians must have made him very happy, and years late, he remembered:
“I don’t have to think about avoiding something for the fear that it might be too difficult to play. They can play anything!”.
Return to Warsaw and “The Passenger”
In 1966, Weinberg, who hardly ever left Moscow, visited his hometown for the first time since the outbreak of World War II to participate in the Warsaw Autumn festival. However, it was not an enjoyable stay. The Warsaw he had remembered from before the war virtually ceased to exist, and, in the end, his symphony was not included in the festival programme.
Meanwhile, the concert programmes in the USSR increasingly included older works by Weinberg, somewhat pulled out of the drawer. Eighteen years later, his Symphony no. 2 was performed in 1967. After 25 years (!), the audience could listen to Symphony no. 1 and Sonata No. 4 for violin and piano from 1947, which Leonid Kogan included in his repertoire. Weinberg’s new compositions were also being performed and registered on records. In the 1960s, he heard two of his instrumental concertos – for violin and flute – and two vocal- instrumental Symphonies No. 6 and No. 8, “Polish Flowers” (the latter to the lyrics by Julian Tuwim). He also wrote many chamber works, mainly string quartets – in this genre, the composer almost “competed” with Shostakovich. He wrote as many as seventeen of them, “outdoing” his friend by two.
In the 1960s, Mieczysław Weinberg composed perhaps his most important piece – the two-act opera The Passenger. The composer had worked on it for two years and recognised it as his most outstanding creative achievement. Indeed, no one had ever written an opera about concentration and extermination camps in Auschwitz.
In reality, however, it is not about this particular camp, but rather – as Michał Bristiger writes in his book “Transcriptions” – it is “about presenting the most fundamental phenomenon in the world’s history: the collapse of European civilisation in the 20th century, during World War II”.
The libretto, based on the story by Zofia Posmysz, was written by Alexander Medvedev. But the work, due to the allegation of its abstract humanism, was immediately banned from being premiered on stage. In a concert version, it wasn’t until 2006 (!) that it was performed for the first time in Moscow, ten years after the composer’s death.
The Growing Sense of Solitude
In 1975, Dmitri Shostakovich died. One by one, people close to Weinberg passed away. In the 1980s, the composer was awarded numerous prizes – he was granted the title of People’s Artist of the USSR and the USSR State Prize. However, he felt increasingly lonely. With the advent of perestroika, his music, as in the days of the first “Warsaw Autumns,” became less attractive to audiences eager for novelty. Weinberg, however, did not seem to notice this. He continued to work a lot and never wondered whether his music should keep up with the times.
“In my mind, the problem of the contemporaneity of my musical language never existed. I never gave it any thought. I have always written and continue to write as I hear and feel. Every composer should, above all, work. One should not overthink this axiom. Whether they will be placed at the centre of the pantheon, or stay on its outskirts, will be decided by natural selection anyway.” – he said in one of the few interviews. These words seem to best sum up his artistic philosophy. The obsessiveness about work is also explained by the fact that Weinberg, for the rest of his life, thought that since he was saved from the Holocaust, even challenging, 24-hour daily work would not allow him to fully repay this debt to life (or death…?). He admitted that many of his works are related to the war. It was not his personal choice but rather a fate that guided his life the way it did.
He said: “I consider it my moral duty to write about war, about the terrible fate that our century brought upon people.”
In the mid-eighties, Weinberg returned to his proper Polish name (in the USSR, he was still officially called Moisey). He became increasingly ill, his compositions were rarely performed on stages, and to make matters worse, in 1992, he suffered an accident, after which he became bedridden. He could no longer work, and although he fully possessed his faculties, composing was already too difficult for him. The memories of the Moscow embassy employee Eugeniusz Mielcarek, who visited Weinberg at the very end of his life, seem significant. During the conversation, he constantly asked him about Poland and Warsaw. He remembered every Warsaw detail from the pre-war period with topographic accuracy, asked about Polish composers, and expressed the hope that his works would one day be performed in his homeland. He said he spends his days listening to the works by Fryderyk Chopin and Stanisław Moniuszko. He always read a lot of Polish literature and poetry, with his favourite Julian Tuwim on top of the list. Until his last days, he spoke excellent Polish.
Mieczysław Weinberg died in Moscow on February 26, 1996. He was buried in Domodedovo.