Mieczysław Weinberg 8 December 1919 – 26 February 1996) was a Soviet composer of Polish-Jewish origin. From 1939 he lived in the Soviet Union and Russia and lost most of his family in the Holocaust. He left a large body of work that included twenty-two symphonies and seventeen string quartets.
Mieczyslaw Weinberg Polish composer 1919-1996
Much confusion has been caused by different renditions of the composer’s names. In official Polish documents (i.e. prior to his move to the USSR), his name was spelled as Mojsze Wajnberg, and in the world of Yiddish theater of antebellum Warsaw he was likewise known as Yiddish: In the Russian language (i.e. after his move to the Soviet Union), he was and still is known as Russian:, which is the Russian-language analogue of the Polish original Mojsze, son of Samuel.
Among close friends in Russia, he would also go by his Polish diminutive Mietek (i.e. Mieczysław). Re-transliteration of his surname from Cyrillic (Вайнберг) back into the Latin alphabet produced a variety of spellings, including ’Weinberg’, ’Vainberg’, and ’Vaynberg’. The form ’Weinberg’ is now being increasingly used as the most frequent English-language rendition of this common Jewish surname, notably in the latest edition of and by Weinberg’s biographer, Per Skans.
Weinberg was born on 8 December 1919 to a Jewish family in Warsaw. His father, Shmil (Szmuel or Samuil Moiseyevich) Weinberg (1882–1943, Russian),a well-known conductor and composer of the Yiddish theater, moved to Warsaw from Kishinev in 1916 and worked as a violinist and conductor for the Yiddish theatre Scala in Warsaw, where the future composer joined him as pianist at the age of 10 and later as a musical director of several performances.
His mother, Sonia Wajnberg (née Sura-Dwojra Sztern, 1888–1943), born in Odessa, was an actress in several Yiddish theater companies in Warsaw and Lodz. The family had already been the victim of anti-semitic violence in Bessarabia— some members of his family were killed during the Kishinev pogrom. One of the composer’s cousins (a son of his father’s sister Khaya Vaynberg) – Isay Abramovich Mishne – was the secretary of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Baku Soviet commune and was executed in 1918 along with the other 26 Baku Commissars.
Weinberg entered the Warsaw Conservatory, studying piano, at the age of twelve, and graduated in 1939. Two works (his first string quartet and a berceuse for piano) were composed before he fled to the Soviet Union at the outbreak of war. His parents and younger sister Esther remained behind, were interned at the Lodz ghetto and perished in the Trawniki concentration camp. He settled in Minsk, where he studied composition for the first time at the Conservatory there.
At the outbreak of the World War II on the Soviet territory, Weinberg was evacuated to Tashkent (Central Asia), where he wrote works for the opera, as well as met and married Solomon Mikhoels’ daughter Natalia Vovsi. There he also met Dmitri Shostakovich who was impressed by his talent and became his close friend. Meeting Shostakovich had a profound effect on the younger man, who said later that, ”It was as if I had been born anew”. In 1943, he moved to Moscow at Shostakovich’s urging.
Weinberg’s works were not banned during the Zhdanovshchina of 1948, but he was almost entirely ignored by the Soviet musical establishment; for a time he could make a living only by composing for the theatre and circus. On 13 January 1948 Weinberg’s father-in-law Mikhoels was assassinated in Minsk on Stalin’s orders; shortly after Mikhoels’s murder, Soviet agents began following Weinberg.
In February 1953, he was arrested on charges of ”Jewish bourgeois nationalism” in relation to the murder of his father-in-law as a part of the so-called ”Doctors’ plot”: Shostakovich wrote to Lavrenti Beria to intercede on Weinberg’s behalf, as well as agreeing to look after Weinberg’s daughter if his wife were also arrested. In the event, he was saved by Stalin’s death the following month, and he was officially rehabilitated shortly afterwards.
Thereafter Weinberg continued to live in Moscow, composing and performing as a pianist. He and Shostakovich lived near to one another, sharing ideas on a daily basis. Besides the admiration which Shostakovich frequently expressed for Weinberg’s works, they were taken up by some of Russia’s foremost performers and conductors, including Emil Gilels, Leonid Kogan, Kirill Kondrashin, Mstislav Rostropovich, Kurt Sanderling, and Thomas Sanderling.
Towards the end of his life, Weinberg suffered from Crohn’s disease and remained housebound for the last three years, although he continued to compose. It has been claimed that he converted to Orthodox Christianity less than two months before his death in Moscow (on 3 January 1996).
A 2004 reviewer has considered him as ”the third great Soviet composer, along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich”.Ten years after his death, a concert premiere of his opera The Passenger in Moscow sparked a posthumous revival. The British director David Pountney staged the opera at the 2010 Bregenz Festival and restaged it at English National Opera in 2011.
Main article: List of compositions by Mieczyslaw Weinberg