Sunday, 29 January 2017

Moscow Weinberg Conference, February 2017

In February 2017, the conference 'Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996): A Rediscovery' will take place in Moscow, arguably the largest ever event devoted to Weinberg's life and music. The conference will unite performers, theatre directors and stage designers, academics, and figures from Weinberg's life, in an extended programme over two weeks. The core of this revolves around 16-19 February, with four days of papers, talks, and interviews. All of this is hosted in the Bolshoi Theatre, a venue that imparts a high level of prestige to the proceedings. The wider conference programme includes concerts, film screenings, and three stagings of Weinberg operas (including two separate stagings of The Passenger).

The conference is co-presented by the Bolshoi Theatre and the newspaper Muzykalnoe obozrenie.

The operas presented are:

The Idiot - Directed by Evgeny Arye, musical direction by Michał Klauza (in a production receiving its premiere on 13 February).

The Passenger - Directed by Sergey Shirokov, musical direction by Jan Latham-Koenig (a new production that received its premiere on 27 January).

The Passenger - Directed by Thaddeus Strassberger, conducted by Oliver van Dohnányi (presented by the Yekaterinburg State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, in a production that premiered in September 2016).

The academic side of the conference brings together over 40 scholars from across the world (the conference languages are Russian and English). The four days of the conference are organised as follows:

16 February
'Staging History of Mieczysław Weinberg's operas - The Idiot in Russia today'

17 Feburary
'The Passenger: Past and Present'

18 February
'The Life and Legacy of Mieczysław Weinberg: Chamber Works'
(followed by an evening concert of Weinberg's chamber music)

19 February
'Mieczysław Weinberg: Identity, Biography, Personality'

Highlights of the panel sessions include:
- the creative team behind the Bolshoi Theatre's production of The Idiot
- A roundtable on The Passenger
- An interview and discussion with Zofia Posmysz, author of the novel, The Passenger, and herself a former Auschwitz prisoner.
- An interview and discussion with David Pountney, celebrated stage director, and main creative force behind the 2010 Bregenz Festival.
-  A roundtable discussion with Weinberg's friends, colleagues, and family. The panel includes Weinberg's widow, Olga Rakhalskaya, and his second daughter, Anna Weinberg, as well as Tommy Persson, who has been a driving force behind much of the Weinberg revival in recent decades.

I am honoured to be speaking on 18 February, as part of a day of talks on Weinberg's Chamber Music. I will be presenting a paper titled '"An Encyclopedia of the Genre": Weinberg's String Quartets', which summarises some of the findings from my doctoral thesis.

For a full listing of the Conference schedule, please see the following link:
Conference programme

Any questions should be directed to the conference email address:

Watch this space for a full conference report.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Vinni Pukh

Weinberg wrote a considerably large amount of film music; indeed, he was one of the most prolific film composers in Russia, and this success allowed him the freedom to avoid the teaching or editing jobs that hampered the composition efforts of other composers. 

Alongside his more than 40 film scores, Weinberg also wrote for children's animated films. His greatest success by far was for a series that is a household name in Russia, but virtually unknown to Western audiences. Most Russians of a certain-age will be able to at least hum you the some of the music from this film, but very few would be able to tell you the composer. The films continue to be loved to this day, and a 2013 DVD re-release sold out within days.

This is Vinni Pukh, a famed Russian adaptation of A.A. Milne’s loved Winnie-the-Pooh stories, directed by Fyodor Khitruk, based on the translations by Boris Zakhoder. While Westerners may be familiar with E.H. Shepard’s charming illustrations for the original books (and the subsequent soporific Disney adaptations from the 1960s onwards), the Russian version has taken on a life of its own, with huge success.

Newcomers might be disconcerted by Vinni Pukh, based on their previous assumptions about the ‘Pooh’ characters. For one thing, Khitruk’s Vinni is much more bear-like than any other representation, with a large black band around his eyes, long claws (on paws that don’t actually attach to his body when he skips along), and a rather small, squat shape. In addition, his facial expressions vary widely, ranging from child-like awe, philosophical pondering, through to mild existential angst (of sorts). Some of the other characters also appear, including Piglet, Rabbit, and Eeyore, but no Tigger, Kanga, or Roo; notably, there is no Christopher Robin, quite a large departure from Milne’s stories.

Instead, Khitruk opted for a child-like setting of only the animal characters, setting the same stories as Milne’s books, but questioning events in a rather ‘deep’ manner throughout. In short, Khitruk’s Vinni Pukh is radically different to the comparatively bland Disney version.

The series started with three films, starting with Vinni Pukh (1969), and followed by two sequels, Vinni Pukh pays a visit (1971), and Vinni Pukh and a busy day (1972). Weinberg provided music for all three, but it was the in the first that he had the most success.

Fortunately for non-Russian speakers, the series has been uploaded onto Youtube with English subtitles (though some of varying quality in their translation).

The first installment can be seen here:

Khitruk’s animation style was something of a breakthrough for Soviet cartoons. Before this point, the vast majority of Soviet children’s animations had been copying the visual style of Disney’s films, especially that of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Khitruk’s child-like style of bold shapes and broken-up forms (such as Vinni Pukh’s paws that don’t actually attach to his body) proved both heartwarming and instantly recognisable to children.

Weinberg’s music complements this approach. The opening titles are accompanied by a meandering nursery-rhyme-style tune played on Harpsichord, still something of a novelty instrument in the Soviet Union at this point (Weinberg had used the instrument in a soloist role in his Seventh Symphony, in 1964).

This is followed by opening narration, and shortly afterwards we are introduced to Vinni Pukh himself, as he sings to himself strolling through the woods. The manner in which he actually does this is rather boisterous, described by one reviewer for the Independent as ‘[striding] around the forest like he is marching on Berlin’. He sings a song with lots of ‘Tramp-pa-pam-pa’ and ‘ruump-pa-puump-pa’ nonsense lyrics, which Weinberg sets to a charming melody. Vinni was voiced by Yevgeny Leonov, the famed Soviet comedian. Leonov had a rather deep bass voice, so the recording engineers sped it up by 30%, giving Vinni Pukh his distinctively surreal voice.

Yevgeny Leonov, voice of Vinni Pukh
Weinberg’s song is arguably one of the most famous in Russia, and it appeared in one guise or another in all of the subsequent Vinni Pukh films. While the song has something of a ‘sprechgesang’ quality about its notation, it is arguably Leonov’s inspired delivery that really makes the song successful.

The remainder of the film, and its two sequels, features inspired background music supplied by Weinberg, as well as one or two other songs, but it is the opening credit music and Vinni’s theme that is the most easily recognisable and the most instantly loveable (in my experience as a public speaker, it is Vinni Pukh that I play to Western audiences to help them warm to Weinberg’s music).

The three Vinni Pukh films went on to win the USSR State Prize in 1976 (included as part of a group of seven films).  

The two other films can be viewed here (with subsequent 'parts' leading off from these videos):


A playful comparison of Khirtuk vs. Disney can be found here: via buzzfeed

Further links/bibliography:

Marissa Fessenden for the Smithsonian

Phil Reeves for the Independent

David MacFayden, Yellow Crocodiles and Blues Oranges: Russian Animated Film since World War II (Ontario: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005).

Laura Ponteiri, Soviet Animation, and the Thaw of the 1960s: not only for children (New Barnet: John Libbey, 2012).

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Thesis available online

Dear all,

After having passed my viva on 25 July, I am pleased to inform you that my thesis has been approved, and my Doctoral degree awarded.

Accordingly, I have made my thesis available online, at the following link:

Here's the thesis abstract for your information:

As attention on the music of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) has increased in the years after his death, so has the need for an analytical study of his musical style and language. This thesis surveys Weinberg’s changing style through a genre that spans almost his entire output: the string quartet. His close friendship and artistic affinity with Shostakovich helps make his music accessible to a wider audience, though closer examination reveals Weinberg’s individuality and a quite distinct language from that of his mentor. In support of this contention, a wide range of analytical approaches is deployed in this dissertation, along with a pragmatic methodology for presenting a holistic overview of Weinberg’s quartets. 
Weinberg’s quartet cycle occupies an important place in twentieth-century music, with parallels to Shostakovich, Bartók, and other Soviet composers, including Myaskovsky, Shebalin, Levitin, and Boris Chaykovsky; correspondences and distinctiveness are explored in the second chapter. The third chapter surveys Weinberg’s musical narratives, with recourse to theories from Kofi Agawu, Boris Asafiev, and Jacques Derrida. Form is the focus of the fourth chapter, where ideas from Mark Aranovsky, and James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy are deployed to highlight Weinberg’s problematising of traditional forms in his music. Chapter five explores Weinberg’s multi-faceted approach to harmony, with concepts expanded from Lev Mazel, Yury Kholopov, and the neo-Riemannian school of analysis. 
The picture that emerges is of Weinberg’s individuality and distinctive voice, manifested in a controlled experimentalism and a tendency towards extended lyricism. His affinity with better-known composers may prove an approachable entry-point for wider audiences, but many of the most striking elements in his quartet cycle are of his own invention. His quartets stand as an important contextual dimension for understanding Shostakovich’s cycle, and also for appreciating the broader repertoire of Soviet chamber music. As his centenary approaches, engagement with Weinberg’s music continues to increase: this thesis provides contexts and analysis-based conclusions to complement this ongoing revival.

I do hope my thesis will be of interest to you. Please do not hesitate to get in contact if you have any queries or suggestions. 


Thursday, 28 July 2016

Summer 2016 Update

Here's an update of Weinbergian news and events for the summer months of 2016 - with a new publication, and a Weinberg conference!

In the single biggest piece of news in my own work, my thesis was submitted in June, and I passed my PhD viva a few days ago (with minor corrections). Expect a link of some sort to read the full finished thesis in a few weeks.

Weinberg Studies
Several events have occurred in the relatively-quiet field of 'Weinberg Studies'. Firstly, the German-language journal 'Die Tonkunst' featured in their April issue a series of papers from a 2012 Hamburg conference on 'Weinberg in the Brezhnev era'.

This excellent volume features six articles (with one in English), discussing Weinberg's place in Soviet music, Socialist Realism in the stagnation era, and further focuses on Weinberg's cello sonatas and Polish-language works. The contents runs as follows:

Friday, 17 June 2016

Thesis submitted!

Regular readers will have noticed that this blog has fallen quiet in the last six months or so. I have been working away, and I'm very pleased to say that my thesis has been completed and submitted, awaiting a viva examination and any subsequent corrections. Watch this space for any further updates or news.