Thursday, 25 July 2013

Biography focus: 'Zhdanovshchina' - 1948

A short extract from some of my current writing, summarising the dramatic events of the year 1948, a period that had great ramifications for Soviet music.

The Sixth and Seventh Quartets: an eleven-year wait
A clear line can be drawn through Weinberg’s Quartets 3 to 6, owing to their close succession. He did not write his seventh quartet until 1957, some eleven years later. The reasons for this are complex, and require some backstory with very little information coming from Weinberg himself. To anyone with knowledge of Soviet music, this period should stand out, chiefly around the year 1948. The events of this year sparked a multiplicity of withdrawal across the arts, with the period following it often viewed as a dark time to be a Soviet artist. To understand this attitude, it is necessary to give a brief overview of the events leading up to and including 1948.

    As already mentioned, the Composer’s Union exerted tremendous power over all Soviet musicians. Despite being run by a committee of musicians, it was essentially a tool of the government, to ensure the smooth running of the music industry and to police any undesirable activity by its members. The article ‘Muddle instead of music’, published in Pravda in 1936, demonstrated how effectively the establishment could cripple the career of someone even as illustrious as Shostakovich. As a result of the damning article, Shostakovich’s music was effectively banned from performance for several months, and his reputation would only recover with his Fifth Symphony in November 1937. The incident indicated to all composers that the establishment could withdraw prestige just as easily as it was bestowed.

    The fear this incident inspired proved nothing compared to the events of 1948. Ostensibly a result of Stalin’s distaste for one specific work, the campaign quickly escalated into a round-up of all composers displaying ‘undesirable’ traits. On 5th January 1948, Stalin and a select group viewed a performance of Vano Muradeli’s opera The Great Friendship at the Bolshoy Theatre. Muradeli was a rising Georgian composer, and the overtly-propagandistic production was enjoying moderate success. Stalin’s displeasure was hinted at when Andrey Zhdanov, appointed by Stalin to implement the Soviet cultural policy, met members of the Bolshoy production team to castigate them the day afterwards. Events quickly escalated.

 Vano Muradeli

    Zhdanov chaired a session of the Central Committee of the government including prominent composers and musicologists which led to an infamous decree in Feburary, entitled ‘On V. Muradeli’s opera “The Great Friendship”’, which hinted at unsatisfactory stylistic elements with wide-reaching implications. The decree concluded that the production ‘is a faulty, unartistic production, both in its music and plot’. Even more menacingly, they concluded:

The conference of Soviet music workers convened by the Central Committee, C.P.S.U.(B), has shown that the failure of Muradeli’s opera is no isolated instance, but is intimately associated with the present unsatisfactory state of Soviet music, with the fact that the formalistic trend has gained currency among Soviet composers.
The full text of the decree can be found here.

Andrey Zhdanov, chief instigator of the 1948 decrees.

Four days later, a report was issued amongst staff of the Central Committee, the infamous ‘Prikaz 17’, which detailed works banned from performance. As well as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky and Popov, the list also included several works by Weinberg, including his Sixth Quartet and the ‘Greetings’ overture. After further discussion of the Central Committee, the leaders of the Composer’s Union (headed by Khachaturian) were dismissed and replaced by a new group, headed by Boris Asafyev and Tikhon Khrennikov.

    There then followed a series of highly publicised congresses, where composers who were castigated were called upon to confess their sins and defend themselves against charges of ‘formalism’. Attacks and defences were contested bitterly, and figures such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev appeared before the organisation. In August, several high-ranking conservatoire professors were fired, including Shostakovich. The disturbances only ended with the death of Zhdanov on 31st August, thus removing the main impetus behind the campaign (the period came to be known as ‘Zhdanovshchina’ - the Zhdanov business’).

    Weinberg himself was present at the meetings of the Composer’s Union, and he witnessed his friends struggling to defend themselves to the organisation. Moreover, his music was profiled in the group’s journal Sovetskaya Muzïka:

The predominance of false, artificial ‘musical graphics’ over living music is the first impression of many works by Weinberg. It often seems that the main task that he gives himself is that of building a certain musical structure, a form for its own sake, forgetting of what and in the name of what this form is being built. The striving for originality at any price, the tendency towards dry linearism, towards harmonic harshness, towards the break-up of melody, strangle the depth of thought and feelings almost everywhere when they appear in his music.
From:  Re-Mi (i.e. Gregory Bernandt), Notograficheskiye zametki' [Notes on Music], Sovetskaya Muzïka, 1948:2, 38.

The deliberately vague language only adds to the menace implicit in the report – that the young composer had better keep such ‘formalism’ in check, in order for his career to progress.

    In addition to such pressure from the government, Weinberg was also presented with immense family tragedy, when his Father-in-law Solomon Mikhoels was murdered in January 1948.  It became evident to Weinberg and all composers that in order to succeed, they had to toe the party line on matters of musical content. As a result, there followed a number of years of highly conventional works, and Weinberg was no exception. In a period when the accessibility of music was to be greatly desired, chamber music fell out of favour, owing to its associations of elitism and intense personal expression.

    Weinberg’s attempts to ‘play it safe’ took the form of folk-music inspired works, including the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, Op. 47 Rhapsody on Slavonic Themes  and the cantata My Native Land, Op. 51 . In addition, he also wrote several chamber works, including the Sonatina for solo piano, Op. 49, and the Fifth Violin Sonata, Op. 53. It was only by the year 1957 that Weinberg could be seen to be increasing in confidence, displayed in his Seventh Quartet, Op. 59, and especially in the Fourth Symphony, Op. 58.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Hamburg Russian Chamber Music Festival, 28th August - 25th September

I've already promoted this upcoming festival in Hamburg, but the full programme for the festival has now been released. This year, they take the music of Weinberg as their main focus.

From their website:

"The special charm of Russian chamber music is the freshness and inspiration of Russian composers. In the 19th and 20th century Russian music reflects the influence of Russian folk songs, Russian literature and fairy tales, but also European classical music.

These countless nuances of Russian chamber music enrich this unique national music festival in Hamburg. Hamburg is not only a sister city of St. Petersburg for over 55 years, but also has many cultural and economic ties with the rest of Russia. The festival is being held for the fourth year.

For this year's festival, the pianist Elisaveta Blumina takes the helm as Artistic Director.
Elisaveta Blumina was born in Leningrad. She studied at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory, and later went on to study with Evgeny Korolev at the Hochschule for Music and Theatre in Hamburg.Since then, Hamburg has become her second home and starting point for her international career.

This year, the festival will focus on the composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996).

M. Weinberg is well known in the world of music. Shostakovich referred to Weinberg as being "one of the greatest composers of our time". A great artist with a fascinating original talent, Weinberg covered a wide spectrum of creative interests. In his lifetime he composed twenty-two symphonies, two sinfoniettas, four chamber symphonies, seven operas, four operettas, three ballets, seventeen string quartets, five concertos, music for numerous films and cartoons, and many theater productions.
Alongside Weinberg, there will be performances of further great composers such as Rachmaninov, Arensky, Silvestrov, Borodin, Medtner, Podgaiz, Gavrilin, Gliere, Davydov and many others."

Elisaveta Blumina, Artistic Director

Weinberg enthusiasts can expect to hear the following works:

Four Preludes for cello solo (Ivan Monighetti, 28th August)

Children's notebooks, Op. 16 & 19
Sonata no. 1, for piano  Op. 5              (Elisaveta Blumina, 1st September)

String Quartet No. 8, Op. 66 (Atrium Quartet, 13th September)

Piano Trio, Op. 24 (Ljudmila Minnibaeva [Violin] Bettina Barbara Bertsch [Cello] Tinatin Gambashidze [Piano], 15th September)

Sonata No. 1, for cello and piano, Op. 21 (David Grigorian [Cello] and Ludmilla Lissovaja [Piano], 20th September)

Sonata for clarinet and piano, Op. 28
12 miniatures for flute and piano, Op. 29 (Elisaveta Blumina [piano], Hans Udo Heinzmann [Flute] and Tibor Reman [Clarinet], 25th September).


Any readers interested, do visit the festival website:
 Festival website

And, if you're lucky enough to go, do let me know your experiences after the festival!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Work Focus: String Quartet No. 6, Op. 35

     Weinberg’s String Quartet No. 6 in E minor, Op. 35, was written in 1946, 20 July–24 August. It represents a culmination of all that Weinberg had achieved in the genre thus far, and it remained a high water-mark for many years. This large six-movement work, lasting over half an hour in performance, condensed all of his previous work in large-scale forms and mastery of the quartet medium. The Sixth Quartet is dedicated to Georgy Sviridov, a pupil of Shostakovich’s who wrote in a neo-romantic vein, and with whom Weinberg was close friends at the time of writing. Sviridov’s diaries, published posthumously, revealed him to be a vicious anti-semite, but it appears this was not a barrier to his friendship with Weinberg. Some have suggested that Sviridov’s views could explain Shostakovich’s sudden break with him in the 1960s.

     The Sixth Quartet was almost immediately recognised as a significant work, and Myaskovsky intervened to secure its publication. Myaskovsky and Weinberg had been friends since 1940, and at one period shared an exchange of each other’s works similar to that between Weinberg and Shostakovich. The Composer's Union in the USSR was undoubtedly a peculiar organisation, one which allocated performance and publication rights to each composer. As a result, a work could be successfully published but never performed. This directly led to a ban on the Sixth Quartet in 1948, as it was named, along with several other works by Weinberg, in the infamous 'Prikaz No. 17' (Order No. 17), which featured works barreed from broadcast and performance. This order was revoked a year later, but its effects lasted for several years, and the Sixth Quartet never secured a performance during Weinberg’s lifetime, despite being republished in 1979. The world premiere would not occur for many years, with the first performance by the Quatuor Danel in Manchester, January 2007. Only following this has the Sixth Quartet come to be recognised as one of Weinberg's masterpieces, a work to rival the quartets of Shostakovich.

First movement, 'Allegro semplice'

First movement on youtube 

The quartet opens with a subdued movement in sonata form, with a distinctive lightness of form from the outset. Indeed, in his Fifth and Sixth Quartets, Weinberg preceded Shostakovich, achieving a lightness of texture that would go on to to characterise Shostakovich's later quartets, particularly his Fifth Quartet of 1952.

   The first theme is distinct, with its long minim notes and semiquaver flurries, elements that become focal points in the development. This apparently melancholic theme undergoes a process of 'roughening up', returning in a highly aggressive state after the development. The opening movement also introduces what will become a focal point for melodic and harmonic organisation in the quartet: the emphasis on expanded modes, rather than major or minor scales. (The somewhat unusual Locrian mode features prominently across the work).

Second movement, 'Presto agitato'
Link for second movement

    The second movement is the opposite of its predecessor in tone and energy. Marked ‘Presto Agitato’, it can be compared to the middle movement of the Fifth Quartet and the macabre tone of the Fourth Quartet, though the tendency here is more akin to the Fifth Quartet.

The 'roughening up' observed in the first movement erupts into full violence here, with a stormy mood throughout this movement. This can be heard in the rapid semiquaver movement throughout, combined with a regular pulse (in an almost Stravinskian fashion). Listen out for the rapid triplet figurations that descend through the parts at key cadential markers. The 'B' section material is distinct with its focus on quavers rhythms and a steadily increasing chromatic density. A 'C' section ruminates on both themes, before a lop-sided recapitulation of the 'B' section brings the movement to a close. As such, the work is in a somewhat unbalanced arch-form structure, with no recapitulation of the opening 'A' material'. However, this can perhaps be explained by the third movement.

Third movement, 'Allegro con fuoco'

   The second and third movement link attacca, and the opening of the third shares much of its character with its predecessor. They have identical metronome markings, and are only separated in performance by a quaver rest. This movement is extremely short, only extended by the lengthened solo passages in the first violin. As such, it can be viewed as a brief linking passage between the second and fourth movements.

   The opening material is derived straight from the second movement, while the quasi-candenza passages in the first violin come to be crucial marking points later in the quartet. It is tempting to suggest that in the Sixth Quartet, Weinberg approaches mastery of the genre, if we choose to read this movement as a commentary on what precedes and follows it. If we do, this would make it comparable to techniques scholars have observed in the late quartets of Beethoven, particularly Op. 131 (which is similarly outside the standard four-movement model for quartets, having seven movements). [N.B. - I do not wish to elevate Weinberg here to the status or quality of Beethoven's late quartets, I wish merely to point out several similarities that can be observed between the two composer's works. D.E.]

Fourth movement, 'Adagio'

   The fourth movement returns to a focus on textural lightness, and another break in character, as it opens in a slow fugato texture. The parts enter in a textbook-like manner, before ruminations on the theme. Again, the theme undergoes a process of 'darkening' or 'roughening' as heard in the first movement, before a restatement of the quasi-candenza passage from the third movement. This passage can now be understood to be transforming into a uniting cyclical aspect of the work.

Fifth movement, 'Moderato'

   This movement introduces a Schubert-like play between major and minor modes, first heard in the opening phrase, with an alternation between major and minor third in the accompanying parts. Relatively straight-forward tonal passages are linked by more chromatically complex bridging sections, in a manner already observed in much of Weinberg's writing up to 1946.

   The most distinctive motif in this movement can be heard in the middle section, where the cello takes the limelight, with a line full of dotted minims, bridged with links dominated by semiquavers. Above this, the accompanying parts give a frantic accompaniment, providing the harmony above the cello. Each of these gestures finishes with a violent sforzando pizzicato chord in the viola, providing a hint of violence in what is otherwise an ethereal and tender movement.

Sixth movement, 'Andante maestoso'

   The final movement can be read as a neat summary of the whole quartet, as well as incorporating several techniques that pervade Weinberg's quartets from the Third onwards. These include violent pizzicato chords as accompaniment, melodies harmonised in thirds across parts, chromatic ‘slips’ in melodic lines to give a suggestion of cheekiness, and flattened modality.

   The Locrian mode, as mentioned above, here provides a main focus, before several cyclical passages recall the previous movements of the quartet. Most strikingly, this includes the candenza passage that has proven so pervasive throughout the work since the Third movement. Weinberg combines this with an ascending major passage that becomes the main non-cyclical motif for the movement. The combination of recalled themes brings the movement, and the quartet to a gentle close.


Following the Sixth Quartet, Weinberg took a break from the genre, not writing another for some eleven years. Despite its lack of a performance, the work gained notoriety at the Composer's Union, primarily through published scores and piano four-hands private performances. As a result, it was banned from performances, and was later held up against Weinberg as too bold for its time. Only now is the Sixth Quartet coming to enjoy the reputation it deserves.

Recommended recordings:

Quatuor Danel, Mieczysław Weinberg, Complete String Quartets, Vol. 3, CPO label

Quatuor Danel on
An excellent rendition by the ensemble that premiered the work, Manchester's own quartet-in-residence.

Pacifica Quartet, The Soviet Experience, Vol. 3, Cedille label

Pacifica Quartet on
The Pacifica Quartet's 'Soviet Experience' project sees them combining Shostakovich quartets with contemporary Soviet works, and their third release features Weinberg's Sixth Quartet in an exhilarating performance. Can't recommend enough.