Who is Weinberg?

Weinberg, c. 1970 (pictured in Ludmila Nikitina's book 'Simfonii M. Vainberga').
When we talk about Russian and Soviet classical music, several composers' names appear fairly often, including Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian, and many others. More recently, several critics, authors, and performers have begun talking about a figure who has been dubbed 'the third great Soviet composer' (after Shostakovich and Prokofiev). This is a composer called Mieczysław Weinberg, 1919-1996 (first name pronounced 'Mee-yeh-chiss-wav'; last name 'Vine-berg'). Weinberg wrote a large amount of music, some of it similar to his friend Shostakovich, and some of it quite unique, in his own style. If you're wondering why you haven't heard of Weinberg before, there are many reasons why his music never achieved lasting fame during his lifetime, some of which are explored below. This 'Weinberg for beginners' page gives a brief biography, including reasons for his obscurity and more recent reappraisal, culminating in a selection of listening links, to serve as examples for Weinberg's music.

Weinberg in a nutshell

Weinberg was born in Poland in 1919 to Jewish parents. His father played in a local theatre orchestra and young Mieczysław began helping out, beginning his musical education. He joined the Warsaw Conservatoire to study piano at the age of 14, and narrowly missed an invitation to study in America.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Seeing that life for a young Jew would not be safe, Weinberg fled eastwards, leaving his family behind (they would all perish in the Holocaust). After several weeks exhaustive travel, the 19-year old Weinberg reached the Soviet Union and was accepted as a citizen, with his first name officially changed to 'Moisey'. He studied composition in the Minsk Conservatoire, but had to flee the Nazi advance in the Soviet Union in 1941. Weinberg fled to Tashkent, where his compositions began attracting considerable attention. Weinberg sent the score of his First Symphony to Shostakovich, and the older composer invited him to move to Moscow.

Weinberg was to live in Moscow for the rest of his life, with his music celebrated by such famous performers as David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich, Kiril Kondrashin and the Borodin Quartet. But he didn't escape the unpleasant side of life under the Soviet Regime. The post-war Soviet political climate became increasingly antisemitic, and Weinberg's father-in-law was murdered on Stalin's orders in 1948. At the height of this political fervour, Weinberg himself was imprisoned for several months in 1953 - it was only after Stalin's death that he was released.

The experience left him a changed man. He dedicated the rest of his life to writing music, much of it in commemoration of the victims of war. Weinberg proved an extremely prolific author, with 26 symphonies, 7 operas, 17 string quartets and many more besides, in a catalogue of over 150 works.
His music is enjoying a revival in Russia and the West, following a time when he was neglected.

There are many reasons for Weinberg's fall into obscurity. It was partly from his own strong sense of modesty, doing little to promote his own music, or to even secure performances of his works. Weinberg also fell victim to wider trends in Soviet music. As a younger generation of Soviet composers grew around him (including Schnittke, Denisov and Gubaidulina) Weinberg's music was performed less and less. Now, however, his music is beginning to enjoy the success it deserves.

Please use the tabs at the header of this page to explore more of the features on 'Lines that have escaped destruction', and keep scrolling to find listening links to give a taste of Weinberg's music.


(For further reading on Weinberg's life and works, see the bibliography page on this blog).

Weinberg's Music
Cartoon 'Vinnie Pukh', with score by Weinberg

Cello Concerto, Op. 43


Piano Quintet, Op. 18


Clarinet sonata, Op. 28


Symphony No. 4, Op. 61


Fantasia for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 52

String Quartet No. 17, Op. 146



Symphony No. 1, Op. 10



Quartet No. 7, Op. 59



And, finally, a charming animation about Weinberg's life, from the ARC ensemble



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