On the occasion of the upcoming concert, the pianist and music programme curator Yulia Chaplina discusses the work of the unique Russian composer of Polish origin, Moisey Weinberg.

Who is the composer Mechislav (Moisey) Weinberg, and why do we need to know his music?

A Polish–born, Soviet composer Mechislav Weinberg was born on 8 December 1919 in Warsaw. No one at the time foresaw him trading his name and his homeland for survival and then be put in prison in his newly adopted ‘mother country’.

Moisey (Mieczysław) Weinberg

The music by Weinberg is a world that must be explored. Having left an extraordinary rich music heritage of no fewer than 26 symphonies, 17 strings quartets, 2 operas, numerous chamber and piano solo works full of utmost beauty and suffering, now is the time to pay proper tribute to his wonderful genius.

His father Shmuel Weinberg was a fiddler, simultaneously the concertmaster and the conductor of the orchestra of the touring Jewish theatre. Weinberg recalls that as a child he loved these ‘dubious quality’ Jewish melodies, was convinced that the conductor baton makes the sound of a trumpet and was hugely disappointed when he discovered that the baton is silent.  Having a father who was a musician meant an early start of the musical education for Weinberg. He clearly was very good at it, as already at 11 he was playing the piano part in his father’s orchestra.

His early childhood teacher was M-me Matulevich who, by having appreciated Weinberg’s clear musical gift, sent him to study with Yousef Turchinsky who studied with Esipova (she was one the most famous Russian teachers and pianists in her days – her most famous pupil was Sergey Prokofiev). At the age of 12 Weinberg became a student of the Warsaw Conservatoire. Many memoirs suggest his unique pianistic gift – Turchinsky “showed” Weinberg to Joseph Hofmann who, in return, was so impressed that he invited Weinberg to study with him in America. Unfortunately this never became a reality as the Second World War broke out, his father lost his job and poor young Weinberg had to work in order somehow to survive in Warsaw.

The situation in Warsaw was becoming more and more dangerous, and the Weinbergs had to flee and they decided to go East, to the Soviet Union. Out of the family of four (father, mother, Metek and his sister) only Metek survived.

Interestingly, when crossing the borders one of the soldiers asked him what was his real name and when he was told “Mechislav”, he replied: “Are you a Jew? If yes, you are no longer Mechislav – we will call you Moisey from now on”.

After successfully fleeing out of Poland to Belorussia, Weinberg enrolled into Minsk Conservatoire on a composition course.  There, until Hilter’s army started to invade Belorussia, he studied under Zolotarev, who was a pupil of Rimsky – Korsakov. Understanding that it was no longer safe to remain in Belorussia, Weinberg fled to Tashkent where he married a daughter of the Head of the Jewish Theatre, Solomon Mikhaels, who tragically died in 1948. It was in Tashkent where Weinberg firstly heard Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and was introduced to the composer.  As Weinberg recalls:  “in Tashkent I became friends with Levitin, the composer who was a student and a friend of Shostakovich. Levitin really liked my Fifth Symphony and sent it to Shostakovich for review.  About a month later I received an invitation to come to Moscow to meet musicians from the “Committee of the Arts”. There I firstly met Dmitry Dmitrievich (Shostakovich – [Yulia Chaplina]). Meeting him turned my life upside down; it was as if I was born anew.  I was entirely taken with Shostakovich’s Music. Although I didn’t take any lessons from him, I have shown all my compositions firstly to him. He very rarely made any comments, however any he did make were really extremely helpful to the work and my development. ”

Yulia Chaplina

Shostakovich in return not only appreciated Weinberg’s works but also was highly impressed with his pianistic abilities. So when his new opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” was ready he invited Weinberg to play the 4 hands piano version at the Ministry of Culture, at the ‘Composer’s Union’. Interestingly, the 10th Symphony by Shostakovich was also performed as a 4 hands duo. Actually this was recorded on an LP and Weinberg later recalled: ‘this recording is a real treasure for me. After the recording Shostakovich said to me ‘it would be good if they can play the symphony as well as we did’ ”(“they” here were Mravisnky and the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra –  [Yulia Chaplina])

A very humorous account between Shostakovich and Weinberg was recorded in Shostakovich’s letter to a friend in 1964 where he wrote: “Yesterday I have completed one more String Quartet and dedicated it to Weinberg. He has written 10 String Quartets and I only 8. So I have decided to catch up and overtake him”.

Shostakovich was indeed a true and loyal friend of Weinberg. In February 1953 Weinberg was put into prison after a number of months under torturous surveillance. The reason for this was his family ties with the famous doctor Vovsi from the Kremlin (Weinberg’s wife was the doctor’s niece). Vovsi’s case was huge in USSR and anyone connected to the doctor was considered a subject for a death penalty by the State. Only thanks to Shostakovich, Weinberg was in prison for only 3 months. According to some witnesses, Shostakovich had written a personal letter to Beria asking for Weinberg’s freedom.

In the USSR, Weinberg’s compositions during his life had major successes. He was very famous for his film music in the USSR and especially for the music of the Russian version of the cartoon “Winnie-the-Pooh”.

Weinberg’s music was performed by David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich, Leonid Kogan, Daniil Shafran, Emil Gilels, and the Borodin Quartet. Looking at these names now, one only wonders, why we don’t hear more of his simple, utterly fragile but wonderful music more often in concert halls now?

This is a wonderful opportunity to rectify that. Pushkin House in London hosts Moisey Weinberg Centenary concert.