Mieczysław Weinberg

Mieczysław Weinberg during the 1960s

Mieczysław Weinberg (also Moisey or Moishe Vainberg, Moisey Samuilovich Vaynberg; Russian: Моисей Самуилович Вайнберг; Polish: Mojsze [Mieczysław] Wajnberg; 8 December 1919 26 February 1996) was a Polish composer of 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. According to one reviewer, he ranked as "the third great Soviet composer, along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich".[1]


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,[2][3] and in the world of Yiddish theater of antebellum Warsaw he was likewise known as Yiddish: משה װײַנבערג (Moishe Weinberg).[4] In the Russian language (i.e. after his move to the Soviet Union), he was and still is known as Russian: Моисей Самуилович Вайнберг (Moisey Samuilovich Vaynberg), 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 Grove and by Weinberg's biographer, Per Skans.[5]


Weinberg was born on January 12, 1919 to a Jewish family in Warsaw. His father, Shmil (Szmuel or Samuil Moiseyevich) Weinberg (1882–1943, Russian),[6] a well-known conductor and composer of the Yiddish theater,[7][8] 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.[9] His mother, Sonia Wajnberg (née Sura-Dwojra Sztern, 1888–1943),[10] born in Odessa, was an actress in several Yiddish theater companies in Warsaw and Lodz.[11] The family had already been the victim of anti-semitic violence in Bessarabia some members of his family were killed during the Kishinev pogrom.[12] 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.[13]

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".[14] 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 wеre also arrested. In the event, he was saved by Stalin's death the following month, and he was officially rehabilitated shortly afterwards.[15]

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. He reportedly converted to Orthodox Christianity less than two months before his death in Moscow (on 3 January 1996).[16]

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[17] and restaged it at English National Opera in 2011.[18]


Weinberg's output includes twenty-two symphonies, other works for orchestra (including chamber symphonies and sinfoniettas), seventeen string quartets, eight violin sonatas (three solo and five with piano), twenty-four preludes for cello and six cello sonatas (two with piano and four solo), six piano sonatas, numerous other instrumental works, as well as more than 40 film and animation scores (including The Cranes are Flying, Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, 1958). He wrote seven operas, and considered one of them, The Passenger (Passazhirka) (written in 1967-68, premiered in 2006),[19][20] to be his most important work.[21] His piano quintet, piano trio and cello works have received performances in concert series and festivals across Europe and the USA in recent years. The British record label Olympia has released over fifteen compact disc recordings of his music, consisting of both original recordings and remasterings of earlier Melodiya LPs.

Weinberg's works frequently have a strong programmatic element. Throughout his life, he continually referred back to his formative years in Warsaw and to the war which ended that earlier life. Typically, however, this darkness serves as a background to the finding of peace through catharsis. This desire for harmony is also evident in his musical style; Lyudmilla Nikitina emphasises the "neo-classical, rationalist clarity and proportion" of his works.[21]

Although he never formally studied with Shostakovich, the older composer had an obvious influence on Weinberg's music. This is particularly noticeable in his 12th Symphony (1975–1976, Op.114), which is dedicated to the composer's memory. Explicit connections include the pianissimo passage with celesta which ends the Fifth Symphony (1962, Op.76), reminiscent of Shostakovich's Fourth and written around the time of that work's premiere. Another Weinberg work, his sixth piano sonata (1960, Op.73), quotes one of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues. More general similarities in musical language include the use of extended melodies, repetitive themes and extreme registers. This has been one of the main criticisms voiced of Weinberg: Alexander Ivashkin has argued that composers such as Weinberg damaged not only their reputations, but also that of Shostakovich himself: "these works only served to kill off Shostakovich's music, to cover it over with a scab of numerous and bad copies".[22]

Nevertheless, Shostakovich was not the only influence on Weinberg's style. Nikitina identifies Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, Bartók and Mahler as other influences, while the trumpet concerto quotes Mendelssohn's well-known Wedding March. Ethnic influences include not only Jewish music, but also Moldavian, Polish, Uzbek, and Armenian elements. Weinberg has been identified by some critics as the source of Shostakovich's own increased interest in Jewish themes.[23]


Selected recordings

Complete editions



  1. Steve Schwarz, review of The Golden Key on Classical Net Review, 2004.
  2. Неизвестные факты из жизни Моисея Вайнберга: Both the Certificate of birth and Application for admission to the Warsaw Conservatory list his name as Mojsze Wajnberg (see copies of both documents in this article). His date of birth in both documents is January 12, 1919.
  3. Danuta Gwizdalanka 'Historie niezbyt prawdziwe'
  4. Lexicon of Jewish Musicians in Poland
  5. Skans, Per. Quoted on http://www.music-weinberg.net/. See also: Danuta Gwizdalanka: Mieczysław Wajnberg - kompozytor z trzech światów, Poznań 2013, with his signatures in Russian and Polish on p. 52.
  6. Genealogical data on the family Weinberg of Kishinev by the composer's great-niece Ada Tsodikova
  7. Szmuel Weinberg
  8. Lives in the Yiddish Theatre
  9. Возвращение Вайнберга
  10. Danuta Gwizdalanka, Historie niezbyt prawdziwe: In the birth records at the Warsaw Archives of Civil Acts the mother's name is Sura Dwojra Sztern. In Zalmen Zylbercweig's 'Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre', she is referred to as Sonia Wajnberg (Karl). David Fanning reports, that Soviet documents from 1982 refer to her as Sarah Kotlitskaya.
  11. Photoportraits of Szmuel and Sonia Weinberg, with their daughter Esther and relatives in Kishinev
  12. Skans, Per (2004) Notes to Symphonies Volume 2, Chandos, p. 4.
  13. Ada Tsodikova. The Tree of Life.
  14. Quoted in Grove, p. 236.
  15. Wilson pp. 227-231.
  16. Reilly, Robert R. (February 2000). Light in the Dark: The Music of Mieczyslaw Vainberg in Catholic Information Center on Internet, Crisis.
  17. David Poutney (2011-09-08). "The Passenger's journey from Auschwitz to the opera". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-11-25.
  18. Andrew Clements (2011-09-20). "The Passenger - review". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-11-25.
  19. World premiere (in concert version): December 25, 2006, Moscow International House of Music
  20. Scenic premiere: July 21, 2010, Bregenz Festival
  21. 1 2 Grove, p. 236.
  22. Ivashkin, Alexander p. 255. Shostakovich and Schnittke: the erosion of symphonic syntax in Fanning (ed) Shostakovich Studies. Cambridge University Press (1995). ISBN 0-521-45239-2 .
  23. MacDonald, Ian. Music Under Soviet Rule: MIECZYSLAW VAINBERG.
  24. Bregenzer Festspiele 2010.
  25. http://www.peermusic-classical.de/en/werk_detail_en/werk/4383_madonna_und_der_soldat/
  26. http://www.sikorski.de/463/de/0/a/0/9002733/weinberg_mieczyslaw/werke.html#Oper
  27. http://www.sikorski.de/575/de/0/a/0/oper/1018260_lady_magnesia_oper_in_einem_akt.html
  28. with Russian sung texts and translations

Further reading

External links

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