The Kennedy Center

Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 67

About the Work

Mieczyslaw Weinberg Composer: Mieczyslaw Weinberg
© Richard Freed

The composer of this splendid concerto had a relationship with Shostakovich which in some respects was on the same level as Rostropovich's. Mieczylsaw Weinberg, in fact, did not even append "after my father" in acknowledging that closeness, but used the phrase "of my flesh and blood" in reference to Shostakovich. Their artistic and personal relationship was indeed exceptional, and it began at about the same time Shostakovich and Slava first met.

Weinberg was born in Poland to parents who were musicians, and were Jewish. His father was well known as a violinist and as musical director of a Yiddish theater in Warsaw. After Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, the 20-year-old Weinberg managed to flee eastward and find a haven in Minsk; his parents and his entire family perished in the holocaust. Once Hitler changed his mind about his partnership with Stalin and continued storming eastward himself, his erstwhile associate, in a rare gesture of compassion, evacuated millions of vulnerable individuals, among them about one million Jews, from the western sectors of the USSR to asylum in its Asian republics. The favored destination among the refugees was Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan: that is where Weinberg was sent, and where he met his future wife, and where he wrote to Shostakovich, sending him the score of his First symphony. Shostakovich not only responded at once, but arranged for his young colleague to live in Moscow. Weinberg (whose name is given in various other forms nowadays, creating gratuitous confusion, even in respected reference sources) and Shostakovich responded to each other in the most positive and productive ways. Shostakovich had interested himself in Jewish folk music and poetry, and Weinberg was helpful in that pursuit. Weinberg asked Shostakovich to look at his new scores as he wrote them, and Shostakovich agreed, with the proviso that his own new works would be checked out by Weinberg. He also introduced Weinberg to all of his colleagues and, since Weinberg was a first-rate pianist, he teamed up with him in introducing his new orchestral works to the Union of Composers in two-piano arrangements. Shostakovich quoted Weinberg's works in his own, and vice versa.

Although the Soviet Union under Stalin provided a haven for Weinberg during the war, once the war ended, Stalin unleashed a program of anti-Semitic terror. In January 1948, Solomon Mikhoels, a revered actor and stage director, head of a troupe that performed Shakespeare in Yiddish (his own performances as King Lear were legendary), was murdered, on Stalin's order. Mikhoels happened also to be father-in-law to Weinberg, who himself was arrested and imprisoned five years later, apparently because another of his in-laws was a doctor who had become the chief defendant among the Jewish physicians charged in the notorious "doctors' plot" trials. Weinberg's wife, whose father had been murdered and whose husband was imprisoned under conditions not designed to be survived, was terrified by the possibility of being arrested herself, and arranged for custody of their seven-year-old daughter to go to Shostakovich's wife. On his own part, Shostakovich made direct appeals to Lavrenti Beria, the notorious head of the secret police, and to Stalin himself, to release Weinberg, but it was only Stalin's death that brought about Weinberg's release and the dismissal of all charges against him.

Once that horror passed, and Weinberg returned to his family and friends, he enjoyed a successful and fulfilling life, composed a good deal of attractive and substantial music, and enjoyed the respect of his colleagues. His connection with Shostakovich remained strong. In 1967, when Shostakovich became too ill to play the piano part in the premiere of his Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok, composed for Galina Vishnevskaya and a piano trio, his place was taken by Weinberg, with David Oistrakh and Rostropovich filling out the instrumental support. A year later, when Sviatoslav Richter became indisposed at the last minute, his place as partner to Oistrakh was taken by Weinberg in introducing Shostakovich's new Violin sonata. The venerable composer Nikolai Miaskovsky eventually joined in many of the sessions with Weinberg and Shostakovich, and happily included his own new scores for evaluation.

Despite the recognition Weinberg enjoyed in Russia, it is only now that his time appears to have come for wider recognition. His music is suddenly being recorded in depth and gaining new enthusiasts with the intensity of its emotion, it's clearly stated idealism, and its sheer craftsmanship. He composed 26 symphonies (several of them given titles or headings identifying his feelings on the obscenity of war), concertos for various instruments, a good deal of chamber music and many songs. Weinberg's opera The Passenger, which deals with recollections of the holocaust and has been compared with Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth in terms of its substance and importance, has finally been staged, and his music is at last beginning to be performed in our country. This week's performances of his Violin Concerto represent his music's first appearance in concerts of the NSO, and quite likely in Washington's broader musical life as well.

 

Weinberg's only Violin Concerto has no extra-musical message, but is fully and effectively concerned with the joy of making music. It was composed in 1960 and dedicated to the violinist Leonid Kogan, who introduced it in Moscow, with Kirill Kondrashin conducting, early the following year. It is not terribly unusual in comprising four movements instead of three, but it is unusual in its demands on the soloist, who is heard in its very opening and given almost no rest at all throughout those four movements. It is notable also for its agreeable balance of subtlety, imaginativeness and substance, in addition to the directness already mentioned-and it's mysterious but definitely effective soft ending. The work provokes an unreserved welcome wherever it is heard, together with a definite interest in exploring further into this composer's music.