Mieczysław Weinberg: String Quartet no. 1, op. 2

performed by the Quatuor Danel in a world premiere recording, or below by the Gothenburg Quartet

entire playlist here

(cover image by Ricardo Gomez Angel)

Mieczysław Weinberg was born on 8 December, 1919 in Warsaw to a Jewish family. So they were Jewish and Polish. Sadly, the confusion over the spelling of Weinberg’s name would be only the first of many challenges he faced as normal human and prolific composer.

His father Shmil was born in 1882 and was a famous conductor, as well as a violinist, in Yiddish theater; his mother was an actor, also in Yiddish theater. As early as 1903-5, his family was already the target of anti-Semitic violence. There’s a lot more history here than we’ll discuss.

The Weinberg we’re discussing entered the Warsaw Conservatory at the age of twelve, studying piano, and graduated in 1939. Only a few of his works (one of which we are discussing today) were written before he escaped Poland for the Soviet Union. His parents and younger sister stayed behind, and lost their lives in the Trawniki concentration camp as a result.

Weinberg settled in Minsk, where he took his first formal studies in composition, later moving to Tashkent as the war progressed. Here he met two important people: his wife Natalia Vovsi, and someone else who would become a lifelong friend, Dmitri Shostakovich. They proved to have an influence on each other, the elder more on the latter, but the other way around as well. At Shostakovich’s encouragement, Weinberg would move to Moscow in 1943.

As Wikipedia points out, although Weinberg’s works weren’t subject to the same bans that works by Shostakovich and Prokofiev were, he came under scrutiny of his own. Wiki says that 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.” Five years later, he was somehow arrested for “Jewish bourgeois nationalism in relation to this murder, but this trouble was prevented when Stalin died a month later (this was 1953) and he was “rehabilitated shortly afterwards.”

After this troublesome time had passed, the two composers (still) lived near one another and would share ideas on a “daily basis.” Overall, Weinberg wrote 22 symphonies and 17 string quartets, along with seven operas, a total of 154 opus numbers. He’s credited by some people with piquing Shostakovich’s interest in making use of Jewish themes in his music. In a review for Weinberg’s Ballet The Golden Key, Steve Schwartz calls Weinberg “the third great Soviet composer, along with Prokofieff and Shostakovich.”

(As a side note, I mentioned above the confusion over his name, which may be represented as Moisey or Moishe Vainberg, Moisey Samuilovich Vaynberg, Mojsze Wajnberg… However his first name is treated, it seems ‘Weinberg’ has finally taken hold as the most widely accepted spelling of his surname.)

As mentioned above, there were very few works that the composer wrote before leaving Poland, which it seems were also before his first formal studies in composition. One of them is today’s work, the op. 2 string quartet, the first of 17 works in the form. It’s in three movements, with a duration of about 20 minutes, and was completed in 1937.

As mentioned, at the time of this composition, Weinberg had yet received no formal training as a composer. The booklet of the Quatuor Danel album (of which I have a digital copy with no booklet) is thankfully available here from Chandos. In it, the writer claims Weinberg absorbed “techniques and style from his piano repertoire, from the incidental music played by his father’s theatre band, and from concert life around him in Warsaw.”

The work was written in Warsaw in 1937, and is dedicated to Józef Turczyński, Weinberg’s conservatory piano teacher. One may listen to it and be surprised at the quality of this arguably ‘amateur’ work, from the standpoint that the man had had no formal compositional training, although obviously still being very talented musically. Part of the reason for this is that the composer did come back much later (48 years later!) and revise this work. The program notes in the booklet (English beginning on p. 12) state that the “formal design and much of the harmony” were all left intact, and that the revision was more of “recasting and clarifying the texture.”

Interestingly, those same notes mention that while Shostakovich was Weinberg’s elder by more than a decade, Weinberg’s first quartet preceded Shostakovich’s first (also in C)  by about a year, and as we discuss the third and final movement, we’ll see yet another connection to that work.

The first movement is in sonata form and highly chromatic, but by no means harshly dissonant or anything, just really dense, quite full bodied. I enjoy the use of the themes in the first movement, especially at some climactic points in the development. It’s really an eventful, dense movement to be only 7 minutes long. We get quite a lot out of it here, a concentrated, very colorful, very chromatic expressiveness with strong thematic material, all of it kind of nervous and unsettled without being overtly ominous.

The second movement is much quieter, “dreamy” and kind of veiled, a hushed, soft chapter of repose between too much more lively movements. It too is unstable in a way, not as chromatic as the first movement, but a bit nebulous. The program notes express it as “hovering above a tonal resolution that is never granted.”

The finale, in contrast, “at last establishes the home C major tonality, which was more or less veiled in the first movement.” It’s also much more ethnic in sound than the others, as if in this movement we have finally arrived at our destination, the main point to which the other two movements led, which is emphasized by the immediacy of the music. It’s raw, captivating, but not too heavy-handed.

To say that it sounds much like Shostakovich in its spiritedness and intensity would be truthful, but also a disservice, I feel. While the two do indeed have distinct similarities, such an association might potentially have the negative effect of implying that Weinberg’s music is somehow derivative, as Shostakovich is already practically universally hailed as a composer of the finest order.

As stated, this quartet precedes any written by Shostakovich, and in fact, the program notes describe the finale as “surely the most characteristic of the three, and it carries the most pre-echoes not only of Weinberg’s mature quartet style, but also of Shostakovich’s.” At least that puts him on the favorable end of a comparison. They were dear friends, but Shostakovich is certainly in no need of publicity the way Weinberg is. In any case, it’s a superb quartet, one that makes me very excited to have sixteen more to discover.

But for now, we have other works we’ll address next week, as we have for the past few weeks, so do stay tuned for those, and thank you for reading.


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