performed by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under Thord Svedlund
I am a pupil of Shostakovich. Although I never took lessons from him, I count myself as his pupil, his flesh and blood.
(cover image by Brian McMahon)
Mieczysław Weinberg’s first symphony, finally. So much of the writing about Weinberg, mine included, either connects, compares or likens him to Shostakovich. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I don’t want to sound like I’m implying in any way that he’s derivative or inferior. One Amazon review described him as “one of the four great Russian composers of the 20th century (after Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev).” That’s praise, for sure.
If you know and love (and maybe worship?) Shostakovich’s music, you should be able to discern clear differences between the two, and that’s great; we all should. But it is unmistakably clear that they come from a similar background. This was the Soviet era, and lots of awful things happened in a very nervous climate, so it’s difficult for that not to be communicated in the music.
Really, though, he and his music are written about very little. In this article, Robert R. Reilly says that “The story of Vainberg’s neglect is a history of the 20th century at its worst, encompassing both the Nazi and Soviet tyrannies.” Reilly tells us succinctly about Weinberg’s (or Vainberg’s) story, how his family was killed, how he fled the Nazis, going first to Minsk, where this piece was likely begun (some of the articles I’ve read differ on this point), but it was completed by 1943, after the composer had relocated yet again, this time to Tashkent.
The work is labeled as having been completed in 1942, but it wasn’t until the following year that the composer sent the piece to Shostakovich, resulting in Weinberg’s official invitation to Moscow, where he would live out the remainder of his days. There’s a lot more to tell, as you may imagine, but for the purposes of this article, the story will stop here. You can get a flavor for what he faced from another of Reilly’s statements:
Vainberg was to discover that anti- Semitism was not only a Nazi specialty.
The work is in four movements, as below, with a playing time of around 40 minutes:
- Allegro moderato – Doppio più lento – Larghetto – Doppio movimento (Tempo I) – Larghetto – Tempo I
- Vivace – Allegretto grazioso – Tempo I
- Allegro con fuoco
We are fortunate enough to have the booklet from Chandos with notes from David Fanning. He tells us that “It was in Minsk that Weinberg had embarked on serious training as a composer, under Vasily Zolotaryov, a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov,” and that it was after hearing Shostakovich’s fifth symphony that he Weinberg was inclined to send him the first symphony. Let’s give it a listen.
The first movement begins with a theme that seems in the first few moments to be the beginning of something sweeping and expansive but turns out to be rather playful and light. As it unwinds, however, and rolls on, the counterpoint that results sort of sneaks up on you, and just when you think we’re too deep into it to ever be able to get around to a second theme, there is one, and it’s quiet and tender, presented by just a small compliment of woodwinds, as Fanning says, much more like Stravinsky in its color and spirit than Shostakovich, at least here. When the orchestra enters in this passage, the sweet, rich strings sound almost like something we’d hear from Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky.
This is the longest movement of the symphony by far (nearly twice as long as the subsequent three, which are each just more or less than eight minutes in length), but these two large sections make up almost half the first movement’s playing time before the clarinet interrupts the serenity with more of its antics, and one would rightly assume we’re in the development now. What results is a little more chaotic, as the ideas get put through their paces, in kind of a musical blender. There’s a seriousness and energy to the contrapuntal nature of this development. There are whiffs of the latest Mahler symphonies as this development continues to descend, not dramatically, but unceasingly into darker, more complex realms. The opening material sort of returns, but without the same spirit, and the movement closes quietly.
The soft nature of the second movement lento seems to derive from the larghetto of the first movement, and something even more familiar that I can’t call to mind at the moment. It’s almost cinematic at times. This movement seems to wander, like being lost in a wintry forest; it’s beautiful as long as we don’t get too lost, and this movement never does. We have a violin solo, and lots of color and more intimate textures, and overall the movement is actually pretty placid.
The third movement vivace obviously plays the role of the scherzo, and here, as well as in the first movement, we hear the playful, buoyant writing for clarinet that many would associate (I think; I would anyway) with Shostakovich. The flute follows, and then the rest of the woodwinds. The scherzo theme is ‘lively and brisk’ as the vivace marking indicates, but it’s not really… especially fast. Wait for the brass to make their presence known, and there’s a little more bite to the music. It builds in excitement and even celebration, to the kind of excitement of Shostakovich’s (granted later) Festive Overture, until the slower andante grazioso section, which feels less like a trio and more like the players continued to do the same thing, just a little slower, to have a break before they continued. The excitement at the close of this movement seems like it would suffice as the final statement of the entire work, but no.
The finale begins with some heft, a serious gear change after the scherzo, calling to mind the weight of something like Shostakovich’s fifth, which it seems as if it almost quotes a number of times. This is hands down the most remarkable part of the symphony, with some of the same feel as previous subjects, but far greater in intensity and drive. Weinberg’s handling of the orchestra here is superb, the contrapuntal textures unraveling smoothly and effortlessly, and with a noticeable amount of that unnerving energy that Shostakovich puts to use in his works so effectively.
There are some repeated figures in the orchestra as well as from the timpani, and it seems with this finale, the composer does indeed hit on his ultimate purpose, the thesis statement of this very fine first symphony.
It’s a remarkable work, perhaps not one of the greatest symphonies ever written, but compelling nonetheless, an effective, engaging work, and one that helps (or forces) the listener to process the musical and political connections, the social climate of the time, all the history that’s relevant to this piece and to Weinberg’s career as a whole. It’s a good start.
We’ve got one more installment from Weinberg before we move on to our next Editor’s Choice composer, who was one of the first to be featured in that series when it got started, so stay tuned for that. Thank you so much for reading.