Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996): the third greatest 20th century Russian composer?



Mieczyslaw Weinberg, or Moisey Vainberg or Vaynberg, was not Russian, but a Polish Jew.  He was born in Warsaw, Poland December 8, 1919 to Jewish parents and lived in Warsaw until 1939, when he left to escape the Nazi invasion.  He managed to escape, but not before, unfortunately, the rest of his family were all murdered by Hitler.  The controversy over how his name is spelled is bound up with his relocation from Poland to Russia, since as he crossed the border, a Russian official changed the spelling of his name to conform with Russian usage, but Weinberg always preferred the original spelling.

Before he fled Poland, he had been studying piano and was headed for a career as a concert pianist when those plans were interrupted by WWII.  He settled briefly in Minsk, but had to flee again as Hitler’s army pushed into the USSR.   Weinberg ended up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.  A turning point for Weinberg came when he sent the score of his first symphony to Shostakovich, who was impressed enough to invite Weinberg to Moscow, where he lived until his death in 1996.

Weinberg has been called the “Jewish Shostakovich” but that is unfair to both composers.  Shostakovich was certainly the more established composer, and for a while Weinberg was something of an informal student, however, Shostakovich considered Weinberg his peer, and each composer would show the other his latest scores before anyone else.  In fact, there was a good-natured competition between them, with Shostakovich joking about “I believe I beat you to number ten” as he sent the score for that string quartet to Weinberg.  To the extent that Shostakovich’s music exhibits Jewish thematic material, one can most likely attribute this to Weinberg’s influence.

Weinberg was incredibly prolific writing 24 symphonies and 17 string quartets, as well as dozens of other works in most of the traditional forms of the concerto, sonata and solo piano pieces.  My tagline makes the claim that Weinberg is the “third greatest Russian composer of the 20th century”, i.e., after Shostakovich and Prokofiev.   However, one could argue that Weinberg might be even rank higher than third.

In this article I am going to focus on the string quartets, since I consider them to be the works where Weinberg expressed his most concentrated creative energies.

These works  can be thought of as falling into roughly four groups:

Group I: the early works prior to his move to USSR, which includes quartets, 1-3, along with the next two quartets, 4 and 5, since he was still finding his voice in this medium.  Interestingly, as he progresses, these works become longer and more involved.  The 3rd is in three movements, the 4th, in four, the 5th in five and the sixth, his first really great quartet, is in six movements.  Which brings us to the second phase.

Group II: the great “middle” quartets, 6, 7 and 8.  These works are arguably his greatest string quartets, but I refrain from making that claim since they are only halfway through his output in this genre, and there are many gems among the later works.

Group III: quartets 9-12.  It is these works where Weinberg refines and further develops what he achieved in the 6th quartet, with the 12th quartet achieving a similar height.  Many people consider the 12th his most difficult work, and the one in which he stretched his compositional skills to the utmost.  It is more abstract, featuring fewer of the Jewish, or folk, elements and is written in a more austere style.

Group IV: the final quartets, 13-17.  There was a break of a dozen years between the 12th and 13th quartets, and these final works occupy a territory not found in the earlier quartets.  By this time Weinberg had accepted the fact that because of his Jewish identity, his works were not openly accepted or regularly performed during his lifetime.

And in fact, he was imprisoned during Stalin’s anti-Semitic persecutions of Jewish intellectuals and writers.  Shostakovich appealed to the head of the KGB for his release, and in 1953 shortly after Stalin’s death, Weinberg was released.  Later in life Weinberg wrote to a friend that composing was now purely an end in itself, as he was no longer invested in how the works were received or even if they were performed.

Some have seen this as an admission of apathy, and has caused them to dismiss the later works as being written in a casual or offhand manner.  But I see this as evidence that Weinberg used the fact of being on the margins as allowing him complete freedom of expression in the late works.  It is in these late works that some of his most sublime music is found.

Personally, I do not feel there are any weak string quartets and several could rightly be considered masterworks.

The Quatuor Danel has recorded the entire cycle for CPO Records, and these are mandatory for anyone wishing to experience quartet writing on par with Shostakovich.  Among the great 20th century string quartets, I would include Weinberg’s along the string quartet cycles by Shostakovich and Bartok.

If one were to limit their purchases to just one or two of the six volumes, I would suggest either Vol. 3 or Vol. 6.

Vol. 3: Nos. 6, 8 and 15


Vol. 6: Nos. 2, 12 and 17


However CPO has now issued a box set of all six volumes , very reasonable priced, and there is really no rationale for not having all the quartets.


Here is a YouTube clip of his 13th string quartet:

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