A close friend of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Soviet composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg has posthumously been held in the same esteem as his dear contemporary. However, this was sadly not always the case in his lifetime, as Weinberg’s Polish-Jewish origins meant much of his work went ignored by the Russian musical establishment.
In 2006, ten years after the composer’s death, a performance of his Holocaust-themed opera, The Passenger, in Moscow sparked renewed interest in Weinberg, but as singer and writer Mark Glanville explains there is much more to the composer than this singular work. Glanville will perform some of Weinberg’s lesser known songs here at Southbank Centre in February in a performance to mark the composer’s centenary. And ahead of that performance we spoke to him about the appeal and the influence of this remarkable talent.
Most people will know of Weinberg through his Holocaust-themed opera, The Passenger, which was performed at English National Opera in David Pountney’s production. Is that what inspired you to mount this programme?
I was familiar with his chamber music before I ever saw the opera, thanks to my relationship with Pro Musica Hebraica, for whom I had been performing at the Kennedy Centre in Washington. They used to send me recordings of performances the ARC Ensemble had given for them. Listening to these blind, one composer stood out. It was Weinberg.
And this was what inspired you to put on a programme of his songs?
My first thought was to perform a concert of mid-20th Century, middle-European Jewish composers. I looked at songs by a number of different people. My rule of thumb was that the quality of the music, not the backstory, however tragic, should be the chief criterion for inclusion. Weinberg’s music seemed to me so far ahead of the rest that I thought, why not do a programme devoted to him? I discovered he had written over 200 songs. Most were in cycles. Rather than perform complete cycles, as others had done, I thought it would be better to cherry-pick so as to show an important, but still relatively unknown composer, at his best.
Where would you place Weinberg in terms of musical language and influences?
Weinberg was a close friend and colleague of Shostakovich. That association has led people to conclude, wrongly, that he is a minor version of the great Russian. Of course, you can detect the influence of Shostakovich and various other composers, but Weinberg is always himself, constantly surprising you with the directions he takes. His hallmark is classicism. Despite often harrowing themes, Weinberg is never sentimental. He’s a Primo Levi of music, achieving his effect by not allowing his material to overwhelm him, telling his story in clear, precise language. But the effect is often devastating.
‘Citizen of Nowhere’, Theresa May’s infamous denunciation of cosmopolitan types. How does it apply to Weinberg?
Like so many ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, Weinberg had little choice. His own father had fled Chișinău for Poland after Weinberg’s paternal grandparents were killed in the pogrom there. Weinberg himself escaped Warsaw for Minsk when the Germans invaded. His parents and sister, who remained, were murdered. When the Nazis were approaching Minsk he fled again, this time to Tashkent. Poles say he’s Moldovan, Russians say he’s Polish and Jews have neglected him because, as a survivor, his case is seen as less tragic. A story such as his exposes the dangerous inanity of May’s dictum.
Your three recent programmes, including Yiddish Winterreise, performed here in our Purcell Room in 2010, all focus on Jewish music, principally of the mid- 20th Century. Do you derive your greatest inspiration from this source?
I’m not religious, but my soul is Jewish. Cantorial music and Yiddish song resonate deeply within me. Weinberg’s music, like Ernest Bloch’s, is suffused with Jewish musical themes, much of it unconsciously assimilated. It speaks to me. Growing up as a Jew, in the dark, heavy shadow of the Holocaust, it’s through this music that I’ve been able to heal myself, and also forgive.
Mark Glanville brought Citizen of Nowhere: Weinberg, a Sung Life to our Purcell Room on Sunday 3 February.
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