Mieczysław Weinberg

Mieczysław Weinberg (also Moisey or Moishe Vainberg, Moisey Samuilovich Vaynberg; Russian: Моисей Самуилович Вайнберг; Polish: Mojsze [Mieczysław] Wajnberg; 8 December 1919[note 1] – 26 February 1996) was a Jewish composer from Poland who resided in the USSR. Ever since a revival concert series in the 2010 Bregenz Festival in Austria, his music has been increasingly described as "some of the most individual and compelling music of the twentieth century".[1] Weinberg's output was extensive, encompassing 26 symphonies, 17 string quartets, nearly 30 sonatas for various instruments, 7 operas, and numerous film scores.

Mieczysław Weinberg
משה װײַנבערג
Mieczysław Weinberg.jpg
Weinberg during the 1960s
Mojsze Wajnberg

(1919-12-08)December 8, 1919
DiedFebruary 26, 1996(1996-02-26) (aged 76)


Much confusion has been caused by different renditions of the composer's names. In official Polish documents (i.e. prior to his move to the USSR), his name was spelled as Mojsze Wajnberg,[2][3] and in the world of Yiddish theater of antebellum Warsaw he was likewise known as Yiddish: משה װײַנבערג (Moishe Weinberg).[4] In the Russian language (i.e. after his move to the Soviet Union), he was and still is known as Russian: Моисей Самуилович Вайнберг (Moisey Samuilovich Vaynberg), which is the Russian-language analogue of the Polish original Mojsze, son of Samuel. Among close friends in Russia, he would also go by his Polish diminutive Mietek (i.e. Mieczysław).

Re-transliteration of his surname from Cyrillic (Вайнберг) back into the Latin alphabet produced a variety of spellings, including 'Weinberg', 'Vainberg', and 'Vaynberg'. The form 'Weinberg' is now being increasingly used as the most frequent English-language rendition of this common Jewish surname, notably in the latest edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music and by Weinberg's first biographer, Per Skans.[5]


Early life in Poland, Belarus and UzbekistanEdit

Weinberg was born on 8 December 1919[note 1] to a Jewish family in Warsaw. His father, Shmil (Szmuel or Samuil Moiseyevich) Weinberg (1882–1943, Russian),[7] a well-known conductor and composer of the Yiddish theater,[8][9] moved to Warsaw from Kishinev, Moldova (at that time a part of the Russian Empire) in 1916 and worked as a violinist and conductor for the Yiddish theatre Scala in Warsaw, where the future composer joined him as pianist at the age of 10 and later as a musical director of several performances.[10] His mother, Sonia Wajnberg (née Sura-Dwojra Sztern, 1888–1943),[note 2] born in Odessa, Ukraine (at that time a part of the Russian Empire), was an actress in several Yiddish theater companies in Warsaw and Lodz.[11] The family had already been the victim of anti-semitic violence in Bessarabia – some members of his family were killed during the Kishinev pogrom.[12] One of the composer's cousins (a son of his father's sister Khaya Vaynberg) – Isay Abramovich Mishne – was the secretary of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Baku Soviet commune and was executed in 1918 along with the other 26 Baku Commissars.[13]

Weinberg entered the Warsaw Conservatory at the age of twelve, studying piano under Józef Turczyński, and graduated in 1939. Two works (his first string quartet and a berceuse for piano) were composed before he fled to the Soviet Union at the outbreak of World War II. His parents and younger sister Esther, who remained behind, were interned at the Lodz ghetto and subsequently perished in the Trawniki concentration camp. Weinberg first settled in Minsk, where he studied composition under Vasily Zolotarev for the first time at the Conservatory there. At the outbreak of World War II on Soviet territory, Weinberg was evacuated to Tashkent (Central Asia), where he wrote works for the opera, as well as met and married Solomon Mikhoels' daughter Natalia Vovsi. There he also met Dmitri Shostakovich who was impressed by his talent and became his close friend. Meeting Shostakovich had a profound effect on the younger man, who said later that, "It was as if I had been born anew".[14] In 1943, he moved to Moscow at Shostakovich's urging.

Later life in RussiaEdit

Once in Moscow, Weinberg began to settle down and to work energetically, as evidenced by his increasing opus numbers: approximately 30 works from 1943 until 1948. Several of Weinberg's works were banned during the Zhdanovshchina of 1948, and, as a result, he was almost entirely ignored by the Soviet musical establishment; for a time he could make a living only by composing for the theatre and circus. 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. In February 1953, he was arrested on charges of "Jewish bourgeois nationalism" in relation to the murder of his father-in-law as a part of the so-called "Doctors' plot": Shostakovich allegedly wrote to Lavrenti Beria to intercede on Weinberg's behalf, as well as agreeing to look after Weinberg's daughter if his wife were also arrested. In the event, he was saved by Stalin's death the following month, and he was officially rehabilitated shortly afterwards.[15]

Thereafter Weinberg continued to live in Moscow, composing and occasionally performing as a pianist. He and Shostakovich lived near to one another, sharing ideas on a daily basis. Besides the admiration which Shostakovich frequently expressed for Weinberg's works, they were taken up by some of Russia's foremost performers and conductors, including Rudolf Barshai, Emil Gilels, Leonid Kogan, Kirill Kondrashin, Mstislav Rostropovich, Kurt Sanderling, and Thomas Sanderling.

Final years and posthumous receptionEdit

Towards the end of his life, Weinberg suffered from Crohn's disease and remained housebound for the last three years, although he continued to compose. He converted to Orthodox Christianity on 3 January 1996, less than two months before his death in Moscow.[16] His funeral was held in the Church of the Resurrection of the Word.[17]

A 2004 reviewer has considered him as "the third great Soviet composer, along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich".[18] Ten years after his death, a concert premiere of his opera The Passenger in Moscow sparked a posthumous revival. The British director David Pountney staged the opera at the 2010 Bregenz Festival[19] and restaged it at English National Opera in 2011.[20] Thomas Sanderling has called Weinberg "a great discovery. Tragically, a discovery, because he didn’t gain much recognition within his lifetime besides from a circle of insiders in Russia."[21]

Conversion to ChristianityEdit

Posthumously, Weinberg's conversion to Christianity has been the subject of some controversy. In particular, Weinberg's first and older daughter, Victoria, questioned in an interview from 2016 whether his baptism was undertaken voluntarily in light of his long-standing illness,[22] and in his book on the composer, David Fanning alludes to rumors that Weinberg was baptised under pressure from his second wife, Olga Rakhalskaya.[23] However, Olga Rakhalskaya has subsequently replied to these allegations by stating that involuntary baptism (under pressure or when mentally incapacitated) is sinful and of no value, and that Weinberg had been considering his conversion for about a year before he asked to be baptised in late November 1995.[24] The composer's younger daughter, Anna Weinberg, has written that "father was baptized in sound mind and firm memory, without the slightest pressure from any side; this was his deliberate and conscious decision, and why he did it is not for us to judge."[17] It is quite possible that the composer's interest in Christianity began when working on the film score for Boris Yermolaev's "Отче Наш" (Otche Nash, "Our Father in Heaven") in the late 1980s. A setting of the Lord's Prayer appears in the manuscript version of Weinberg's last completed symphony (No. 21, 1991), subtitled "Kaddish".[25]


Weinberg's output includes twenty-two symphonies, other works for orchestra (including four chamber symphonies and two sinfoniettas), seventeen string quartets, eight violin sonatas (three solo and five with piano), twenty-four preludes for cello and six cello sonatas (two with piano and four solo), four solo viola sonatas, six piano sonatas, numerous other instrumental works, as well as more than 40 film and animation scores (including The Cranes are Flying, Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, 1958). He wrote seven operas, and considered one of them, The Passenger (Passazhirka) (written in 1967–68, premiered in 2006),[26][27] to be his most important work.[14] The British record label Olympia was among the first to raise general awareness of Weinberg in the late 1990s and early 2000s through a series of seventeen compact disc recordings of his music (plus one sampler disc), consisting of both original recordings and re-masterings of earlier Melodiya LPs. Since then, numerous other labels have recorded Weinberg's music, including Naxos, Chandos, ECM and Deutsche Grammophon.

Weinberg's works sometimes have a strong element of commemoration, with reference to his formative years in Warsaw and to the war which ended that earlier life. Typically, however, this darkness serves as a background to the finding of peace through catharsis. This desire for harmony is also evident in his musical style; Lyudmilla Nikitina emphasizes the "neo-classical, rationalist clarity and proportion" of his works.[14]

More generally, Weinberg's style can be described as modern yet accessible. His harmonic language is usually based on an expanded/free tonality mixed with occasional polytonality (e.g. as in the Twentieth Symphony) and atonality (e.g. as in the Twelfth String Quartet or the 24 Preludes for Solo Cello). His earlier works exhibit neo-Romantic tendencies and draw significantly on folk-music, whereas his later works, which came with improved social circumstances and greater compositional maturity, are more complex and austere. However, even in these later, more experimental works from the late 1960s, 70s and 80s (e.g. the Third Violin Sonata or the Tenth Symphony), which make liberal use of tone clusters and other devices, Weinberg retains a keen sense of tradition that variously manifests itself in the use of classical forms, more restrained tonality, or lyrical melodic lines. Always masterfully crafted, many of his instrumental works contain highly virtuosic writing and make significant technical demands on performers.

Shostakovich and stylistic influencesEdit

Although he never formally studied with Shostakovich, the older composer had an obvious influence on Weinberg's music. This is particularly noticeable in his Twelfth Symphony (1975–1976, Op. 114), which is dedicated to the memory of Shostakovich and quotes from a number of the latter's works. Other explicit connections include the pianissimo passage with celesta which ends the Fifth Symphony (1962, Op. 76), reminiscent of Shostakovich's Fourth; the quote from one of Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues in Weinberg's Sixth Piano Sonata (1960, Op. 73); and numerous, strung-together quotes from Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto and Cello Sonata (4th movement) in Weinberg's 21st Prelude for Solo Cello. These explicit connections should not be interpreted, however, to mean that musical influences went in only one direction (from Shostakovich to Weinberg). Indeed, Shostakovich drew significant inspiration from Weinberg's Seventh Symphony for his Tenth String Quartet;[28] Shostakovich also drew on some of the ideas in Weinberg's Ninth String Quartet for the slow movement of his Tenth Quartet (opening bars of Weinberg's Ninth), for his Eleventh Quartet (first movement of Weinberg's Ninth) and for his Twelfth Quartet (F-sharp major ending);[29] and in his First Cello Concerto of 1959, Shostakovich re-used Weinberg's idea of a solo cello motif in the first movement that recurs at the end of the work to impart unity, from Weinberg's Cello Concerto (1948, Op. 43).[30]

It is also important to note that Weinberg does not restrict himself to quoting Shostakovich. For example, Weinberg's Trumpet Concerto quotes Mendelssohn's well-known Wedding March; his Second Piano Sonata (written in 1942, before moving to Moscow) quotes Haydn; and his Twenty First Symphony quotes a Chopin ballade. Such cryptic quotations are stylistic features shared by both Weinberg and Shostakovich.

The discussion above highlights that mutual influences and stylistic affinities can be found in many works by the two composers, no doubt as a result of their close friendship and similar compositional views (see also [31]).

More general similarities in musical language between Shostakovich and Weinberg include the use of extended melodies, repetitive themes, and methods of developing the musical material.[32] However, Nikitina states that "already in the 60s it was obvious that Weinberg's style was individual and essentially different from the style of Shostakovich.".[32]

Along with Shostakovich, Nikitina identifies Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, Bartók and Mahler as formative influences.[14] Ethnic influences include not only Jewish music, but also Moldavian, Polish, Uzbek, and Armenian elements. Weinberg has been identified by a number of critics as the source of Shostakovich's own increased interest in Jewish themes.[28][23]


Selected recordingsEdit

  • Chamber Symphonies 1-4. East-West Chamber Orchestra/Rostislav Krimer. Naxos 8.574063 (2019) and 8.574210 (2021).
  • Sonata For Clarinet & Piano (1945): Joaquin Valdepenas (clarinet), Dianne Werner (piano); Jewish Songs after Shmuel Halkin (1897–1960) for voice & piano, Op. 17 (1944): Richard Margison (tenor), Dianne Werner (piano); Piano Quintet (1944), Op. 18: ARC Ensemble, 2006.
  • Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op.10, 1942; Symphony for string orchestra & harpsichord No. 7 in C major, Op. 81, 1964: Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Thord Svedlund (cond.), Chandos, 2010.
  • Symphony No. 17, Op. 137 "Memory"; Symphonic Poem, Op. 143 "The Banners of Peace": USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Fedoseyev (cond.), Olympia OCD 590, 1996.

Complete editions


  • Opera The Passenger, Op. 97 (1967/68) sung in German, Polish, Russian, French, English, Czech, and Yiddish: Michelle Breedt, Elena Kelessidi, Roberto Sacca, Prague Philharmonic Choir, Vienna Symphony Orchestra Teodor Currentzis (cond.), David Pountney (dir.) at the Bregenzer Festspiele, 2010 (Non-DVD compatible Blu-ray).


  1. ^ a b Weinberg's date of birth is unclear. Citing his Soviet documents, it is usually stated that it was 8 December 1919. However, in his original birth certificate and application for admission to the Warsaw Conservatory, discovered in Warsaw, 12 January 1919 is entered.[2] So if this December is real, it probably meant December 1918, not 1919. Moving the date of birth "forward" was then quite commonly practiced.[6]
  2. ^ In the birth records at the Warsaw Archives of Civil Acts the mother's name is Sura Dwojra Sztern. In Zalmen Zylbercweig's Encyclopedia of the Yiddish Theatre, she is referred to as Sonia Wajnberg (Karl). David Fanning reports that Soviet documents from 1982 refer to her as Sarah Kotlitskaya.[3][6]


  1. ^ Description on Toccata Classics CD TOCC 0193 (2014).
  2. ^ a b Gwizdalanka, Danuta (13 April 2016). "Nieznane fakty z biografii Mieczysława Wajnberga" [Unknown facts from the life of Moses Weinberg (citing his birth certificate and original application for admission to the Warsaw Conservatory)]. Culture.pl (in Polish). Warsaw: Adam Mickiewicz Institute. Archived from the original on 12 June 2017. Retrieved 13 June 2019.
  3. ^ a b Gwizdalanka, Danuta (2014). "Historie niezbyt prawdziwe". Ruch Muzyczny (in Polish). Warsaw: Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne. Archived from the original on 27 March 2019. Retrieved 13 June 2019.
  4. ^ "Jewish Music in Poland between the World Wars - Pages 237 - 346". www.jewishgen.org.
  5. ^ Skans, Per. Quoted on http://www.music-weinberg.net/. See also: Danuta Gwizdalanka: Mieczysław Wajnberg - kompozytor z trzech światów, Poznań 2013, with his signatures in Russian and Polish on p. 52.
  6. ^ a b Danuta Gwizdalanka, Mieczysław Wajnberg. Pierwszy kompozytor urodzony w niepodległej Polsce [The first composer born in independent Poland], "Midrasz" 2018 No. 6, p. 41.
  7. ^ "Цодикова Ада. Моисей (Мечислав) Вайнберг". zhurnal.lib.ru.
  8. ^ "Szmuel Weinberg". yiddishmusic.jewniverse.info.
  9. ^ "Shmuel Vaynberg". www.museumoffamilyhistory.com.
  10. ^ "www.russ.ru Илья Овчинников. Возвращение Вайнберга". old.russ.ru.
  11. ^ "Иллюстрации к "Дерево Жизни"". zhurnal.lib.ru.
  12. ^ Skans, Per (2004) Notes to Symphonies Volume 2, Chandos, p. 4.
  13. ^ "Цодикова Ада. Дерево Жизни". zhurnal.lib.ru.
  14. ^ a b c d Nikitina, Lyudmilla Dmitriyevna (2009), "Weinberg [Vaynberg], Moisey [Mieczysław] Samuilovich", Grove Music Online, https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.29094
  15. ^ Wilson, Elizabeth (2006), "Shostakovich: A Life Remembered", Faber, pp. 227-231.
  16. ^ Reilly, Robert R. (February 2000), "Light in the Dark: The Music of Mieczyslaw Vainberg", Crisis Magazine, reproduced at http://www.music-weinberg.net/biography.html.
  17. ^ a b Gorfinkel, Ada (7 March 2012). "Моисей (Мечислав) Вайнберг ["Moisey (Mieczyslaw) Weinberg"]" (in Russian). Retrieved 23 February 2020.
  18. ^ Steve Schwarz, review of The Golden Key on Classical Net Review, 2004.
  19. ^ David Poutney (2011-09-08). "The Passenger's journey from Auschwitz to the opera". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-11-25.
  20. ^ Andrew Clements (2011-09-20). "The Passenger - review". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-11-25.
  21. ^ Rebecca Schmid (2016-12-21). "Recognition for a Composer Who Captured a Century's Horrors". New York Times. Retrieved 2020-02-23.
  22. ^ Blumina, Elizaveta (26 February 2016). ""Я никогда не говорила об этом, но сейчас, думаю, пришло время" ["I never talked about it, but now, I think, the time has come"]". Академическая музыка (in Russian). Colta.ru. Archived from the original on 24 June 2019. Retrieved 15 July 2019.
  23. ^ a b Fanning, David (2010), "Mieczyslaw Weinberg: In Search of Freedom", Wolke Verlagsges. ISBN 3-936000-91-3
  24. ^ Rakhalskaya, Olga (24 March 2016). ""Отзыв-опровержение Ольги Рахальской на интервью Виктории Вайнберг Елизавете Блюминой" ["Olga Rakhalskaya's response-rebuttal to Elisaveta Blumina's interview of Victoria Weinberg"]". Музыкальное Обозрение (in Russian). muzobozrenie.ru. Retrieved 23 February 2020.
  25. ^ Fanning, David (2014), Notes to Symphony 21, Toccata Classics CD TOCC 0193.
  26. ^ World premiere (in concert version): December 25, 2006, Moscow International House of Music "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-19. Retrieved 2006-12-29.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  27. ^ Scenic premiere: July 21, 2010, Bregenz Festival "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-11-12. Retrieved 2009-09-03.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  28. ^ a b Sobolev, Oleg (15 May 2014). "Мечислав Вайнберг: Глоссарий ["Mieczyslaw Weinberg: Glossary"]". ART-1 (in Russian). Retrieved 23 February 2020.
  29. ^ Fanning, David (2010), Notes to String Quartets Vol. 4, CPO CD 777 394-2, p. 15.
  30. ^ Fanning, David (2012), Notes to Cello Concerto and Symphony 20, Chandos CD CHSA 5107, pp. 5 - 6.
  31. ^ Elphick, Daniel (2019), "Music Behind the Iron Curtain: Weinberg and his Polish Contemporaries", Cambridge University Press.
  32. ^ a b Nikitina, Lyudmilla (1994), "Почти любой миг жизни — работа…" ["Almost every moment of my life is work"], Музыкальная академия [Journal of the Academy of Music] No. 5, pp. 17-24.
  33. ^ Bregenzer Festspiele Archived 2010-05-05 at the Wayback Machine 2010.
  34. ^ "Madonna und der Soldat". www.peermusic-classical.de.
  35. ^ "Werkliste: Weinberg, Mieczyslaw | Internationale Musikverlage Hans Sikorski". www.sikorski.de.
  36. ^ "Weinberg, Mieczyslaw: LADY MAGNESIA. Oper in einem Akt | Internationale Musikverlage Hans Sikorski". www.sikorski.de.

Further readingEdit

In English

  • Fanning, David (2010). Mieczyslaw Weinberg: In Search of Freedom. Wolke Verlagsges. Mbh. ISBN 3-936000-91-3.
  • Elphick, Daniel, Music Behind the Iron Curtain: Weinberg and his Polish Contemporaries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

In German

  • Sapper, Manfred & Weichsel, Volker (ed.; in German): Die Macht der Musik. Mieczysław Weinberg: Eine Chronik in Tönen. Osteuropa 2010 nr 7 (+ CD). ISBN 978-3-8305-1710-8
  • Mogl, Verena, »Juden, die ins Lied sich retten« – der Komponist Mieczysław Weinberg (1919–1996) in der Sowjetunion (Münster: Waxmann, 2017).
  • Danuta Gwizdalanka: Der Passagier. Der Komponist Mieczysław Weinberg im Mahlstrom des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts. Harrasowitz Verlag 2020, ISBN 978-3-447-11409-7

In Polish

  • Gwizdalanka, Danuta (2013): Mieczysław Wajnberg: kompozytor z trzech światów. Poznań 2013, ISBN 978-83-913521-6-8

In Russian

  • Khazdan, Evgenia Петербургская опера: «Идиот» в Мариинском театре (Petersburg Opera: "The Idiot" at the Mariinsky Theatre). Музыкальная академия. 2016, № 4. С. 20–23. (in Russian, registration required)
  • Мечислав Вайнберг (1919—1996). Страницы биографии. Письма (Материалы международного форума). Москва, 2017.
  • Мечислав Вайнберг (1919—1996). Возвращение. Международный форум. Москва, Большой театр России, 2017.

External linksEdit