On a clear July evening, I talk to Maria Sławek – a violinist, co-founder of the Mieczysław Weinberg Institute (1919-1996) about discovering a composer, whose works are popular in European concert halls, and who, 10 years ago, was basically unknown. About a Pole, a Jew, and above all – a Varsovian.
I would like to ask for a short biography of Weinberg, please. Maybe… fifteen sentences.
Mieczysław Weinberg was born in 1919 in Warsaw to a family of Jews who came from Kishinev, now Moldavia, then still tsarist Russia. The Weinbergs suffered in the pogrom in 1905. The father – Szmul Weinberg – a self-taught musician, violinist, composer and arranger, traveled around Russia as a member of various theater troupes. Eventually he ended up in Poland – first in Łódź, and finally in Warsaw, which he considered more attractive.
Mietek (Mieczysław, Mojsze, and later Mojsiej) Weinberg was born in a tenement house at Żelazna 66 Street. He spends the interwar period in the Polish capital. Warsaw is his city – he is brought up by the backstage of the Yiddish theaters of the Northern District, where Jewish cultural life flourished. He is admitted into the Warsaw Conservatory, which at the time also educated children of his age. It turns out that he is among the most talented pianists there. “After hours” he also helps his father in the theater and earns extra money by playing at bar mitzvahs and weddings. Although the Weinbergs sometimes struggle with financial problems, Mietek’s youth is rather calm, and his days flow in the rhythm determined by the route between the elegant Śródmieście and the noisy and colorful Northern District. It oscillates between the world of the Philharmonic, playing Chopin and Rachmaninoff and cafes such as “Oaza” or “Adria”. Recently, while working on the “Warsaw by Weinberg” Walking Guide, Agnieszka Kuś came across information which suggests that it is due to his numerous performances with Loda Halama – the Great Theatre’s prima ballerina and “best legs in Poland” that Mietek doesn’t pass his maturity exam.
In 1939, this world falls apart. On the night of September 6-7, the Weinbergs hear a message about the conscription of men to the army. They decide, like many others, to flee east. In the refugee column, they accidently split, forever, as it turns out. Only Mietek, after a nightmarish journey among air raids and dead bodies along the road, reaches Minsk. The rest of the family survives only in the few photos the young composer keeps between the manuscripts of his works.
At the border, a gendarme asks him if he is a Jew. When he confirms, the gendarme changes his name to Mojsiej. It is puzzling, because Weinberg’s family is not particularly religious, one of his letters contains information that his mother prepared him sandwiches with ham. This name will stay with him for almost the rest of his life, but for him and for friends, he will always be Mietek.
Do you like him?
I treat him like a family member! I like him so much, and I feel that in the pre-war period he was an absolutely thrilling, emanating talent, charming boy. Everyone who knew him emphasized that he was extremely nice, he had a sense of humor and treated things with distance. Weinberg didn’t say much about himself, he didn’t like to remember his old life, but in my opinion everything can be found in his music, you just need to listen to it. Besides, the story of Mietek is special, because it can serve as a canvas for many other stories: about identity, about Warsaw, about history, including war history, about the realities of life in the USSR, about artistic choices …
Polish Jew, Jew-Pole, Soviet Jew with Polish decent?
Only a few years ago, such attempts at labeling were very common. Apparently we needed to squeeze everyone into familiar categories. We, who have been familiar with Weinberg for a long time and laughingly claim that we suffer from “Weinbergosis”, agreed that such labels are passé. For me, these are simplifications, mental shortcuts, every Jew in Poland would have a completely different answer to it. What is important to us at the Institute is Mietek’s attachment and love to his hometown – Warsaw, and it is this identity that we try to emphasize.
What happens to Weinberg after crossing the border, after this horrendous week of escaping from Poland?
When Mietek arrives in Minsk, he begins to study composing with Vasily Zolotaryov, he meets his later wife Natalia Wowsi-Michoels, daughter of Solomon Michoels, chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, but also one of the leading directors in the Soviet Union. His father-in-law draws Weinberg into the artistic environment. Mietek earns some extra money by playing at the local Philharmonic at the fore and it is there that he encounters Symphony No. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich for the first time – it floors him.
Weinberg is often compared to Shostakovich. The first feeling a listener has of his music is similar in terms of instrumental language. And some overwhelming darkness.
Maybe at the beginning. But when you get to know more of his songs, you will immediately hear the difference. I already recognize his music flawlessly, I will not confuse him with anyone else. I started working on it 10 years ago when I started working on my PhD. His name started to appear here and there when I was reading about Shostakovich in college, who was and is my great love. But Weinberg’s music is like Narnia – you just need to “walk through the old wardrobe” and you are forever in this unfathomable world. With such an extensive creation of works, the likelihood of hitting a masterpiece is usually small. And here – a huge variety of phenomenal songs. I felt him inside. On an emotional level, I knew that this was a story I wanted to tell with sounds. I’ve also seen a lot of young people feel the same way. They want to walk through that closet and don’t want to come back. This feeling connected us – people with different experiences – me, Ania Karpowicz and Alek Laskowski. We decided that an institution must be established in Poland to comprehensively deal with his figure.
And so, in 2020, the Weinberg Institute was established. And Weinberg himself escapes from Minsk
After the declaration of War, he escapes to Tashkent. There he meets Shostakovich’s former assistant, who sends the script of Weinberg’s 1st symphony to the great composer who was then already renowned. This opens way for him to meet the renowned composer and in 1946 Weinberg moves to Moscow. At that time, Mietek was sure that his family was dead. To this day, however, it is not known how they really died.
Reading his biography, I have the impression that he has been running away all his life. Does Weinberg’s biography make his music sound the way it does? And can we separate music from biography? Can we listen to his music today without noticing in it the mark of the Holocaust?
This is the question I always ask myself. And here Shostakovich again comes to mind. It is hard not to remember what happened when he wrote “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk County” [the composer fell out of favor with Stalin] or what he experienced in Leningrad during the blockade. Composers themselves sometimes encrypted certain messages between the notes, indicating that something was extremely important, they wrote down their experiences in sounds – Shostakovich literally chose notes corresponding to the letters of his name and surname: D-S-C-H.
Weinberg may not be so straightforward, but in my opinion we can find everything in his works. Besides, he wrote “The Passenger”, an allegorical opera about Auschwitz as an experience, about memory, about a potential meeting of an executioner and a victim in another reality, based on the novel by Zofia Posmysz. He never heard this work, which he considered his greatest – it was performed for the first time ten years after his death. Even though he did not talk much about himself and his relatives, he had a feeling, like many Holocaust survivors, that he must somehow justify the fact that he had managed to survive. He said that if he survived, he must work. And he worked tirelessly.
Weinberg leaves Tashkent and, thanks to Shostakovich’s support, settles in Moscow.
He became very close friends with him. It was a mutual fascination. They valued their opinion and each other’s company exceptionally. In the second half of the 1940s, an anti-Semitic and “anti-formalist” campaign began. Weinberg, who cannot be classified as a Zionist activist, as the cosmopolitan enemies of the Soviet Union were called at the time, was also in the spotlight. Privately, Weinberg was a very fearful and politically disengaged man, but one of the main victims of the campaign was his father-in-law, Solomon, murdered in a fake car accident by the orders of Stalin. Earlier, Solomon was accused of trying to create an autonomous Jewish republic in Crimea. Not only that, after the performance of Weinberg’s “Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes”, where Dawid Ojstrach played a solo part, the secret police came to his house, accusing him of “bourgeois Jewish nationalism.” The composer was imprisoned in Lubyanka for several months. The Shostakovich’s declared then, that if something happens to Weinberg’s family, they would adopt his daughter – this clearly proves how close they were to each other. He was released from captivity after Stalin’s death, probably partly thanks to Shostakovich’s, who wrote a letter to Lavrenty Beria in his defense. Interestingly, and a bit grotesque – many years later Weinberg lived in a house with his second wife where the windows overlooked the cell in which he once sat.
Maybe he was subconsciously tired of constantly running away, even though his family was about to fall apart. He still thought of himself as Mietek, not Mojsjej, towards the end of his life, for reasons not entirely clear, he also received an Orthodox baptism. All the time, however, he missed Warsaw.
In 1966, Weinberg came to Poland for the first and last time after the war for the Warsaw Autumn festival. His symphony No. 8 “Polish Flowers” to the words of Julian Tuwim was to be played. He came there, however, as a member of the Soviet delegation, with a symphony that did not fit into the avant-garde character of the festival and – perhaps for this reason – was eventually dropped from the program, which was a great disappointment. Another Polish composer, Krzysztof Meyer, met him then, and remembered him as a quiet, intimidated and withdrawn man. It is hardly surprising. Weinberg’s daughter, Victoria, once recalled that during one journey together, her father was sitting at the train station with suitcases three hours before the train was set to depart, despite the fact that the hotel they stayed at was right beside. She tried to calm him down, explained that they still had plenty of time. – And if the tanks come? – I have to be here. I must be ready, Weinberg replied, which proves he had unhealed wounds inflicted by continuous flight.
During his visit to Warsaw, the composer managed to see his pre-war home, which miraculously survived the war. There is even a photograph on the back of which you can see that he was trying to write the name “Żelazna 66 – I was born there” in Cyrillic – you can see a lot of deletions, probably because he had trouble spelling this in Russian.
After returning to Moscow, he began to compose the already mentioned “The Passenger”, which could not be performed during his lifetime, because although it referred to Auschwitz, it was probably also considered a reference to the Soviet labor camps. The world heard it for the first time only 10 years after his death, in a concert version, without staging, despite the fact that in the 70s and 80s, he was a popular composer not only of symphonies, quartets, but also film music – both for full-length and animated films.
If we are talking about composers who were Jews but at the same time felt like Poles, it may be a reason to say that thinking about Polish culture is impossible without consideration of the Jewish component. In this “international” context what is his music like?
It is melodic and “catchy”, but at the same time very refined, noble, deep – like good wine. To get to know and admire it, you have to try a little. It is dense, with a lot of polyphony, complicated and non-obvious, listening to it each time I discover deeper layers. The melody initially catches our attention, but after a while it disintegrates. It can be liked and at the same time requires a lot from the listener and the musician. Every time I start learning his songs, I have a feeling that they are almost on the verge of feasibility, that they require an awful lot of me. Weinberg does not go easy on anyone – probably because his works were performed by the most outstanding musicians of the Soviet Union, for whom the technical barrier basically did not exist. And there is also the question of interpretation, going deep into this music, to its very core.
Do you know how young Jews, Poles feel about this music?
One plus is that more and more people already know who Weinberg was. But the greatness of his work is related to the fact that it has the same effect on the listener who knows his biography and on the one who does not. It is then, that it speaks to us directly, we do not think about the context. It is music with an incredible emotional charge. The opening of his cello concerto will run shivers down everyone’s back.
Should we accept the sadness in this music? Is it just my obsessiveness resulting from the knowledge of the darkness of these times?
I am at peace with sadness. I don’t see anything wrong with it, on the contrary, I see great value in it. This music has many other shapes. It is enough to look at the history of his family, to understand the streets that speak Yiddish, to understand popular music that derives from folk music – in his case klezmer, passed down from generation to generation. In the Jewish tradition, waiting for the coming of the Messiah is key, striving to return to Israel, a sense of alienation, temporariness, and melancholy. It seems to me that this is also the right approach to reading Jewish music, and perhaps also some aspects of Mieczysław’s work.
The corner of Żelazna and Krochmalna Streets (described so unusually by Isaac Bashevis Singer) carried tension and defined cultural affiliation. The worlds of the Northern District and Śródmieście intertwined poorly, but the worlds of these two streets were completely different. You mentioned sadness, but this is a feeling that in Weinberg probably resulted from great, life drama – the loss of a family, city, world he knew, forced emigration, longing.
One could probably say exactly the same about Polish music as could be said about Weinberg, music which constantly misses something, is beautifully sad, and its creators are waiting for a messiah, whatever – the whole country is the messiah of nations! We live in an abstract world all the time, we do not deal with what is down here and, with our heads in the clouds, we are waiting for something that will be great. And when it happens, we try not to see it.
Exactly! If you make a cocktail of a pre-war Pole and a Jew, a real Molotov cocktail is the result. Twice as much longing, twice as much nostalgia, and at the same time a long-term feeling of not having your own state. Although so purely musicological – we have to start with how the elements of religious music penetrate into classical music. In Poland and Eastern Europe there was the largest number of Jews. Let us take a closer look at Mendelssohn’s work. His grandfather, Moses, was an activist of the enlightenment assimilationist Haskalah movement, and Felix Mendelssohn’s work will not be in any way inspired by the idiom of Jewish music. While listening to the famous Wedding March at church, hardly anyone will guess that its author was a Jew! In turn, Max Bruch, a goy, went to the Synagogue by chance, then befriended the rabbi, and wrote the iconic, thoroughly “Jewish” piece “Kol Nidrei”, although the traditional prayers for Yom Kippur could hardly be familiar to him.
I’m an atheist myself, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t play Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthews Passion.
And here again the topic of the stereotype returns – labeling music – “Jewish”, “Polish”, any other
It keeps coming back and it will keep coming back, this topic is not settled. We need to look at these issues from a fresh perspective. I have a feeling that there is a tension here that will continue to occur at all times. Sometimes we will face the problem of our history with more strength, sometimes with less, only because of our specific geographic location and the influence of various cultures. After all, this is not what music is about, we probably stick all these labels out of habit, we do it for our own comfort.
Do you know people who – as you call it – suffer from “Weinbergosis”? Do you know those who were delighted with his work, not knowing who he was (although his name was already known)? Our generation is cut off from the Holocaust, indirectly maybe not entirely – because we live near Auschwitz, our grandparents could have died there.
There are musicians who have zero knowledge of his life and this does not prevent them from proposing excellent interpretations. Soon I will be teaching the history of Jewish music to students in the Polish-Jewish Postgraduate Studies Program at the Polish Academy of Sciences. While we know a lot about theater, film or Jewish literature, we know almost nothing about music. Szymon Krzeszowiec, an outstanding violinist, prime minister of the Silesian Quartet, said that when he heard the 7th Quartet, the music shocked him – now “Silesians” record a complete set of Weinberg’s quartets. In December, Szymon is also organizing a violin competition devoted to his work in Katowice. For years, Marcin Zdunik has been playing Fantasia on the cello and orchestra and the Cello Concerto – he sometimes asks me about various details about Mietek’s life, he wants to get to know his work.
So you can hear sadness or see any other emotion and not necessarily associate it with, for example, the Holocaust or the siege of Leningrad?
Yes! Needless to say, Bach was a cantor and had twenty children to play, listen to and understand his pieces.
We have a composer whom we rediscover in various ways, although he has only been present in the Polish consciousness for more or less ten years. Among other things, thanks to you and the conductor Gabriel Chmura.
He was the first to record Weinberg’s symphonies with the National Polish Radio Orchestra in Katowice for the Chandos label. Apparently, at one of the festivals someone asked Chmura if he knew – from what I remember – Symphony No. 4. He did not know it. He got to know it. He fell in love. I think that worldwide love for Weinberg is blooming. I want to be a part of it, there’s a lot of work still to be done. I believe in this music, in its ability to reach the very center of our hearts.
“The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.”
Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021