Neglected composers must have always been a source of interest in the classical music world. I imagine that one reason for searching for lesser known names, is that both performers and audiences hate the idea of missing out on a genius or a great innovator, who ended up forgotten by the history books due to bad lack or poor public relation skills.
Amongst many names that have surfaced over the past years, one in particular captured my interest as a result of his rich contribution to the art song repertoire: Polish Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg. Born in Warsaw in 1919, he fled Poland in 1939 after the nazi invasion. His next destinations of Minsk and the Uzbeki capital of Tashkent failed to provide a safe haven and thanks to the help of Shostakovich, he was able to reach Moscow and finally settle down. Despite persecution by the authorities under Stalin, he became a fairly prominent composer in Soviet Russia, making a living both as a composer of traditional classical forms and as composer for films and radio shows.
What makes Weinberg’s music interesting is his unique and mixed background of a middle class Polish Jew who ended up living most of his life in Russia and most likely not feeling at home in either place. His native language was Polish and probably spoke very little Yiddish if any, and later on spoke Russian with a heavy Polish accent. His father was a musician in the local Yiddish theatre and some of the texts he chose to set were by Jewish poets but many others by Russians,Eastern Europeans and even Shakespeare.
Having performed a selection of Weinberg’s songs with bass baritone Mark Glanville over the past two years and listened extensively to both live performances and recordings of Weinberg’s work, I feel I have ‘lived’ with the composer for some time and gained some deeper insight into his world and personality. What seemed to me at first as music by a second Shostakovich, now emerges in my mind as a unique, individual voice: a rich, colourful, multi-faceted sound world, heavily influenced both by the horrific collective experience of Eastern Europe and by his personal tragedies (he lost his family in WWII). In much of his music, even when it is more cheerful, humorous or cheek, one can sense someone ill at ease, as if haunted by forces from the past.
Shostakovich’s influence is evident in much of Weinberg (when he is ferocious, ironic or lyrical) but at the same time I can hear the impressionistic sides of Prokofiev (movements from his piano sonatas, violin concertos and Vision Fugitives), the inventiveness and unexpected turns of Myaskovsky’s symphonies and songs (another unfairly neglected soviet composer – a contemporary of Weinberg’s) and the intensity and anguish one often hears in the symphonies of Mahler.
There is much more to discover within Weinberg’s body of song works and I hope more artists will take the time to discover these.