Posted by jeff on Apr 5, 2013 in Classical
, Song Of the week
I try to confine myself in SoTW to music I enjoy and admire. I figure there’s so much great music waiting to be praised, why occupy ourselves with anything else? But I admit that this week, it’s not the music but the story behind it that moves me. Next Sunday night begins Holocaust Day, and here’s the stranger-than-fiction story of a Jewish composer from Eastern Europe.
The personal odyssey of Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919–1996) is emblematic of that of the Jewish people in the 20th century, not only for the trials and tribulations he underwent (although there were more of them than can be grasped), but because of the wholly bizarre, tortuous and miraculous course of events.
Before we get started with this tragic saga, a word about the man’s names. In Polish (i.e. prior to his move to the USSR), his name was rendered as ‘Mieczysław Wajnberg’. In the Russian it became ‘Моисей Самуилович Вайнберг’ (Moisey Samuilovich Vaynberg). In the Yiddish theater of antebellum Warsaw he was known as Moishe Weinberg (Yiddish: משה װײַנבערג). Among close friends he would also go by his Polish diminutive ‘Metek’. Re-transliteration of his surname from the Cyrillic alphabet (Вайнберг) back into the Latin alphabet produced a variety of spellings, including ‘Weinberg’, ‘Vainberg’, and ‘Vaynberg’. The form ‘Weinberg’, an English-language rendition of this common Jewish surname, is now the most frequently used form.
Weinberg’s father Shmuel (Shmil) left his home in the Moldavian town of Kishinev after the pogroms of 1903 and 1905 in which both his father and grandfather were killed (fired by a blood libel, in which The Jews were accused of murdering a Christian boy to use his blood in the baking of matzos for Passover). In Warsaw the Weinbergs joined the Yiddish theater, Shmil as a violinist and conductor, Sonia as an actress. The father gave his prodigy son his initial practical experience, exposing him to the traditional and liturgical Jewish music that was to inform his work for the rest of his life – a life already impacted by family history such as Moishe’s cousin Isay Abramovich Mishne, the secretary of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Baku Soviet commune who was executed in 1918 along with the other 26 Baku commissars.
Moishe made his first public appearance as a pianist at the age of ten, and two years later, in 1931, he became a student at the Warsaw Academy of Music. Moishe, or ‘Metek’, had time to compose a number of works (while working to support the family after the Yiddish theater had closed) before he graduated in 1939. Soon after the German invasion in September, his parents and sister were interned in the Lodz ghetto and murdered in the Trawniki concentration camp. Mieczysław managed to flee. He was stopped by a border guard who insisted on registering his name as “Moisey”, to mark him as a Jew, to which Weinberg replied: “Moisey, Abram, whatever you want, if I can only enter the Soviet Union!”
Jewish Life, Ukraine, 1903
In Minsk, Belarus, he studied composition in the conservatory for two years. On the day after his final examinations in June, 1941, Germany invaded the USSR, and Weinberg again fled eastwards, this time finding work as a coach in the opera house in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
There he met Solomon Mikhoels (and married his daughter Natalia Vovsi), who served Stalin first as the artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, and then during the war as the chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. In this capacity he travelled around the world, meeting with Jewish communities to encourage them to support the Soviet Union in its war against Nazi Germany. After the war, Stalin became virulently anti-Semitic. Mikhoels was the most visible and respected Jewish intellectual in the USSR, so instead of receiving a show trial for his service to the state, in 1948 Stalin had him bludgeoned to death and his body run over by a truck as a thinly-veiled hit-and-run accident. Mikhoels received a state funeral.
Meanwhile, back in Tashkent in 1943, Mikhoels encouraged his new son-in-law to send the score of his First Symphony to Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975), who was so impressed that he arranged for Weinberg to be officially invited to Moscow (an extremely rare occurrence), where he would remain for the rest of his life. Life in Moscow in 1943 seems to have had a lot of advantages over that in Uzbekistan. Like food. Shostakovich was a cultural icon with a complex relationship with the establishment. He had already been denounced in 1936 (and subsequently rehabilitated). But he was to have many more ups and downs with the authorities over the years. Shostakovich (a philo-Semite) was a man of great personal courage, and had a great admiration for the younger Jew. Over the decades, Shostakovich used Weinberg as his first reader. He would bring him all his new compositions, discuss them. He greatly valued Weinberg as a musician, as a composer (much more so than did the critics and the public, who often dismissed him musically as a Shostakovich clone), and as a friend.
Shostakovich was denounced again in 1948 for Formalism. Most of his works were banned, he was forced to publicly repent, and his family had privileges withdrawn. He waited for his arrest at night on the landing by the lift, so that his family wouldn’t be disturbed.
At the time, although Weinberg refused to join the Communist Party, his music was officially praised “for depicting the shining, free working life of the Jewish people in the land of Socialism.” But even that didn’t help. He was arrested in January 1953 and charged with conspiring to establish a Jewish republic in the Crimea — a concoction that although absurd, was still accompanied by a death sentence. The real reason for his arrest was the fact that his wife was the niece of Miron Vovsi, the main defendant at Stalin’s anti-Semitic ‘Doctors Plot’ trial. It was assumed that the sickly Weinberg, incarcerated in sub-zero temperatures and deprived of sleep and clothing, would not return. It was likewise assumed that Weinberg’s wife would be arrested. Shostakovich and his wife agreed to accept power-of-attorney for the Weinbergs’ seven-year-old daughter Vitosha.
Shostakovich and Weinberg
Then, in an act of incomprehensible courage, the out-of-favor Shostakovich wrote to Stalin and to NKVD security chief, Lavrenti Beria, protesting Weinberg’s arrest. A month later Stalin died, and many intellectuals and artists were released from prison, including Weinberg. He was officially rehabilitated shortly afterwards. Weinberg’s wife:
“Soon after this Shostakovich and his wife went to the south on holiday, making me promise to send a telegram as soon as Weinberg was released. And shortly we were able to send them this telegram: ’Enjoy your holiday. We embrace you, Tala and Metak.’ Two days later the Shostakoviches were back in Moscow. That evening we celebrated. At the table, festively decked out with candles in antique candlesticks, Nina Vasilyevna read out the power of attorney that I had written. Then Dmitri Dmitriyevich got up and solemnly pronounced, ’Now we will consign this document to the flames,’ and proposed that I should burn it over the candles. After the destruction of the ’document’, we drank vodka and sat down to supper. I rarely saw Dmitri Dmitriyevich as calm, and even merry, as he was that evening. We sat up till the early hours of the morning. Nina Vasilyevna laughingly recounted how I was worried that Vitosha would get a bad upbringing in the orphanage; it was then that I discovered that they had decided to take her into their own home.”
But Weinberg’s personal response to the attacks on himself and those close to him remained stoic and positive. Among his prolific output in almost every musical genre are 17 string quartets and 26 complete symphonies, the last of which, ”Kaddish”, was written in memory of the Jews who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. Weinberg donated the manuscript score to the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel. In 1968 he wrote “Die Passagierin“, a ‘shatteringly intense’ opera with a libretto based on the novel of the same name by Zofia Posmysz, a native of Krakow who survived three years in the Nazi horror factories of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbrück. Weinstein considered it to be the most significant of his compositions, although he never heard it performed. The opera was only premiered in 2010; Director David Pountney brought Posmysz on stage.
Two months before his death in 1996, dispirited by Russia’s disregard for him and weakened by a long battle with Crohn’s disease, Weinberg converted to the Russian Orthodox Church. Weinberg: “Many of my works are related to the theme of war. This, alas, was not my own choice. It was dictated by my fate, by the tragic fate of my relatives. I regard it as my moral duty to write about the war, about the horrors that befell mankind in our century.”
While I can’t say I identify with his response to the life forced upon him, I can’t help but be moved by the life itself.
Here’s the first movement (Adagio) of his Cello Concerto Opus 43, as performed by the masterful and muscular Mstislav Rostropovich.
String Quartet #16 in Ab Minor, Op. 130 – I Allegro
String Quartet #7 in C Major, Op. 59 – I Adagio
Piano Sonata Op. 46 I Allegretto
If you liked this post, you may also like:
084: Dmitri Shostakovich, Prelude & Fugue No 16 in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolaeva)
086: ‘Different Trains’, Steve Reich (Kronos Quartet)
Posted by jeff on Jan 25, 2013 in A Cappella
, Song Of the week
The Swingle Singers – ‘Sinfonia from Partita No. 2 in C Minor’
The Swingle Singers, 2013
I had the great pleasure last week of hanging out with The Swingle Singers. They were coming to our little corner of the globe for a couple of concerts, and graciously agreed to give a workshop for the growing local a cappella community. Both the workshop and the concert were knockouts, and I highly recommend you following their tour calendar and trying to catch them the next time they’re in your neighborhood. Here’s what they look and sound like today. Ain’t no one who won’t enjoy them, from the most casual listener to the most effete snob.
I wrote at some length in SoTW 139 about the history of the Swingle Swingers, the context in which they sprouted, the path they’ve traveled, and especially where they are today. In short, the original Swingle Singers were formed in 1963 in Paris under the direction of Ward Swingle singing Bach instrumental scores in eight voices with a jazz bass and drum accompaniment. They disbanded after a successful decade, and Ward regrouped in London. This new incarnation worked for the next thirthysomething years, into our current century, as an evolving a cappella group performing technically polished treatments of a standard range of folk, pop, classical and traditional music. In recent years they’ve become associated with the “contemporary a cappella” movement, which I’ve written about extensively, becoming a world leader in this burgeoning cult.
They’re creating new and exciting music, and they’ve just begun. They’re planning on recording a lot of new material for their 50th anniversary, and judging by the two samples from their recent concert, some new ground is about to be broken. One very impressive piece featured a fluid harmonic center gliding between keys while being driven by a programmatic rhythmic scheme. Bartok would sit up and listen intently. The other began with the bass creating a beatboxing backing loop, then added Billie Holiday’s vocal track from ‘Don’t Explain’ isolated from its backing and run through a compressor/limiter and distorted, à la ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’!! Then the group overlays this potpourri with a demure choral ‘accompaniment’ overriding Lady Day. Say wa??
The original Swingle Singers
Clare Wheeler, the very talented arranger and alto of the group, told me that for much of their audience, ‘The Swingle Singers’ means singing Bach in a jazz setting. But for her and all the current Swingles, it means creating new, innovative, interesting music. Just like Ward Swingle did fifty years ago, when he pretty much invented the mindset of crossover and opened up the music world to the potential of classical music in popular contexts, vocal jazz and so much more. In fact, she told me, the 86-year old Ward Swingle heartily approves of ‘the new stuff’ and encourages the youngsters to pursue new directions rather than slavishly copying the original Swingle music.
“For him, The Swingle Singers is about being innovative. We see ourselves as a band, striving to create good music, not a party trick slavishly adhering to a principle such as doing everything strictly a cappella.”
The Swingle Singers, 2013
I loved hearing that, and was encouraging Clare to be bold and continue taking bold chances, because they’re a hip, young, fun group of musicians. But they also carry that name, and with it a mantle of noblesse oblige and the aura of that great, groundbreaking music that I was singing twenty years before any of the current Swingles was born.
So I sheepishly asked them if they knew my very favorite piece from one of my very favorite albums, the ‘Sinfonia from Partita No.2 in C Minor, BWV 826’ from the very original “Bach’s Greatest Hits”. ‘Sure’, they said, ‘it’s still in our repertoire, but we haven’t sung it since Ward’s party a few years ago.’ Wow. I sure would get a kick out of hearing Clare and Jo and CJ and Kevin and Oliver and Ed singing that ‘Sinfonia’, with Sara singing that crazy, divine virtuoso lead which will forever be one of my very favorite pieces of music.
It begins with a formal choral introduction, then launches into an extended scat solo that makes you wonder what Johann was smoking back there behind the chapel organ. That’s followed by a long polyphonic fade (actually if you look at the score it’s only two voices, but in Bach’s hands that sounds like twenty.) I’ve listened to it some three trillion times, and I can sing about 80% of the notes. Not that it’s challenging music or anything.
Glenn Gould practicing
Just to start off on solid ground, here it is by my favorite babushka, Tatyana Nikolayeva.
And here’s the piece by our favorite Canadian whacko, Mr Glenn Gould. It’s actually pretty restrained for him. But if you want to witness the madness lurking beneath that veneer of respectability, check out this clip of Glenn Gould practicing the Sinfonia.It’s not recommended for children or those weak of constitution. You might want to fasten your seatbelt and take a valium before watching this one.
Here’s what it looked like back when the world and I (and The Swingle Singers) were young, the original Swingles singing the original Swingle Bach. The lead soprano is Christine Legrand, Michel’s sister.
And here’s the ‘original’ recording, the one I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to sing along with for fifty years, longer than these seven whippersnapper Swingles have been swingling combined. What do they know? Well, they’re lovely people and fine musicians, tall singers on the shoulders of giants. They actually know quite a lot, and I’m looking forward to them showing more. But nothing can alter the lifelong love affair I’ve had with the original Swingle Singers, 1963, singing ‘Sinfonia from Partita No.2 in C Minor, BWV 826’.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
005: Glenn Gould, Toccata in Cm (J.S. Bach)
077: J.S. Bach, ‘The Art of The Fugue’ (The Emerson Quartet, ‘Contrapunctus 9′)
139: The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’ (James Taylor)
Posted by jeff on Mar 2, 2012 in Classical
, Song Of the week
Caution: This week’s SoTW may contain content unsuitable for minors and some adults.
I. Allegro (Part 1), Allegro (Part 2)
II. Andante con moto (Part 1), Andante con moto (Part 2)
Before Franz Schubert died in 1828 at the age of 31, Pfennigless and a commercial flop, he had composed 600 Lieder (romantic art songs), nine symphonies, and a whole pile of chamber and solo piano music. His greatest hits include the Marche Militaire for a 4-handed pianist; the “Unfinished” Symphony; the “Trout” string quintet; “Ave Maria” (which started out as a translation of Sir Walter Scott’s poem ‘Lady of the Lake’ beginning with an ‘Ave Maria’ greeting–an 1820 ‘Yo Bro’ – but the text of the entire Latin prayer somehow stuck to the melody); and one of my personal favorites, the String Quintet in C Major. But for our Song of The Week (okay, it’s not a song – sue me) we’ve chosen his hands-down #1 smash hit on the Classical Horror Music chart – “Death and the Maiden” (“Der Tod und das Mädchen”).
Schubert first dealt with the subject at the age of 20 in his 1817 lied “Der Tod und das Mädchen”, the text taken from a poem by a minor German poet, Matthias Claudius:
|Das Mädchen:Vorüber! Ach, vorüber!Geh, wilder Knochenmann!Ich bin noch jung! Geh, lieber,
Und rühre mich nicht an.
Und rühre mich nicht an.
|The Maiden ass me by! Oh, pass me by!Go, fierce man of bones!I am still young! Go, rather,
And do not touch me.
And do not touch me.
|Der Tod:Gib deine Hand, du schön und zart Gebild!Bin Freund, und komme nicht, zu strafen.Sei gutes Muts! ich bin nicht wild,
Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen!
|Death:Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!I am a friend, and come not to punish.Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,
Softly shall you sleep in my arms!
Hans Baldung Grien, 1485
Seven years later, acutely aware of his impending death and tortured by his failure to achieve recognition as a composer, he used the theme of the lied as the basis for the second movement (Andante con moto) of the String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, also named “Death and the Maiden”.
The motif first appeared in Medieval art as the “Dance of Death” (Danse Macabre), an allegory on the universality of death: no matter one’s station in life, the Dance of Death unites all. The Danse Macabre consists of personified Death leading representatives from all walks of life (typically a pope, an emperor, a king, a child, and a laborer) to dance along to the grave. These paintings were intended to remind people of the fragility of their lives and how vain were the glories of earthly life.
In Renaissance art the motif added an erotic twist and metamorphosed into Death and the Maiden. (The clash between Eros and Thanatos goes all the way back to the Greeks: The young goddess Persephone was gathering flowers in company of carefree nymphs when she saw a pretty narcissus and plucked it. At that moment, the ground opened, Hades came out of the underworld and abducted her. When the Greeks said ‘Don’t pick the flowers!’, Persephie dear, they meant it.)
Dance of Death, Michael Wolgemut (b. 1434)
The Renaissance artists may have been attracted to the virgin as the epitome of vitality, contrasting most sharply with skeletal death. Or, according to scholars more learned than I, they may have used her as an excuse to portray a naked woman. Kind of like slasher movies today, I guess.
In 1517, Hans Baldung Grien painted this painting in which Death seizes a girl by the hair and forces her to go down in to the tomb dug at her feet. Death indicates with its right hand the grave. The girl, completely naked, does not try to resist. Her mouth is plaintive, her eyes are red and tears run down on her cheeks; but she understands this is the end. Here’s a fascinating article on the subject.
Hans Beham 1548
A couple of years before Schubert wrote his quartet, he wrote to a friend: “Think of a man whose health can never be restored, and who from sheer despair makes matters worse instead of better. Think, I say, of a man whose brightest hopes have come to nothing, to whom love and friendship are but torture, and whose enthusiasm for the beautiful is fast vanishing; and ask yourself if such a man is not truly unhappy.”
Oh, those Moderns--Edvard Munch 1894
Well, he was no virgin – he was dying of advanced syphilis. But he certainly knew something about Death. His “Der Tod und das Mädchen” is a harrowing expression of the spectre of his imminent end; in the words of critic Andrew Clements, “its bleak vision and almost unremitting foreboding”.
It’s some of the most dramatic music I know, hyper-energetic throughout, an astounding amount of music for sixteen strings played by sixteen fingers (well, seventeen if you count the cellist’s thumb). There’s a notable lack of solo voices throughout–more often two pairs playing in tandem.
Schubert’s one accomplishment during his lifetime was to inspire devotion from a close circle of supporters. In life, as the maiden so painfully learns, you go to the grave alone. But harmony, as this quartet shows so memorably, is made with the help of your friends.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
124: Bill Evans, ‘Nardis’ (another dying artist shouting at his approaching death)
077: J.S. Bach, ‘The Art of The Fugue’
012: Arvo Pärt, ‘Cantate Domino’
Posted by jeff on Oct 7, 2011 in Classical
, Song Of the week
Tonight’s the night when we Jews face up to the way we lead our lives. It’s the night when God sits in judgment and hands down the final verdict of what is going to be in the coming year, for each and every one of us.
(L to R) Man, God
It’s our version of “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake”, but it’s no roly-poly bearer of shiny gifts chuckling yo-ho-ho. It’s a very stern, serious God up there, and there’s no levity surrounding the day. It’s a matter of life and death. Every person, if and when he can bring himself to look Life in the eye, takes the matter seriously. We all want to live, to live well, we and our loved ones. So we try to repent deeply in our hearts for what we’ve done wrong, and resolve to do better next year, and pray sincerely for God to judge us with mercy. Because to tell the truth, we’ve made a lot of mistakes. And if God judges us harshly, we really don’t stand much chance. So we can only pray for His mercy. Read more…