7

086: ‘Different Trains’, Steve Reich (Kronos Quartet)

Posted by jeff on Aug 1, 2017 in Classical, Other, Song Of the week

Different Trains (Parts I, II, III)

Need one apologize for listening tastes? You can listen to Justin Bieber or ‘Lawrence Welk Plays Your Polka Favorites’ all you want, I don’t care. I wish you wouldn’t tell me about it, but I don’t deny your democratic or aesthetic right to do so.

So I’m not going to apologize for the fact that in recent months I’ve become quite engrossed in Minimalist music. I realize this may not do much for my popularity at school or for the ratings of this blog, so maybe next week I’ll write about a Motown song, like The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself”, just to keep the Hit-o-meter popping.

Aware of the dangers, this week I’m going to share with you the unique experience I’ve been having with Minimalist music, specifically that of Steve Reich, specifically his composition “Different Trains”.

I admit that my tastes can run at times to the arcane, the rarified, the–well, let’s call a spade a spade–the weird. I try to mix up SoTW, but I’m aware that I’ve been on a run of crowd-displeasers recently, such as Shostakovich and Randy Newman (though I sure do believe that if people of taste made the effort to break through the unprettiness of the veneer, they could get to appreciate and love them as I do. This week we’re going even further. I really don’t think that Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” is for everyone. But it has been speaking very loudly, clearly, and affectively to me, so I want to share it with you. Here come some boring definitions:

Interior, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

‘Minimalism‘ is often applied to designate anything which is spare or stripped to its essentials. Minimalism began as a post-WWII movement in visual arts where the work is stripped down to its most fundamental features; it expanded to encompass a movement in music which features repetition and iteration. The term has been used to describe a trend in design and architecture (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “Less is more”) wherein the subject is reduced to its necessary elements, often employing functional elements for aesthetic purposes (Buckminster Fuller). It has also been associated with Japanese traditional design and architecture; with the plays of Samuel Beckett, the films of Robert Bresson, the writing of Ernest Hemingway, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Raymond Carver, with poet William Carlos Williams; and even with the automobile designs of Colin Chapman.

Agnes Martin, oil

Hey, I know almost all of those! (Well, I picked mostly ones I know, and I’m sure going to check out that Colin Chapman guy.)

‘Minimalist music‘ began in the 1960s as an underground contemporary classical scene in New York and San Francisco, based mostly on “consonant harmony, steady pulse (if not immobile drones), stasis or gradual transformation, and often reiteration of musical phrases or smaller units such as figures, motifs, and cells. It may include features such as additive process and phase shifting.” [We may not know all of those terms, but we get the gist, don’t we?] The composers associated with it are John Cage, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. Strong Minimalist elements can also be found in contemporary classical music employing traditional stylistic elements, such as that of Arvo Pärt (‘Holy Minimalism’) and John Tavener (‘Mystic Minimalism’), and even reaching back to composers such as Eric Satie, Carl Orff and Anton Webern.

 

Donald Judd, sculpture

New Age and much World music certainly huddle under the Minimalist umbrella. In jazz this aesthetic is rife; there’s even an entire label, EMC, dedicated to minimalist music.

[Here comes the neat part!] Minimal music is also present in pop music. Psychedelic rock acts of the 1960s and 1970s used repetitive structures and droning techniques to express the hallucinations of LSD and other drugs in a musical language. The Velvet Underground’s John Cale had an especially close working connection with La Monte Young. Minimalism also impacted Progressive Rock [a genre I’ve studiously avoided over the years], in artists such as Soft Machine, King Crimson, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Mike Oldfield and Tangerine Dream.

[Here comes the REALLY neat part!] In the 1990s Trance dance music was largely influenced by minimalism, based on repetitive instrumental structures. A recent favorite of mine, the ultra-bizarre Antony and The Johnsons, exhibit a completely original style of art songs, what I’d call ‘tone poems’. I’ll introduce you to “him” sometime soon, I promise.

Meanwhile, back to Steve Reich (b. 1936). He studied at Cornell (thesis on Wittgenstein, whom he of course later set to music) and Julliard. While driving a cab for a living, jazz drumming for fun, and living with Phil Glass for company, he began composing experimental music in a variety of contexts in the 1960s. A lot of it employed sampling (which anticipated the emergence of hip-hop by decades) and ‘phasing’, a process whereby two tape loops lined up in unison gradually move out of phase with each other, ultimately coming back into sync. Here are some of his notable early works:

  • ‘It’s Gonna Rain’, a phased piece constructed out of a 13-second sample of a sermon by the minister Brother Walter.
  • ‘Drumming’ (inspired by a journey to Ghana) was scored for four pairs of bongos, three marimbas, three glockenspiels, and voice.
  • ‘Pendulum Music’ which consists of the sound of several microphones swinging over the loudspeakers to which they are attached, producing feedback as they do so.

Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s “Point Blank” (1967)

But it’s not all just weird, I promise you. Well, it is weird, but it’s not just weird.

  • ‘Music for 18 Musicians’, one of his seminal works, in a very fine live rendition
  • ‘Clapping Music’ – one performer keeps a line of a 12-quaver-long (12-eighth-note-long) phrase and the other performer shifts by one quaver beat every 12 bars, until both performers are back in unison 144 bars later; here’s a live performance; and here’s a TOTALLY mind-boggling version using a loop from one of the great B-movies of all time, John Boorman’s 1968 “Point Blank”, with the incredible Lee Marvin and the even incredibler Angie Dickinson

In later years, Reich began to draw materials from his Jewish background, such as ‘Tehillim’ (Psalms).

And for our Song of The Week, we’re bringing to you ‘Different Trains’, a three-movement piece for string quartet and tape (1988), which actually won the Grammy Award in 1990 for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Snippets of recorded speech are used here as a melodic (rather than rhythmic) theme.

The piece is Reich’s attempt, as an American Jew, to explore the legacy for him of the European Holocaust – a theme that has occupied me greatly throughout my life.

Recorded spoken phrases of his governess, a retired Pullman porter, and various Holocaust survivors are interlaid with the playing of the astounding Kronos Quartet. Reich compares and contrasts (“America-Before the War – Movement 1”) his childhood memories of his train journeys between New York and California in 1939–1941 (he traveled between his parents, who were separated) with the very different trains (“Europe-During the War – Movement 2”) being used to transport contemporaneous European children to their deaths under Nazi rule, and then (“After the War – Movement 3”) with the Holocaust survivors talking about the years immediately following World War II.

Kronos Quartet

A leading professor of musicology, Richard Taruskin, called it “the only adequate musical response—one of the few adequate artistic responses in any medium—to the Holocaust”, and credited the piece with earning Reich a place among the great composers of the 20th century. Reich has been described by The Guardian as one of “a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history”, and critic Kyle Gann has said Reich “may be considered, by general acclamation, America’s greatest living composer.”

You can find the definitive version of ‘Different Trains’ by The Kronos Quartet at the top of this page. You might also want to check out this striking rendition of Part 2 by The Smith Quartet from a BBC broadcast, a much more straightforward explication of the Holocaust elements in the piece.

I understand that Steve Reich sells fewer albums than Arrowsmith, and that The Kronos Quartet won’t sell out Madison Square Gardens performing this piece. Nobody’s going to put them on the bill with Justin Bieber, probably not even with Wayne Newton.

But I’m not alone in finding this work riveting, profound and moving.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:

012: Arvo Pärt, ‘Cantate Domino’

073: Erik Satie, ‘Gymnopédie No. 1′

084: Dmitri Shostakovich, Prelude & Fugue No 16 in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolaeva)

SoTW is a non-commercial, non-profit venture, intended solely to promote the appreciation of good music. Readers are strongly encouraged to purchase the music discussed here at sites such as Amazon

Tags: , ,

 
6

084: Dmitri Shostakovich, Prelude & Fugue No 16 in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolaeva)

Posted by jeff on Jan 18, 2017 in Classical, Personal, Song Of the week

Shostakovich, Prelude in B-Flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolayeva)   (1987 version, if you want to be really anal about this)

Shostakovich, Fugue in B-Flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolayeva)   (1992 version, what the hell, take a walk on the wild side and mix them)

Bach, Prelude and Fugue in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolayeva)

In the late 1990s I went through a musical transmogrification. Prior to it, I knew American/British pop/rock music pretty thoroughly, from 1956 on up into the 1980s and 1990s, when I found precious little new music of interest. I found myself haunting Used LP stores, lying on the musty carpet, crawling back under the stacks into the dusty bins of throwaways, looking for unfamiliar vinyl gems of oblique interest, such as Post-Peter Noone Herman’s Hermits or ‘The Fleetwoods Live at the Pink Lady’ or ‘Pete Best’s Greatest Hits Vol III or ‘Petula Clark Sings Robert Johnson’. I said to myself, “Perhaps this seam is mined out, Jeff, and it’s time to broaden your horizons.”

To tell the truth, I was going through some other mid-life bumps, changing jobs and a lot more. I needed an aural detoxification program. Who does one turn to? Johann Sebastian Bach (1665-1750), of course. I spent over a year listening almost solely to ‘Art of the Fugue‘, ‘Musical Offering’, the Cello Suites, the Sonatas and Partitas for Violin, and the solo ‘piano’ repertoire: the English Suites, the French Suites, the Partitas, the Toccatas, the 2-Part Inventions and 3-Part Sinfonias, the Goldberg Variations, a great CD of atypical flashy virtuoso pieces called “Brendel Plays Bach”, and of course, ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’.

In Bach’s time, keyboard instruments (harpsichords and klavichords) were tuned to a specific scale (key)–C, F#, whatever.  Theorists had come up with a scheme in which the keyboard would be tuned in equal intervals, a compromise solution which enabled playing in any key on a single instrument. Bach tried out such instruments, and composed two works to demonstrate their chops, “Das Wohltemperierte Klavier” Volumes I (1722) and II (1744). Each one consisted of a cycle of 24 pieces, each one with a prelude and fugue, written in ascending order, major/minor. Together, they’re known as “The 48” (2×24). In other words, each one is constructed thus: C major prelude and fugue, C minor prelude and fugue; C# major prelude and fugue, C# minor prelude and fugue, etc.

Sounds pretty dry, I admit, but artists have been employing artificial conventions as vessels for their inspiration since time immemorial (“Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net”–Robert Frost), and Bach is Bach, and The 48 is one of the greatest works of art made by man.

So back in the late 1990s I listened to The 48 several trillion times, and was duly moved and transported and spiritually consoled. I used to view Bach as imposing arbitrary order on a chaotic world, eliciting sense out of disorder. I still do, actually. And then one day I happened upon an homage to The 48 written in the early 1950s by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).

Shostakovich was a thoroughly modernist composer who maintained a rocky relationship with the oppressive Soviet regime under which he lived. He was Russia’s most prominent composer, too well-known and respected to be sent to the Gulag or to be disappeared, although a friend testified in 1948 that “he waited for his arrest at night out on the landing by the lift, so that at least his family wouldn’t be disturbed.” He was twice denounced for anti-Socialist ‘formalism’ (in 1936 and 1948). He sometimes wrote personal pieces he knew could not be performed, sought professional refuge in teaching or writing for films or politically proper venues. For example, in 1939, Leningrad Party Secretary Andrei Zhdanov commissioned from him a “Suite on Finnish Themes” to be performed by the marching bands of the Red Army as they entered the conquered Helsinki. Shostakovich never claimed the composition as his own.

Siege of Leningrad

This same Zhdanov, who decided during the siege of Leningrad to give food to the defending army rather than to the starving populace, became Minister of Culture, Stalin’s right-hand man, and masterminded the post-war cultural purge. In 1950 he rehabilitated Shostakovich in order to humiliate him by sending him abroad as official representative of the Soviet Union. The event was a festival in Leipzig marking the bicentennial of Bach’s death, where Dmitri was a judge for the first International Bach competition. One of the competitors was a 26-year old pianist Shostakovich had met in Moscow, Tatiana Nikolayeva. She performed pieces from the Well-Tempered Clavier (which Shostakovich had played as a young piano student, although they had nothing of the stature they were to gain from the 1950s onwards) and won the gold medal.

Back in the USSR (ouch!), Shostakovich was inspired to compose his own cycle of 24 preludes and fugues. These were dangerously personal pieces, but he was protected by the fact that Bach was perceived by the Evil Empire as a champion of the proletariat! According to the lengthy article on Bach published in 1973 in the Soviet Musical Encyclopedia, “The national and democratic tendencies of Bach’s creativity find their source in the protestant chorale. It was Friedrich Engels who described one of the most famous examples, Ein’ feste Burg is unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God) as ‘the Marseillaise of the 17th century.’”

Shostakovich worked quickly, averaging only three days for each piece. As each was completed he would invite Nikolayeva to his Moscow apartment to show off his work. The complete work was written between October 10, 1950 and February 25, 1951. He dedicated it to her, and she premiered it in Leningrad December 23, 1952.

On a formal level, Shostakovich’s Opus 87 (not to be confused from his ’24 Preludes’ Op. 34) has significant differences from Bach’s 48. The compositions don’t move upwards in chromatic steps, but rather in relative major/minor pairs around the circle of fifths: C major, A minor, G major, E minor, D major, B minor, and so on – the same organization as Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s set of 24 preludes (1815) and Chopin’s and Joseph Christoph Kessler’s sets (both 1839, apparently a very good year for such cycles).

“In his Preludes and Fugues, Shostakovich never loses sight of the Bach model that inspired him, but still employs all the harmonic and other possibilities available to a mid-20th-century composer. Many of the pieces in the cycle possess an improvisatory, unfettered character; they are aware of tradition without being paralyzed by it. Shostakovich does not make obvious direct references to the Bach cycle. The preludes and fugues in each pair are more closely linked thematically and harmonically than is the case in Bach, and there is no pause between them in performance.” (Harlow Robinson).

From the piece’s premiere till the 1990s–the same years I was listening to rock music–the only three recordings of real note were by Tatiana Nikolaeva, 1962 and 1987 (Melodiya) and 1991 (Hyperion). But since then the cycle has been widely recorded, perhaps two dozen versions, a very popular one by Keith Jarrett (which I feel lacks the gravitas of the Russian’s) and an audacious one by Finnish Olli Mustonen, who coupled Bach’s and Shostakovich’s pieces, interspersing them in order.

It’s Ms Nikolaeva’s 1987 version that I’ve listened to all the years, and the one that remains my point of reference. Our Song of The Week, then, is Prelude & Fugue No. 16 in B-flat minor.

Here’s Tatiana Nikolaeva’s 1987 version, prelude and fugue, playing along with the score. And here’s her 1992 version.

And here’s Keith Jarrett’s very legitimate take on the same piece.

Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues is not music for the light of heart, lazy of mind, or facile of spirit, and No 16 is one of the darker pieces in the cycle. But we do have the benefit of the composer, a fine pianist in his own right, offering us his own interpretation. Here’s the prelude and fugue.

Here’s a video clip of Tatiana Nikolaeva playing Prelude No. 17.

Like Bach, like all great artists, like all great tennis players–the formal constraints provide rules and boundaries; but it is what is expressed in them–the living, breathing, personal, unique expression–that leaves its mark.

I’m still in a pretty dark place. An inconsolable place. Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues provide no facile answers. But they do formulate the questions in a way that makes my heart understand that it’s not alone in this universe in visiting the darker side of the human experience.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTW 005:  Toccata in Cm, JS Bach (Glenn Gould)

SoTW 077: ‘The Art of the Fugue’, JS Bach (The Emerson Quartet)

Tags: , , ,

 
5

077: J.S. Bach, ‘The Art of The Fugue’ (The Emerson Quartet, ‘Contrapunctus 9’)

Posted by jeff on Jun 8, 2016 in Classical, Song Of the week

My knowledge of classical music is patchier than an Iowa quilt. But my wife still harbors delusions that I’ll grow up some day, and in her mind listening to Bach is a more dignified and mature activity than listening to The Beach Boys. Well, a lot of people with highly-refined musical sensibilities don’t really understand Brian Wilson, but the opposite is the opposite, I believe. Anyone – even a corner-boy drug dealer from West Baltimore, who takes a moment to pause and listen to “The Art of the Fugue” by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) – must grasp that he is standing before a grandeur and beauty rare in the course of our ordinary lives. Like standing on the lip of the Grand Canyon. Like gazing at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Like hearing your grandchild say “I love you, Poppa.” Those moments in which we transcend the traffic-jam that is our life.

JS Bach, 1746

Bach wrote this work during the last decade of his life, parallel to the B-minor Mass, another momentous work. But if the Mass is an exploration of how God informs and transforms the human soul, “The Art of the Fugue” is a demonstration of the counterpoint between the sublime, infinite perfection of God’s laws of nature and the workings of the human mind.

Let’s start with a couple of terms, just to get us on the same page of the score.

Fugue – a composition built on a subject and one or more ‘imitations’ (variations), which recur in opposition to each other. A fugue usually has an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation returning to the subject in the tonic key.

Counterpoint – the interaction (literally ‘point against point’) of two or more voices that are independent in contour, rhythm and harmony.

The two usually go together. In other words, you have two or more independent lines interweaving, comprising a unified whole. There’s a whole world of theory underlying this, which I wouldn’t try to explain if I could. But it’s way, way beyond my Pooh-brain’s capacity. In “The Art of the Fugue”, Bach set out to explore the extreme limits of this form.

He begins with ‘simple’ fugues (believe me, that’s a technical term, not a lay description), which are actually two voices—a main theme and another completely independent line which plays against it. Then you get an inverted fugue, where Herr Bach turns the score upside down and continues playing it. But not necessarily in the same voice–he can move it up a third, or a fourth, or an eleventh, whatever he feels like on that fine Leipzig morning. That’s four lines intertwining, yes? But then he’s getting bored, so he combines the two, the original fugue together with its inversion, maybe taking one of the lines at half speed, one at double speed. And then, after a cup of coffee, he’ll write another ‘mirror’ line that can be played the same either forward or backwards.

And that just takes us halfway through the work, which comprises fourteen fugues and four canons. The structure of the pieces in the second half are so complex that even anal I can’t get through a single paragraph describing the workings under the hood.

“The governing idea of the work is an exploration in depth of the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in a single musical subject.” (Chrisoph Wolff). Each of the fugues uses this theme as its basis:

Here it is in a stripped-down harpsichord version, Contrapunctus 1.

“The Art of the Fugue” is unique in that it’s primarily a theoretical work. Bach didn’t even name it. His son-in-law attached the name “Die Kunst der Fuge” (BWV 1080). Bach didn’t even bother to orchestrate it – he failed to mention what instrument/s should play it, apparently because its performance was of secondary importance to him. Hence the many, many different settings in which it is played.

If you, like me in my weaker moments, think that various versions of a classical piece are inherently indistinguishable, try this exercise. Here are a number of versions of the same fugue. What will jump out and bite you is not only how greatly the orchestration impacts the piece, but how individual and discrete each one is from its colleagues.

For our Song of The Week, we’re presenting Contrapunctus 9, a 5, alla Duodecima. I have only the foggiest idea what that means, but it shor is pretty. We’ll start with my very favorite, the version I listen to most often, my default music for soothing my soul:

The Emerson Quartet

David Finckel, cellist of the Emerson Quartet: “I don’t know if there’s scientific evidence to support it, but when I listen to this music I feel my brain cells being realigned. The fugues are so complex yet so perfectly ordered, so respectful of the laws of physics that govern music and make it a universal language. Just hearing Bach’s work, even without much concentration, is like having my musical windows cleaned–all other music around me becomes clearer and more understandable.”

Bach didn’t quite finish “The Art of the Fugue”. While he was writing apparently the final fugue, based on the notes B-A-C-H (B natural), the score peters out. Bach’s son says he died while writing it. Here’s what the original looks like. Here’s what it sounds like, in Glenn Gould’s rendition:

Contrapunctus XIV (Fuga a 3 Soggetti) unfinished]

I confess–for me, listening to Bach isn’t so different from prayier. They are both human attempts to impose an artificial order upon an inherently chaotic world.  They’re both beautiful; and, thank God, they both make a lot of sense.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

005: Glenn Gould, Toccata in Cm (J.S. Bach)

012: Arvo Pärt, ‘Cantate Domino’

073: Erik Satie, ‘Gymnopédie No. 1′

Tags: , ,

 
6

097: Mstislav Rostropovich, ‘Cello Concerto Opus 43, Adagio’ (Mieczyslaw Weinberg)

Posted by jeff on May 4, 2016 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. Holocaust Day just ended, and here’s the stranger-than-fiction story of a Jewish composer from Eastern Europe.

Moishe Weinberg

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.

Kishinev Pogrom

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.

Solomon Mikhoels

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.

Dmitri Shostakovich

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.”

“Die Passagierin”

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.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg

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.

Mstislav Rostropovich

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)

Tags: , , , , ,

Copyright © 2017 Jeff Meshel's World. All Rights Reserved.