It is rather striking that I have never mentioned the composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg. He was a pupil of Dmitry Shostakovitch. I love Shostakovich’s music. And so far I ignored Weinberg. My first encounter with this composer was, let’s say, unfruitful. It was too early. Now it seems to me that it is almost too late.
Dorothea Shefer-Vanson, a blogger blogging from Israel, today wrote about an opera composed by Weinberg and dealing with the Holocaust. It sparked my curiosity, which is insatiable by the way, and Weinberg’s quartets immediately caught my attention. He wrote his String Quartet No. 2 (op. 3) in 1940. Weinberg was a Jew, he had studied in Warsaw until World War II broke out and he had fled to the Soviet Union. Soon after his flight, his family in Poland was murdered. He continued his studies in Minsk, at the time the capital of the Belorussian SSR. In 1941, when the German troops invaded the Soviet Union, Weinberg had to flee again. This time he ended up in Tashkent, where he worked as a coach at the opera house. Shostakovich heard of this promising composer, was impressed by Weinberg’s first symphony, and by 1942 Weinberg had joined Shostakovich in Moscow.
Weinberg’s second quartet then saw the light in the early phase of the German conquest of Europe, when the Wehrmacht seemed to be unstoppable, marching from one victory to the next. Weinberg certainly was aware of what his fate would be if the Germans should ever catch up with him. The quartet is written in four movements, and the first movement already has elements that I also identify in Shostakovich’s chamber music: the stark contrast between playful, innocent elements and frightening, forcefully dissonant parts. Fascinating! Was Weinberg at this point already familiar with Shostakovich’s music? I don’t know. Up to then Shostakovich had only written one quartet, op. 49, in 1938.
Weinberg was at the verge of a singular career when he wrote the quartet. He was little known in the Soviet Union for as long as it existed. Shostakovich was his inofficial teacher and official friend, but it was the master who stood in the limelight, not the student. Nevertheless Weinberg’s opus catalogue lists more than 150 numbers and there are innumerable compositions without opus numbers. Weinberg wrote 26 symphonies, more than a dozen stage scores, 17 string quartets, 28 sonatas for various instruments and solo instrumental and vocal music. An industrious and versatile man. He even wrote music for the circus! By now he is considered the third most important Soviet composer after Shostakovitch and Prokofiev.
I immediately fell in love with this quartet. And I felt like sharing it with you right now. It has been recorded by the Danel Quartet.
© Charles Thibo