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This year is the centenary of Mieczysław Weinberg’s birth. It has been marked by a number of conferences and performances that have helped to raise awareness of an important composer who has, unjustly, sometimes been dismissed as a poor man’s Shostakovich. Daniel Elphick’s book is the only one on Weinberg to appear this year (David Fanning and Michelle Assay’s definitive biography will appear in 2020). As its title suggests, it places his music in the context of his Polish contemporaries, principally through analyses of Weinberg’s string quartets, which were the subject of Elphick’s PHD.

For those familiar with even a fraction of his vast output, Weinberg’s obscurity is difficult to fathom. Many of his compositions – his opera The Passenger, the 21st ‘Kaddish’ Symphony, his Sixth String Quartet and his song-cycle based on poems by Sándor Petőfi– rank with the finest music of the 20th century. So to what can his neglect be attributed?

Weinberg was born in Warsaw to musical parents: his mother was a singer, his father a conductor and violinist at the Warsaw Jewish Theatre, where Metek, as he was known to friends and family, took his first musical steps. After fleeing to Minsk, following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Weinberg heard the music of Shostakovich for the first time, in a performance of the Fifth Symphony. It was ‘as if a thousand electrical charges were piercing me,’ he recalled.

Shostakovich soon became acquainted with the music of Weinberg after his father-in-law, the great Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, had sent him a score of the First Symphony. Shostakovich was so impressed that he invited Weinberg to Moscow where the two became great friends and colleagues. Elphick believes Weinberg’s influence on Shostakovich was initially greater than the other way round: ‘Tantalisingly, several of Shostakovich’s earlier quartets betray a strong influence from Weinberg’s own … the thematic material of the first movement of Shostakovich’s Second Quartet compares directly with the … opening of Weinberg Second Quartet composed in 1940, four years before Shostakovich’s.’ Elphick goes further: ‘If Weinberg’s Sixth were programmed with contemporary works by Shostakovich, the comparative lack of quality in Shostakovich’s early essays in the genre would be revealed.’

Yet Weinberg’s Sixth Quartet finished on a list of proscribed works, its premiere delayed for 60 years, after Weinberg was arrested on a trumped up charge of Jewish bourgeois nationalism. He joked that he should have been arrested for Polish bourgeois nationalism, since his library was full of Polish, not Jewish, literature. But when Weinberg returned to Poland in 1966 as part of a Soviet musical delegation, his music was dismissed by his avant-garde Polish contemporaries as too traditional.

‘The 1966 festival,’ writes Elphick, ‘represents perhaps the most direct confrontation that Weinberg had with his complicated heritage from three different worlds – the problem of being Jewish or Polish in the Soviet Union, and in turn being introduced as Jewish-Russian in Poland.’

Another casualty of Soviet cultural suppression was The Passenger, which Weinberg considered his greatest achievement. The opera remained unperformed during his lifetime, its Auschwitz setting considered, incorrectly, too specifically Jewish in a country where the Holocaust was dismissed as just another aspect of the Great Patriotic War. And for those wanting to define Weinberg by his Jewishness, there is the problem that he converted to Orthodox Christianity on his deathbed.

Weinberg’s fluid nationality has undoubtedly been a major factor in his neglect, but to interpret his music through that prism is to deny the unique, authentic voice of one who claimed, ‘I have always written, and continue to write, as I hear and as I feel.’

Elphick claims that today Weinberg’s ambiguous identity is what lends him strength.

‘In the 21st century, this blend of identities and their overarching humanist message is ultimately what makes Weinberg’s music so powerful. He tells us something very complex, honest, optimistic and fatalistic, about what it means to be human, and the loves and losses that occur as a result.’ Elphick’s fascinating book is the product of a long and deep engagement with Weinberg’s life and work, essential reading for anyone wishing to understand him, and an answer for those who might wonder why this undoubted genius has been so unfairly neglected.

MARK GLANVILLE Read the full review on Agora Classica

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