Director David Pountney discusses Mieczyslaw Weinberg.
I have been living with Weinberg’s music for the last 3 years, an increasingly exciting experience! It all started with a leaflet from the publisher announcing they had acquired the rights to an opera – The Passenger – with music by Weinberg – who? – friend of Shostakovich – aha – heard of him! – subject Auschwitz….Well this piece of paper was halfway to the bin when I thought, wait a minute….and three years later I now know that Weinberg was an extraordinary man driven by his bitter personal experiences to spend a lifetime writing music of searing power and quality. He was a Polish Jew, born in Warsaw, who escaped the Nazis by fleeing into the Soviet Union. He lost his entire family, and could only justify this survival by continuing to pour out music – 27 symphonies, 17 string quartets, 6 operas etc.
The Soviet Union saved him, but also persecuted him: he was arrested in 1953 as part of Stalin’s anti-semitic purges, but luckily for him Stalin died and Weinberg’s close friend Shostakovich engineered his release. His most important opera, The Passenger, was blocked from performance – condemned for its “abstract humanism” – code for wasting sympathy on Jews rather than promoting the communist cause. And so Weinberg and his librettist turned to safer ground, adapting a Russian literary classic, Gogol’s tale “The Portrait”. This is something quite different from The Passenger and the many Weinberg symphonies which recall the suffering of the war: this is a biting satire on the question of artistic integrity – a resonant topic for all those who had somehow to survive life in a totalitarian society. Today, artists are corrupted by money and fame, but the effect is the same….they just have less excuse. They are not fighting for their survival after all.
Weinberg survived by writing film music, circus music, and very charming music for a Russian cartoon of Winnie the Pooh – all good training grounds for a theatre composer – but he never let these financial strategies deflect him from his true purpose. Finally, an overdue revival is beginning. Last summer’s Bregenz Festival gave the world stage premiere of The Passenger, which is now out on DVD (Neos) and presented a further 22 works! Tap in his name on Amazon and you will find a good list of recordings: it’s a discovery well worth making.