Mieczyslaw Weinberg's Magnum Opus Finally Gets an Israeli Premiere

His family was murdered in the Holocaust, Stalin persecuted him and the Soviet regime ignored his work. Only now is the world discovering the artistry of the composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg

A scenes from “The Passenger.”  The opera is set on two levels – on a ship’s deck and in the Auschwitz of memory.
Karl Forster

“My father was a private person, very insular and helpless. He was shy, and on top of that he lived in Russia with a foreign accent – Polish. All of that actually gave him a great deal of charm. He was surrounded by people who were ready to help him with everything, his guardian angels,” says Victoria Bishops, the firstborn child of Mieczyslaw Weinberg. “The chief angel,” she continues, “was my mother, who saw to all his needs. He wasn’t really built for this life. In the good periods, when we had a summer house, a dacha, and regular vacations, father sat in an easy chair outside. Toward noontime he called to mother to come and show him where the shade was, so he would understand where to move the chair.”

But the shadows found him. Weinberg lost his family in the Holocaust, was battered and bruised by the Stalin government, and saw his work as a composer ignored by the Soviet regime. “He was fragile and gentle,” Bishops says, “and connected only to music. But the history of the 20th century pounded him again and again.”

This year marks the centenary of Weinberg’s birth. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra recently performed his violin concerto, and the Israeli Opera is currently staging a production of “The Passenger,” the opera that made him famous around the world (last performance: May 6).

The libretto, by Alexander Medvedev, is based on a radio play by Zofia Posmysz, a Polish author and concentration camp survivor who later reworked her play into a novel. The crux of the work is an extreme dramatic situation. A chance meeting on a ship between a German diplomat’s wife who served in the S.S. in Auschwitz, and an inmate she sent to her death, but who survived, invokes ghosts of the past. The opera takes place on two levels: on the ship’s deck and, principally, on the plane of memory, within Auschwitz. Even though it is set in territory that is very difficult to cope with artistically, “The Passenger” succeeds in maintaining a taut and jolting dramatic force, largely due to Weinberg’s music – which is for the most part lyric, melancholy and restrained even in the opera’s most tempestuous scenes.

“A large part of his work is melancholy, and dedicated in some way to the memory of his family and to the memory of the other Holocaust victims,” says the composer’s younger daughter, Anna Weinberg. (Both daughters were interviewed by telephone.) “But ‘The Passenger’ deals directly with those murdered in Auschwitz and is dedicated to them. Father considered it his most important work, in part for extra-musical reasons – commemoration – and also definitely for musical reasons. Shostakovich wrote that the work is a masterpiece, and father, too, felt he had reached a certain peak in it. It was written in 1968 but was not performed during the period of the Soviet regime. In 1967, relations with Israel were severed, and in any case, after Stalin the Soviet regime maintained institutional anti-Semitism, so a Jewish composer who also dealt with Jewish themes was inconvenient.”

“The Passenger” did not have its premiere – a semi-staged production in Moscow – until 2006, a decade after the composer’s death. Its success generated international interest, and in 2010 it was performed for the first time in a fully staged version, conducted by Teodor Currentzis and directed by David Pountney. The latter, together with the revival director Rob Kearley, is also responsible for the Israeli Opera version; the conductor is Steven Mercurio.

Sense of dread

Mieczyslaw Weinberg was born in Warsaw in 1919. He may actually have been born in December 1918, but his family “moved” his birthdate by a year, as many Jewish families did out of habit and tradition – the authorities had to be deceived. As far as is known, his parents called him Mojsze (Moshe), or Moishe. During most of his years in Russia he was known as Moisey, but later he opted for Mieczyslaw.

Victoria Bishops says: “Other than music, the most distinctive characteristic of my father’s personality is fear. In Russia, you bear your name and your father’s name. He explained to me that it would be best for me to be called Victoria Mieczyslawova and not Victoria Moiseyva, which is tantamount to a declaration of Jewish origin. He had other fears as well. If he had to travel to Leningrad or anywhere else to take part in recording music for films, he lay in bed, paralyzed with dread, for three days before the trip.”

Weinberg’s partings from his family were traumatic. “I’m not sure what happened in 1939,” sighs his elder daughter. “I have so many questions that I didn’t ask him when I could have. There are different versions of my father’s parting from his family. He himself told different stories. One time he told me that two days after the German invasion, his mother prepared sandwiches, packed his and his 15-year-old sister’s things, and sent them to escape to the east. The rest of the family did not survive. On other occasions he said that in August 1939 he traveled to a piano competition with a friend, a Polish pianist named Krzysztof Malcuzynski. “When the Germans invaded, in September,” she continues, “and Malcuzynski realized the danger to my father, he helped him organize and continue the flight eastward, into Russia. This is a particularly interesting story, because in 1966 or 1967 my father received a phone call from the Composers Union saying that a French pianist of Polish origin named Krzysztof Malcuzynski would like to meet with him. You have to understand: In the Soviet Union of that period you didn’t meet with people from abroad. It was like a visit from another planet.

“Father asked a dozen times if it was all right, if it was permitted, and if he could invite the guest to his home. Malcuzynski in fact came to our house, with his wife, who was French. They talked and laughed and played the piano four-hands. Afterward we went to a restaurant in the building of the Composers Union. The whole place was empty except for our table and another table where one diner was sitting. My father was very uneasy the whole evening and kept getting up. Only after we said goodbye to our guests did father say that the lone diner at the other table was the person who interrogated him when he was in detention in 1953. We couldn’t figure out whether it was a coincidence or surveillance, and if surveillance, why the KGB was working so openly.”

A year or two after the traumatic encounter with the interrogator in the restaurant, Weinberg wrote “The Passenger,” whose crux involves an encounter of a similar character.

Scenes from “The Passenger.”
Karl Forster

Weinberg was arrested in February 1953. “That is one of my most powerful childhood memories, and certainly the most frightening,” Bishops relates. “I woke up from sleep, at night, and two men, strangers and thugs, were conducting a search among my toys and books. In the morning father was not in the house. Mother and her sister were there with me. My mother and aunt were the daughters of Solomon Mikhoels, director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, who was murdered in 1948 at Stalin’s order.

“They told me that father had gone to write music for a film that was being made in Moldova. I had a very strong feeling that something scary was happening, but I didn’t dare to ask questions. The house, which had always been full of people, emptied out. Even my girlfriends didn’t come to visit. Mother and my aunt went to sleep at night fully dressed. Only later I understood: They, Mikhoels’ daughters, expected to be arrested also, and didn’t want to be found in a nightgown. I also learned the other details later. Father was in solitary confinement in a prison cell that was lit 24 hours a day by a strong projector. Dmitri Shostakovich, a close friend of my father, promised my mother that he would take me to his house and look after me if she were arrested. She was so much in dread that he promised her he would adopt me if she and father were executed.”

Distinctive language

Following Stalin’s death, on March 5, 1953, the government’s murderous policy underwent moderation. Weinberg was released from prison. Gradually, their home filled up with people again. “Mostly musicians,” Bishops recalls, “because he was immersed in music. ”

Among the musicians, Weinberg met almost every day with Shostakovich, until the latter’s death in 1975. “Father described himself as Shostakovich’s student,” Anna Weinberg notes, “but he didn’t get lessons from him. They met to talk about musical works and to exchange opinions. And to the best of my knowledge they were friends who influenced each other.”

Similar stylistic and period characteristics are discernible in the works of the two composers, though the personal style that sets each of them apart is also clear. Weinberg is more inward-looking and melancholy, and even though he was 13 years younger than Shostakovich he sounds a bit more conservative on first hearing. Closer listening reveals that Weinberg has a personal, distinctive language that possesses harmony of form and drama of restraint. The past decade has seen a large increase in the number of performances and recordings of Weinberg’s works. The success of “The Passenger,” together with the commitment of the violinist Gidon Kremer and of the Danel Quartet sparked growing interest in his large oeuvre and led to increasing recognition of Weinberg as one of the most fascinating composers of the 20th century.

His daughter Anna is pleased, but not altogether surprised. “It’s a little like a miracle for us,” she says, “but I also remember father, sick and in his last days, telling me confidently, and very uncharacteristically for him, that his works would one day be performed in festivals and concerts around the world.”