The name of Mieczyslaw Weinberg was virtually unknown in western Europe until his opera The Passenger, set partly in Auschwitz, was staged for the first time at the 2010 Bregenz Festival. Since then, championed by prominent musicians across the world, Weinberg has finally made it onto the musical map.
This prolific and powerful Polish Jewish composer left a vast legacy of music, including 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, 40 film and animation scores, seven operas, copious miscellaneous instrumental and orchestral pieces, and more than 200 solo songs. Now the British bass-baritone Mark Glanville and the Israeli pianist Mark Verter are bringing a biographical selection of Weinberg’s songs to the Purcell Room, commemorating the composer’s centenary in 2019.
Glanville first came across Weinberg’s music while researching follow-ups to his highly successful Yiddish Winterreise (which he recorded for Naxos and toured widely). “I was invited to perform that at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC by the Jewish music organisation Pro Musica Hebraica,” he says. “They suggested I look at Jewish composers of the Holocaust era and sent me a lot of CDs. While I was listening to them, every time I heard a piece and thought ‘Wow, that’s great’, it was by Weinberg. This man really spoke to me — everything I heard, I just loved.
“To me there was a rule of thumb,” he continues. “We always want to be supportive of music of Jewish composers of that period who were ignored or suppressed – but I feel the fact that they suffered is not justification enough, on its own, for championing their works. The rule for me is that no matter how terrible the backstory, it’s got to be good music. And Weinberg was head and shoulders above everything else I was looking at. Music just poured out of him. I see him as a genius.”
Glanville’s concert, pointedly entitled Citizen of Nowhere, is a journey through Weinberg’s long, turbulent life. “Obviously the title is a direct reference to Theresa May’s appalling declaration,” says Glanville (the Prime Minister said, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,” during a speech at the Conservative Party conference in 2016). “I felt strongly about that,” Glanville says. “It seems to evoke the ‘Rootless Cosmopolitan’ term of Stalin, which was obviously shorthand for ‘Jews’. But if you look at Weinberg’s life, he really was a Citizen of Nowhere…”
Weinberg was born in 1919 in Warsaw to Jewish parents from Kishinev (now in Moldova), who had fled after their own parents were slaughtered in the 1905 pogrom in that town. When the Nazis invaded Poland, Weinberg escaped to the Soviet Union: first to Minsk, then to faraway Tashkent. Both his parents and his sister were killed in the Trawniki camp.
In Tashkent, where many of Russia’s intellectuals and artistic community had been evacuated, Weinberg married the daughter of the celebrated actor Solomon Mikhoels, and met Dmitri Shostakovich, who became a close friend and urged him to move to Moscow. Weinberg did so in 1943. But in the so-called ‘Doctors’ Plot’ in February 1953, Mikhoels was murdered and Weinberg, as a close family member, found himself thrown into jail. “He was probably on death row,” says Glanville. “It was only because Stalin died that he was released.”
Weinberg went on to live a long and fruitful life —he died as recently as 1996. Yet his fate was to remain a perpetual outsider. “The Poles never accepted him as Polish,” says Glanville. “In Russia, he was never Russian. And there is even a weird, bizarre, horrible reverse snobbery to do with the Holocaust and Jewish composers: if you survived, you’re not taken as seriously as the composers who died. It has possibly stood against him, a composer of such genius, that he survived.”
Glanville has assembled a personal selection of what he sees as some of Weinberg’s very best songs. “To me, they knock Shostakovich’s songs out of the park,” he asserts. Among them are settings of the Polish-Jewish poet Julian Tuwim, the Hungarian poet Sándor Petfi in Russian translation, and some harrowing pieces about the Holocaust.
They are enormously challenging to perform, Glanville adds. “It’s very demanding music: I have to have a range of about two and a half octaves, because he writes huge stretches for the voice. The piano parts too are very difficult: he’s pushing you, as a musician, to the absolute limits of your ability. He will never compromise. He will write whatever needs to be written to say what he wants to say. He won’t spare you: you do what he needs to do. He has a very authentic voice and I think it’s insulting to see him, as some do, as a B-list Shostakovich. He’s not trying to be anyone but himself.”
Glanville identifies, too, with Weinberg’s position as outsider: “I’ve had a long search for identity,” he says. His book, The Goldberg Variations (published by Harper Collins) chronicles his journey from bullied schoolboy to professional singer, via the unlikely-sounding byway of football hooliganism. He has had many strings to his bow: classics scholar, writer, journalist, translator of poetry and performer in a Puglian folk music band, Amaraterra; he also served as a cantor in Westminster Synagogue for 25 years.
“Last year I had my Jewish identity confirmed at last,” he relates. “Because three of my four grandparents were Jewish, but the ‘wrong’ ones, I’d never felt accepted by the Jewish community, even though I’ve always identified deeply with Jewish culture. When they handed me the certificate, I actually burst into tears.”
Glanville and Verter hope that after the Purcell Room, their Weinberg programme will be taken up by many more venues. With the composer’s centenary events providing the perfect catalyst for a revival of interest in his work, it seems that Weinberg’s music is, at last, here to stay.
Mark Glanville and Mark Verter perform Citizen of Nowhere: A Sung Life at the Purcell Room on February 3