Surely, Russia’s best known modern composers were Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. However, a third composer from their era, previously little known in the West, is now a rising star: Mieczław (Moisey) Weinberg (1919-1996).
Weinberg was a child of the Warsaw Ghetto. At the age of 12, he entered the Warsaw Conservatory, where he studied the piano but also began composing. With the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Weinberg fled (on foot) to Minsk (Belarus), where he studied composition at the conservatory for two years before relocating in Tashkent. There he married and also met Shostakovich, with whom he formed a close lifelong friendship. Weinberg wrote, “It was as if I had been born anew…. Although I took no lessons from him, Dmitri Shostakovich was the first person to whom I would show each of my new works.” After the war, the Weinbergs and Shostakoviches moved to Moscow, where they became next-door neighbors. Beginning in 1948, several composers, including Weinberg, were black-listed by Stalin’s regime, and in February 1953, he was jailed. Shostakovich wrote a letter on his behalf to an official he knew, and that must have delayed Weinberg’s inevitable execution. Stalin himself died the following month, and Weinberg was soon released.
Weinberg was extremely prolific with over 150 opus numbers, including 25 symphonies, seven operas, film scores, and a vast amount of chamber music. Concerning his musical style, biographer Lyudmilla D. Nikitina writes:
Weinberg’s compositional style is influenced by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, Bartók, and Mahler; his works are often based on a program, largely autobiographical in nature, and they reflect on the fate of the composer and of humanity in general…. For all the importance of … the programmatic nature of many works and the occasional Slavic and Jewish thematic materials, his music has an absolute — even abstract — quality, with similar themes able to assume varied semantic hues in given environments
In the Capriccio, Weinberg’s stylistic debt to Shostakovich is apparent from the outset. The backdrop of the entire composition is a sardonic waltz, frequently punctuated by changes in meter that upset the waltz character of the music. Melodies are slightly wild (reflecting influences of both Shostakovich and Prokofiev). At the piece’s center comes a string of more primitive accompanied melodies (the waltz’s “Trio”?) Then the music returns to the lighter sardonic attitude of the opening to round out this very fun piece.
Arensky, String Quartet No. 1 in G Major, Op. 11
About the biography of Anton Arensky (1861-1906), one writer states:
The circumstances of Arensky’s life read like the pages of a Dostoyevskian Russian novel — a brilliant talent, fostered under the tutelage of the great Rimsky-Korsakov, degenerating into a life of drinking, gambling, and dissolution, leading to oblivion and death in a Finnish sanatorium, aged 45.
Not only was Arensky’s musical training prestigious, but so was his teaching at the Moscow Conservatory. Among his students, he could number Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Gliere. From Moscow, Arensky went on to direct the Imperial Chapel in St. Petersburg, retiring in 1901 with a generous pension. Unfortunately, his alcoholism and gambling addiction led to a rapid decline and an early death. Of him, his Moscow Conservatory colleague Tchaikovsky remarked, “Arensky is a man of remarkable gifts, but morbidly nervous and lacking in firmness, and altogether a strange man.”
Arensky composed his String Quartet No.1 in 1888, and it was already the work of a masterful composer. Yet, the overall plan and in the forms of individual movements he chose show a somewhat student –like adherence to Classical Period ideals. For example, the first movement uses a repeated exposition and a conventionally worked-out development. Nevertheless, the musical experience is fresh and engaging.
Beginning hymn-like, the second movement then unfolds into a multi-voiced lyrical essay. In a sense, we are hearing a “song without words,” such as made famous by Mendelssohn. This becomes a drawn-out coda to the whole movement.
Think of it as either a fast waltz or a slow scherzo, the third movement is full of wit as well as academic (but sincere) counterpoint. The movement’s ending is especially warm and witty.
Philip Ying of the Ying String Quartet offers this insightful description of the last movement:
A Russian element makes its appearance in the Finale, with its variations on a Russian theme. These bring their surprises, not least in the traditional folk texture suggested by the plucked accompaniment in one variation and the later fragmentation of the theme, before a cadenza and the return of the theme in a mood of mounting excitement, leading to an emphatic and vigorous conclusion.
Tchaikovsky, Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50
Chamber music, according to the books, is the most classic of musical media. We read terms like “purity of style,” “objective,” “music for music’s sake,” etc. It is true that most chamber-music composers have adhered to classical forms, yet the intimate character of chamber music allows the composer much personal latitude. This “personal” side seems almost paradoxical, especially when taken to the extreme of being biographical or autobiographical, as happens with much of the late 19th and 20th century chamber music that we hear.
The Tchaikovsky Trio — the only one he wrote — “deals with” Nikolay Rubinstein, and Tchaikovsky’s reaction to his sudden death in 1881. Nikolay Rubinstein, brother of Anton, was Director of the Moscow Conservatory. The Trio is dedicated “à la memoire d’un grand Artiste,” and although the first of its two movements is titled “Pezzo elegiaco,” the work is not so much a sincere tombeau to his friend as it is a representation of Tchaikovsky’s emotional reaction to his death. The composer wrote to his brother, Modest, “To my shame, I must admit that I was suffering not so much from a sense of fearful, irretrievable loss as from the dread of seeing poor Rubinstein’s body.” The year before, Mme. von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s patron, had asked for a piano trio, but Tchaikovsky declined because he did not think the combination was an acceptable setting for the piano. Now he would write a Trio in which the piano is so predominant that at times it obscures the violin and cello lines.
We shall not indulge in an analysis of the trio, but the second movement deserves some comment. It is a set of variations and finale on a Russian folk tune. Since for many years Tchaikovsky would allow the Piano Trio to be performed only in private, the supposed “program” of this movement was not generally known. This raised some skepticism, and one critic wrote:
The variations of the Trio figure a representation of the episodes of Nikolay Grigorievich’s [Rubinstein’s] life. . . . How amusing! To compose music without the slightest desire to represent something and suddenly to discover that it represents this or that, it is what Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme must have felt when he learned that he had been speaking in prose all his life.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2019