Sarah Rothenberg on Weinberg and Mendelssohn

Da Camera Artistic Director Sarah Rothenberg on the May 10 concert, Weinberg and Mendelssohn:

Our season finale brings together two composers who, at first glance, seem to have nothing in common.  Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) is one of the most celebrated composers of classical music, credited with being perhaps the greatest child prodigy that western music has known and whose Octet for Strings, written at the age of 16, remains one of the most exhilarating and inspiring works of chamber music ever to have been composed. The Polish-Russian composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996), however, is a name new to the Da Camera series and, no doubt, the Piano Quintet we perform tonight will be new to most, if not all, of our audience members, as it was to myself when I began preparations for this concert.

However, these two composers, born a bit more than a century apart, are representative of the complex story of Jews in European history; the fame of Mendelssohn is tied to his being born into an era where the dream of assimilation begins. The grandson of the great philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, whose writings in German encouraged Jews to leave the ghettos and enter European culture; the son of the successful banker Abraham Mendelssohn and his wife Lea née Salomon, whose aunt, Sara Levy had been a patron of the Bach sons and helped establish an important library of Bach manuscripts; Felix Mendelssohn was a child of the German Enlightenment, born into a wealthy and highly cultured family a few years after the legal emancipation of Prussian Jews.

The Mendelssohn family represents a hopeful modern vision of European citizenship, where Jews would contribute to European culture as equals and live alongside others as neighbors; in two generations, from Moses to his son Abraham, the family moved out of the ghetto and succeeded in reaching the heights of financial prosperity as they embraced European values. The education of Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn’s children, beginning with Fanny, a talented composer in her own right, and her younger brother, Felix, was magnificent; they learned Latin and Greek and were surrounded by expert tutors in music and all subjects. The greatest names in intellectual and artistic circles attended the Mendelssohn’s musicales, led by the brilliant young Mendelssohns at the family’s Berlin mansion. Felix Mendelssohn initiated the historic Bach revival with the first concert performance of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1829, just four years after completing the masterful Octet. Mendelssohn went on to found the Leipzig Conservatory and was the music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, as well as being active in musical life in Berlin and abroad. In 1847, upon hearing the shocking news of the sudden death of his sister, Fanny, Felix Mendelssohn collapsed in grief.  Following a series of strokes, he died six months later, at the tragically young age of 38, and was buried next to Fanny in Berlin.

This year we celebrate the centennial of Polish-born Russian composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996), but until very recently the works of this prolific and brilliant musician were unknown outside of Russia. His powerful opera, The Passenger, which takes place partly in the Auschwitz concentration camp, received its U.S. premiere at Houston Grand Opera in 2014. Such performances, as well as reissues and new recordings of many of his more than 150 works—which include 26 symphonies, 17 string quartets, 28 instrumental sonatas, seven concerti for various instruments—are now earning Weinberg his rightful place alongside Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich as one of the greatest Russian composers of the twentieth century.

The tragedy of Weinberg’s biography encompasses the historical tragedies of the twentieth century, and his life stands in stark contrast to the considered optimism of the Mendelssohn family 100 years earlier. Weinberg’s father, a violinist and conductor in Yiddish theater, moved from Moldavia to Warsaw following a pogrom against Jews in which both his father and grandfather were killed.  It was in Warsaw, ten years later, that Mieczyslaw was born in 1919. Evidencing unusual musical talent as a child, he began studies at the Warsaw Conservatory, where it was expected he would become a great piano virtuoso. Weinberg’s studies were interrupted in 1939 when the rise of the Nazis forced him to flee further east to Minsk, and it was here that he began to focus on compositional studies. In 1941 he was forced to flee again to Tashkent, Uzbekistan.  His family did not escape Poland; Weinberg’s mother, father and sister were murdered by the Nazis.

While in Tashkent, where many Russian intellectuals and artists had been evacuated, Weinberg met the great Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, whose portrayal of Shakespeare’s King Lear had earned him fame throughout Europe and fans beyond Jewish audiences—Shostakovich spoke of him as “our greatest King Lear.” In Tashkent, Weinberg married the daughter of Mikhoels, and it was, in fact, Mikhoels who sent the score of his young son-in-law’s First Symphony to Dmitri Shostakovich. With Shostakovich’s support, Weinberg and his wife succeeded in establishing residence in Moscow in 1943.  At the time, one needed official permission to reside in the capital, and this was especially difficult for Jews to obtain.  Although there was some loosening of anti-Semitic policies during the War, a returning wave of cruelty against Jews under Stalin was announced in 1948 by the brutal murder of Weinberg’s father-in-law, Solomon Mikhoels, by Stalin’s secret police.

The friendship between Shostakovich and Weinberg was deep and long-lived. Shostakovich was 13 years senior and his career was already established when Weinberg arrived in the Soviet Union, but the relationship is not characterized as that of mentor and student, but rather as two musical colleagues who admired each other’s work. The families resided in the same apartment block in Moscow for years, and Dmitiri and Nina Shostakovich proved their loyalty when the anti-semitism of the Stalinist regime caused Weinberg to be arrested in 1953 on trumped-up charges of treason. Fearing that the arrest of his wife would follow soon after, the friends quickly drew up papers assigning to Shostakovich the power of attorney for the Weinberg’s seven year-old daughter, should she be left without parents, as Weinberg was taken away. Shostakovich also apparently made calls attesting to Weinberg’s innocence, risking potential danger to himself by doing so. Stalin’s death a few months later, in March 1953, plausibly spared Mieczyslaw Weinberg from a possible death sentence, and the composer returned to Moscow where he lived the rest of his life.

The Piano Quintet that we perform tonight was composed in 1944, and received its premiere in Moscow by the renowned pianist Emil Gilels and the Bolshoi Theatre Quartet in 1945. A wonderful pianist himself, the composer recorded the work with the Borodin String Quartet. The enthusiasm of the Soviet Union’s most esteemed musicians for Weinberg’s music—in addition to those mentioned, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, conductor Kiril Kondrashin, and violinist Leonid Kogan all championed his works—is testament to the high regard in which he was held by his contemporaries. One of Weinberg’s greatest compositions, the Quintet takes its place alongside the nineteenth-century masterworks in this form by Schumann, Brahms and Dvorák and has few equivalents in its own century; the Shostakovich Quintet comes to mind, but I believe the Weinberg may surpass it in intensity and profundity.

Combining classicism with deeply felt folk roots, the work opens melodically with a lyrical theme in the piano, contrasting with the rhythmic, march-like second theme.  The second movement, Allegretto, in B Minor, alternates between long unison brooding melodies in the strings and a cadenza-like, highly ornamented piano solo. The movement quickly catches on fire before shifting back down to very soft moodiness. The Presto third movement is a scherzo, sharing much in common with similar movements by Shostakovich—notably in his Second Piano Trio, composed in the same period. The waltz and tango of this movement have a manic quality, as Weinberg pushes the limits of virtuosity. The fourth movement, Largo, is powerfully tragic. The longest movement of the work, its stoic unison theme is filled with both mourning and strength. The violin breaks out in an ornamented lament taken over by a long piano solo, free, expressive and powerful.

The fifth movement is a tour-de-force of macabre intensity, an amazingly original statement. The fortissimo hammered opening material relaxes momentarily into a lilting folksy melody that goes through various contrapuntal permutations before building back to the ferocious opening material, leading to a powerful return of the opening themes of the first movement. This forceful recapitulation gradually seems to lose strength, and we arrive at a sequence of slow soft chords in the piano—an unanticipated stop, as though the composer can no longer go on. Muted strings enter fitfully. After a silence, the intense opening material of this agitated movement resumes, but no longer as an allegro agitato; instead we play in a measured, pianissimo moderate speed. The piano punctuates the strings’ repeated notes with the clipped-rhythm staccato octaves that characterize this movement. The piece dies away – morendo – in a powerful statement of irresolution. There is no real conclusion; we end with a quiet and haunting question.

Given the weighty experiences behind the composition of the quintet, and the work’s tragic drama, one can easily forget that this is the work of a 25 year-old. Personal and historical circumstances made youthful high spirits impossible for Mieczyslaw Weinberg, although the Piano Quintet exhibits tremendous ambition and stamina, also youthful traits, but cast here in understandably dark hues. The sunniness and evident optimism of Felix Mendelsohn’s Octet for Strings, on the other hand, exude a hopeful vision of the future.

Felix Mendelssohn was born into contrasting conditions to those of Weinberg, although despite his comfortable surroundings he was continually reminded of his “outsider” status and nothing was taken for granted. Baptized as a child, Mendelssohn was brought up to believe that Protestantism was a necessary step in Jewish assimilation; for example, only conversion would allow for university professorships. His careful negotiation of the social mores of the day speaks to an emerging vision of active participation in European life which was new for 19th-century German Jewry. But, while embracing his European identity, Mendelssohn maintained a loyal attachment to his heritage. The young composer, growing in fame, stopped short of accepting his father’s admonition to drop the family name as a vital last step towards Europeanization. In a moving letter, Abraham warned his son that if he continued to tour the world as a musician named Mendelssohn, “in the eyes of Europe” he would always be a Jew.  Mendelssohn defiantly held onto his familial identity, using the adopted Gentile name only in a hyphenated form, publishing his music as Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. 

            The year 1825 was an important one for the Mendelssohn family. They moved into their palatial home at 3 Leipzigerstrasse in Berlin, and that same year Felix composed, at the age of 16, the Octet for Strings, recognized as his first fully mature masterpiece. The composition shows leaps of progress over the three piano quartets which were published as his Op. 1-3, although the last, in F Minor (dedicated to Goethe), hints at some of the gossamer virtuosity that would be developed so brilliantly in the Octet and the subsequent Overture for a Midsummer Night’s Dream, which came a year later in 1826. The young Felix had been working hard. The Octet establishes Mendelssohn as a composer of expansive, beautiful melody; fluid, virtuosic string writing; contrapuntal technique, evident especially in the riveting Finale; Mozartian grace (Robert Schumann would soon call him “the Mozart of the nineteenth century”), and an effervescent personality that would forever identify a certain style of magically light and fleet “leggierissimo”  scherzo textures as “Mendelssohnian.” It is a rightfully beloved work of which musicians and audience members alike do not tire. Much is made of the youthful age of the composer, but only a genius—at any age—could have produced this masterpiece that remains so alive 200 years later; the miracle is that it exists at all. — Sarah Rothenberg