Born Warsaw, December 8, 1919; died Moscow, February 26, 1996
Concertino for Violin and Strings, Op. 42
Composed in 1948; 18 minutes
The Polish/Russian composer Mieczysław Weinberg (or “Moisei Vainberg”) was born in Warsaw, and showed early musical promise playing piano in the Jewish Theatre where his father was musical director. Plans for Weinberg to study music in the US were interrupted by the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, and he fled to the Soviet Union. While living in Minsk, he studied composition with Vassily Zolotaryov, who had been a follower of Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov. Soon after graduation, Weinberg met and befriended Dmitri Shostakovich, who paved the way for him to move to Moscow in 1943.
Though Weinberg was never one of Shostakovich’s students, the mentoring influence revolutionized Weinberg’s thinking on composition: “It was as if I had been born anew,” he later recalled. Shostakovich’s friendship and support would later prove critical to Weinberg’s career, which suffered as a result of being included in the official 1948 denunciation of prominent Soviet composers by Andrei Zhdanov. After being unjustly imprisoned in 1953, Weinberg’s release was secured by only by the support and direct intervention of Shostakovich (who had also been denounced by Zhdanov in 1948, but who had since been officially “rehabilitated”). After a thaw in the 1960s, and with the support of some of Russia’s best-known instrumental performers including Gilels and Rostropovich, Weinberg’s works began to be performed again, and composition flourished in those final decades.
While trained by followers of the Russian “Mighty Handful,” Weinberg developed a style of composition that was far more modernist than that of his teachers, though Jewish melodies and rhythms occasionally surface in his pieces. A prolific composer, especially in the larger genres, he wrote at least 22 symphonies, four concertos, seven operas and 17 string quartets, plus a host of film scores, piano works and smaller pieces. Yet his music is little known, even in Russia today.
Weinberg’s Concertino for Violin and Strings is his earliest attempt at concerto writing. Written in 1948, the manuscript was lost until after the composer’s death, and it was published in 2007. Its transparency and nostalgia recall something of the English pastoralists but transplanted into the Eastern European Jewish communities of Weinberg’s youth. This may have been a conscious, early response to the pressures placed on Weinberg in 1948 to write more accessible, less “formalistic” music.
The solo violin introduces the wistful first theme, varied and reprised before being taken over by the ensemble. Then a somewhat more vigorous waltz-like passage leads into an exact repeat of the exposition. In a development section, these two main musical ideas—not so distinct from each other in the first place—are fragmented and recombined with increasing intensity before a recapitulation and brief coda.
The solo violin then embarks on a cadenza in preparation for the full ensemble to begin the slow movement, whose melancholy, elegiac music throbs with sorrow, pain and regret. An understated plagal cadence—the familiar “Amen” chord progression—which had opened the movement, now closes it with resignation.
The solemnity of the slow movement also flavors the opening of the finale, a lilting Schumann–esque melody that in another context might seem more innocent. Later, a scurrying motif from the violin adds liveliness to the nostalgic reflection. As these themes are recalled throughout the movement, it is the livelier of the two that gains the upper hand, leading to the work’s most vigorous music at its close.
© 2013 Luke Howard
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