Weinberg, String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 66

Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996)

String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 66, (1959)

Mieczysław WeinbergMieczysław Weinberg (known by a variety of names including Moishe Vainberg) was a brilliant, prodigious 20th Century Soviet composer of Polish birth. Born in Warsaw, as a youth he was pianist and ensemble leader for his father’s Jewish theatre. Weinberg entered the Warsaw conservatory at the age of 12 where his talents as pianist earned him a potential opportunity to study in America, but WWII interceded. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1941, Weinberg fled to Minsk while his parents and sister, left behind, were murdered. In Minsk, he began formal studies in composition but within just a few years, when the Germans pressed on into Russia, Weinberg fled again, this time to Tashkent, Uzbekistan where Weinberg would meet his future wife, work for the local opera and submit the score of his first symphony to Shostakovich. 13 years his senior, Shostakovich was so impressed that he arranged for Weinberg to move to Moscow where he would live for the rest of his life in close proximity to Shostakovich, who became his mentor, colleague and friend. In 1953, Weinberg was imprisoned due to connections with an in-law who Stalin accused of being involved with the “Kremlin Doctors’ Plot.” Shostakovich daringly wrote a letter to the head of the KGB pleading for his release. Weinberg was eventually freed after the death of Stalin. Weinberg died in1996 at the age of 77. Of his relationship to Shostakovich, Weinberg would write, “Although I never had lessons from him, I count myself as his pupil, his flesh and blood.”

Wienberg’s output is massive including at least 22 symphonies, 7 operas, numerous concerti and instrumental sonatas and a cycle of 17 string quartets composed over a period of some 50 years. Until quite recently, his music was barely known, if available, outside Russia but slowly his music is gaining international recognition.

Wienberg composed his eighth string quartet in 1959, about half way through his total oeuvre for the genre. Although it is in one movement, the music is clearly demarcated into several sections easily suggesting a narrative. It begins with an Adagio introduction that will reappear in the middle and at the end of the quartet as a framing device and it debuts one of several recurrent motifs. The first extended section, Poco andante, is a Klezmer-inspired melody in the first violin with sparse pizzicato accompaniment. Slowly, beautifully, the folk-like Klezmer theme transforms into lush, late-Romanticism tinged with an urgent melancholy. The Adagio introduction reappears signaling a scene change. The second extended section features a new Klezmer theme, more animated with a march-like dance to a livelier Allegretto. The march impulse grows ominous with suggestions of war as the music suddenly accelerates into an Allegro. A crisis of collision brings the drama to a climax with a rich tangle of simultaneous themes. The Adagio returns to finish the narrative, now almost like a ghostly memory. The suggestive musical program is reinforced by Weinberg’s own remarks: “Many of my works are related to the theme of war. This, alas, was not my own choice. It was dictated by my fate, by the tragic fate of my relatives. I regard it as my moral duty to write about the war, about the horrors that befell mankind in our country.”

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