Music: Light in the Dark—The Music of Mieczyslaw Vainberg

When the history of 20th-cen­tury music is written in the next several hundred years, will it bear much resemblance to how we think of it now? My encounter with the works of Mieczyslaw Vainberg (1919-1996) makes me doubt that it will. So much music has been ignored or suppressed for aesthetic or political reasons during the 20th century that it will take some time for it to surface and receive a fair hearing. Enterprising record companies, such as Olympia, are in the vanguard of excavating our recent past, and their efforts are already shifting the perspective from which 20th-century music will be judged.

In an extraordinary feat of dedica­tion, Olympia has released 16 CDs of Vainberg’s music. These discs, many of them Soviet-era recordings of live pre­miere performances, give a substantial representation of Vainberg’s enormous output. Vainberg composed 26 sym­phonies; seven concertos; 17 string quartets; 28 sonatas for various instru­ments; seven operas; several ballets; incidental music for 65 films; and many other works, including a Requiem.

One would think the sheer size of his output would command attention. Yet Vainberg is absent from every 20th-century musical reference work I have checked and receives a paltry two paragraphs in The New Grove Dictio­nary (under Vaynberg). What deepens the mystery of this neglect is that a number of his works are masterpieces that belong in any evaluation of 20th- century music. Thanks to Olympia, and a few other labels, a reevaluation can now begin.

The story of Vainberg’s neglect is a history of the 20th century at its worst, encompassing both the Nazi and Soviet tyrannies. Vainberg was born in War­saw, where his father worked as a com­poser and violinist in a travelling Jewish theater. Vainberg made his debut as a pianist at the age of ten. Two years later, he became a pupil at the Warsaw Con­servatory. In 1941, his entire family was burned alive by the Nazis. As a refugee, Vainberg fled first to Minsk and then, in advance of the invading Nazi armies, to Tashkent. In 1943, he sent the score of his First Symphony to Shostakovich, who was so impressed that he arranged for Vainberg to be officially invited to Moscow. For the rest of his life, Vain- berg remained in Moscow, working as a freelance composer and pianist. He and Shostakovich became fast friends and colleagues.

Vainberg was to discover that anti- Semitism was not only a Nazi specialty. In 1948, at the Soviet Composers’ Union Congress, Andrei Zhdandov, Stalin’s cultural henchman, attacked “formalism” and “cosmopolitanism,” which were code words for Jewish influences. During the meeting, Vain- berg received news that his father-in- law, the most famous Jewish actor in the Soviet Union, Solomon Mikhoels, had been murdered (as it was later learned, on direct orders from Stalin). At first, Vainberg, who always refused to join the Communist Party, seemed safe and was even praised by the newly elected head of the Composers’ Union, Tikhon Khrennikov, for depicting “the shining, free working life of the Jewish people in the land of Socialism.”

Nonetheless, Vainberg was arrested in January 1953 for “Jewish bourgeois nationalism,” on the absurd charge of plotting to set up a Jewish republic in the Crimea. This event took place in the midst of the notorious “Doctors’ Plot,” used by Stalin as pretext for another anti-Semitic purge. Seven of the nine Kremlin doctors were Jewish. One of them was Miron Vovsi, the uncle of Vainberg’s wife. Vovsi was exe­cuted. Speaking of Vainberg’s arrest, his wife Natalya said, “to be arrested in those times meant departure forever.” Expecting her own arrest, Natalya arranged for the Shostakovich’s to have power of attorney over her seven-year- old daughter so that the girl would not be sent to an orphanage.

According to Olympia’s consultant for its Vainberg series, Tommy Persson, a Swedish friend of the composer and his family, Vainberg thought he would not survive his internment, if only due to his poor health at the time. In -30 °C weather, he was taken outside in only his prison garb and shorn of all his hair. He was interrogated and allowed no sleep between 11:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. In an act of great courage, Shostakovich sent a letter to the chief ofthe NKVD (the predecessor to the KGB), Lavrenti Beria, protesting Vain- berg’s innocence. But it was only Stalin’s death in March of that year that opened the prison gates for Vainberg and many others. To celebrate his release, the Shostakoviches and Vain- bergs held a dinner party at which they burned the power of attorney papers.

These events are worth recounting in detail because of the attitude that Vainberg took toward them and that is, in turn, reflected in his music. He seemed to regard his imprisonment with some diffidence. Of the Stalinist peril, he said, “It wasn’t a sword of Damocles, because they hardly locked up any composers—well, except me— and they didn’t shoot any either. I really can’t claim, as other composers do, that I have been persecuted?’ Vainberg must have possessed an extraordinary spiri­tual equanimity to say such a thing.

What sort of music does one write in the face of the horrors of Nazi geno­cide, World War II, and the Gulag, especially if one has been victimized by all three? In his December 19 article on 20th-century music after the war, New York Times writer Paul Griffiths opined that “since what had recently happened was inexpressible, the only appropriate course was to express nothing.” And indeed that was the course chosen by many composers in their increasingly violent and abstract works. The more repugnant the world, the more abstract the art.

The only problem with this approach is that the art it produces is itself repugnant because it is inhuman. Vainberg chose another course. It was neither one of denial, nor one of sub­mission to the Soviet mandate to write happy-factory-worker music. He said, “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 century.”

Yet Vainberg was able to address these issues with the same spiritual equanimity with which he regarded his imprisonment. Though his music is certainly passionate, he seems to have been able to recollect the most horrible things in tranquility. Since so little is known about Vainberg, it can only be a guess as to how he was able to do this.

In conversation with Persson, I was told, “Vainberg could always see the bright light in dark circumstances.” What was the source of this perspec­tive? Much is revealed in a remark from an interview Vainberg gave after the collapse of the Soviet Union: “I said to myself that God is everywhere. Since my First Symphony, a sort of chorale has been wandering around within me.” If God is everywhere, then there is still something to say. Vainberg found the means to say it in music of great passion, poignance, power, beauty, and even peace.

Vainberg’s musical language may be another reason for his neglect. He frequently sounds exactly like Shostakovich, and that similarity will be the first thing likely to strike any lis­tener. Vainberg embraced the similar­ity, declaring unabashedly, “I am a pupil of Shostakovich. Although I never took lessons from him, I count myself as his pupil, his flesh and blood.” In turn, Shostakovich called Vainberg “one of the most outstanding composers of the present day.”

Shared stylistic traits are immedi­ately recognizable in the frequent deployment of high string and horn registers, and the sometimes-obsessive use of themes. Like Shostakovich, Vain- berg wrote open, expansive music of big gestures and extraordinarily long- lined melodies. Both composers were classical symphonists who wrote essen­tially tonally oriented music.

Though ridiculed as “a little Shostakovich,” Vainberg actually was sometimes the one influencing Shostakovich, rather than the other way around. Vainberg seems to have been the primary source of the Jewish musical influences in Shostakovich’s works, most certainly in Shosta­kovich’s song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry. And who was influencing whom in 1962, when Shostakovich composed the Thirteenth Symphony, Babi Yar, about Nazi atrocities against Soviet Jews, and Vainberg wrote his Sixth Symphony memorializing chil­dren who were murdered or or­phaned? So close were the two composers that they observed a stead­fast practice of playing for each other every new work as soon as it was fin­ished. Also, each composer, in tribute, liberally quoted the other’s works.

However, there are defining differ­ences. Vainberg wrote with irony (and sometimes even humor) but without Shostakovich’s sardonic bombast and cutting edge. He held his musical onslaughts more in check. Vainberg’s music can be very turbulent and bleak, but the bleakness and turbulence are not unremitting. They are, in fact, relieved by a fundamental optimism in Vainberg’s outlook that clearly differ­entiates him from Shostakovich. The frequent diminuendos with which Vainberg ends his works do not signify resignation or death but peace.

Vainberg was more a romantic than Shostakovich; he wore his heart more on his sleeve. As a result, his writing is more florid, though his symphonic structures remained more clas­sical than those of Shostakovich. In his later years, Vainberg’s music, as evi­dent from his last several chamber symphonies, even increased in lyrical beauty and contemplative value.

The similarities with Shostakovich may also cause one to overlook Vain- berg’s own significant melodic gift and his extraordinary ability to develop his themes, which cannot be the product of imitation. Vainberg knew how to take a simple idea and build it into a major edifice. There is also the matter of his remarkable fluency. Vainberg’s music seems to burst forth from such an abun­dance of ideas that one can only assume that music was his natural language.

Russian composer Boris Tishchenko said of Vainberg, “The music seems to flow by itself, without the slightest effort on his part.” This fluency, he said, allowed Vainberg “to make a ‘game’ of music making. But even so, this ‘game’ never becomes simply amusement. In every composition, one can hear his pure voice, the voice of the artist, whose main goal is to speak out in defense of life.”

In The New Grove, Boris Schwarz calls Vainberg a “conservative mod­ernist.” The reverse would be more accurate. In musical idiom, he was a modern conservative. Besides Shosta­kovich, other palpable influences are Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and especially Mahler. Vainberg worked with tradi­tional harmonic and tonal expecta­tions and rarely failed to meet them in satisfying and novel ways. He could sustain a sense of expectancy over long spans of time with vast melodic and contrapuntal structures.

The symphonies are often masterful in their thematic coherence. The whole of Symphony No. 19, for example, is developed out of its gorgeous opening theme over the course of more than half an hour. Although the symphony is subtitled The Bright May and has extra- musical associations with the end of the war, it is musically satisfying in the pro­foundest way. Vainberg’s music is also highly variegated, encompassing cal­liope music, circus marches, Jewish and Moldavian folk song and dance, Shostakovich-like onslaughts, and extremely moving Malherian adagios.

The Symphony No. 2, for strings alone, written in 1945 to 1946, should serve as fair warning to those who wish to tie this composer’s work to his biog­raphy. In the wake of the war’s devasta­tion, Vainberg produced a meltingly lovely, thoroughly charming, and rela­tively untroubled work. More than 40 years later, Vainberg added timpani to strings to produce his Chamber Sym­phony No. 2, another completely beguiling, classically oriented, if some­what more weighty work. These are entrancing pieces.

Symphony No. 4 has immense propulsive drive, an engaging tele­graphic theme, and wistful Stravinskian interludes. It is coupled on an Olympia CD with Vainberg’s Violin Concerto, a work of the first rank, charged with breathtaking vitality. Shostakovich said, “I remain very impressed with the Violin Concerto by M.S. Vainberg…. It is a fabulous work.” Though the Soviet-era recordings leave something to be desired, the quality of this music and the outstand­ing performances are thoroughly win­ning. If you are not engaged by these works, you need proceed no further.

Of Vainberg’s Sixth Symphony, Shostakovich exclaimed, “I wish I could sign my name to this sym­phony.” This is the work through which I first became acquainted with Vainberg on a now-deleted Jerusalem Records CD, appropriately coupled with Shostakovich’s From Jewish Folk Poetry (curiously, the two works share the same opus number, Op. 79).

The symphony begins with a hauntingly beautiful trumpet theme, which recurs and is developed through­out. Several of its movements include a children’s choir. Despite its gruesome subject matter, the murder of children, this ultimately affirmative work is a moving example of Vainberg’s ability to recollect in tranquility. Only someone secure in faith and hope could treat this agonizing subject matter in this way. The closing line of the text is: “There will be sunshine again and the violins will sing of peace on earth:’

The Symphony No. 12, dedicated to the memory of Dmitri Shostakovich (and here conducted by his son, Maxim) is a poundingly ferocious and poignant piece. It is magnificent music, but not for the faint of heart. The remarkable first movement, close to 20 minutes long, exhibits Vainberg’s ability to move seamlessly from angry outbursts to lyrical introspection. This is a stunning work.

The Symphony No. 19, The Bright May, is music of a man who more than simply survived and who did not return empty-handed from the hell through which he lived. An incredibly long and elegiac melodic line of great beauty begins and almost continuously winds its way through this single-movement masterpiece, which ends in a most poignant way. May may be bright, but it is also haunted. Along with the Sixth Symphony, this is perhaps Vainberg’s most moving work; he certainly wrote nothing more beautiful.

The Piano Quintet demonstrates Vainberg’s prowess with chamber music, and almost equals in brilliance and vital­ity Shostakovich’s great Piano Quintet.

The lovely Children’s Notebooks for piano proves that Vainberg was a mas­ter miniaturist as well as a great sym­phonist. His abundant charm and humor are evident here.

In a welcome sign that the years of neglect are over, the Swiss label Claves has issued wonderful new perfor­mances of Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1, 3, and 4, with the Chamber Orches­tra Kremlin. These works from the last decade of Vainberg’s life are serenely beautiful. They have some of the mar­velous breeziness of the best 20th-cen­tury British neoclassical string music This CD is a joy.

After a life of much pain, Vainberg spent his last several years in bed suf­fering from Crohn’s disease. On Janu­ary 3, 1996, less than two months before his death on Ferbruary 26, he was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church, one final act by a man who could always see the bright light in dark circumstances.”


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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