Remembrance & Reflection
- Mozart Adagio and Fugue in C minor
- Weinberg Symphony No. 2 (for string orchestra)
- November 9, 2021 (Broadcast Premiere)
- Adella (Digital)
Mieczysław Weinberg is among the lost composers of the 20th century. Raised in Poland, he was the only member of his family to survive World War II. He fled the Nazi invasion in 1939 and eventually landed in Moscow in 1943. Befriended by Shostakovich, his musical style evolved in complexity and range — balancing his mentor’s sarcasm and finesse with Mahlerian ambition and grandeur. His Symphony No. 2 dates from just after the war’s end, offering a musical work of nostalgic warmth, grace, and reflection. Mozart wrote his Adagio and Fugue in 1783, built on a theme he earlier penned for two pianos. This magisterial work for strings offers serious and animated expression from the depths of Mozart’s genius.
Remembrance & Reflection pairs the works of two masters: Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546, and Mieczysław Weinberg’s Symphony No. 2 for strings. This program marks the anniversary of Kristallnacht (Crystal Night or the Night of Broken Glass), when the Nazi party carried out violent attacks on Jewish communities across Germany, Austria, and parts of what is now the Czech Republic on November 9 and 10, 1938. For Weinberg, who was Jewish and living in Warsaw, these events were harbingers of the terrorism that would be inflicted upon Poland’s Jewish population. The composer was the only member of his family to escape the country alive, having fled to the Soviet Union in 1939. Composed in 1946, Weinberg's Symphony No. 2, written for string orchestra contains hallmarks of what would become his musical language: propulsive motion and serene rest. It is preceded by Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue, a musical love letter to the Baroque masters Bach and Handel.
Adagio and Fugue for strings, K. 546 by Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
- Composed: Adagio, December 29, 1783; Fugue, June 26, 1788
- Duration: about 7 minutes
The Fugue, a form closely associated with J. S. Bach, might have passed into history, rejected by the new generation of symphonists of whom Haydn was the leader, were it not for the Enlightenment's broader sense of history. The artist's traditional desire to explore exclusively new styles was giving place to a sense that the present was not necessarily superior to the past, and that mastery of certain arts was worth preserving.
Mozart's father encouraged the young prodigy to study the Gradus ad Parnassum by Johann Joseph Fux, the first treatise on fugue and counterpoint, which came out in 1725. When Mozart moved to Vienna, he was encouraged by his patron Baron van Swieten, and by his wife Constanze, who loved fugues, to study the works of Bach and Handel, unfashionable though they already were. In this music Mozart undoubtedly found an inspiring stimulus, for he wrote fugues for the rest of his life, in string quartets and symphonies, and also as stand-alone compositions.
One of the latter is a fugue in C minor for two pianos, K. 426, which Mozart may have composed for one of Baron van Swieten's chamber concerts. The date on the manuscript, originally 1782, was changed to 1783 so it is uncertain in which of the two years it was written. Its subject is similar to several fugue subjects by Handel (for example, "And With His Stripes" from the Messiah) and is peculiarly well designed for inversion – turning the tune upside down — and stretto, bringing voices in at closer intervals.
On two pianos this piece has an exciting vigor, but it works equally well in an arrangement for strings, which Mozart made a few years later, between Symphonies No. 39 and No. 40. In the version for strings he added an Adagio section as an introduction, in a style that explores new harmonic dissonances. to the point where we might suspect that he was determined to display, separately, his mastery of the twin spaces of music theory: harmony and counterpoint.
The opening, with its heavily dotted rhythm, played forte, is old-fashioned, even for Mozart’s time, but this alternates with some wonderfully intense dissonance, played piano, and the Adagio concludes with phrases that lead in eager expectation into the fugue.
–Hugh Macdonald © 2021
Symphony No. 2 for strings, Opus 30 by Mieczysław Weinberg
- Composed: 1946
- Duration: about 30 minutes
Mieczysław Weinberg was an enormously productive Polish composer who spent the greater part of his life in the Soviet Union. He wrote twenty-two symphonies, seventeen string quartets, seven operas, seventy film scores, and innumerable concertos and sonatas.
Born into a family of Jewish musicians and actors in Warsaw, he was trained as a pianist at the Warsaw Conservatory. Graduating in 1939, only months prior to the German invasion of Poland, he escaped to Minsk in the Soviet Union, where he continued his musical studies. As the German army continued its attack on the Eastern Front, Weinberg fled again in 1943, first to Tashkent, and eventually Moscow, where, later that year, he met Shostakovich. The two composers became close, with influence flowing in both directions, so that Weinberg's style is often reminiscent of the older composer's.
Having escaped the Nazi regime twice, he nonetheless ran into repeated trouble with Stalin's government. In 1948, the launch of anti-formalist campaign against artists, writers, and composers found Weinberg in its crosshairs. He was incarcerated more than once in Lubyanka and Butyrka prisons.
During his lifetime, Weinberg was supported by friendships with many Soviet musicians, including Kondrashin, Oistrakh, Barshai, Rostropovich, and the Borodin String Quartet. But recordings of his music were few, mostly unheard in the West, before the time of his death. Between his Jewish-Polish background, run-ins with the Soviet government, and his lack of an official position within state-run conservatories, Weinberg’s music was not a priority for export.
However, a great number of recordings have been made since then, bringing his music to much wider notice. Additionally, notable performances such as a production of Weinberg’s first opera, The Passenger, director David Pountney, premiered in Bregenz in 2010. Taking place largely in the Auschwitz concentration camp, the opera toured internationally and brought renewed interest to the composer’s staged works.
The Second Symphony was composed in 1946, before Weinberg found himself in political jeopardy but soon after he had learned that his entire family had perished in the Holocaust. It is not explicitly a lament, but the depth of feeling conveyed by very slender means is unmistakable. Like Shostakovich, Weinberg likes to draw out a melodic line at great length, sometimes with little or no accompaniment, and like Mahler, he has a taste for counterpoint, with melodies intertwining one with another, and his textures are always crystal clear. Silence too plays its part.
The first two of the three movements correspond to the first and slow movements of a traditional symphony, while the third has a few lighter episodes appropriate for a finale, within a darker frame.
The first movement is gentle and harmonious at the start, featuring a variety of thematic ideas. Even in the development, when the music rages at fortississimo (fff) decibles, the texture is never cluttered. The drop to pianissimo is a shock, but the themes are reviewed in turn, including a disarming waltz on first a solo violin, then solo viola. The close is desolate but peaceful.
The very slow Adagio second movement is built on three main themes. The first is stated firmly by violas and cellos in unison; the second is diffidently heard, pianissimo, in the first violins, and the third, with its striding opening, begins quietly in the violins and is then taken up forcefully by violas and then cellos in a climax full of trills. The themes return in a different order: with the second, followed by the first, and the last. At the close, a solo violin floats into the stratosphere over a pure, saintly C major.
Yet another long, ambling melody opens the Finale, this time on the violas. Then the rhythms tighten, transforming into a waltz, followed by a remarkable section played pizzicato. This leads to a fast and furious fugal passage, very much in the manner of Shostakovich. The close, however, is desolate and subdued, with the strings all muted and the basses reaching down to the depths.
–Hugh Macdonald © 2021
Hugh Macdonald is Avis H. Blewett Professor Emeritus of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. He has written books on Beethoven, Berlioz, Bizet, and Scriabin.