Tuesday 30 April 2013

Focus: 'The Passenger', Op. 97

Those who've experienced The Passenger know it to be intense but also heartfelt. It was Weinberg's first opera and it stands out amongst his works, with reasonable claim to being his 'masterpiece'.

Poster for the 2010 premiere of 'The Passenger', Bregenz Festival.

(Images & video links in the post are taken from the Bregenzer Festspiele production in 2010 unless otherwise noted - this production was recorded and has been released on DVD and Blu-ray by Neos).


The first thing to mark 'The Passenger' as striking is its subject matter: the opera is unique in its confrontation with the legacy of the Holocaust, and especially in its on-stage setting within Auschwitz itself (at least, partly - see below). Weinberg avoids crass illustration in his music, and instead opts for an intense humanism, communicating a great sincerity in his statements.
   Of course, commemorative works were not unusual in Weinberg's output before 'The Passenger'. Directly before it, he wrote his 'Requiem', Op. 96, another work which would wait many years before being performed. Before that, there are his Sixth and Eighth Symphonies, both of which use chorus to moving effect. In one sense, Weinberg viewed all of his music as commemorative. He had lost his entire family during the Holocaust–he had fled from Poland eastwards to the USSR, leaving them behind. This loss left him with an urgency to justify his survival–a creative urge.
   The story of 'The Passenger' started several years before Weinberg even encountered it, however, and to tell the tale of its conception, we must focus on a Polish author, Zofia Posmysz.

Zofia Posmysz camp photograph, Auschwitz.
Posmysz was 18 years old when she was arrested by the Nazi gestapo for accompanying an individual who was distributing political leaflets. She was sent to Auschwitz camp, where we was imprisoned for three years. During that time, she was witness to immeasurable cruelty and despair, but she also found hope. A young Polish officer by the name of Tadeusz risked his life to make her a medallion featuring Christ on the cross, a medallion which Posmysz wears to this day. During her incarceration, she nearly died from Typhoid, but she recovered and survived Auschwitz. 
   An incident in 1962 vividly returned her to life in the camp–and directly inspired the scenario that would go on to become 'The Passenger'. While visiting the Champs-Elysées in Paris, she overheard a group of German Tourists:

Suddenly I heard a voice. It was remarkably like the voice of our guard Frau Franz. Her voice always sounded so shrill… And now I could hear the same screams in the Place de la Concorde. I thought: ‘My God, it’s our prison guard!’ I looked in every direction and tried to find her but of course it wasn’t her. Even so, my heart missed a beat. And I thought: ‘If it had been her, what would I have done?’

 Posmsyz confronted her past, and wrote a radio play in 1959 called 'Passenger from cabin 45'. By 1962, this had expanded into a book, ' Pasażerka'. Alongside this, a film was produced with the same name, partly filmed in Auschwitz itself. (The film itself was never completed). 

 A clip from 'Pasażerka', dir. Andrzej Munk, 1963. Production was cut short by Munk's death in 1962, but the fragmentary film was released with audio commentary layered on top, transforming it into a pseudo-documentary.

The book enjoyed moderate success, and it came to the attention of no less a composer than Dmitri Shostakovich as a scenario for an opera. Shostakovich had avoided opera since the 1930s however, and he passed the project along to Weinberg. Weinberg worked with librettist Alexander Medvedev, beginning a long-term collaborative partnership. 
   Weinberg began work in 1967, and the opera was finished in June 1968. 'The Passenger' would have to wait many years to be heard, however. Shostakovich was a huge fan of the work, writing a preface to the published score, in which he says: '"The Passenger" is a unique work; I will never tire of hearing it'. The work encountered considerable difficulties, however. The work was scheduled to be produced at the Bolshoi theatre in 1968, but it was cancelled. In hindsight, it appears that the Soviet authorities were not keen on documents that did not focus on the plight of the Soviet people during the Second World War and the Holocaust. By the time of Weinberg's death in 1996, the work remained unheard, apart from a few renditions from the piano score, in private circles. Shortly before his death, Weinberg requested of Medvedev that if he ever heard the work performed, that he ought to listen twice, once for himself and once for Weinberg. 
    Following the resurgence of interest in Weinberg's music (mostly stemming from the Western world), a concert performance of the opera was given on 25th December, 2006 in Moscow. Tragically, Alexander Medvedev died just a few days before the performance. On the success of this, the full staged premiere was given at the Bregenz festival in 2010, under the leadership of English Director David Pountney. (Pountney has subsequently been awarded the Cavalier’s Cross of the Order of Merit by Poland, for services to Polish culture). Runs of the opera followed in London and Barcelona, and this year sees performances in Texas and Berlin. It appears that 'The Passenger' is finally receiving the attention it deserves.

Poster from the 2010 Warsaw production.


Following Posmysz's book, the action in the opera takes place between two very different locations with distinct time-zones.

a) - aboard a passenger-ferry, sailing to Brazil, c. mid 1960s.
b) - Auschwitz prison camp, c. 1943.

Alongside this, there is an on-stage chorus at key moments in the opera, who represent our modern consciousness. The chorus sing solemn commentaries on the action happening onstage.

The whole opera has been uploaded to youtube, filmed at the Bregenz premiere:

Below is a summary of the plot, scene by scene.

Act 1

Scene 1 : Walter and his wife Liese are on their way to a new life in Brazil where Walter will take up a diplomatic post. During the journey Liese is struck by the appearance of a passenger she sees indistinctly. The passenger reminds her of an inmate in Auschwitz over whom she once presided and knows for certain to be dead. In shock she reveals her hitherto undisclosed wartime past to her husband.
Scene 2 : In the concentration camp Liese and her superior Overseer discuss the need to manipulate prisoners and find one amongst each group who can be manipulated to lead the others easily. The male officers drink and sing about how there is nothing to do but how they are less likely to die than fighting on the front against the Russians.
Scene 3 : The women of the camp are introduced and each tells of their background and origins. A Russian woman is bought in having been beaten and tortured and the Kapo in charge discovers a note which may cost her her life. Marta is selected by Liese to translate to Liese but deliberately makes it out to be a love letter from her partner Tadeusz, with whom she arrived into incarceration, but has not seen these past two years. Liese believes the subterfuge. As the scene closes Liese and Walter are seen on the boat in the present time trying to come to terms with Liese's newly uncovered past.

Act 2

Scene 1 : Belongings of murdered prisoners are being sorted by the women when an officer arrives to demand a violin so that the Kommandant may have his favourite waltz rendered to him by a prisoner. The prisoner Tadeusz is sent to collect the violin and arrives to discover his fiancée Marta there. Their reunion is overseen by Liese who decides to try and manipulate their relationship so that she may more easily control Marta for her own purposes in more readily exerting control over all the women.
Scene 2: Tadeusz is in his prison workshop fashioning jewellery for the officers' private demands. In a pile of his sketches, Liese recognises the face of Marta. Liese tries to get Tadeusz to do her bidding also, but seeing that this would leave him indebted to Liese, he declines although essentially this will cost him his life now.
Scene 3 : It is Marta's birthday and she sings a lengthy aria to Death itself. Liese tells Marta that Tadeusz refused her offer and that it will cost him dear, but Marta understands Tadeusz's stance. The women sing more about what they will do when they return home after the war, although it is obvious to most that they will never return alive. There is a death-house selection, and the women are all led away as their numbers are called. Marta resignedly follows although she has not been selected for death. Liese stops her from joining the others and taunts her that her time will come shortly so there is no need to hurry. Liese's final taunt is that she will live to see Tadeusz's final concert before he is too sent to the death-house as a result of her report.

Scene 4 : In the present time on the boat, Walter and Liese are still unsure as to whether the mystery woman whose appearance has so upset Liese is really Marta. The porter Liese earlier bribed to discover the woman's identity only revealed that she was British. He now returns to add that although she is travelling on a British passport, she is not English and is on deck reading a Polish book. Walter offers to confront the mystery woman to set Liese's mind at rest before they both decide they are letting their minds run away with themselves. They both resolve to ascend to the salon to join the dancing. Liese dances whilst her husband talks to another passenger. The mystery woman is seen passing a play-request to the band leader. The band then play the same tune that was once the camp Kommandant's favourite waltz. This musical coincidence and the still unknown identity of the passenger further convinces Liese that Marta is somehow alive and on the boat. Liese is reduced to terror and shrinks from sight of the still unrevealed mystery passenger retreating from her backwards down the stairs of the liner into the horrors of Tadeusz's final moments.
Scene 5 : Tadeusz is dragged before the Kommandant to provide him with his favourite waltz music. Instead he plays Bach's "Chaconne" making a defiant purely musical protest at the Kommandant about the descent from culture into depravity the camp represents. Thus he deprives Liese of her plan to have him executed via her report and deprives the Kommandant of his illusion that he can force people to play him his favourite music under pain of death. Tadeusz seals his own fate and, his violin being smashed, he is dragged off to his death. All the while, Liese observes the scene whilst still in her ballgown.
Scene 6 : The stage becomes completely empty apart from Liese still in her ballgown who slumps down sitting to the rear silently. Marta enters. She is observed to be wearing non-prisoncamp clothing and with her hair unshaven. She sings that the dead should never be forgotten and they can never forgive. Liese can only observe, unable to have Marta change her attitude and provide her the closure she selfishly craves. The scene fades away musically as does the light and the opera ends very quietly in total darkness.

Weinberg's music throughout is astonishingly powerful. There are subtle influences from Berg's Wozzeck and Britten's operas, but, overall, Weinberg's style is highly personal. There are passages of jazz, 12-tone music, as well as long instances of solo singing, such as when a female prisoner sings a Russian folk song from her youth. (The whole opera was uploaded onto youtube–which would have provided excellent musical examples for this post. Sadly, it has now been removed.)
   If the opera is uploaded again, I shall edit this post to include numerous examples. Until then, here is a short promotional video, made for the 2011 London production:


    Zofia Posmysz is alive and well (she will be 90 years old on 23rd August this year). She attended the premiere performance in 2010 and received a standing ovation when she took to the stage. 

Zofia Posmysz, pictured in London, 2011.


UPDATE: November 2013

I am pleased to announce that The Passenger will be appearing in New York in summer 2014 - more details here. Furthermore, my article 'Weinberg and The Passenger' is to be published in a set of conference proceedings in the new year. When it is released, I will make it available to readers of this blog, one way or another. 

Thursday 25 April 2013


   I've already written about Weinberg's prolific writing for the cinema. Alongside these scores, there are several ballets, music for theatre productions and a large collection of circus music. In addition to all these, there is a large selection of music for cartoons - and, in this age of youtube, a large amount of these are available to watch online.

   When watching these films, we see how adaptable Weinberg's music can be, writing to suit every occasion. And while his music for children may not have the fame of that of Prokofiev or Britten, his music for cartoons is certainly captivating and inventive.

   So, for your enjoyment, here is a selection of cartoons that Weinberg scored. (Perhaps, secretly, this is an excuse for me to watch lots of cartoons and pretend I'm working?) Still, I hope you enjoy them. They're quite delightful.


Perhaps Weinberg's most famous animated score - the ever-popular 'Vinnie Pukh'. He scored three different Vinnie Pukh films, from 1969, 1971 and 1972. (Incidentally, this clip serves as my favourite example to introduce Weinberg's music to non-musicians!)

The above is a 1953 cartoon entitled Храбрый Пак (The Courageous Pak), based on a Korean story of a young man fighting a dragon.


Двенадцать месяцев (The Twelve months) is from 1956, based on a fairy-tale by Samuil Marshak.

Топтыжка/Toptyzhka (1964), a story around two friends, a bear and a rabbit.

КАНИКУЛЫ БОНИФАЦИ/Kanikuly Bonifatsiya (1965) - an illustration of life in the circus. This gives us a taste of Weinberg's writing for the circus - scores of his circus music have only just been rediscovered in Russia. (Listen out for several Shostakovich-like passages, particularly the clown-sequence!)


My final example is Лев и бык/Lev i Byk [The Lion and the Bull], (1984). Listen out for the 'combat' music that accompanies the fox.


I hope these clips have proved of interest/provided entertainment. I assure you, my next post will be altogether more serious. For now, enjoy!

Thursday 18 April 2013

Peermusic's Weinberg website

Just a quick link today:

Peermusic publishing have expanded their biography of Weinberg to include lengthy summaries of each of the 17 string quartets, as well as a selection of other chamber works.

Link to Peermusic's English website

In other news, my work is going along well, with a successful talk on Shostakovich and Weinberg delivered at Manchester University this morning, with discussions for future publication to follow. Today and tomorrow sees two all-Weinberg concerts at the University's music department, as promoted below.

Thursday 4 April 2013

Review: Complete works for violin and piano, Linus Roth and José Gallardo

March, 2013. Challenge Records - €25.95.

This latest recording brings us several treasures in an exquisitely presented anthology set.

Almost everything about this release is verging on the realm of extraordinary. A 3-disc boxset of Weinberg works is a first, to begin with. Then there was the press announcement, just six days ahead of release at the end of last month. Furthermore, reading through the liner notes, we see that the 3 hours of material on this release was recorded over just six days in January - February at the start of this year. Even more, Linus Roth plays a Stradivari violin on this recording, a contributing factor to his excellent tone throughout. Of course, the world premiere recordings of Sonatas 2 and 6 go without saying. Currently, this set is tucked away on the internet, though I am sure it will emerge into the mainstream markets. I am so sure of this because this is one of the best recordings I have heard for a long while.

Disc 1
Sonata No. 5, Op. 53
Sonata No. 4, 39
Rhapsody on Moldavian themes, Op. 47

    The set opens with Weinberg's fifth sonata for violin and piano, a work that could lay a reasonable claim to being one of the masterpieces of his chamber music. The combination of gentle rocking textures in the first movement is perfectly contrasted by the searching Allegro molto second movement. Roth takes the demanding violin part all in his stride - complete with fiendish double and triple stopping passages. Of course, Weinberg's writing in these works sets the two instruments on an equal footing, Gallardo's piano part every bit as difficult as the violin's.
    Weinberg's fourth sonata is a direct predecessor to the character of the fifth, opening with a contemplative first movement before a fiery middle movement. The range of dynamic contrast and playfulness on display here does full justice to Weinberg's demanding writing.
    The Rhapsody on Moldavian themes, Op. 47, is a rarer work to hear (having not been recorded since the 1960's). A favourite of David Oistrakh's, Roth rises above the daunting challenge of this work. Listen out for the spirited Jewish-inflected dancing throughout (especially just after the four minute mark). 

Disc 2
Sonata No. 3, Op. 37
Sonatina Op. 46
Sonata No. 2, Op. 15

    The Third Sonata begins with a searching character, but shifts to more searching themes in its remaining movements. It has long proved a rich source for the tender lyricism that sets Weinberg apart from his contemporaries. The balance between the two players is generally excellent throughout this set, but occasionally the piano can sound dull in comparison to the violin - arguably a minor fault of recording than anything to do with the performances. My particular favourite moment in this first work is the Allegretto cantabile third movement, here performed with a pleasing rubato.
    The Sonatina Op. 46 is a sister-work to the Sonatina for Piano, Op. 49, although in this case, the music is much more fully developed (in the piano Sonatina, a wide combination of themes fizzle out of energy before they achieve synthesis - here, the work is a fully realised piece). The pair perfectly sum up the wistful character of this piece, which demands a certain innocence in its interpretation. The Lento movement is particularly beautiful (and perhaps owing a debt to the Shostakovich cello sonata, slow movement).
    And onto the first premiere of this set - the Second Sonata, Op. 15. Capturing something of the childlike innocence of the Second String Quartet, this work presents Weinberg during his first forays into maturity with the instrumental sonata form, and indeed, the beginnings of mastery for writing for the violin. It opens with tender high notes beneath a churning piano, which increases in intensity towards the minor mode. Weinberg's thematic development is excellent here, abandoning classical sonata structures for his first movement, which instead resembles a rhapsody in character. The Lento movement explores the lower registers of the piano with a heavily romantic mood in the violin soloist (similar to that heard in the Aria for String Quartet, Op. 9). Indeed, this movement could be compared to Schubert in its singing character, as well as the great contrasts established between major and minor modes. The final movement takes a slightly sedate pace at first, increasing in textural complexity to give the sense of climax to finish the work. Roth and Gallardo prove admirable pioneers for the work.

Disc 3
Sonata No. 1, Op. 12
Sonata No. 6, Op. 136bis
3 pieces (without Opus)

   The opening of Weinberg's First Sonata gives the pair the chance to demonstrate their impeccable ensemble work. Beginning with gentle octaves, before a piano counterpoint against the violin briefly creates a three-part texture, perfectly balanced in this recording. The biting character of this whole movement is perfectly maintained with virtuosic control. However, the tender love-song of the Adagietto is not neglected, but performed with beautiful elegance.
  The Sonata No. 6 is here numbered Op. 136bis, since the Op. 136 was assigned to both the Fourth Solo Viola sonata and this work. The most elegant solution seemed to be to dub this work 'Op. 136bis'. It begins with an extended passage for solo violin, placing us firmly in Weinberg's harmonic language of the 1980's, with all the tonal and post-tonal structures that that includes. The violin line is punctuated with several double-stopping chords, establishing a two-part texture resembling a demonic Bach. The piano only joins in in answer to painfully high notes in the violin, almost continuing the line in conversation. A densely rhythmic dialogue begins between the two, interrupted with tritone chords in the violin. This world premiere certainly presents a work that proves a challenging listen. The Adagio continues the pained character, with a constant focus on the minor mode, though within more tonally-centered means than those seen in the opening movement. The pain throughout distorts into outright anger in the final movement, with connotations of violence in the near-wailing violin line. A struggle is acted between the two parts, with wrestling counterpoint and violent cluster chords in both voices. Roth and Gallardo prove themselves adept even in this most challenging of works.
   To finish the set, Weinberg's set of pieces written still in Warsaw, at the age of 14/15. Without opus number, they portray a great sense of ambition in the young composer, firmly grounded in the impressionistic style that marks his very earliest works. Influence of Debussy and Szymanowski can be heard throughout these three pieces - Weinberg had not undertaken any composition tuition at this point, so took his inspiration from the piano music that he loved. The Nokturn that opens the set builds in character, from the rhapsodic opening, towards to Lisztian textures - perhaps betraying the young writer's lack of experience in writing for solo violin, however. The Scherzo movement certainly owes a great deal to the fast sections from Bartók and Prokofiev, with a youthful energy, further exacerbated by triplet rhythms and dotted accompaniment in the high register of the piano. The final movement's opening figuration in the violin still further betrays the composer's inexperience in writing for the violin - the alternating chords are simply lifted from a standard piano texture. The movement continues dreamily, with a Debussy-esque lack of centre and movement. For a young composer's first forays into the form, these pieces show great promise, and they prove an excellent trio to finish this set.


Altogether, then, these discs are remarkable. The performances of both artists are virtuosic and commendable, while the recording quality is generally excellent - though with one or two issues between balance as I have mentioned above. The premiere recordings couldn't be handled more expertly. I recommend this recording to anyone with an interest in Chamber music, or in twentieth-century music in general. In addition to all this - I cannot fault the price, a 3-disc set for the price of one CD! Jens F. Laurson also provides generally excellent liner notes, complete with footnotes. I would also hold it up as an excellent introductory set into the music of Weinberg - while it contains great contrasts between the pieces (including a near-thirty year gap between the 5th and 6th sonatas!!), I believe it sums up the main elements of Weinberg's perfectly in an accessible and attractive 3-disc set, suitable for all listeners.

Link to buy the boxset at Challenge Records

P.S. - here is a Youtube interview with the two artists, discussing the release.