Tuesday 24 March 2015

Shmuel Weinberg's recordings

Shmuel Weinberg (1882-1943) was born in Chișinău, Moldova. He taught himself to play violin from the age of 7, and joined a touring theatre group in 1899, serving as violinist, conductor, and chorus master. The group toured round Eastern Europe, including an extended residency in Vilna. In 1914, Shmuel took up an invitation to join a troupe in Lodz, and two years later joined the Warsaw Jewish Theater. With this company, Shmuel conducted the orchestra for plays, evenings of music hall songs, and comedy revues. Shmuel wrote the music for several of the theatre's productions.

The Orchestra was of a good standard and focused mainly on incidental music, song accompaniments, and settings of Yiddish folk songs. 

Shmuel's son, Mieczysław - the future composer -, began playing piano in the orchestra from 1930, later going on to direct a few of the productions himself. In his later career as a composer, Weinberg praised these experiences as his foundation as a composer.

Shmuel was proud of son's success as a musician - they worked together on Mieczysław's first film score, to a 1936 film 'Freddy makes the world happy' (Shmuel conducted the orchestra, and Mieczysław played piano in the ensemble). 

With the advent of war in 1939, Mieczysław fled east to the USSR and found sanctuary there. Shmuel remained in Warsaw with his wife Sonia, and their daughter Ester. After the German occupation, they were moved to just outside the Lodz ghetto. From there they were transferred to the Trawniki concentration camp, and were murdered in 1943.

Mieczysław continued to compose in his new homeland, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

As a composer, Mieczysław Weinberg's music has often been identified as Jewish-sounding, arguably influencing Shostakovich's interests in Jewish music and culture. Weinberg spoke of his father's music: 

'My first music teacher was life, because I was born into a family where my Father played music since he was a child. He was a violinist and a composer, but... I would say, he was of a low professional level. He travelled with the Jewish wandering troupes of actors, wrote music for them. He led performances from the conductor's podium, playing the violin and conducting. When I was six I followed him, went and listened to all these low-quality but very heartfelt melodies. I always somehow thought that my father's conducting baton made a sound like a trumpet. I remember that I was terribly disappointed when my father told me that it does not make a sound at all.' - Lyudmila Nikitina, 'Pochti lyuboy mig zhizni – rabota…' ['Almost every moment of my life - work...' - interview with M. Weinberg], Muzïkalnaya Akademiya, (1994) 17).
Clearly, his father's music had a strong effect on his own musical tastes. One benefit on the internet is that previously rare materials can be digitised and made public. In the case of Shmuel Weinberg, a series of recordings that he made in the late 1920s and early 1930s have now been uploaded online. For the first time, we can get a sense of the kind of music that Shmuel Weinberg's theatre ensemble was playing. There's even a chance that the young Mieczysław can be heard playing piano in the recordings - though there's nothing to confirm this. 

The recordings vary in quality, but they all have a few things in common: they are all songs, and they are all for one particular label, Syrena. Most are in Yiddish, but a few are in Hebrew. Most of them are secular yiddish songs, but some of them are traditional settings of texts from the Torah - sung by a cantor on the recordings. Having all been recorded in pre-war Poland, all of these recordings are safely out of copyright - the sources that I downloaded them from can be found at the bottom of this article. 

Record for the song 'Ohn a Weib', sung by Dawid Lederman, accompanied by the Jewish Theater Orchestra of Warsaw, conducted by Shmuel Weinberg.

'Eilu Devorim', with Cantor Jacob Koussevitzky (1929)

'A Przedwojenne Mädel' [A Beautiful Girl], sung by Giza Heiden

 'Schmerl wu bist du?' [Schmerl, where are you?], sung by Giza Heiden - 1930

'Dos Dreidel', sung by Leon Fuchs

These rare recordings offer us a taste of the musical environment that Weinberg grew up in, maybe even some of those 'heartfelt melodies'. They are certainly a tantalising insight into the pre-war Yiddish culture that he was immersed in - and which he would later credit for his own interests in Jewish and Yiddish culture. 

There are more recordings available. Here are the two main sites that I consulted:



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