Wednesday 26 October 2016

Vinni Pukh

Weinberg wrote a considerably large amount of film music; indeed, he was one of the most prolific film composers in Russia, and this success allowed him the freedom to avoid the teaching or editing jobs that hampered the composition efforts of other composers. 

Alongside his more than 40 film scores, Weinberg also wrote for children's animated films. His greatest success by far was for a series that is a household name in Russia, but virtually unknown to Western audiences. Most Russians of a certain-age will be able to at least hum you the some of the music from this film, but very few would be able to tell you the composer. The films continue to be loved to this day, and a 2013 DVD re-release sold out within days.

This is Vinni Pukh, a famed Russian adaptation of A.A. Milne’s loved Winnie-the-Pooh stories, directed by Fyodor Khitruk, based on the translations by Boris Zakhoder. While Westerners may be familiar with E.H. Shepard’s charming illustrations for the original books (and the subsequent soporific Disney adaptations from the 1960s onwards), the Russian version has taken on a life of its own, with huge success.

Newcomers might be disconcerted by Vinni Pukh, based on their previous assumptions about the ‘Pooh’ characters. For one thing, Khitruk’s Vinni is much more bear-like than any other representation, with a large black band around his eyes, long claws (on paws that don’t actually attach to his body when he skips along), and a rather small, squat shape. In addition, his facial expressions vary widely, ranging from child-like awe, philosophical pondering, through to mild existential angst (of sorts). Some of the other characters also appear, including Piglet, Rabbit, and Eeyore, but no Tigger, Kanga, or Roo; notably, there is no Christopher Robin, quite a large departure from Milne’s stories.

Instead, Khitruk opted for a child-like setting of only the animal characters, setting the same stories as Milne’s books, but questioning events in a rather ‘deep’ manner throughout. In short, Khitruk’s Vinni Pukh is radically different to the comparatively bland Disney version.

The series started with three films, starting with Vinni Pukh (1969), and followed by two sequels, Vinni Pukh pays a visit (1971), and Vinni Pukh and a busy day (1972). Weinberg provided music for all three, but it was the in the first that he had the most success.

Fortunately for non-Russian speakers, the series has been uploaded onto Youtube with English subtitles (though some of varying quality in their translation).

The first installment can be seen here:

Khitruk’s animation style was something of a breakthrough for Soviet cartoons. Before this point, the vast majority of Soviet children’s animations had been copying the visual style of Disney’s films, especially that of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Khitruk’s child-like style of bold shapes and broken-up forms (such as Vinni Pukh’s paws that don’t actually attach to his body) proved both heartwarming and instantly recognisable to children.

Weinberg’s music complements this approach. The opening titles are accompanied by a meandering nursery-rhyme-style tune played on Harpsichord, still something of a novelty instrument in the Soviet Union at this point (Weinberg had used the instrument in a soloist role in his Seventh Symphony, in 1964).

This is followed by opening narration, and shortly afterwards we are introduced to Vinni Pukh himself, as he sings to himself strolling through the woods. The manner in which he actually does this is rather boisterous, described by one reviewer for the Independent as ‘[striding] around the forest like he is marching on Berlin’. He sings a song with lots of ‘Tramp-pa-pam-pa’ and ‘ruump-pa-puump-pa’ nonsense lyrics, which Weinberg sets to a charming melody. Vinni was voiced by Yevgeny Leonov, the famed Soviet comedian. Leonov had a rather deep bass voice, so the recording engineers sped it up by 30%, giving Vinni Pukh his distinctively surreal voice.

Yevgeny Leonov, voice of Vinni Pukh
Weinberg’s song is arguably one of the most famous in Russia, and it appeared in one guise or another in all of the subsequent Vinni Pukh films. While the song has something of a ‘sprechgesang’ quality about its notation, it is arguably Leonov’s inspired delivery that really makes the song successful.

The remainder of the film, and its two sequels, features inspired background music supplied by Weinberg, as well as one or two other songs, but it is the opening credit music and Vinni’s theme that is the most easily recognisable and the most instantly loveable (in my experience as a public speaker, it is Vinni Pukh that I play to Western audiences to help them warm to Weinberg’s music).

The three Vinni Pukh films went on to win the USSR State Prize in 1976 (included as part of a group of seven films).  

The two other films can be viewed here (with subsequent 'parts' leading off from these videos):


A playful comparison of Khirtuk vs. Disney can be found here: via buzzfeed

Further links/bibliography:

Marissa Fessenden for the Smithsonian

Phil Reeves for the Independent

David MacFayden, Yellow Crocodiles and Blues Oranges: Russian Animated Film since World War II (Ontario: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005).

Laura Ponteiri, Soviet Animation, and the Thaw of the 1960s: not only for children (New Barnet: John Libbey, 2012).

Tuesday 30 August 2016

Thesis available online

Dear all,

After having passed my viva on 25 July, I am pleased to inform you that my thesis has been approved, and my Doctoral degree awarded.

Accordingly, I have made my thesis available online, at the following link:

Here's the thesis abstract for your information:

As attention on the music of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) has increased in the years after his death, so has the need for an analytical study of his musical style and language. This thesis surveys Weinberg’s changing style through a genre that spans almost his entire output: the string quartet. His close friendship and artistic affinity with Shostakovich helps make his music accessible to a wider audience, though closer examination reveals Weinberg’s individuality and a quite distinct language from that of his mentor. In support of this contention, a wide range of analytical approaches is deployed in this dissertation, along with a pragmatic methodology for presenting a holistic overview of Weinberg’s quartets. 
Weinberg’s quartet cycle occupies an important place in twentieth-century music, with parallels to Shostakovich, Bartók, and other Soviet composers, including Myaskovsky, Shebalin, Levitin, and Boris Chaykovsky; correspondences and distinctiveness are explored in the second chapter. The third chapter surveys Weinberg’s musical narratives, with recourse to theories from Kofi Agawu, Boris Asafiev, and Jacques Derrida. Form is the focus of the fourth chapter, where ideas from Mark Aranovsky, and James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy are deployed to highlight Weinberg’s problematising of traditional forms in his music. Chapter five explores Weinberg’s multi-faceted approach to harmony, with concepts expanded from Lev Mazel, Yury Kholopov, and the neo-Riemannian school of analysis. 
The picture that emerges is of Weinberg’s individuality and distinctive voice, manifested in a controlled experimentalism and a tendency towards extended lyricism. His affinity with better-known composers may prove an approachable entry-point for wider audiences, but many of the most striking elements in his quartet cycle are of his own invention. His quartets stand as an important contextual dimension for understanding Shostakovich’s cycle, and also for appreciating the broader repertoire of Soviet chamber music. As his centenary approaches, engagement with Weinberg’s music continues to increase: this thesis provides contexts and analysis-based conclusions to complement this ongoing revival.

I do hope my thesis will be of interest to you. Please do not hesitate to get in contact if you have any queries or suggestions. 


Thursday 28 July 2016

Summer 2016 Update

Here's an update of Weinbergian news and events for the summer months of 2016 - with a new publication, and a Weinberg conference!

In the single biggest piece of news in my own work, my thesis was submitted in June, and I passed my PhD viva a few days ago (with minor corrections). Expect a link of some sort to read the full finished thesis in a few weeks.

Weinberg Studies
Several events have occurred in the relatively-quiet field of 'Weinberg Studies'. Firstly, the German-language journal 'Die Tonkunst' featured in their April issue a series of papers from a 2012 Hamburg conference on 'Weinberg in the Brezhnev era'.

This excellent volume features six articles (with one in English), discussing Weinberg's place in Soviet music, Socialist Realism in the stagnation era, and further focuses on Weinberg's cello sonatas and Polish-language works. The contents runs as follows:

Friday 17 June 2016

Thesis submitted!

Regular readers will have noticed that this blog has fallen quiet in the last six months or so. I have been working away, and I'm very pleased to say that my thesis has been completed and submitted, awaiting a viva examination and any subsequent corrections. Watch this space for any further updates or news.

Wednesday 27 April 2016

Recent news - controversy on the 20th anniversary of Weinberg's death

Perhaps the biggest piece of Weinberg-related news came on the twentieth anniversary of his death, on 26 February, with the release of a new interview with his first daughter, Victoria. The interview with Elisaveta Blumina (and edited by Il'ya Ovchinnikov) contains many warm details of Weinberg as a loving and kind father, as well as Victoria's thoughts on his music. The article can be found here (in Russian).

Victoria Bishops (neé Weinberg) and Elizaveta Blumina (picture from
While the details about Weinberg as a Father and his years in Warsaw go some way to 'fill in the gaps' for information about these aspects of his biography, it is in her claims about the years up to his death that Victoria makes some rather shocking assertions.

Firstly, she alleges that the mother of Weinberg's second wife, Grinchar Nadezhda Aleksandrovna, worked as a psychiatric nurse in the Butyrka prison - where Weinberg had been imprisoned (details are somewhat hazy as to where exactly Weinberg had been held during his imprisonment in 1953 - several sources mention both the Lubyanka and the Butyrka, suggesting an initial interrogation in the Lubyanka and then a holding cell in the Butyrka). This is, however, the first time that Weinberg's mother-in-law has been linked to the Butyrka in this way (this is crucial, since Weinberg shares the same grave as his mother-in-law, in Domodedovo cemetary). Weinberg's flat in Moscow, where his family live to this day, overlooks the Butyrka prison.

Further to this, Victoria asserts that Weinberg was baptised against his will (which, in the orthodox faith, makes any baptism illegitimate). He was baptised into the Russian Orthodox Church in a quiet ceremony in his Moscow flat a few weeks before his death. According to Anna, his second daughter, it was entirely his own decision, with no prompting from anyone else.

Reactions to these claims have ranged from confusion to outrage - especially in defence of Weinberg's second wife, Olga, and their daughter, Anna. Olga Rakhalskaya herself has written a response - to be found here (again, in Russian), at the end of which she concludes: 'on the twentieth anniversary of his death, 26 February, was there no better way to honour him than by throwing mud at the people close to him?'. She proceeds to put the record straight about her mother (who was not a psychiatric nurse at the Butyrka) and also gives more detail about Weinberg's conversion - that he swore to reach a decision by his birthday, 8 December, but had in fact made up his mind before this point. Olga's response also features excerpts from Weinberg's letters, previously published in 2000. These alone make Olga's response worth reading.

Olga Rakhalskaya (picture from
The outcome of both of these articles remains to be seen - while both provide rich details for the scholar, it is on the personal level of Weinberg's life and family that makes them both vital but difficult reading. 

Tuesday 12 January 2016

January 2016 update

Happy New Year! Here's a few bits of Weinberg-related news to keep you busy for the coming month.

These are upcoming events happening in the UK:

London, Wigmore Hall
12 February, 19:30

Gidon Kremer, Daniil Trifonov, Giedre Dirvanauskaite

As part of the Wigmore Hall's 'featured artist' series, Trifonov gives a selection of concerts, including this one which features regular collaborators from the Kremeratica Baltica. Gidon Kremer needs no introduction, of course, and the talents of Dirvanauskaite's cello playing were highlighted on their ECM Weinberg album, released in 2014.

Programme includes:

  • Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962)
  • Preghiera (arrangement of themes from the 2nd mvt of Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2)
  • Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996)
  • Sonata No. 5 for violin and piano Op. 53
  • Sonata No. 3 for solo violin Op. 126
  • Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
  • Trio élégiaque No. 2 in D minor Op. 9

    Tickets and further details available here.