Mieczysław Wajnberg was born in a tenement house at 66 Żelazna Street. His father was a violinist, conductor and accompanist. He supervised recordings of Jewish music at the famous Syrena Records company and was an artistic director at the Scala musical theatre located at the corner of Dzika and Dzielna Streets. It was there that young Mietek began his musical education.
He was first and foremost a pianist. During the day, at the music conservatory, he was one of the top students of Professor Józef Turczyński, a highly respected pedagogue and member of the jury of the Chopin Piano Competition in the interwar period. In the evenings, young Mieczysław played the piano at the most trendy Warsaw clubs, such as Adria, Luxenburg Gallery or Qui Pro Quo cabaret. He was getting ready to leave for the United States—he was supposedly granted a fellowship at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
On 1 September 1939 everything changed. Twenty-year old Wajnberg left Warsaw and fled to the East. His parents and sister most likely missed the train. They were resettled from Warsaw to the Łódź ghetto and from there to the concentration camp in Trawniki. Mietek was the only family member to survive the war.
Music saved his life during his travels through Białystok, Mińsk and Tashkent. The Soviet Union called for new music to help lift the nation’s morale. Wajnberg co-wrote musical performances with very telling titles, e.g. To fight for the Homeland, Wartime pals, or The Sword of Tashkent. Aside from those, Wajnberg also wrote his own independent music: songs to the lyrics by Julian Tuwim or Yitschak Leybush Perets, concerts, as well as his first symphony. The musical scores soon found their way to the desk of Russia’s most celebrated composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, who decided to invite the young Pole to Moscow. The war ended but the friendship between Wajnberg and Shostakovich was to last and proved inspiring for both composers. They consulted their work with each other and competed for the number of pieces written for string quartets (Wajnberg won 17 to 15). Prior to their premieres, Shostakovich’s subsequent symphonies were performed four-handedly for friends and acquaintances, with Dmitri Dmitreevich and Moyshe Samuelowicz sat at the grand piano. However, it soon turned out that even then Wajnberg was not entirely safe.
On 6 February 1953 one of the most popular Wajnberg’s pieces—Moldovian Rhapsody, version for the violin and orchestra—had its premiere. David Ojstrach, the future teacher of Gideon Kremer, was the soloist. In the evening following the premiere, the Security Police entered Wajnberg’s apartment. The composer was arrested and charged with the “Jewish bourgeois nationalism.” “Since I cannot read or write in Yiddish, but I do have two thousand Polish books, perhaps you should accuse me of Polish nationalism?” Wajnberg tried to joke. “We know better,” the security officer replied. It later transpired that the Sinfonietta on the Jewish Themes, written five years earlier, was a pretext for the composer’s arrest.
Wajnberg was taken to the infamous Łubianka Prison—he was locked in a single cell where it was impossible to lay down or to stand up, and the bright light made it impossible to sleep. A letter from Shostakovich to Lavrentiy Beria, the Chief of Soviet Security Police, the death of Stalin and the thaw that ensued saved his life. After three months of imprisonment Mieczysław was set free. He continued to compose even more music, but he lost his sense of security and trust in people.
In the Soviet Union, the music fashion was dictated by the censorship. Meanwhile, the west was interested in the avant-garde. Wajnberg was not particularly fond of travelling; he went on his first official trip abroad as late as 1963 to participate in the Warsaw Autumn contemporary music festival. Alas, he did not receive a warm welcome, nor did he recognize the city his youth.
In 1968 Wajnberg finished the score to his first opera titled The Passenger, based on the novel by Zofia Posmysz. After several rehearsals at the Bolshoi Theatre the opera was banned by the censorship. It would premiere a decade after its composer’s death, during a festival in Bregenz, Switzerland. In Moscow, The Passenger was staged for the first time only three years ago.
„I need to complain about the Maker,” Mieczysław Wajnberg said to Eugeniusz Mielczarek, an employee of the Polish Embassy in Moscow who came to present him with a medal of Honor Meritorious for Polish Culture. “As you can see, he messed up the concept of an old age.” The composer was suffering from the Crohn disease which rendered him bedridden and unable to work.
“How do you cope in this situation, Mr Wajnberg?” the diplomate enquired. “Luckily, wonderful Polish music helps. Each day, in my head, I keep replaying Chopin’s pieces and listening to Moniuszko’s operas,” the composer replied.
Two decades after his passing, Wajnberg’s music is becoming more and more popular. The Passenger staged by David Poutney entered the repertoire of seven different opera houses on both sides of the Atlantic, including the National Opera in Warsaw. In Poland, Wajnberg’s pieces are regularly performed at concerts of the best conductors—Agnieszka Duczmal and Gabriel Chmura. In Germany, violinist Linus Roth is a great promoter of Wajnberg’s music. One of the most renowned virtuoso violinist of our times, Gideon Kremer, included his music in each performance during a tour on the occasion of his 70th birthday. He also recorded two monograph albums with Wajnberg’s pieces for the ECM record company.
In 2019, at the POLIN Museum, we are carrying out a series of Wajnberg @ 100 concerts. We initiated it at the POLIN Music Festival during which the orchestra Sinfonia Varsovia performed "Rhapsody on Moldovan themes" for violin and orchestra. The soloist of this concert was the excellent violinist Linus Roth. The premiere of the music poem Mieczysław Wajnberg also took place during the festival. Musical epitaph is based on Wajnberg's songs ‘Profile’ and ‘Triptych. In April - on to commemorate the 76th anniversary of the outbreak of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto - we presented the IV Symphony Op. 153, and in May the Royal String Quartet performed the Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.18.
The patron of the Wajnberg @ 100 cycle is the Jankilevitsch Foundation.