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GP610 - WEINBERG, M.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 3 (Brewster Franzetti)
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Mieczysław Weinberg (1919–96)
Piano Works • 3


Following his move to Moscow in October 1943, Weinberg rapidly established his reputation, above all in a remarkable succession of string quartets and chamber music with piano. To one side of these, he composed 23 piano pieces and grouped them into three sets entitled Detskiye tetradï (Children’s Notebooks). The volumes were published in 1944, 1945 and 1947, respectively, the last gathering together all three in one. Weinberg himself noted ‘23 preludes’ on the surviving manuscripts. The Introduction, dated 29 June 1944, is the only piece from the first set to survive in the composer’s hand. It is clear from the altered numbering of the other movements (in the copyist’s score in the family archive) that this duplicate of No 8, Conclusion, was added only after the other pieces in this set had been fair copied. The manuscript of the second set is intact and end-dated 19 December 1944. That of the third set is currently unlocated. According to the official catalogue of his works prepared in the 1980s Weinberg also orchestrated some of the pieces, giving them the title From the Life of Children. The whereabouts of this score, however, are also unknown.

In the former Soviet Union, collections of music for children were constantly in demand, and huge print-runs of such works were made—mostly, as in this case, by Muzfond, the Music Fund that helped the members of the Composers’ Union in a variety of ways, from arranging concerts to material concerns such as medical care and accommodation both in the large cities and in countryside ‘rest-homes’. At least until 1948, when its largesse was reined in, the Fund operated with more autonomy from its political masters than comparable bodies in the other artistic unions.

Throughout the period of composition, Weinberg was establishing what would become an enduring and collegial friendship with Shostakovich, who also happened to be working on a set of piano pieces that he would later publish under the heading Children’s Notebook, Op 69. Shostakovich’s pieces were composed for his daughter Galina (aged six to seven at the time) to play, and they are pitched at near-beginner’s level. Weinberg’s on the other hand, though dedicated to his daughter Victoria, were never actually played by her (she studied the piano only briefly as a child), and they are considerably more advanced in their technical demands. Possibly Weinberg’s aim was simply to compose good piano music that might be listened to by children but also played and enjoyed by students and adults, along the lines of Schumann’s Album for the Young and Scenes from Childhood. On the other hand it is worth recalling that the standard of piano playing in the junior departments of Russian conservatories was, and remains, extraordinarily high. At any rate an official review in the house journal of the Composers’ Union, Sovetskaya muzïka, singled out the Children’s Notebooks for their supposedly inappropriate sophistication.

One of the simpler pieces, No 14, Andantino, and one of the trickier ones, No 10, Allegretto, in 5/8 metre, were recycled by Weinberg in 1978 in his unnumbered Piano Sonata, Op 49bis, an expanded recomposition of the Sonatina, Op 49—see Vols 1 and 2 of Allison Franzetti’s Grand Piano series. And the transparent Tchaikovskian lyricism of No 7, Andante tranquillo, was reworked for a female puppet character in his mid-1950s ballet, The Golden Key.

The Can-Can in Honour of Rastorguyevo is a little jeu d’esprit, composed on 11 November 1965 and dedicated to Olga Reznitskaya (the first married name of the young woman who was to become Weinberg’s second wife a few years later). Rastorguyevo is a town near Moscow, named after a nineteenth-century tea merchant, where Olga was working at the time. According to their daughter Anna, Weinberg wrote the Can-Can for Olga because the keep-fit exercises she was doing at the time reminded him of that dance.

The 21 Easy Pieces, Op 34, dated on the manuscript 4–6 June 1946, follow closely on from Weinberg’s most ambitious piano work to date, the Third Sonata. But they could hardly be more different in tone. Whether or not the epithet ‘easy’ is entirely suited to them remains debatable—although none is as technically demanding as certain of the Children’s Notebooks pieces, they are certainly not music for beginners. Harmonically they are a microcosm of Weinberg’s style, in particular his penchant for wandering away from the tonic and back again. Perhaps not as consistently memorable as Shostakovich’s Children’s Notebook (composed 1944–5), several of them could nevertheless serve as attractive teaching pieces for the early years of study.

These are essentially miniature mood pictures. For instance, Baba-Yaga (No 4) refers to the same witch who appears rather more garishly in Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition, whilst Old Man Frost (No 11) is a Slavic cousin to Father Christmas. As the manuscript reveals, several of these titles were amended at some point, which suggests that they may all have been afterthoughts. The first eight numbers follow the systematic tonal design of Chopin’s and Shostakovich’s Preludes. It may be, then, that Weinberg envisaged a cycle of 24 pieces along these lines, but realised at some point that the increasingly complex key signatures would be out of keeping with the pedagogic purposes of the volume.

The set is dedicated to Weinberg’s fellow-composer Nikolay Peyko, who was serving at the time as an assistant in Shostakovich’s composition class. Seventeen of the pieces were published by the Composers’ Union in 1947 as a steklograph print (a primitive form of multi-copying, categorized by librarians as a ‘near-print’ medium). Those omitted were the original Nos 16, 18, 19 and 20, but it is by no means clear why, since they are not distinguishable in any obvious way from the others.

David Fanning

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