Vainberg – Concerto for Flute and String Orchestra in D-minor, Opus 75

by Max Derrickson

Moise Vainberg (1919-1996)

Concerto for Flute and String Orchestra in D-minor, Opus 75
1. Allegro
2. Largo
3. Allegro comodo

Russian composer Moise Vainberg, now just 10 years deceased, created an enormous catalog of works during his long life. A partial list would include 26 symphonies, 7 concertos, 17 string quartets, 28 sonatas for various instruments, 7 operas, several ballets, incidental music for 65 films, and a Requiem. Arguably, he is one of the best and most prolific composers from Soviet Russia. How is it that we have never heard his music?

Vainberg’s life, and neglect, are in part a story of the worst of 20th CenturyEurope. Born in Warsaw to a father who worked as a composer and musician in a traveling Jewish theater, Vainberg debuted as a pianist at the age of 10. Plans for him to study in the United States were thwarted by the outbreak of World War II in 1939. He became a refugee, immigrating first to Minsk and then toTashkentin advance of the invading Nazis. In 1943 his entire family was burned to death during the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. In Tashkent Vainberg married the daughter of the famous Russian Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels, but the Soviet purges ordered Mikhoels’ execution. Eventually, the Soviets imprisoned Vainberg on ludicrous charges that he was starting up a Jewish state in Crimea. He was freed only in 1953, after Stalin died. Vainberg worked as a freelance composer and musician for the rest of his life, but political currents rarely allowed his works to shine.

Musically, Vainberg described himself as the “flesh and blood” of his close friend Dmitri Shostakovich. In the early 1940’s, Vainberg sent a copy of his first symphony to Shostakovich, who was so impressed that he formally invited Vainberg to meet him inMoscow. The two composers quickly became close friends and neighbors, and Vainberg’s musical ideologies shifted dramatically. Soon Vainberg and Shostakovich were influencing one another’s compositions. Of Shostakovich’s influence, Vainberg said, “It was as if I had been born anew…. although I took no lessons from him, Shostakovich was the first person to whom I would show each of my new works.” For his part, Shostakovich bragged to a friend that he had just caught up with, and surpassed, the number of string quartets that Vainberg had written.

Although Vainberg’s music is unmistakably like Shostakovich’s, Vainberg often explores the horrors of war and oppression. He wrote, “Many of my works are related to the theme of war. This, alas, was not my choice. It was dictated by my fate, by the tragic fate of my relatives. I regard it as my moral duty to write about the war, about the horrors that befell mankind in our century.” Others might have written of such tragedies in bitterness, but Vainberg’s music possesses an intimacy and kindness, a haunting yet spiritual equanimity of a man of deep wisdom and hope.

He completed the Concerto for Flute and String Orchestra in 1961. It is a remarkable work, both thematically and in its exceptional (and difficult) flute writing. The first movement, Allegro, is frenetic and sharp-witted. Though full of a Russian ethos and modernism that have become familiar to us through Prokofiev and Shostakovich, the movement also shows Vainberg’s particular fondness for tonality. The flute introduces the basic theme, a complex, staccato, jumpy tune running its phrases over measures. The movement is essentially a long variation upon itself. It is like a tapestry of little things woven together into a large picture. In variation, the orchestration under the flute theme is often cleverly mixed up, with the solo flute darting above it like a chattering bird.

The Largo movement is exquisitely expressive, sad, and beautiful. It is a passacaglia, a set of variations built on a constantly repeated harmonized bass line (a “ground”). The string orchestra plays the ground, setting a somber, nigh devastated, mood. Together with the dark, low-registered lyricism of the flute solo, it paints a tragic picture. Vainberg was nimble
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The last movement, Allegro comodo (“comfortably fast”), begins without pause after theLargo. This finale presents us with another tapestry of themes woven together in variation of color and addled-ness. It is somewhat more light-hearted
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Vainberg’s music must be heard to be appreciated. We are grateful to Eugenia Zukerman for introducing us to this extraordinary concerto.