WEINBERG & SHOSTAKOVICH
From the book "Shostakovich: Life Remembered" compiled by Elizabeth Wilson
An excerpt containing "Reminiscences of Shostakovich" of Natalia Vovsi-Michoels, daughter of famous actor Solomon Michoels,
and wife of composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (called here as Moisey or Metak Weinberg)
"The Campaign Against Cosmopolitanism"
Simultaneous to the purges in the arts and sciences, the campaign against 'rootless cosmopolitans' (the euphemism coined for Jews) intensified, culminating in the
Doctors Plot of 1953. The Soviet press accused the implicated doctors (who were dubbed 'assassins in white coats') of belonging to a terrorist group which had
confessed to murdering Zhdanov in 1949, and which was now conspiring to assassinate the military and political leaders of the country. It is believed that Stalin had his
own personal reasons for requiring a further witch hunt. In his last paranoid years, the dictator had come to distrust his erstwhile crony, the NKVD chief Lavrenti
Beriya. Now he wished to implicate him in the 'Doctors' Plot' and have him liquidated. The fact that Beriya had organized the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee at the
beginning of the war with the purpose of mobilizing Jewish public opinion in the USA against the Germans was now to be used against him. However, in the event,
Stalin died before this could be carried out. Beriya only outlived Stalin by a few months. Seven of the nine doctors arrested in connection with the 'Doctors' Plot' were
Jews, including Professor Miron Vovsi, a cousin of the actor Solomon Mikhoels, who was a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Both men were also accused
of being agents of American Intelligence and of JOINT, the acronym for the Jewish-American Charitable Organization.
Shostakovich, who abhorred all forms of injustice and racism, had to be silent in public, but in his music and in his private actions, he showed his moral fibre. His
immediate response was to aid the repressed, irrespective of race or creed. To do so required enormous selflessness and courage.
During the period of the anti-cosmopolitan campaign, Natalya (Tala) Vovsi-Mikhoels suffered the stigma of being a close relation of two prominent figures classed as
'Enemies of the People' - her father and her uncle. Her father, the brilliant actor and founder of the Moscow Jewish Theatre, Solomon Mikhoels, and her uncle,
Professor Miron Vovsi, were victims of the last Stalinist purges. Solomon Mikhoels had left for Minsk on 7 January 1948. By coincidence this was the day of the first
meeting of the 'activists of music' convoked by Zhdanov. On the eve of his departure for Moscow, Mikhoels died in mysterious circumstances on January 12. Later it
transpired that Stalin had ordered his murder.
Mikhoels was on friendly terms with Shostakovich and had spoken out in defence of his Eighth Symphony in 1944. In the post-war years Natalya Vovsi-Mikhoels
enjoyed close contacts with Russian musical circles through her marriage to the composer Moisei (Metak) Weinberg. She describes the loyal support Shostakovich
accorded to her and Weinberg in those dark days. On January 13, 1948, a meeting took place at the Central Committee building under Zhdanov's chairmanship. Its
purpose was to discuss the question of 'formalism in music'. The composers Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky and others were censured for being formalists and
pessimists, 'for distorting our reality, for not reflecting our glorious victories, and for eating out of the hands of our enemies'. In a word, if they were not actually
labelled 'Enemies of the People', they were at any rate at least their accomplices. The meeting lasted from 1 to 6 p.m. As soon as it was over Dmitri Dmitriyevich came
straight to see us. We ourselves had been living on another planet for the last seven hours; the news of Father's death earlier that day had left us completely
devastated. The doors of the flat were open and a stream of people came and went in silence - an endless stream of stunned and frightened people. We wandered
amongst them, without lingering or talking to any of them. Suddenly I heard my name called out; on seeing Dmitri Dmitriyevich, I went up to him. Silently he embraced
me and my husband, the composer Moisei Weinberg, then he went over to the bookcase and, with his back to everybody in the room, pronounced quietly but distinctly
and with uncharacteristic deliberation, 'I envy him . . .' He didn't say another word, but stood rooted to the spot, hugging us both around the shoulders.
It was only later that I learnt the truth about the course of the previous days' events. Although I was told about them, I suppressed my reactions as if I myself had not
been present and was not a participant in them. But this single phrase of Dmitri Dmitriyevich' pierced my very consciousness. I never forgot it, although we were never
to mention it again. By that time we had known each other for five years. We met often in our homes, at friends' houses and at concerts and restaurants. What did we
talk about? As far as I remember, nothing in particular. Sometimes somebody would tell a flat joke, and Dmitri Dmitriyevich, after downing a large glass of vodka, would
proceed to repeat it in his quick pattern, thereby transforming it instantly into something comical and absurd. Sometimes the discussion touched on some composition
that we had heard recently, and, if the conversation was taking place in somebody's home, then the speaker would demonstrate his point on the piano. From the
viewpoint of today, even I, as one who took part in those friendly gatherings, find it hard to believe that people never talked about what was going on around them. It
wasn't that they were trying to hush up things, but, quite simply, they kept silent, and this was the norm. Anyone who broke this silence was immediately suspect; he
who talked in the presence of four or five people was bound to be an informer. The conversation often touched on our children. Dmitri Dmitriyevich's love for his
children was boundless, and he was continually anxious about them. If a well-known pediatrician came to see us, Dmitri Dmitriyevich immediately brought his daughter
Galya around for a consultation. We used to talk about our friends, or read aloud our favorite bits of Saltykov-Shchedrin. We reveled in those excerpts that evoked
'surrounding reality'. But we never spoke about politics.
Once, after the Decree on Zoshchenko and Akhmatova appeared in the Leningrad magazine Zvezda in 1946, Shostakovich told us that he had met Zoshchenko, and
that he was in a dreadful state and completely destitute. In his quick patter, so familiar to us, he kept repeating: 'One must help him. It's essential that he gets help'.
And Drnitri Dmitriyevich himself did help, in the most discreet and tactful way.
It is difficult to choose the right word to define Shostakovich's gift for helping people discreetly. It was not just his tact, but his deep-seated fear of causing offence
that qualified his charity. I remember how my husband once asked Dmitri Dmitriyevich if he could borrow a small sum of money for a short period of time. Dmitri
Dmitriyevich's response was immediate: 'Don't worry, I've got lots of money just now .' They agreed that Weinberg would collect the sum from him the following
afternoon at three. The next morning Dmitri Dmitriyevich rang to tell me that, as it happened, he himself would be in the vicinity of our flat, and to ask if I was going
to be in. He arrived shortly, cash in hand. This was typical of his courtesy. He did not wish to humiliate anyone who had asked him for some favour; rather, he tried to
save them from such embarrassment. He, similarly, would ask us a favour, and we always did our best to help each other out. After all, those were years when many
composers had their works banned from performance and were forced to accept any kind of hack work. What terrible humiliations they had to endure!
In 1948, some months after the Decree on The Great Friendship, Shostakovich wrote his cycle of Jewish songs. On September 25, 1949, Dmitri Dmitriyevich's
birthday, we were invited to his home. It was on that occasion that I first met Mstislav Rostropovich, a slim youth with an intelligent, sardonic look, and an incredible
winning charm. At eight o'clock precisely, Dmitri Dmitriyevich announced that we were to go into his study where we were to hear a new work of his. The impact of
the poems of those simple Jewish songs (at Dmitri Dmitriyevich's request the texts had been translated word for word) at that particular time was simply shattering for
me and my husband Moisei Weinberg. After all, not a day passed without those 'rootless cosmopolitans' (who all bore Jewish surnames) being slandered and abused in
the press. This cycle voiced what we dared not ever express in conversations. It was an open protest by Shostakovich against the hounding of the Jews in this last
five-year plan of Stalin's.
Although Weinberg was not a pupil of Shostakovich's, Dmitri Dmitriyevich always showed great interest in his work. From the very beginning of their acquaintance,
they established a law whereby each played his new compositions for the other. I remember one day Weinberg telling me of a dream he had had in which Shostakovich
invited him to listen to a new work where he heard themes from many of his previous compositions. As he was telling me this story, the telephone rang; it was
Shostakovich, who indeed was inviting him to come and listen to a work he had just completed. It turned out to be the Eighth Quartet, which Dmitri Dmitriyevich
considered to be his musical autobiography. Weinberg returned home shaken to the very core by the music, and by his prophetic dream.
In February 1953 Weinberg was arrested. Stalin was still alive. To be arrested in those times meant departure for ever. The families of those arrested were
ostracized. I rushed between the Moscow prisons, the Lyubyanka and the Butyrka, and didn't know whom to approach. A few days after his arrest, a great friend of
ours rang me and suggested we met. While we paced the dark and narrow Moscow lanes, he told me that Shostakovich was writing a letter to Beriya and needed me to
come and help him edit it. It was sheer lunacy to go to Shostakovich in my situation! But I went and read the letter in which he, Shostakovich, vouched that Weinberg
was an honest citizen and a most talented young composer, whose chief interest in life was music. I understood how dangerous it was for Shostakovich to vouch for an
enemy of the people, a Jew, and furthermore, Mikhoels's son-in-law, that same MikhoeIs who had been accused posthumously of collaborating with 'Joint'! I felt
stunned, grateful and terrified all at the same time. I expressed these emotions as best I could to Dmitri Dmitriyevich, but he, shy of being thanked, just continued to
repeat, 'Don't worry, don't worry, they won't do anything to me.'
Apart from this letter, his wife Nina Vasilyevna suggested that I should write a statement, giving her power of attorney, thereby allowing her to take our things and
sell them to support my seven-year-old daughter Vitosha, when they came to get me and my sister. (As our arrest seemed absolutely inevitable, she allowed herself to
say 'when' and not 'if'.) In fact, as it transpired later, she had decided that they would look after Vitosha. But all this was not to be. On 5 March Stalin died. A month
later, my father was rehabilitated in the press. Soon after this Shostakovich and his wife went to the south on holiday, making me promise to send a telegram as soon
as Weinberg was released.
And shortly we were able to send them this telegram: 'Enjoy your holiday. We embrace you, Tala and Metak.' Two days later the Shostakoviches were back in
Moscow. That evening we celebrated. At the table, festively decked out with candles in antique candlesticks, Nina Vasilyevna read out the power of attorney that I had
written. Then Dmitri Dmitriyevich got up and solemnly pronounced, 'Now we will consign this document to the flames,' and proposed that I should burn it over the
candles. After the destruction of the 'document', we drank vodka and sat down to supper. I rarely saw Dmitri Dmitriyevich as calm, and even merry, as he was that
evening. We sat up till the early hours of the morning. Nina Vasilyevna laughingly recounted how I was worried that Vitosha would get a bad upbringing in the
orphanage; it was then that I discovered that they had decided to take her into their own home.
On 4 December 1954 Shostakovich rang us from Armenia to inform us of his wife Nina's death. He asked us to go to his home so that the children would not be alone
when he telephoned them with the news half an hour later. When we got to the flat we found his son Maxim on the phone. When he put down the receiver he said,
'Now they'll devour him,' and burst into tears. Although Maxim was only sixteen years old then, he understood what a tremendous moral support his mother had been
to his father. He realized that Shostakovich was now alone, defenceless before the system that was destroying him, and that, on his own, he would be unable to hold
out against it.