Symphony No. 21, subtitled ‘Kaddish,’ is the final symphony by Mieczysław Weinberg – a Polish composer of Jewish descent, born in Warsaw who moved to the USSR in 1939 and died in Moscow. It is a very special symphony as it is devoted to the victims of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. Therefore, alongside a quotation from Fryderyk Chopin’s Ballade in G minor, it also features references to klezmer music and a wistful violin solo set against an interrupted waltz, which echoes the playing of the composer’s father – a violinist, who perished in the ghetto with almost his entire family.

This is the final symphony by Mieczysław Weinberg (1919–96) – a Polish composer of Jewish descent, born in Warsaw, who lived in the USSR from 1939, and died in Moscow. A very special symphony, it is devoted to the victims of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw.

Kaddish (from the Aramaic qaddiš – ‘holy’; in Yiddish – kadesz) is one of the most important and the most frequently invoked prayers in Judaism. Written in Aramaic, it expresses a belief in one God and submission to His will. The tradition of saying kaddish as a funeral prayer became popular in the 13th century – following pogroms of Jews perpetrated by the crusaders. The practice of saying kaddish for deceased relatives for one year following their death became obligatory in the 15th century. The present form of the prayer emerged in the 18th century – it was then established that no extra verse could be added to it, and that the word ‘Amen’ could only be uttered as the reply of the congregation as a whole. During certain Jewish holidays (Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur) the prayer is sung to special melodies.

The Kaddish has been employed on several occasions in 20th-century music. Maurice Ravel introduced it into his work Deux mélodies hébraïques (1914), and Ernest Bloch did the same in his Avodath Hakodesh (1930–33) for baritone, choir and orchestra. In turn, Leonard Bernstein wrote his Symphony No. 3 ‘Kaddish’ (1963) for soprano, narrator, mixed choir, boys’ choir and great orchestra. He dedicated it to President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated a week before its world premiere. Fifty years later, the narrator’s text (authored by Bernstein himself), initially associated with Kennedy, was replaced by the memoirs of Samuel Pisaro, who had survived the Holocaust. Krzysztof Penderecki wrote Kaddish (2009) for soprano, tenor, reciting voice, men’s choir and orchestra, with the dedication: ‘To all Łódź Abrameks who desired to live. To Poles who saved Jews’. The text of the Aramaic prayer is present in the fourth and at the same time the last movement of the piece, and is based on old prayers from Eastern Galicia that the composer heard from his friend, the bass Boris Carmeli. The first movement features poems by Abramek Cytryn, a boy not yet 15-years old who was deported to Auschwitz on the last transport from the Łódź ghetto. As a formality, let us add that the first musical work that used the text of the mourner’s prayer was Salomone Rossi’s Kaddish Shalem from 1623.

Weinberg’s Symphony No. 21 from 1991 was composed for soprano and symphony orchestra. It lasts over 50 minutes. Although it comprises six movements (Largo, Allegro molto, Largo, Presto, Andantino, Lento), it in fact constitutes a single great act of lamentation for a world that no longer exists. After the symphony was performed at the Warsaw Philharmonic to mark the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Rising (April 2018), the monthly Ruch Muzyczny wrote: ‘[Weinberg] avoids clear-cut solutions present with Shostakovich – ear-catching marching rhythms, a parodic reworking of 19th-century music, excessively elegiac cantilenas. […] it is an astonishing study of memory: the dense romantic narrative is intercepted every now and again with blurred idioms – a fragment of the first theme from Chopin’s Ballade in G minor (after all, his music was played in the ghetto so often), a warped march of solo double bass, allusions to klezmer music, and finally – most shockingly – a violin solo set against an interrupted waltz – clearly echoing the playing of the composer’s father – a violinist in a small Jewish theatre, who perished in the ghetto with all his family.’

The listener is confronted with grief and sorrow mixed with rage, resistance and horror. The first movement (around 18 minutes) opens with the melancholic sound of the strings – as if this music longed for something and as if this longing will remain unassuaged. The situation is not changed either by the mourning of the wind instruments or the direct quote from Chopin’s Ballade in G minor, which resurfaces again towards the end of the movement. Allegro molto swirls with rhythm and colour, as if recalling joyful days before the apocalypse; however, it is interrupted by the mood of war. The changeable Largo opens with a violent and heavy fanfare of brass instruments (set against fast string passages) – in the centre, Weinberg places a klezmer band with clarinet as the leading instrument. The three-minute-long Presto is like an escape that ends in exhaustion. The Andantino remains in the memory thanks to its violin solo juxtaposed with a xylophone. Lastly, the finale Lento resounds: initially, we hear the text-less song of the soprano from behind the stage, pure and heavenly (which will return once more), then another quotation from Chopin’s Ballade, and finally, the orchestra erupts as one, which is then followed by dead silence. The eschata are frightful but unavoidable.