Weinberg: "Three Palmtrees"

Program Note

Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996)
“Three Palmtrees” after M. Lermontov for Soprano and String Quartet, Op.120 (1977)

A poem by Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov (1814–1841) speaks of three palm trees in the Arabian desert. Weinberg used this text as the basis of his like-named work, scored for the unusual combination of soprano and string quartet. The character of this 20-minute work, conceived in 1977, comes from its mixture of chamber music, song cycle and cantata.

Stylistically, it is uncommonly expressive, interspersed with many lyrical passages. Its model was surely Arnold Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, Op.10 (1908), which likewise adds a soprano voice to the sound of a string quartet. Schoenberg’s work, too, comes to terms with a profoundly personal experience – a relation likewise important to Weinberg in his “Three Palmtrees.” In Lermontov’s poem, three palm trees complain to God about their uselessness. The response has a violence reminiscent of the Old Testament: a group of Bedouins arrive and use the trees for their campfire. Only in their deaths are the trees given their raison d’être. Therein lies the piece’s symbolic message. Weinberg has retraced feelings of loneliness, and later of rage and despair, as if in silverpoint. Chromatic turns of phrase, reflecting the topos of suffering in earlier music, undergird the sorrow of this sacrifice, which, toward the end, leads to absolute desolation.

Whether the three palm trees are emblematic of the Holocaust, the deaths of Weinberg’s three family members or his own sufferings in the artistic dictatorship of the Soviet Union remains an open question. Perhaps all these aspects played a role in the music. Whatever the case, his great empathy for the fate of the three palm trees is everywhere apparent, impressively transformed into music.

—David Pountney