The Great War Project

Look no further than yesterday’s speech by Obama for proof of the long-lasting global impact of “The War to End All Wars,” which started 100 years ago.  Enough that some former colleagues from NPR have launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund terrific, important, and ambitious concept for a radio series.    And it needs your help to become reality:

Beginning in June 2014, we will tell the stories of The Great War through radio documentaries and in shorter radio pieces, all of which will air on public radio stations nationwide and will be available in podcasts.

Our goal is not to tell the definitive history of the war and all its battles. Instead, we will present many important and interesting stories from the war: those of soldiers and civilians, the military technology, the tactics, the poetry, the politics, the societal consequences.

We will present the vast tapestry of World War One and thereby help all of us understand what happened during that time and how that now-forgotten war helped create – for better or worse – the world we live in today.

Check out the video below, and consider making a donation todaythe sand is literally running out of the hourglass.

 

A Prayer for Ukraine

TARAS SHEVCHENKO 1814 - 1861 BARD OF UKRAINE

TARAS SHEVCHENKO
1814 – 1861
BARD OF UKRAINE

When shall we get ourselves a Washington
To promulgate his new and righteous law?
But someday we shall surely find the man!

Taras Shevchenko, 1848

Witnessing the dramatic events happening in Kiev this past week made me think of two of the original “freedom fighters” for Ukrainian nationalism: The country’s “national bard” Taras Shevchenko, as well as the Ukrainian composer who set his words to music, Mykola Lysenko.

I discovered Shevchenko quite by accident.  There is a statue erected in his honor at the corner of 22nd and P Streets NW in Washington, D.C., just a few blocks away from the old NPR headquarters on M street, and across the street from the legendary DC beer joint The Brickskeller, (“featuring beers from Argentina to Zimbabwe”) the preferred postgame pizza-and-beer location for the NPR softball team.  And at about the same time, we received an over-the-transom submission to Performance Today of a concert devoted to works by Ukrainian (!) composers – quite a novelty in the late ’80s.  (As was, by the way, the idea of offering scores of imported beers on tap…).

But 1988 was a Millennium Year for Ukraine, marking the 1000th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity in the forerunner state of Kievan Rus.’ Sure enough, the recording featured an abundance of works by both Dmitry Bortniansky (1751-1825) and Lysenko (1842-1912), with many of the latter’s pieces featuring texts by Shevchenko. Turns out the Lysenko set more than 80 of his fellow Ukrainian’s works to music.  One of the most famous was “The Days Pass By,” long a staple in the repertoire of Ukrainian-American bass Paul Plishka (whom I think sang it on the program but can’t be sure.)

Paul Plishka: Days Pass

Both Shevchenko and later, Lysenko were imprisoned in their fight for Ukrainian independence – and it’s hard not to read the lyrics as sort of Shevchenko’s version of MLK’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”  Others interpret the words as Shevchenko’s scorn for the laziness of his compatriots, “in which somnolent inactivity is seen as far worse than death in chains,” according to the Encylopedia of Ukraine.  Regardless, it’s a powerful mixture of music and text, and easy to understand why it’s still a part of Ukrainian culture to this day:

 
 
The days pass by, the nights pass by
As does summer. Yellowed leaves
Rustle, eyes grow dim,
Thoughts fall asleep, the heart sleeps,
All has gone to rest, and I don’t know
Whether I’m alive or will live,
Or whether I’m rushing like this through the world,
For I’m no longer weeping or laughing
My fate, fate, where are you now?
I have none;
If you begrudge me a good one, Lord,
Then give me a bad one!
Let a walking man not sleep,
To die in spirit
And knock about the entire world
Like a rotten stump.
But let me live, with my heart live
And love people.
And if not then curse
And burn the world!
It’s horrible to end up in chains
To die in captivity,
But it’s worse to be free
And to sleep, and sleep, and sleep
And to fall asleep forever,
And to leave no trace
At all, as if it were all the same
Whether you had lived or died!
Fate, where are you, fate where are you?
I have none!
If you begrudge me a good one, Lord,
Then give me a bad one! A bad one!

 

Sadly, I couldn’t find any recordings by Plishka of that song to share via YouTube, but I remember to  decipher enough Cyrillic to find this ancient recording by the Ukrainian baritone Mikhail Grishko, one of the great voices of the Stalin era, and almost completely unknown in the West.

Back to the composer, Mykola Lysenko.  Seems I’m not the only one whose curiosity has been stirred about the story of this early Ukrainian nationalist of late. Here’s an excerpt from a recent syndicated Washington Post called “9 Questions about Ukraine You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask:”

5. This is getting complicated. Can we take a music break?

Great idea. Ukraine has a rich tradition of folk and popular music, including one of their many classical greats, Mykola Lysenko. A Ukrainian nationalist, and by his death in 1912 a major star, Lysenko loved to incorporate Ukrainian folk melodies into his compositions – for example, his simple but beautiful Second Ukrainian Rhapsody for piano.

Lysenko’s life, more than a century ago, charted many of the same issues driving today’s crisis. Ukraine was then a part of Imperial Russia, which pushed composers and musicians to use only the Russian language. Lysenko refused, composing two operas in Ukrainian, which he refused to translate into Russian, even though this meant they could never be performed in Moscow. Because an 1876 Tsarist decree banned the use of Ukrainian in print, Lysenko had to have his scores printed in secret abroad. He died a hero to Ukrainians, his music cherished by contemporaries like Pyotr Tchaikovsky, but recordings are criminally difficult to find today.

Then there’s the Feb. 21 edition of Classicallite: “Ukrainian Unrest, or what the late Nationalist Composer Mykola Lysenko would do to President Putin.”

Mykola Vitaliyovych Lysenko, the late Ukrainian composer, pianist and scholar, was lauded for his nationalism. He refused to write his operas in Russian, which were eventually banned by the czars in 1876. Not too surprisingly, modern day Russia seems vaguely similar to imperial Russia, what with both admins trying to buttress the motherland like a rabid dog cornering a small child (who speaks half-Russian, half-Ukrainian, I might add).

Alas, recordings of Lysenko’s compositions–like the identity of that masked pianist–are criminally difficult to procure. And as the flames of revolution further engulf a war-torn nation, his work will likely become more difficult to find.  Regardless, he died a hero to Ukrainians everywhere, cherished by his sympathetic contemporary Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. And as Lysenko’s land turns to charred rubble today, I know that he would still be a vocal proponent of Ukrainian independence.

Then there’s the unofficial Ukrainian National Anthem: “A Prayer for Ukraine,”  composed by….you guessed it:

Oh Lord, Almighty and Only
for us our Ukraine, please, keep
by freedom’s and the rays of light
you set her in light.

Oh, and by the by, the story of getting the Schevchenko statue erected in Washington is another fascinating tale of Cold War intrigue, richly detailed in an article in Ukrainian Week:

The dramatic campaign to build the Shevchenko monument continued for five years. “Two superpowers, American and Soviet, were pitted against each other,” wrote Antin Drahan in his book Shevchenko in Washington. The Soviet embassy twice appealed to the U.S. Department of State demanding plans for the monument be scrapped. It was joined by the puppet representation of the Ukrainian SSR in the UN.
Hostile anti-Ukrainian forces rallied around The Washington Post. The newspaper painstakingly portrayed Shevchenko as a hater of Catholics, Orthodox, Russians, Poles, and Jews and, at the same time, as a harbinger of communism. Reputed as a respectable and liberal periodical, it pressed the Congress to repeal the resolution it had passed. Tensions mounted after the site was dedicated when Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall decided, influenced by an anti-Ukrainian article in The Washington Post, to revise the already decided question. However, these attempts eventually failed.
Sure enough, the statue was unveiled 50 years ago, to these words by then-President Lyndon Johnson:  “[Shevchenko] was more than a Ukrainian — he was a statesman and citizen of the world. He was more than a poet — he was a valiant crusader for the rights and freedom of men. He used verse to carry on a determined fight for freedom.”

A President’s Day Salute: Alexander Reinagle: The First “First Family” Music Teacher

From George Washington’s diary: Tuesday, June 12, 1787:

“Dined at Mr. Morris’s and drunk Tea there. Went afterwards to the concert at the City Tavern.”

Washington was in Philadelphia for what at the time was called “The Federal Convention,”  and we now call the Constitutional Convention, that led to the creation of the modern American state.  Notwithstanding all of the politics and intrigues, however, Washington still found time to attend a number of events in what was at the time the nation’s cultural center.  And on this particular evening he attended a concert by a newly-arrived and highly-regarded “composer, conductor, pianist, and theatrical manager” named Alexander Reinagle.

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Washington apparently liked what he heard, for it marked the start of a long friendship between the English-born musician and the nation’s first President.  Reinagle was actually born the same year as Mozart (1756), and died the same year as Haydn (1809).  He came to the US in 1786, first living in New York before taking up residence in Philadelphia, then emerging as the young nation’s cultural center.

George Washington's Favorite Composer

George Washington’s Favorite Composer

In 1789, during Washington’s journey from Philadelphia to New York for his inauguration as the nation’s first President,  Reinagle supposedly composed a “Chorus”, with the words, “Welcome Mighty Chief, Once More!” which the composer rather puffily, (and some contend, untruthfully) put on the frontspiece,

Chorus Sung Before Gen. Washington as he passed under the Triumphal Arch raised on the bridge at Trenton April 21st 1789.   Set to music and dedicated by permission to Mrs. Washington by A. Reinagle… Philadelphia.

Washington was impressed enough with Reinagle that he hired him to give keyboard lessons to Washington’s step-grandaughter Nellie Custis…and to order a top-of-the-line double-manual harpsichord for their homes in Philadelphia and eventually at Mount Vernon…where it still can be seen today!

George Washington's harpsichord

As for Nellie’s proficiency at the instrument, a great article on the Mount Vernon website has her brother remembering  she had to practice”very long and very unwillingly at the harpsichord. . .the poor girl would play and cry, and cry and play, for long hours, under the immediate eye of her grandmother, a rigid disciplinarian in all things.”  Though apparently not for nought:

Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, a Polish nobleman who visited Mount Vernon for around two weeks in June of 1798, wrote of Nelly that, “Her sweetness is equal to her beauty, and this being, so perfect of form, possesses all the talents: she plays the harpsichord, sings, draws better than any woman in America or even in Europe.” On the last night of his visit, he wrote sadly, “In the evening, for the last time, pretty Miss Custis sang and played on the harpsichord.”

Several Reinagle compositions survive in the Nellie Custis collection of sheet music at Mount Vernon, and upon  Washington’s death in 1799, he composed a Monody on the Death of George Washington.   And the “First Composer” didn’t stop at Washington, his output also includes the Federal March, President Madison’s March and Mrs. Madison’s Minuet. 

Far more substantial and interesting are the four extended keyboard sonatas he composed in the style of his idol C.P.E. Bach, whom Reinagle had known during his travels in Europe.  The so-called “Philadelphia Sonatas” are the only pieces of Reinagle’s that really ever get any hearing at all.  Check out this performance in the WGBH Fraser Performance Studio by Handel & Haydn Society keyboardist Ian Watson.