A Prayer for Ukraine


1814 – 1861

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 Tale of Two Orchestras: the “other” NPR

Terrific review (more of a commentary, actually) by Bernard Holland in the New York Times the other day about the duelling Russian Orchestras currently touring the US – the Russian National Orchestra, (sometimes called the RNO), and the recently-constituted National Philharmonic of Russia, a/k/a the NPR. Common to both of them is violinist and conductor
Vladimir Spivakov. He used to lead the Russian National Orchestra until he had some sort of falling out with the management, so he persuaded the Russian government to start the “NPR” – although they originally called themselves the “Russian National Philharmonic” (RNP?) until the RNO objected. With me so far? (Sorta reminds me of the old Monty Python skit of the in the Life of Brian. Just to make things more confusing, Spivakov also heads the Moscow Virtuosi, a chamber-orchestra that features members from both groups, as well as other Russian ensembles.

Anyway, these days you’re as likely to see the RNO and the NPR outside of Moscow as you are in it; and both groups are spending days – weeks – on end chasing the American entertainment dollar. With – you guessed it – a mighty handful of Russian works with high-powered soloists. And their paths happened to overlap in New York earlier this week, prompting Holland’s commentareview: Tasting menu:

Every time you look up there is another Russian orchestra onstage. Russia’s newfound free-market economy and the resulting scramble for financial survival must be a shock to a lot of them. Evidently the National Philharmonic is in a cozier spot, having President

Vladimir V. Putin as its personal godfather. Still, export or die seems the motto for this parade of visitors, whose rivals seem not to be other international orchestras but one another. Getting together and comparing travel schedules might be helpful.When they come, we know what we are going to get: big Russian music conveyed by big Russian sound reinforced by oversized string sections. (Monday’s program listed 32 violins, but I thought I counted more.) Often attached to these events are Russian pianists or violinists of howitzerlike virtuosity. Tender foreign sensibilities are not used to such firepower.

Roedeo, inc. is a not-disinterested observer to all of this: I do a lot of the “concert previews” for the Washington Performing Arts Society‘s terrific subscription season. So I’m doing a lot of thinking about the “other” NPR’s concert at the Kennedy Center on Saturday. Despite the fact that the orchestra’s is designed to signal “the rebirth of the Russian post-reconstruction State,” the repertory for their US tour is almost exclusively limited to works that are at least half-a-century old: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich. The DC performance will also feature Van Cliburn Competition winner Olga Kern (pictured above) playing the same “Rocky 2” she’s been playing everywhere on this tour – and the Shostakovich 5th Symphony. I’m especially interested in hearing how the NPR plays the Shostakovich Symphony…the one the composer, in one of the most difficult years of his life, subtitled A Soviet Artist’s Practical Creative Reply to Just Criticism.’ Last time I heard this symphony was in Moscow, at one of the most emotionally-draining concerts I have ever witnessed: a Winter of 1990 appearance by Mstislav Rostropovich, conducting Washington’s own National Symphony Orchestra in a program that also included the Barber “Adagio for Strings,” the Death of Tybalt from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, “Aase’s Death” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt, and the Tchaikovsky “Pathetique” Symphony. As my Russian friends said, the entire concert had a “Tyema Smyert,” – theme of Death. But the playing – and atmosphere in the “Bolshoi Zahl” of the Moscow Conservatory was absolutely electric. Sony made a outstanding documentary (directed by new MET Opera chief Peter Gelb, among others) called Soldiers of Music about Rostropovich and the NSO’s Russian experience, and likewise released a now-out-of-print CD called “Rostropovich: Return to Russia.” Some of the best playing the Rostropovich-era NSO ever did on record, IMHO; but unfortunately the Shostakovich 5th was left off of the disc. If you’re a fan at all of Russian music – and of Cold War history, for that matter – both the DVD and CD are worth your attention. And Rostropovich turns 80 next week! Check back in and I’ll tell you how the concert turned out…

Aspen in Winter – the Vladimir Feltsman File

In the summer months, there’s probably more music-per-capita-per-minute in Aspen than anywhere else on the planet – The Aspen Music Festival & School crams 350+ concerts, lectures, and events into eight or so weeks between the end of June and mid-August. But the place doesn’t go entirely dark after Labor Day…your humble correspondent was on hand Wednesday night for the opening of Aspen’s Winter Series that takes place in 500-seat Harris Concert Hall. Most of those seats sic Festival appearance. Part of that appeal, I suspect, is how profoundly uncategorizable hewere filled Wednesday for a recital by pianist Vladimir Feltsman. Feltsman has long been an Aspen favorite – in fact, he’ll be back in the Meadows this summer for his fourteenth consecutive Mu is – he’s gone through his “big burly Russian” phases, playing concertos by Tchaikovsky et al; he’s embraced the keyboard music of J.S. Bach with a vengeance, with some compelling readings (and recordings) of the Partitas and Inventions; and last fall he presented a cycle of Mozart’s piano sonatas on a fortepiano – that is, a modern replica of an instrument that Mozart owned – a piano built in the 1780’s by Viennese manufacturer Anton Walter.

But that’s not how we first found out about Vladimir Feltsman. Twenty years ago, he was a reluctant celebrity of the Cold War, after the U.S. State Department and President Ronald Reagan personally took up his cause for emigration. (Feltsman had applied for an exit visa in 1979 and his career was subsequently put on ice by Soviet authorities). Feltsman’s first commercial recording, of the 24 Preludes by Frederic Chopin, in fact, was recorded in 1984 inside the American Embassy in Moscow, and subsequently smuggled out of the country in a diplomatic pouch and released on CBS Masterworks – back when the phrase “two-record set” was a big deal. By the summer of 1987, the Americans had made enough noise, and the Soviets felt enough heat, to let Feltsman go…and suddenly there he was in the White House, giving his debut American performance with the President and First Lady leading the applause.

Needless to say, with that kind of attention, there was, in the words of the New York Times, a firestorm of publicity – not to mention curiosity – about Feltsman the artist. Was he truly the next Horowitz, or merely being played as pawn in the East-West political struggle? You could hear passionate arguments on both sides. Hard to imagine that all happened 20 years ago – or that Feltsman’s own website blandly states that “Mr. Feltsman emigrated to the United States in 1987, and that same year, his debut at Carnegie Hall immediately established him as a major pianist on the American scene.”

Major pianist, yes, but I think one happy enough to pursue his own unique path. He’s a sophisticated, searching, and accomplished pianist, but I suspect that he’s had enough “celebrity” in his career. It’ll be interesting to see if and how Feltsman chooses to commemorate those headline-grabbing events of the summer of 1987.

P.S. Back on the subject of the headline – Aspen was one of the first places I know to have its own Town webcams – you can even move them around to create your own custom views of the town. It’s a great bookmark when you’re bored!