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.”

Play in Subway, Win Pulitzer…

Joshua Bell in the DC metro Not quite one year to the day it was published, funnyman writer Gene Weingarten‘s celebrated story about Joshua Bell busking in the Washington Metro wound up as one of six Pulitzer Prizes won by the Washington Post today – an impressive and near-record haul. Even though the little social experiment was in itself something of a failure (hardly anyone recognized who it was playing underneath that Curly W cap, and even fewer chucked in any change); the story itself was a PR bonanza for Bell — and now, it seems, for the author.    BTW, you can hear Bell’s entire subway performance  here.

And if the past is prologue, I’ll bet that the “Joshua Bell Pulitzer” will get a lot more attention than the “official” Classical Music Pulitzer for 2007: The Little Match Girl Passion, by David Lang, commissioned and premiered at Carnegie Hall by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices ensemble.

My piece is called The Little Match Girl Passion and it sets Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Little Match Girl in the format of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, interspersing Andersen’s narrative with my versions of the crowd and character responses from Bach’s Passion. The text is by me, after texts by Han Christian Andersen, H. P. Paulli (the first translator of the story into English, in 1872), Picander (the nom de plume of Christian Friedrich Henrici, the librettist of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion), and the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. The word “passion” comes from the Latin word for suffering. There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus—rather the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus’s, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane

Nothing against Lang or his work, which sounds interesting enough, t’s just that invariably these Pulitzers go to pieces that have been played once in often out-of-the way locations.  Back in my NPR days, tracking down the actual *recording* of a Pulitzer-winning-composition – and doing it in time for the morning news! – invariably involved a combination of detective work, browbeating, and more than a little luck.

Not so in the Internet age, however.  Want to hear Lang’s piece – or even download it?  Get it here– direct from the Carnegie website.     For that matter, this may be the most information-rich Pulitzer ever — you can even hear an interview with Lang about the creation of the work.

Oh, yeah, and there’s one more musical Pulitzer today – a Special Citation for Bob Dylan – for his “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”

See the complete list of Pulitzer winners here.

PS – nice to see another Hans Christian Andersen piece set to music to some acclaim.   Throughtout his career the Danish writer/poet/playwright collaborated with and was inspired by a number of notable composers – including Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Wagner.     And Lang is just the latest of a long line of musicians who have in turn found inspiration in Andersen’s words.

The Huckabee Band-wagon?

Huh. Little did I realize that when I posted about Ark. gov Mike Huckabee actually putting music and arts education on his campaign agenda, that he was becoming the It Guy among Republican candidates. The Boston Globe editorialized enthusiastically the other day, saying “when the former Arkansas governor starts talking about the importance of the arts and education, he’s practically Maria von Trapp harmonizing about the power of music and metaphor.” And guess who gets the big Style section treatment in the Washpost today?
Sample grab:
Huckabee has been seen as the cuddly antidote to what has been an awfully tough-talking Republican field. He’s the affable, compassionate, good guy and rock-and-roll evangelical who plays guitar and wants to hang with the Rolling Stones.

‘Course, it just might be that music is a far more interesting subject for reporters to cover than, say, Middle East geopolitics or subprime mortgage lending rates.

Or maybe this is a rare case of a political candidate with authentic knowledge and passion for a subject, and not the usual focus-group posturing. I’d like to believe that voters can tell the difference. Regardless, it’s fascinating to watch Huckabee ride this horse on the Iowa campaign trail as reported by the Daily Iowan:

“You’ve probably never heard a presidential candidate talk about music and art and the importance of it,” Huckabee said. “But if I don’t get to do anything else running for president, I want to make sure that this country hears that this is a vital part of future and a critical part of our education system.”

Also worth noting: the Post story was one of the paper’s most e-mailed articles today. I’ll be curious (and amazed, frankly) to see if any other candidates pick up this thread….

Death of the Dialup


Yes, yes, I know, we all hear a lot of hyperbole about the “dizzying pace of change” these days. But I was floored by a sidebar to an article in Saturday’s Washpost about changes in PC buying and usage habits. The sidebar chronicles the differences in how people get online, where they obtained their computers, how many they own, etc. in just one year, from 2005 to 2006. In one year, mind you. Check this out:

Primary Method of Internet Access

   

Dial-up:

8.7% (down from 39.6 percent)

Cable:

50% (up from 36.3 percent)

DSL:

39.7% (up from 22.2 percent)

Satellite Internet:

1.6% (up from 0.7 percent)

====

Home Networks

86% have a home network

63.8% have WiFi

30.6% use wired ethernet

4.8% use phone-line-based network

0.8% use power line

Amazing. The “scree-bzzzzzz-uk-uk-uk” of a modem connection is about to go the way of the sound of a coal scuttle. You’ve got to look in the fine print, by the way, to see the source of these stats: Its’ from the giant IT research firm IDC,

Critics and Clapping


Woke up this morning thinking about the old saw, attributed to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius to “Pay no attention to what the critics say; there has never been set up a statue in honor of a critic.” (Though actually Alex Ross went out and found three not long ago….)

Anyway. The Sibelius quote comes to mind as I process a couple of unusually churlish reviews of the concert I blogged about a few days ago – the DC debut of the National Philharmonic of Russia, a/k/a the “other” NPR. First, Robert Battey in the Monday (3/26) Washington Post griped that “Woodwind and brass entries were often slightly staggered. The percussion missed cues. The strings were energetic but displayed little homogeneity, either in vibrato or bowing, with a concertmaster who appeared past his prime. The NPR, in short, lacks refinement.” But that was more charitable than what Jens Laurson had to say in the generally-fine ionarts blog: he essentially said phooey and left at intermission.

Which is too bad, since he missed – and IMHO the Post reviewer was not of a mind to hear – an absolutely riveting performance of the Shostakovich 5th Symphony. Comparing what I heard and they wrote, in both cases I couldn’t help but feel the reviews were mostly written before the orchestra had played a note; one seeing the whole thing in the dark context of Putin-as-Stalin and the revival of Soviet-style “Russian propaganda,” the other, once you parsed the review a bit, clearly bothered by a conductor’s interpretation of a piece (the Shostakovich symphony) that differed from his own:

“But the pith of the conductor’s job in this sprawling work lies in subtler tasks — building and releasing tension on large time scales, creating internal episodes and relating them to the whole. Shostakovich’s incessant dactylic rhythms often just sat there, and Spivakov brought none of Mstislav Rostropovich’s anguish to the Largo (let alone Leonard Bernstein’s). Overall, a long afternoon.”

Well. I didn’t even know that use of the word “dactylic” was permitted in a family newspaper! I for one found the (other) NPR’s take on the Shostakovich 5th was pretty compelling — even thinking to myself at one point about what a coherent statement Spivakov and the orchestra were making, and I could feel the audience with them the whole way (noticeable lack of coughing and fidgeting). But no, not the way that Rostropovich would conduct it. Hey – I get that. I grew up with an LP by Istvan Kertesz conducting the Dvorak “New World” Symphony and I remember being shocked the first time I heard it being conducted “differently” than that classic recording.

I think it’s connected, in fact, to what Washpost columnist Richard Cohen was calling “emotional truth,” what often veers significantly away from intellectual truth. Cohen was connecting a key moment in his life when he was inspired to become a writer to a turning point in candidate Barack Obama‘s young life that made him keenly aware of the consequence of skin color for the very first time. Only maybe it didn’t happen. I think a lot of our musical memories (and thus lifetime musical convictions) are formed the same way:

“Indeed, the memory of the event/non-event is so firmly planted in Obama’s mind that it seems to have become an emotional truth for him, far more powerful than an intellectual truth. Two and two are four. That’s an intellectual truth for you. But America is a uniquely great country. That’s an emotional truth, and I’m far more likely to die for the latter than the former. So, I suspect, are you.”

My own emotional truth concerns Penny and her father. Years later, when I reconnected with Penny, I mentioned that day on the porch and how much it meant to me. No such porch, she told me. I insisted otherwise and did not relent until she sent me a picture of the home. No porch. Still . . . I like the story my way. In Obama’s case — and maybe my own — there might be something more than foggy memory at work.

I think so. So my crystalline-at-this-point memory was that I was in a shared experience in a sold-out Kennedy Center Concert Hall where I witnessed 108 musicians creating a remarkable performance that required them to think and act as one. And we stomped and hooted and cheered. But I think what will linger the most in my mind is observing the genuine affection and mutual respect in this orchestra. (Check out the backstage photo from their performance in Boston!) When it came time for bows, Vladimir Spivakov asked first the principle players to stand – the French horn, the clarinet, the trumpet, and so on. And to a man, and woman – they did something I have never seen an orchestra of professionals do before….they clapped back. For Spivakov, for their fellow performers, for the audience. A remarkable contrast to the general slouch/wisecracking/ignoring the audience that infects a lot of orchestras at curtain-call time. It was a remarkable and genuinely moving gesture.