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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Maksym Berezovsky: Tragedy of the Ukrainian Mozart

16 April, 2002 - 00:00

Far from all cultural figures are destined to herald the moods of their times, becoming their calling card. On a par with Dmytro Bortniansky and Artemy Vedel, Maksym Berezovsky (1745-77) went down in the history of Ukrainian music as a vivid representative of a tempestuous epoch marking a turning point in world culture, starting the transition from baroque to classicism. In Ukraine, he cut a figure that could be well compared to that of Mozart in Western Europe. Compared to other eighteenth century Ukrainian composers, Berezovsky’s life story is perhaps most controversial, with a host of blank spots and discrepancies. The aura of romanticism shrouding his figure was in many ways enhanced by nineteenth century writer Nestor Kukolnyk’s story Maksym Sazontovych Berezovsky. Many biographers would later rely on this fictional source from which emerges a brilliant self-made man tragically never recognized in his homeland during his lifetime.

In fact, even dry facts from his biography require explaining and reservations. Likewise, one can only guess at his parentage. It is generally assumed that he was born October 16, 1745, in Hlukhiv. Most likely he received a primary music education at a music school founded in 1730 and meant to produce professional performers for the court choir in St. Petersburg. Considering its output structure, that institution was a school of the arts, the only one in the Russian Empire at the time. As a young man, the future composer is believed to have studied at a theological seminary in Kyiv. This assumption is made by Kukolnyk in his story, meaning that it is just that, an assumption. As we see, there is no more or less authenticated information concerning his childhood and youth. One thing is certain: he received a substantial music education, for his later life was linked to St. Petersburg and the court choir called Capella.

At the time the Capella involved several prominent Ukrainian musicians, including M. Poltoratsky, baritone, conductor of the choir, Berezovsky’s friend and teacher; singer and psaltery-player V. Prutovsky, one of the first Ukrainian ethnographers, and Count Oleksiy Razumovsky, future favorite of Elizabeth of Russia. His brother Kyrylo Razumovsky (shortly to become Hetman of Ukraine) was a devout patron of music and the arts. Contemporary accounts testify that he supported his fellow countrymen at the court in every possible way. Some sources even claim that he brought Berezovsky to St. Petersburg. Be it as it may, Maksym Berezovsky’s name figured on the list of “musicians of His Highness P ё tr Feodorovich.”

Grand Prince P ё tr Feodorovich (he would become Emperor Peter III in 1762) received Menshikov’s former estate of Oranienbaum as a present from his aunt, Empress Elizabeth. Apart from his generally known devotion to everything Russian, he was passionately in love with music and played the violin well. He ordered an opera house built near his palace in Oranienbaum and invited prominent Italian singers to act in the Italian operas (very much in vogue at the time) staged there. The repertoire was shaped to suit the tastes of Elizabeth’s court then favoring Italian composer F. Araia. It was in his opera, Alexander in India, that 14-year-old Maksym Berezovsky sang his first tenor role. It was a success. We know of only one other opera by an “Italian Russian” composer with his participation: V. Manfredini’s Semiramis Recognized. In both productions Berezovsky was the only male singer and sole representative of Ukraine.

1762 marked the beginning of a trying period in his life. Elizabeth of Russia, who had favored musicians, died and Peter III was not destined to outlive her for long. After the coup and his assassination, his wife Catherine became empress (to go down in history as Catherine the Great). She abolished the Ukrainian hetmanate. It was the reign of the daughter of a minor German prince, originally named Sophie Fredericke Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, who did not care much for music, mildly speaking, but would never miss an opportunity to “taste” a celebrated European performer. In fact, she was not only indifferent to music but would often openly scorn it. Some sources have it that she would order a lady in waiting to play the harpsichord and would “sing” terribly off key.

All this could not but affect Berezovsky’s performing career. In the mid-1760s he was an acknowledged composer whose works were admired by critics and the court. This is first mentioned in Academician Jacob von Stelin’s book, News on Music in Russia. He writes that, in addition to the success of operas by the Italian Galuppi, choral pieces by “Little Russian composers” are popular in Russia, among them “stands out current court chamber musician Maksym Berezovsky who possesses great talent, taste, and skill in composing sacred music marked by a refined style.” At the period the choir concerto “Do not Abandon Me in Old Age” was composed, attributed to Berezovsky. Shortly afterward, he became court conductor, but his status was very shaky. He realized that winning recognition in Europe was the only alternative.

He went to Italy in 1765, headed for Bologna with its thriving philharmonic academy and its ideologue Guiseppe Battista Martini. Founded in 1666, the academy was an attestation rather than educational establishment. It would later rank with Europe’s major musical educational centers. Being a member of the Bologna Academy was very prestigious for both Italian and foreign composers. The highest academic degree was academician of composition, entitling the bearer to become a conductor without additional examination and paving the way to international acclaim. Padre Martini was the academy’s pride and living symbol. A Franciscan, he devoted his life to the history and theory of music. He was always well informed about the latest developments in world music and was on friendly terms with numerous composers and performs. He composed music, actively corresponded, and taught music. Almost all the academy members were his pupils, among them the brilliant Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who became a member of the academy at fourteen.

Once in Bologna, Berezovsky visited Padre Martini and became his pupil shortly after. His study resulted in admission to the academy on May 15, 1771. Kukolnyk writes that Berezovsky took the entrance exams together with Mozart. Not so. In reality, his “brother in arms” at the time was the Czech operatic composer Josef Myslivecek, who would be quite popular and then undeservedly forgotten. It is safe to assume that friendship with him prompted Berezovsky to start writing operas. His examination papers, the rough and fair copies, are in the academy archive as the only music written in his hand to reach our day.

After the exam, Berezovsky left Bologna and traveled Italy. Various manuscripts of that period have dates and places. Thus, a sonata for the violin and cembalo is dated 1772 and marked “Pisa.” It was discovered only in the twentieth century. And his only available opera, Demophon, was written in Livorno [Leghorn] in 1773 specially for a carnival. We know four numbers from the opera and they testify to the composer’s undeniable talent.

It was then Berezovsky met Prince Aleksei Orlov, brother of Catherine II’s favorite Grigory Orlov. The prince noticed Berezovsky’s talent and often commissioned him for music. The fees Berezovsky thus received were actually his only means of living. In 1775, he left for Russia onboard one of Orlov’s squadron ships.

There is practically no reliable information about the two last years of Berezovsky’s life. Some sources indicate that after returning from Italy he was enrolled in the court Capella “without definite status.” Perhaps he worked with the choir and wrote choral pieces.

The composer committed suicide on March 22, 1777. The most talented Ukrainian composer of the eighteenth century died in the prime of his life but in utter solitude and misery. His sudden death caused no reverberations whatsoever in musical circles that had on many occasions used his creative talent and performing skill.

Once again, his life story gives rise to many questions. When and where was he actually born? Kukolnyk indicates just the year of his birth. The day of the month was added later, most likely as an assumption. Why should a composer end his life like that, having won enviable publicity at home and then recognition among the great musicians of the eighteenth century? Why should he have died alone? Quite recently the score of Berezovsky’s eleventh symphony was discovered and there are reasons to believe that he wrote a thirteenth. Will we ever find his other works? The tragic lot of a composer who lived only slightly over thirty years also befell his creative heritage. A large number of his works are mostly likely irretrievably lost and the surviving ones are in various libraries all over the world. There is not even an authentic image of the composer. A number of his works known to contemporaries cannot be restored. His 250th anniversary was extensively marked in Ukraine in 1995. There were numerous concerts and a monument unveiled in Hlukhiv.

Living and working at a turning point in history is not easy, especially for an energetic personality constantly engrossed in a creative quest, eager to create and never content with what has been accomplished. This is how we will always see Maksym Berezovsky, a great Ukrainian composer destined never to have his final say.

By Kateryna ZORKINA, The Day