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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

Shevchenko and music

“If I were twice a slave, I would sell myself into slavery for a third time for a cello…”
31 March, 2009 - 00:00

We speak very much of the Bard as a poet and much less as of a prose writer and artist. Taras Shevchenko is for us a fighter for Ukraine’s freedom, a symbol of the nation’s spiritual life and independence. But we rarely remember Shevchenko as a human being full of passions, feelings, steady tastes and artistic likings, an educated person, a subtle connoisseur of world culture. We talk more about a serf, rather than about an academician. Meanwhile, this is an important fact which helps us fathom all the grandeur of his multifaceted talent and understand him as a refined and bright-minded intellectual.

Professors and students at the Lviv Lysenko National Music Academy have made a contribution of their own to presenting Taras Shevchenko as a European artist. Prof. Liubov Kiyanovska, Doctor of Art Studies, head of the Music History Department, who has long been taking interest in Shevchenko’s attitude to classical music, has prepared a lot of TV and radio programs and concerts on this subject. But we still lack thorough academic researches, not to mention broad-based propagation and popularization, of this topic. We lack “new-look Shevchenko soirees” which would spotlight new, interesting and hitherto generally unknown facets of this unconventional, omniscient and talented personality. Ms. Kiyanovska discussed with The Day the most characteristic and symbolic instances when Shevchenko’s life and music suddenly met each other.

“Actually, when you read Shevchenko’s diaries and stories, you can find several hundred far-flung points, where he mentions music. Shevchenko knew it very well: moreover, he even learned to play the piano and perform not-so-difficult works by Mozart and Beethoven. Of course, this needs checking in original sources, but my colleagues shared this information with me. And I willingly believe this. Do not forget that he was a member of the Academy of Arts, and this title was never awarded just to be with it. A person like this was to be very well educated. Shevchenko visited all opera premieres and prestigious concerts. And how he reacted to the way Hulak-Artemovsky sang the part of Ruslan in Glinka’s Ruslan and Liudmila! Could he, a romanticist by nature, possibly create his poetry without feeling the whole gamut of that era’s music? Poets could not exist without music at the time.”

And what composers did Shevchenko prefer?

“He had a wide range of preferences: he liked very much and always turned to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. He adored Chopin and Mendelssohn. He knew very well the virtuosos of the time, such as Paganini, Servais and Vieuxtemps. His works mention dozens of names. All this proves that Shevchenko was an intellectual with an extremely high artistic taste. The poet’s diaries abound in musical reasoning. He often turns to Viennese classics, with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, naturally, remaining the ideal of harmony. Here is a fragment of Shevchenko’s notes dated 1857: ‘I heard a tiny orchestra playing the overture to a Mozart’s opera. It is such a wonderful music that I think no one can ever play it badly, it always sounds divine.’ There is one more characteristic note in his Diaries that concerns Mozart. When Shevchenko came back from exile, he was supposed to be looking for shelter and pondering his destiny, but he accidentally found himself in a company where there was somebody who played Mozart like a genius. He was astonished and immediately forgot about everything that was going on: he sat relishing this music. He did not need cards and a drunken company: the important point was that he suddenly found one who knew how to play Mozart.

“Besides, one of Shevchenko’s favorite pieces of music was the overture to Gioacchino Rossini’s opera William Tell. This work appealed to him with its nature and plot, for William Tell is a hero who raises the importance of the national question so high above things personal that he is prepared to sacrifice his own son for the sake of his people’s wellbeing. There is one more symbol in this music – solemnity, for we always weep, together with Shevchenko, over the lot of our people, but he also has an entirely different side. Ivan Franko expressed this very subtly and precisely: ‘If I were to characterize Shevchenko’s poetry in one word, I would say that it is the poetry of desire, free life, and the uninhibited blossom of a personality, an entire society, an entire nation.’

“Naturally, residing in St. Petersburg, Shevchenko took interest in the oeuvre of the Russian musical classics Mikhail Glinka and Modest Mussorgsky. He also maintained a very good relationship with amateur musicians, brothers Fyodor and Yakov Lizogub, and other musicians, both professional and amateur. But Shevchenko struck up an especially strong friendship with Semen Hulak-Artemovsky, which lasted for dozens of years. What is more, Hulak-Artemovsky was one of the few who did not turn away from Shevchenko when he was banished and even supported him materially. Shevchenko wrote to him from exile: ‘My brother, my only friend, Semen, the noblest and purest soul! Who else would have remembered me and sent fifteen rubles to boot? I thank you with my mind and heart.’ Hulak-Artemovsky dedicated his song A Maple Is Standing by the Water to his most beloved friend Taras Shevchenko.”

And how did Shevchenko’s admiration of music affect his literary pursuit?

“This admiration had an effect on both the poetry and, especially, prose of Shevchenko. All kinds of musical symbols very often occur in his novellas. In poetry, he naturally relies on the Ukrainian spiritual and folk song. I think the Ukrainian poetic word in fact provoked him to emphasize national intonations. But there is an altogether different picture when he shows himself as an intellectual, for example, in his novellas, diaries and letters. Shevchenko is a person of world culture. A fragment from his novella Music reveals Shevchenko as a romanticist. He autobiographically describes here his tender love for the violoncello: ‘Arnovsky brought over a violoncello. My Lord, what a plaything it is! Only a human soul can sing and weep the way this wonderful instrument does. The master who made it must have been Prometheus himself. When I go to bed, I put it beside me. This is my life, my alter ego. And even if I were twice a slave, I would sell myself into slavery for a third time for this instrument.’ These words stunned me. How come? He had been a serf! This is not pretence: slavery is an abstract idea for us, but it was quite concrete for him. Yet, music did strike a chord with him, and he deeply felt it. Tellingly, it is a character named Taras who pronounces these words. Only once does he call the hero by his own name – a musician, not even an artist. It is in this novella that Shevchenko resorts to a ploy that will be used by the next generations of writers: certain events in the story nave musical symbols of their own. When Shevchenko wants to show the spiritual superiority of servants over their masters, he draws the following parallel: the masters entertain themselves to a newly voguish German dance, while the servants listen to Chopin that Taras is playing them. Still unaware that it is love, the musician Taras is trying to translate for Natalia the overture to Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. But this musical piece ends in a wedding! What a subtle hint!”

By what principle did you choose compositions for the soiree?

“The Lviv Music Academy is always seeking some new forms of communication with a broad audience and, actually, one of the main goals is to hold students’ or professors’ concerts intended for all Lviv audiences. For we once had this tradition. It is one of the powerful stimuli of musical life in Lviv. Among those who are making a great effort is Zinaida Ostafiichuk: she prepares wonderful programs with a students’ orchestra, thus involving students into active onstage performances. She looks and even places orders for original works (for example, she requested Viktor Kaminsky to make an orchestration of Hulak-Artemovsky’s song A Maple Is Standing by the Water). The concert’s idea is that Shevchenko is a European, not only national, artist. For he read European literature, knew their culture and took interest in the Antique. In his diaries, he writes not only about his admiration of music but also about his impressions of literary works. He also gives interesting comments from the viewpoint of a literature researcher. Drawing up the repertoire, we tried to find in Shevchenko’s texts what he liked and what his heart preferred. We used the melodies which he would perhaps like to hear most of all. We did it the way he would have done it for himself.”

By Olena URBAN, special to The Day. Photo by Borys KORPUSENKO