Un poco sostenuto – Allegro [12'31]
Scherzo: Vivace [7'39]
Allegro vivace [8'39]
Allegro ma non troppo [8'21]
Andante sostenuto [7'11]
Vivace: Alla breve [9'46]
Collectors of our Romantic Piano Concertos will already know the name of Sergei Bortkiewicz and just a small something of what to expect of this first recording of his two symphonies. Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish played the First Symphony in a public concert the day before this recording was made. Here is what The Glasgow Herald said of the occasion:
"Last night the one-man Tchaikovsky tribute band, Sergei Bortkiewicz, roared into town with his first symphony and left the BBC SSO, conductor Martyn Brabbins, and the audience, with grins as wide as the Volga … fabulous orchestration, thoroughgoing craftsmanship, and an exuberant panache that raised the whole thing several storeys above mere pastiche. It's a dazzling, hugely enjoyable barnstormer with a gorgeous slow movement (containing an oboe theme to die for), and a punch line so familiar, yet so unexpected, that it's uproarious. Someone tell the London gaffer to put this in the Proms—it would blow the audience clean away."
Only someone who has been torn forcibly from the soil of his homeland can know how painful this feeling can be sometimes. Perhaps this yearning for his homeland grips most strongly the creative artist, the author, the composer. He would like to go ‘back to the mother’, as Goethe says … to the source, to the native soil, in order to gather new forces, to refresh his fantasy, to live again …
Thus wrote the composer Sergei Bortkiewicz in October 1936 in the last chapter of his autobiography (translated from the German by B N Thadani, Cantext Publications, 1996). Although Vienna was to remain his ‘second home’, he was a composer in exile and, like his fellow compatriots Rachmaninov, Liapunov and Prokofiev, Bortkiewicz longed to return to his homeland and the source of his inspiration, Ukraine. His music became imbued with the passion and melody of his country of birth and this was to culminate in his first symphony, subtitled ‘From my Homeland’.
Sergei Eduardovich Bortkiewicz was born in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv (Kharkov) on 28 February 1877. His background and musical training mirrored that of many of his Russian contemporaries. His mother was an accomplished pianist and co-founder of the Kharkiv Music School, which was affiliated to the Imperial Russian Music Society where Bortkiewicz was to undertake his early music training. He studied piano in Kharkiv under Albert Bensch and early influences included Anton Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky, both of whom visited the school and left an indelible mark upon the young composer-to-be.
In 1896 Bortkiewicz enrolled at the St Petersburg Conservatory where he continued to concentrate his musical studies on the piano, initially with Karl van Arek (a pupil of Leschetizky), and then later, to broaden his range of study, he joined the theory class of Anatol Liadov. However, to please his father, who felt that music was not a suitable occupation for his son, he enrolled in the faculty of law at the university and, despite his own disillusionment with having to immerse himself in law books, passed his examinations successfully. Unfortunately this was not to be the case with his music; student unrest in 1899 forced the conservatoire to close and all the students had to extend their studies for another year. This was too much for Bortkiewicz who had already spent three years at the university; he made the decision to forego his final exams and instead decided to undertake his one-year compulsory military service with the Alexander Nevsky Regiment whilst continuing his studies part-time at the Conservatory. Illness and poor health, however, cut short his military service and by the summer of 1900 he was back convalescing on his family estate at Artiomovka near Kharkiv.
From there he decided to continue his musical studies in Germany and in the autumn of 1900 enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatoire. He studied composition with Salomon Jadassohn and piano with Alfred Reisenauer, a pupil of Liszt and a celebrated virtuoso whom Bortkiewicz had heard play at the Kharkiv Music School, soon becoming a devoted disciple. Bortkiewicz never established himself as the great pianist he hoped to be, although in his early years he did give concerts across much of Europe, visiting Vienna, Belgrade, Berlin, Paris and Rome (including winning the Schumann Prize on his graduation from Leipzig). But he was aware of his pianistic failings and knew that he was never going to be in the same league as his teacher and mentor.
In July 1902 Bortkiewicz completed his studies at Leipzig and, during a summer visit to his parents on their country estate, became engaged to his sister’s schoolfriend, Elisabeth Geraklitova. They married in July 1904 and returned to Germany to live in Berlin, having become enamoured with all things Germanic. In his memoirs, Bortkiewicz clearly felt that his marriage to Elisabeth was going to lead to greater things and he wrote, ‘Now I was married, a new period of my life began’. This new period was marked by his concentrated effort to compose seriously. Like many before him, Bortkiewicz had made youthful attempts at composition but now felt he had the maturity and skills to bring this ability to the fore. His first work was a piano concerto, Op 1, which was played successfully in Berlin. Later, however, for reasons unknown, Bortkiewicz destroyed the work, although fragments of it were later utilised in his Piano Concerto No 2 for left hand alone, Op 28. His Op 2 was a set of songs and his Quatre Morceaux Op 3 for piano were published by Rahter.
From 1904 until the outbreak of the First World War Bortkiewicz lived happily in Berlin, visiting his family in Kharkiv during the warmer summer months. He taught briefly at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatoire for a year but left after a disagreement and concertized across Europe and Russia, gradually introducing his own compositions into his programmes. When hostilities began in 1914, Bortkiewicz was placed under house arrest and then deported back to Russia via Sweden and Finland. This was a crushing blow to him and a foretaste of his life to come.
He returned to Kharkiv, where things seemed to settle down, and started to teach again. He soon built up a number of promising students around him, most of whom had originally been studying in Moscow and St Petersburg but who had to remain in southern Russia as the war progressed. Bortkiewicz set about rebuilding his career and met Scriabin and Taneyev in Moscow during this period. On 25 March 1918 the Germans finally occupied Kharkiv and the composer could hardly conceal his delight in having Germans as neighbours again: ‘After three days there was complete order; we had light, water, bread, the trains ran flawlessly. The German organizational skill was astounding … I made friends with some German officers and often functioned as an interpreter’. The Germans, however, only stayed until November, and after their departure a new horror was to come crashing upon them—civil war.
As with all revolutions, the atrocities soon gained pace and the Bortkiewicz family estate at Artiomovka was completely plundered. As the area became the victim of a tug-of-war between the Red and White Armies, the composer watched his mother and brother-in-law fall ill with typhus, both dying in the chaos of Novorossysk whence the family had fled. The composer decided with his wife to travel to Sevastopol in the Crimea, where they waited, desperate to obtain a passage away from Russia and back to freedom. Finally they were able to obtain passage on a merchant steamer, the Konstantin, which brought them, penniless but safe, to Constantinople in November 1919.
The Turkish pianist, Ilen Ilegey, who was court pianist to the Sultan, helped Bortkiewicz to establish himself in Constantinople. He was aware of Bortkiewicz’s compositions and recommended him to important dignitaries in the city. Within a short time the composer was giving lessons to the daughter of the court conductor, the daughter of the Belgian ambassador and the wife of the Yugoslavian ambassador, as well as being invited as a guest to many receptions in the magnificent embassies within the capital. But, despite a growing reputation, Bortkiewicz missed the music and culture of Europe and finally decided to move with his wife to Vienna in July 1922. It was at this point in the composer’s autobiography that he ceased to write any more about his life and all information gathered since about him has been gleaned from the many letters he wrote to his lifelong friend and supporter, the Dutch pianist Hugo van Dalen (1888–1967).
The move to Vienna was expected to be his last and he soon established himself within the musical fraternity of the city. In 1926 he obtained Austrian citizenship, but the lure of Germany still remained strong and in 1928 he and his wife moved first to Paris for six months, and from there to Berlin where he remained for almost five years with a number of his works being published by Litolff as well as Rahter. But with the rise of the Nazis in 1933 he was forced again, for being a Russian, to leave Berlin and Germany. He returned to Vienna where he continued to struggle as Europe prepared itself for both invasion and war.
The Second World War brought considerable hardship to Bortkiewicz although, despite early fear of persecution, his music did gain some merit for a brief period with the Nazis and saw performances in both Vienna and Berlin. It was during 1934 that the composer began sketches for his first symphony with the second following shortly afterwards. Both these, and his opera Akrobaten, were to receive their first hearing during those bleak years. But as the tide turned against the atrocities of the Nazis so life became increasingly difficult for the composer. In a letter to his friend Hans Ankwicz von Kleehoven, he described how he lived:
I’m writing to you from my bathroom where we have crawled in because it is small and can be warmed on and off with a gas light (!). The other rooms cannot be used and I can’t touch my piano. This is now! What awaits us further? Life is becoming more and more unpleasant, merciless.
In fact bombing had destroyed much of the composer’s home including his piano—and even later, when the Russians captured Vienna, he saved himself and a number of his neighbours from getting shot when he spoke to the troop commander in the Russian language. But the effects of the war were to be felt for many years to come and brought Bortkiewicz to the edge of ruin. He lost all income from the sale of his music as the greater part of his compositions printed by his German publishers was destroyed in the many bombing raids. Lack of food, heating, clothing and the basic necessities of life caused considerable hardship and both Bortkiewicz and his wife became seriously ill. It was through the intervention of a friend, Dr Zdrahal, that the couple were admitted to the Franz Joseph Hospital in Vienna to recuperate. Nonetheless, the hardships of the war were to have a lasting effect on Elisabeth who suffered from manic depression for the remainder of her life.
In the autumn of 1945 Bortkiewicz was appointed director of a masterclass at the Vienna Conservatoire, which helped to give some financial security. Later, after his retirement from the Conservatoire, he received an honorary pension and in 1947, under the instigation of Hans Ankwicz von Kleehoven and to mark his seventieth birthday, a Bortkiewicz Society was created. The composer had many friends and supporters across the city and each week concerts were held in the Künstlerhaus to hear him play not only his piano compositions, but also songs, instrumental pieces and piano arrangements of his symphonic works. On 25 February 1952 the Bortkiewicz Society with the Ravag Orchestra was able to celebrate the composer’s seventy-fifth birthday in the Musikvereinsaal, during which Bortkiewicz conducted his Piano Concerto No 1, Op 16, the Lyrical Intermezzo for violin and orchestra and his First Symphony. This was to be his last great concert, and the excitement of the event was illustrated in a letter which the composer wrote to Van Dalen:
Finally I had the opportunity to show, in a large hall with a large orchestra and soloists, what I can do. Not only the critics, but others who know me, were surprised and amazed. […] I can always feel happy to have found so much recognition at the age of 75 years, which really comes in most cases after death to someone who really earned it. […].
Bortkiewicz had been suffering for some time with a stomach ailment and on the advice of his physician he decided to undergo an operation in October 1952. He never recovered and died in Vienna on 25 October that year. His wife, Elisabeth, who was childless, died eight years later in 1960 in Vienna. The graves of Bortkiewicz and his wife are located at the Zentralfriedhof cemetary, Vienna.
Bortkiewicz’s style was very much based on Liszt and Chopin, nurtured by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, early Scriabin and Russian folklore. He was unaffected by the musical trends of the twentieth century—the composer never saw himself as a ‘modernist’ as can be seen from his Künstlerisches Glaubensbekenntnis, written in 1923. As The New Grove (1980) says: ‘His workmanship is meticulous, his imagination colourful and sensitive, his piano writing idiomatic; a lush instrumentation underlines the essential sentimentality of the melodic invention’. But Bortkiewicz was not merely an epigone—he very much had his own style that drew upon all the influences of his life that can be immediately recognized as a typically ‘Bortkiewicz sound’.
Just now I am working the whole day on my first symphony (she will be called ‘Aus meiner Heimat’). My greatest work up till now! Three parts in sketch already composed. It is almost perfect. Will I die now? Help me to complete this work, then I can die in peace.
Around Christmas that year the symphony was completed and the composer had to copy the orchestral parts, possessing no money to have this undertaken by someone else. The first performance of the work was given in Vienna on 30 March 1935 by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Rudolf Nilius. The concert was broadcast across Europe and Bortkiewicz asked Van Dalen to inform the conductor, Mengelberg. In a letter to Van Dalen dated 10 April 1935, the composer wrote of his enthusiasm after the first performance, and he hoped that potential performances in Germany would ease his financial worries.
Information from the next two years is scant but in a letter dated 20 February 1937 the composer states: ‘On the 2nd March, my 1st symphony will be performed by Radio Frankfurt. As the conductor Herr Rosbaud puts it, “to honour my 60th birthday”.’ Further letters in March and April of that year confirm this performance (which was also recorded on wax disks for future performances) as well as the first mention of the second symphony: ‘Have heard my symphony from Stuttgart on 30 March 1937 at 1.00am in the night quite well. They were wax disks, which were recorded on March 3rd in Frankfurt. I have finished the 4th movement of my second symphony yesterday. It is quite different from the 1st …’. Again in May 1937 the composer wrote: ‘I have just finished my 2nd symphony. It will be premiered in the next season. It is structured differently from the 1st. I think so myself, and hear from friends that I have been successful with the second, which is perhaps more characteristic than the first. My 1st symphony will soon be performed in Prague and Karlsbad’.
Further correspondence mentions both symphonies and of the composer’s attempts to introduce them to a number of conductors. Despite the gathering war-clouds in Europe, the First achieved several performances across Europe under the baton of Kabasta and Steiner. Mengelberg showed particular interest as Bortkiewicz wrote: ‘… Herr Mengelberg greeted me yesterday … however, when I began to play my symphony he was so interested that not only did he hear the whole symphony but spoke about it for a long time, how he liked it and he would report about it and plan a performance …’. Nonetheless, it appears that Mengelberg never conducted the work.
Symphony No 1 in D major Op 52
The first movement, Un poco sostenuto – Allegro, immediately awakens our senses and draws us into the composer’s imagery of his country. The main theme seems to portray a heavy burden, alarming yet dignified at the same time, and this is juxtaposed with the lyricism of the second theme creating a vibrant and impressive canvas. And yet, despite the strength of this movement, it ends in quiet reflection, as if of lingering memories. As Bortkiewicz wrote: ‘the first part of the symphony is about the tragedy, the passions, the suffering, the struggle that comes to rest in the presence of the fascinating, beautiful nature. In a small Andante the immense, monotonous steppe is transformed into music. The sorrow and the longing resounds through, after which everything spreads out, like a man getting his rest while he sleeps’.
The second movement, a scherzo, seems to draw upon Ukrainian dance themes and introduces to the symphony the merriment and joviality of a popular feast, a celebration of life in the rural villages of his country, people drawn together to enjoy the music-making of the skomarokhs, the village buffoon players. Bortkiewicz wrote: ‘the scherzo is a cheerful piece in which life in a Russian village is portrayed; for example balalaika choirs, of shepherds and their flocks—exuberant cheerfulness, lusty dances and the laughter of girls. The piece is of Mozartian joviality, but nevertheless very Russian. After the trio the scherzo is repeated, as a remembrance to the happy, cheerful Russian people …’.
The third movement is a prayer tempered with an almost overwhelming sense of sorrow—a lament of exile. Like the Second Symphony of Rachmaninov, this is the heart and soul of the symphony and its sense of loneliness and loss is profound. Here, according to Bortkiewicz, ‘the composer has expressed his sorrow. After a powerful outpouring of sorrow the theme of the first part is repeated (‘Fate’); full of longing for lost happiness, this part closed with the harrowing lamentation of the cellos’.
‘The finale’, wrote the composer, ‘represents a big popular festival, an annual fair or a carnival, as a reminiscence to happier days long gone. It is a lively place, the people are full of elation, dances of wild rhythmic abandon. Suddenly a frightening silence, after which a powerful crescendo, the main theme (‘Fate’) in all its greatness resounds and gradually dies away. With an apotheosis, the symphony ends impressively with the former hymn to the Tsar’.
Here in the final movement we enjoy the spectacle of a flamboyant and impetuous Cossack dance—dynamic, expressive, rushing headlong in a whirlpool of fiery movement. Then, all of a sudden, the opening motif of the first movement returns to complete the circle, and the symphony ends in a final salute to the land that Bortkiewicz remembered, a land under the rule of the Tsars.
Van Dalen was later to conclude that ‘the work is masterly, evenly sophisticated in its instrumentation and design, very colourful and full of variation. Here is no experiment of modernism, but here speaks an intense musical soul, which only wants to give genuine art’.
Symphony No 2 in E flat major Op 55
I was glad you heard my second symphony [… ] I have heard many good things from many sides about my symphony, which seems to have pleased everyone, although it is much more difficult to conduct and to understand on a first hearing as my first symphony. (Letter dated 6 March 1939)
However, the promises of performances later in 1939 began to fall by the wayside as Europe braced itself for war. The two symphonic scores were currently with Van Dalen and the composer remained hopeful that they would receive performances under the conductor Eduard Flipse in Rotterdam. In several of his letters during the war years Bortkiewicz mentioned his symphonies and spoke of concern for the two scores, both of which were still in Holland as the war progressed into 1942. A ruling by the German state that handwritten material and manuscripts could not be sent by post in Europe meant that they remained with Van Dalen throughout this period. There was a brief reprise when a possible performance by the Residentie Orchestra of the second was mooted, and the composer even prepared the orchestral parts by hand, but this fell through. (This suggests that another copy of the score, possibly a rough draft, was held by the composer.) Then, as Europe was crushed under the repression of the Nazis, so correspondence between composer and pianist ceased until the summer of 1946. Although the composer enjoyed some concerts of his music during the early years of the war, by 1944 these had been forbidden as Bortkiewicz and his music were seen as too Russian.
Nothing is mentioned of either symphony until September 1947 when Bortkiewicz mentioned that Flipse had still hoped to conduct a performance of the second. The composer had made a few alterations to the orchestral parts and wanted to correct the full score still held by Van Dalen. Further pleas for the symphonies to be returned suggest that they remained with Van Dalen for the next two years, and the proposed concert by Flipse fell by the wayside. No further mention of these works is to be found in the composer’s remaining letters.
Unfortunately there is no detailed record of the composer’s thoughts about his second symphony. There is also no record of any performances for fifty years until, in February 2002, the work was conducted by Mykola Sukach at a Bortkiewicz festival in Ukraine to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
The first movement, Allegro ma non troppo in E flat minor, opens with the gentle cry of the oboe which immediately evokes the melancholy that haunts this work. As this opening motif is shared across the orchestra so the composer seems to be expressing a sense of uncertainty and changeable moods, growing from helplessness to titanic power. The brass enter with a phrase that reflects a hymn-like reverence and this in turn introduces the second theme on the strings—a melody that feels imbued with Russian soul, and which gently rises towards a brief but impassioned climax before returning to the lower instrumental depths of the orchestra. The opening motif returns, gradually building in magnitude as it is drawn into a development involving all the themes. Overall, this movement coveys the same sense of loss and sadness that also pervades the composer’s writings from this period.
The second-movement scherzo, Vivace, acts as a counterbalance to the first movement, but unlike the buoyant scherzo from his first symphony, this movement still shares with the first movement a sense of sorrow. Its themes feel more dramatic than joyful, particularly those announced by the brass instruments that seem to call out as a theme of ‘Fate’. There is almost a sense of manic energy pervading the first part of this movement—a sense of the madness that was soon to engulf the composer and the people of Europe into war. It sounds stern and merciless, a tide of power that seems to march endlessly on, unstoppable. Bortkiewicz had by this time faced both a world war and a civil war and one can sense his palpable fear of what lay ahead. The Trio offers a moment of brief calm, but the return to the opening Vivace brings a growing sense of menace.
The third movement is a tragic lament. This is the raw emotional heart of the symphony, where Bortkiewicz expressed all his sorrow and disillusion with the world. At first there is no sense of joy, no peace, just pure emotive force; yet as the movement progresses the call of a clarinet seems to signal a measure of hope before being swallowed up in the tortured lament of the strings. This hauntingly beautiful movement seems to mourn a forgotten time, place and people.
If the third movement feels like it has achieved a sense of purification, the symphony’s finale, Vivace (alla breve), engulfs one with its large-scale epic mood. At its core is a wild Slavonic dance that, as it reaches the coda, quotes the powerful and yet brutal ‘Fate’ theme from the second movement. The work’s exuberant conclusion leaves a great question unanswered: will fear and despair resolve to destroy life, or will mankind finally shape his own destiny?
Bortkiewicz, the man, the musician and the composer, still remains an enigma, a mystery, because so many details of his life remain lost or were destroyed in the flames of World War II. A number of works are still missing—a Lyrical Intermezzo for violin and orchestra (Op 44), the opera Akrobaten (Op 50), numerous piano works of his later years including the Six Preludes (Op 66), Three Mazurkas (Op 64), a Cello Sonata (Op 36) and the six pieces Miscellana (Op 61), to name but a few. He even wrote an Olympic Scherzo for the 1948 Olympic Games in London, which won an award, although there is currently no trace of the work. The symphonies too were once a part of this ‘missing’ list and several researchers, including the present writer, have spent many years trying to locate them.
Despite letters suggesting that they were held by Van Dalen, this was proved not to be the case, although thankfully the Russian Rhapsody and the Second Piano Sonata were found among the pianist’s papers. As the years passed it was originally felt that they might have been lost either during the war years, or in the aftermath when Europe lay in ruins. The present writer had successfully located a number of his manuscripts in libraries and archives across Europe, but despite all efforts the symphonies remained elusive and were classified as ‘lost’.
Then fate played its guiding hand. After a series of rather bizarre coincidences the current writer obtained, from a local antiquarian bookshop, a two-volume set of a list of works held by the Fleisher Collection in Philadelphia. Later that evening, picking up one of the volumes, a small leaflet fell out from the back of the book. It covered acquisitions by the library during the period around 1950 to 1952, and there under ‘Bortkiewicz’ was mention of the two symphonies. I immediately contacted the library and, after some checking, the scores were located in their archive. Apparently Bortkiewicz had sent copies of the symphonies (both full scores and parts) to them for safekeeping. Further research later unearthed another copy of the First Symphony in the archive of Doblingers in Vienna. Thus, after a silence of over fifty years, the symphonies of Bortkiewicz can now be heard and appreciated once more. This began with a performance of the First Symphony in Kiev in 2001, followed by the British premiere in Glasgow in 2002 under Martyn Brabbins. The music authorities in Ukraine have recently shown immense interest in the life and music of Bortkiewicz and, to mark the 125th anniversary of the composer’s birth, there was a successful performance of the Second Symphony in Kiev. Here at last, in his homeland, Bortkiewicz has been re-established and honoured as a composer of great beauty, passion and melody. The exile had finally returned home.
Malcolm Henbury-Ballan © 2002