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Bortkiewicz, Sergei (1877-1952)

Sergei Bortkiewicz

born: 28 February 1877
died: 25 October 1952
country: Austria

Sergei Eduardovich Bortkiewicz was born in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov on 28 February 1877. His background and musical training mirrors that of many of his contemporaries. His mother was an accomplished pianist (a situation so common with composers of the time that it now seems almost a cliché) and co-founder of the Kharkov Music School, affiliated to the Imperial Russian Music Society where Bortkiewicz was to have his early training. He studied piano there with Albert Bensch and early influences included Anton Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky, both of whom visited the school and took part in concerts there.

In 1896 Bortkiewicz enrolled at the St Petersburg Conservatory. As before in Kharkov he concentrated on his studies as a pianist, studying with Karl van Ark (a pupil of Leschetizky), but also joined the theory class of Anatol Liadov. To please his father Bortkiewicz was enrolled in the faculty of law at the university. It was clearly a subject that had few charms for the composer as he later recalled: 'Being a student at the university, I had to attend the lectures now and then. I left the goddess Polyhymnia unwillingly, in order to make a formal visit to justice. However, when the time came for the semester examinations, I immersed myself in law books and passed my examinations dutifully.'

Unfortunately, serious student unrest in 1899 forced the university to close and all the students had to extend their studies for a further year. This was too much for Bortkiewicz who had held out at the university for three years. He now made the decision to forego the title of ‘Doctor of Law’ 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. His military service did not last for long because of illness and by the summer of 1900 he was back on his family estate at Artiomovka near Kharkov. It was there that he decided to continue his musical studies in Germany.

He enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatory in the Autumn of 1900, studying composition with Salomon Jadassohn and piano with Alfred Reisenauer. Reisenauer was a pupil of Liszt and a celebrated virtuoso. Bortkiewicz had first heard him play at the Kharkov Music School and soon became a devoted disciple. Bortkiewicz himself never became the ‘great pianist’ he had hoped to be and in his memoirs he notes, with some regret: 'Reisenauer was a pianistic genius. He did not need to practise much, it came to him by itself … he thought and spoke very little about technical problems. Although I must thank my master very much as regards music, I had to realize later that I would have done much better if I had gone to Vienna in order to cure myself under Theodor Leschetizky of certain technical limitations, which I tried to overcome only instinctively and with a great waste of time.'

In July 1902 Bortkiewicz completed his studies at the Leipzig Conservatory and, during a brief stay with his parents on their country estate, became engaged to his sister’s school friend Elisabeth Geraklitova. He was to marry her in July 1904. In his memoirs Bortkiewicz remarks: ‘Now I was married. A new period of my life began.’ This new period was marked by his turning seriously to composition for the first time. Although his Op 1 (whatever it was) appears to be lost and his Op 2 set of songs remained unpublished, in 1906 his Quatre Morceaux for piano, Op 3, were published by the Leipzig firm of Daniel Rahter.

From 1904 until the outbreak of the First World War Bortkiewicz lived in Berlin (spending his summers with his wife in Russia). He taught briefly at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory and continued to give concerts (not only in Germany but also in Vienna, Budapest, Paris, Italy and Russia)—although he increasingly played only his own compositions. When hostilities began in 1914 Bortkiewicz was placed under house arrest and finally deported back to Russia via Sweden and Finland. It was a crushing blow for him. He loved Germany and had made his home there for so many years—but worse was to follow.

Initially, settled back in Kharkov, things seemed promising. He started teaching again, drawing around him a number of promising students who had studied in Moscow and St Petersburg during peacetime and who now remained in southern Russia as the war continued. He finally met Scriabin and Taneyev in Moscow and, confident that the war would end soon, Bortkiewicz set about rebuilding his career. On 25 March 1918 the Germans finally occupied Kharkov. In his memoirs Bortkiewicz can hardly conceal his delight in having Germans as his 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 arrived—civil war.

As the Revolution gained pace, so did the atrocities. The Bortkiewicz family estate at Artiomovka was completely plundered and finally in the autumn of 1919 Bortkiewicz and his wife fled to Sevastopol in the Crimea. There they waited in rented rooms overlooking Yalta harbour, desperate for a ship that would take them away from Russia and back to freedom. Finally they were able to push themselves on board a merchant steamer, the Konstantin, bound for Constantinople. When they arrived they were penniless.

A chance introduction to Ilen Ilegey, court pianist to the Sultan, saved the situation. The Turkish pianist was impressed by Bortkiewicz’s compositions and helped by recommending him to important dignitaries in the city. Before long, Bortkiewicz was giving piano lessons to the daughter of the Court Conductor, the daughter of the Belgian Ambassador and the wife of the Yugoslavian Ambassador. He found himself a guest at all the large receptions in the magnificent embassies. Although he now had plenty of work, he missed the music and culture of Europe—in Constantinople there were no concerts, theatre or intellectual interests. Finally, Bortkiewicz managed to re-establish his old business contacts with the publishing firm Rahter. He decided to move to Vienna and on 22 July 1922 he and his wife arrived at the Austrian capital.

The move to Vienna was to be his final one. He became an Austrian citizen in 1926 and taught piano at the Vienna Conservatory. Bortkiewicz’s memoirs, although written in 1936, cover his life only until his arrival in Vienna in 1922. We know little about his subsequent life and career, except that he seems to have been held in high esteem in his new home. On 10 April 1947, in his seventieth year, the Bortkiewicz Society in Vienna was formed. It proved to be short-lived and Bortkiewicz himself died in Vienna on 25 October 1952. A substantial proportion of his published works was lost in the destruction of the Second World War and, with his remaining works increasingly difficult to obtain, his memory soon faded. In 1977, twenty-five years after his death, the Viennese civic authorities levelled his grave in the city cemetery. In October 1936 Bortkiewicz had finished his memoirs with these words: 'The one, who lives along with a crescendo of culture, should be praised as being happy! Woe to him who has gone down with the wheel of history! Vae victis!—And the present? Where are we headed: up—or down?—Oh, if it would soon go up!'

As one would expect, Bortkiewicz’s output contains many works for his own instrument, the piano. He wrote two piano sonatas, many sets of pieces for piano and three piano concertos (the second for the left hand). He also completed a violin concerto and a cello concerto as well as an opera, Akrobaten, two symphonies, songs and chamber music. It is sad that so many of his works are lost and it can only be hoped that in time some surviving copies of his missing opus numbers may come to light.

Bortkiewicz described himself as a romantic and a melodist, and he had an emphatic aversion for what he called modern, atonal and cacophonous music. Bortkiewicz’s work reflects little innovation compared to many of his contemporary composers. He covered no new ground, but built on the structures and sounds of Chopin and Liszt, with the unmistakable influences of early Scriabin and Rachmaninov. Like Medtner, the essential characteristics of his style were already present in his earliest compositions, from around 1906, although his later music is more personal, poetic and nostalgic. Melody, harmony and structure were essential building blocks for his musical creations. His training with van Ark, Liadov, Jadassohn, Piutti and Reisenauer ingrained a rigorous professionalism. His colourful and delicate imagination, his idiomatic piano-writing and sensitivity to his musical ideas, combined with his undisputed gift for melody, result in a style that is instantly recognizable, attractive and appealing to many listeners.

from notes by Stephen Coombs © 2000


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