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Music History 101 • Composer Sergei Bortkiewicz

Sergei Bortkiewicz

A few weeks ago, when the studio was still open (sigh), my boss, Linda Wehrli was playing beautiful piano music on her iPod while teaching her art classes.

When I asked who the composer was, she enthusiastically shared with me it was Ukrainian composer, Sergei Bortkiewicz (what a name!) who she had only recently discovered. She said she found his work “magnificently lyrical, resonating deeply in a way few other pieces had”.

Both my boss and I never heard of Bortkiewicz other than the remarkable pieces downloaded onto her iPod. We were eager to learn more about him. We rolled up our sleeves and began our search for the story.

The first thing we discovered mentioned in several articles was that Bortkiewicz is considered to be one of the great Romantics following Tchaikovsky. Linda said that this sounded quite right. I was especially intrigued, learning how he and his family couldn’t catch a break between WWI and WWII. And we think we’re living in tough times now!

While I researched online, my boss reached out to several of her esteemed concert pianist friends and music professors. Most had not heard of Sergei Bortkiewicz. Luckily Dr. Dmitry Rachmanov, professor of music at California State University, Northridge (Linda’s alma mater) came to the rescue. He recommended she reach out to the Bulgarian pianist, Nadejda Vlaeva. Linda asked if she might mention his name as an introduction. He graciously approved. Ms. Vlaeva enthusiastically responded with a treasure trove of intel including her fantastic story of how she came to be acquainted with Bortkiewicz’s works. We’re excited to share her tale, contributions to this blog, and links to her performances.

 
Nadejda Vlaeva performs Bortkiewicz
Bulgarian Pianist, Nadejda Vlaeva
 

Linda: What is the story of how and when you discovered Sergei Bortkiewicz and his magnificent piano compositions?

Nadejda: My first encounter with Bortkiewicz’s music was when I was about 8 or 9. A classmate of mine played “The Butterfly” from the Children’s album at a school concert. The piece evoked in me a sense of freedom. It inspired me, and in the desire to replicate the same emotion, I composed a piece similar to it.

The next encounter didn’t come until much later when I experienced something very interesting. I was practicing at home, working on Rachmaninoff’s 2nd concerto for a concert. All of a sudden, my husband came to me holding a copy of a score he had. It was the score of the Bortkiewicz 2nd sonata! It had been published privately by an ardent Bortkiewicz fan who had discovered the manuscript in the Netherlands. So I started playing through it, and as I was going towards the third page, I found a musical quotation from Rachmaninoff’s 2nd concerto, the piece I was working on right then. It is really funny how the two came together at the same time. There was no easily available recording of the Sonata at that time, and that prompted me to record it. I also gave its North American premiere and played it in many European countries for the first time, including Germany.

A few years later I received what I call my “lucky” email. The person who sent it to me had heard my Bortkiewicz Sonata recording and loved it. He had discovered some unpublished manuscripts by the composer and asked me if I would be interested in trying them. The moment I started reading through them I felt this amazing warm wave go through my body. This was the music I had been waiting for. I used to go to bed at night trying to imagine what could be the most heavenly music I could ever hear. In my dreams, I heard the sort of music that now was sitting in front of me. I was stunned. It fit me like a glove. The music was so soft, sensitive, beautiful, and magical. I was ecstatic and wrote back an enthusiastic reply with tons of gratitude. The newly discovered pieces were the 3 Mazurkas op. 64, the Fantasiestueke Op. 61. (a cycle of 6 pieces) and the Yugoslav Suite op. 58, all composed in the early 1940s.

Linda: Thank you for your story. I have experienced the same “amazing warm wave go through my body” when listening to recently discovered recordings. It is what spurred me on to feature this composer on the school’s Music History 101 blog, and get the word out to my students and readers about a composer history should not neglect.

Needless to say, this blog is more than a report. It is an homage to this composer, the trials and tribulations he endured during his life, and his spirit to compose music from the heart despite it all. We hope you enjoy and are inspired by this introduction to composer, Sergei Borkiewicz.
. . . . . . . . . .

Before sharing the usual bio details, my boss wants me to start off with an excerpt from a 1948 interview by Berlin Newspaper, “Welt am Abend” (The World in the Evening) with Bortkiewicz, so readers hear his voice.

Bortkiewicz: “I have often been called an epigone (imitator) of Tchaikovsky, but that is not correct: I certainly create music in the atmosphere of Tchaikovsky and may well count myself among the Romantics, but I have retained my personal character.” He continued: “Today one is probably inclined to dismiss all melodicists as epigones. Certainly, very often wrongly. Especially as far as I am concerned, romanticism is not the bloodless intellectual commitment to a program, but the expression of my most profound mind and soul.“ Profound, indeed. As so begins the composer’s biography.

Bortkiewicz was born in Kharkiv, Russian Empire (which is present-day Kharkiv, Ukraine) on February 28, 1877, to a Polish noble family. He received his musical training from another of my boss’ favorite Russian composers, Anatoly Lyadov and Karl von Arek at the Imperial Conservatory of Music in Saint Petersburg.

 
Sergei Bortkiewicz
Sergei Bortkiewicz
 

In 1900, Bortkiewicz left St. Petersburg for Leipzig, Germany. It was there that he became a student of Alfred Reisenauer and Salomon Jadassohn, both pupils of Hungarian piano virtuoso and composer, Franz Liszt. That makes Bortkiewicz “a student of a student of Liszt”. Wow!

After graduating from the Leipzig Conservatory in 1902, he was awarded the Schumann Prize. Bortkiewicz eventually settled in Berlin, where he began to compose more seriously. He also taught at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory for one year. It was here that Bortkiewicz met Dutch pianist and life-long friend, Hugo van Dalen. Van Dalen premiered Bortkiewicz’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 16, in November 1913 in Berlin with the Blüthner Orchestra conducted by the composer.

 
Sergei Bortkiewicz, Hugo van Dalen
Sergei Bortkiewicz, Hugo van Dalen
 

Sadly, we could not find Van Dalen’s Premier on YouTube. Instead, please enjoy this live 2020 recording by the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra, Ukraine. Pianist, Olga Shadrina. Conductor, Mykola Sukach.
Sergei Bortkiewicz. Concerto No 1 for piano and orchestra in B flat major, Op 16

 

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Bortkiewicz’s life was completely turned around. Because he was a citizen of the Russian Empire, he and his wife Elisabeth were put under house arrest and later deported from Germany to Russia, via Scandinavia. He eventually returned to Kharkiv, where he began teaching again and performing. Just when life was returning to normal…With the beginning of the Russian Revolution, Bortkiewicz and his family once again had to flee the family estate at Artemovka due to occupation by the communists.

In June 1919, the communists fled before the White Army and Bortkiewicz was able to return and help to rebuild the family estate, which had been completely destroyed. However, this didn’t last long. My boss wasn’t kidding when she said this composer couldn’t catch a break! The surrender of Kharkiv to the Red Army meant that his family could not return to Artemovka. With the area now surrounded by the Red Army, the composer watched his mother and brother-in-law fall ill of typhus at Novorossiysk. Thankfully, Bortkiewicz and his wife escaped on the steamer “Konstantin” to Constantinople (now known as Istanbul) in November 1919.

From Nadejda Vlaeva:
Bortkiewicz left his country in 1919 on a dark November night on a ship overcrowded with refugees. Most of the people only had standing room, and his wife barely found a seat. Had it been a stormy night a disaster could have struck, and many of them would have found their fatal end in the Black Sea. After successfully reaching Constantinople and spending a couple of years there he set out on a trip to Austria. Together with his wife, he lived in Vienna for the rest of his life.

In 1924, Bortkiewicz composed his dramatic Piano Concerto No. 2, Opus 28 for the left hand. Enjoy Nadejda Vlaeva’s remarkable performance.

 

Between World War I and World War II, Sergei was able to return to performing concerts and teaching throughout Yugoslavia. In 1928 Bortkiewicz went to Paris for six months and then returned to live in Berlin. A Russian in Berlin in 1928. You can guess what that meant. Yep, he was forced to leave Germany again; being a Russian he was now facing persecution from the Nazis and saw his name being deleted from all music programs! Frightening!

He eventually returned to Vienna, where he would live for the rest of his life. However, during this time, Bortkiewicz suffered from serious financial hardships and had to ask for help from his friend Hugo van Dalen. He was a great friend and always provided help.

From Nadejda Vlaeva:
Bortkiewicz was in despair. He was considered a criminal and a traitor in his own country because he had left it. His music was forbidden there. In Vienna, he didn’t get the warmest reception either because he came from Russia, which during the war meant that he was assumed to be on the side of the enemy.

As if things couldn’t get any worse for the composer, World War II broke (1939–45).
Nadejda Vlaeva shared excerpts from a letter he wrote to his friend at the end of the war which best describes the horrible conditions:
“We still have unresolved problems. 3 holes in the walls and the window pane, etc. I can say that never in my life have I experienced such horrors, humiliation, miseries. It is bitter so that if anything is to be found in my works, I owe it to the corresponding impressions and experiences of what is beautiful in life and nature…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 gaslight. The other rooms cannot be used and I cannot touch my piano. This is now! What awaits us further? Life is becoming more and more unpleasant, merciless. I teach at the Conservatory with the heat at 4 degrees, soon even less!… I do not believe in happiness anymore, rather that I am a dead man.” and “We have arrived at the lowest point of the eternally turning wheel of world history.”

Some people say great art is created during difficult times as people turn to creativity as a form of expression or therapy. I’m sure we all can relate to that now. That is exactly what Bortkiewicz did. During that horrendous time, he composed many exquisite works including his Piano Sonata No. 2 in C-Sharp Minor Opus 60.

He first performed the sonata on November 29, 1942, in the Brahmssaal of the Musikverein in Vienna. On February 9, 1944, Hugo van Dalen gave the Dutch premiere in Amsterdam. Neither of these performances could be found on YouTube. However, we did find this excellent recording of the Piano Sonata No. 2 in C-Sharp Minor Opus 60 by Jouni Somero. Prepare to have your socks knocked off.
Jouni Somero: Piano Sonata No. 2 in C-Sharp Minor Opus 60

 

From Nadejda Vlaeva: His music was rarely published so it couldn’t reach a large audience; only a few musicians were lucky enough to play it. During the war, he sent some of his pieces to Germany to be published. However, paper was scarce so they weren’t printed.

Bortkiewicz’s letter: “My old compositions have long been out of print, sold out, only seldom can they be bought second hand. Can’t have anything from Germany. How can I be performed?…. And now he writes to me (publisher) that he still does not have any paper.”

Although Bortkiewicz created beautiful music during this time, sadly most of his printed compositions were destroyed in the bombing of German cities, meaning he lost all his income from the sale of his music.

After the war, Bortkiewicz had some financial relief; he was appointed director of a master class at the Vienna City Conservatory and composed his Six Preludes, Op. 66 (1946–47), of which only Numbers 1 and 3 have been discovered. He dedicated these preludes to the Dutch pianist Hélène Mulholland (1912–2000), who helped him after the war, sending food and clothes. After retiring in 1948, the city of Vienna awarded him an honorary pension. (Finally!!)

The composer also had a society in honor of him! The Bortkiewicz Society was founded in 1947 in Vienna in order to keep the memory of his music alive. Friends of the composer and members of the Society gathered in the Künstlerhaus and listened to concerts of his music. Here is a collection of pieces performed by Ukrainian pianist Pavel Gintov that were likely performed during those concerts.

 

Bortkiewicz is proof that even throughout tumultuous times (like two Word Wars!) one can persevere and create a meaningful life.

He wrote to a friend after his last concert –
“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. [. . .]”

Borkiewicz passed away on October 25, 1952 shortly after this but left a great impact on musicians, pianists, and composers.

According to Prof. Dr. Wouter Kalkman, who hosts a website dedicated to Sergei Bortkiewicz, musicians from all over the world are rediscovering Bortkiewicz’s music. Bortkiewicz’s music is also played in Ukraine by the Chernihiv Symphony Orchestra under the direction of conductor Mykola Sukach.

Now, some good news from Nadejda Vlaeha:
“The discovered manuscripts had remained locked in an archive for over 70 years. They were considered lost and had been forgotten like some other Bortkiewicz’s pieces that still haven’t been discovered (some of his Preludes Op. 66 for instance). I was so lucky they fell into my hands, and that I had the incredible privilege to premiere them and record them. Wherever I have played them, people have fallen in love with them. I have been asked multiple times for the scores, and I am so glad that the Fantasiestücke, Op. 61 was recently published by Boosey & Hawkes in Germany. Hopefully, the others will be published too.

Bortkiewitz’s music was considered “old fashioned” because in the 20th century he was composing in the style of the 19th century. His music may remind us of Chopin, Scriabin, Schumann, and other composers, but it has its own language. It moves swiftly, almost like liquid. It can be like touching a soft, silky, or velvety fabric. When it touches one’s heart it finds a permanent place there. Interestingly, even during all the hardships he endured, his music remained unaffected by his gruesome reality. Despite the struggles he went through – those of a human being during the war, those of an unknown composer trying to make ends meet, that of facing rejection, fearful of being forgotten in obscurity – his music always remained beautiful. It is like longing for a heavenly place one can escape to or like a dream that remains pure and untouched even in the hardest of times.”

We are pleased to share these two beautiful performances by pianist Nadejda Vlaeva.
Nadejda Vlaeva: DREAM by Bortkiewicz


Nadejda Vlaeva: Mazurka Op. 64 No. 1 by Bortkiewicz

Besides Mykola Sukach, Ukrainian musicians Temur Yakubov and Yevhen Levkulych tirelessly work to rekindle interest in the composer and seek wherever possible to protome Bortkiewicz’s music.

My boss wanted to give thanks to violinist Temur Yakobov for responding to her Facebook Messages. He graciously provided the YouTube link of the International Bortkiewicz Society and a link to his performance of Bortkiewicz’s marvelous Berceuse Opus 14 for Violin and Piano with pianist Uliana Chubun.

He also graciously sent links to publications featuring articles about the composer. If they are ever translated from Ukrainian to English, you can be sure they will be added to this blog.

In recent years pianists like Stephen Coombs, Klaas Trapman, Jouni Somero, Stefan Doniga, Anna Reznik (Анна Резник), Nadejda Vlaeva, Alfonso Soldano and Chihiro Ishioka have contributed to the rehabilitation of the music of Bortkiewicz.

My boss has already binge-purchased recordings of Bortkiewicz works performed by Jouni Somero, Nadejda Vlaeva, and Stephen Coombs. Linda says that if she were to go missing, just listen for Bortkiewicz piano pieces. Truth.

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12 Comments

  1. Barry Wehrli

    Loved every piece I heard. And Nadejda… well I wish I could play like her! That concerto for left hand – 34 minutes of that might put me in the hospital. LOL. It’s unfortunate that Bortkiewicz had such a difficult life, but he persevered to give the world such outstanding music. I look forward to hearing more and am glad to have discovered him. Thanks!

  2. John Salmon

    Loved the blog! Yes, I had heard of Bortkiewicz. One of my master’s students years ago was obsessed with his music, but I really don’t know that much about Bortkiewicz’s music. Loved all the info in your blog and I’ll check out Nadejda Vlaeva. Thanks for this great contribution to our view of history (what a story about Bortkiewicz’s life).

  3. Zubin Grogg

    This was very informational and an interesting read. I enjoyed all the pieces – very melodic and beautiful. I especially enjoyed the second piano concerto for left hand. I have never heard of Bortkiewicz – but I am a new fan thanks to you and Jessica.

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