Bagpipe melodies

Stary Olsa band leader Zmicier Sasnouski compiles encyclopaedia of Belarusian musical instruments: from Stone Age to present day

By Viktar Korbut

In days gone by, world class performers headed for Belarus’ local stages to demonstrate their mastery: professional Byzantine, Italian and German orchestras toured Polotsk, Minsk and Nesvizh. Of course, they did not visit villages; they gave concerts in the homes of rich patrons. However, their music had no borders; there was no division between ‘folk’, ‘classical’ and ‘pop’ songs. Little is known about this but Zmicier Sasnouski (who heads Stary Olsa) has just released his research on the history of Belarusian musical culture. Each page is a revelation.

Zmicier is a man of few words but loves to perform: he’s a true musician. Few know that he’s also an academic, gathering and classifying material. His research into musical instruments in Belarus since the Stone Age seems incredible, since so little is known from the earlier part of the last millennium. In fact, a famous Austrian conductor and professor at the Salzburg Mozerteum once noted that we know ‘almost nothing about music prior to 1500’. Zmicier agrees but believes no task is impossible. Even if old sounds cannot be resurrected, we can still discover a great deal about them. Mr. Sasnouski has re-read ancient manuscripts and studied old frescoes. “I’ve compiled an encyclopaedia of instruments which were played in our country in days gone by and in modern times but have only published information up until the 18th century: 400 pages. Further volumes will be devoted to the following two centuries,” he notes.

How have you dared to write a book? You are a musician.

As I perform ancient music, I often search for sheet music and study old instruments’ appearance.

What is your most wonderful discovery?

There are so many. For example, I’ve found out that different kinds of bagpipes were played in Belarus — including local dudas, German and Scottish bagpipes. Additionally, I’ve learnt that musicians were as valuable as officers during an exchange of prisoners of war. Every knight was expected to have an ear for musical sounds; our countryman Frantsisk Skorina wrote that they should ‘understand the voice of pipes’. This was to allow them to distinguish their signals and to know how to move their regiments.

You’re providing a panorama of Belarusian musical culture in its entirety but isn’t the Academy of Sciences covering the same ground?

I’m not ‘discovering America’ but I am providing significant facts, which create an overview of our country’s musical culture. At the Academy of Music and Academy of Arts and at our Culture University, the history of Belarusian music is taught separately, covering the organ, theatrical, pipe and folk music. I’ve united these, in addition to redefining various facts.
Belarusian music used to exist within a wider European context. Our culture was not a separate island; it was part of the civilised European continent. Accordingly, many episodes from history have been long ago studied by Polish, Lithuanian and Ukrainian researchers. Everything is already known but few Belarusian researchers are interested in reading the works of foreign colleagues. We haven’t seen that irreversible events are occurring.
The Ukrainians already call our ‘Polotsk Manuscript’ theirs and we aren’t even aware that they’ve made a sensational discovery. They have a new explanation for the depiction of the musicians on Sophia Cathedral’s fresco. It was previously thought that they were saltimbancos; now, it’s evident that the fresco depicts a Byzantine court orchestra. If this existed in Kiev, then a similar orchestra should have existed at the home of the Polotsk Duke, since the culture of those times was similar in Kiev, Polotsk and Novgorod. We shared a common language, religion, daily routine and arts. Belarus belonged to Eastern European civilisation. To understand our country’s development, we must analyse that of our neighbours. We share a common legacy.
Belarusian poets named their collections of poems after musicians: Gusliar (a gusli player), Dudar (a duda player), Dudka (a pipe), Smyk (a bow), and Skripochka (a violin). Belarusians also call their literary greats ‘pesnyars’, or singers — rather than prose writers. This is because Belarusian culture long relied on songs and melodies. To understand our present, we must thoroughly study the work of our forefathers — as Mr. Sasnouski has done. As the saying goes: ‘the future is founded in the past’.

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