Melodies from the past
[b]Zmicier Sasnouski returns instruments and composers to national musical art[/b]Not the Academy of Sciences but a single man has written an encyclopaedia of Belarusian music: famous musician Zmicier Sasnouski, who leads Stary Olsa band. His research has taken him over a decade, resulting in his History of Belarusian Musical Culture: From Ancient Times to the Late 18th Century. It was released at the end of last year, with more volumes to follow.
Not the Academy of Sciences but a single man has written an encyclopaedia of Belarusian music: famous musician Zmicier Sasnouski, who leads Stary Olsa band. His research has taken him over a decade, resulting in his History of Belarusian Musical Culture: From Ancient Times to the Late 18th Century. It was released at the end of last year, with more volumes to follow.
Zmicier has already prepared a manuscript on the traditions of our singing and instrumental culture and hopes his work will change the way Belarus is viewed not only by Europe but by the whole world. Until recently, many thought that our country lagged behind regarding musical civilisation; now, it’s evident that Belarus has always been involved in global cultural processes, even outstripping some of its neighbours.
Mr. Sasnouski knows more about the history of Belarusian music than anyone else, even correcting maestros. For example, not long ago, famous Minsk rock musician Lyavon Volsky planned to record ancient music playing the lute. Suddenly, he was concerned that Belarusians may have never played lutes but Mr. Sasnouski was able to reassure him, “At least six lute composers lived in Belarus in the 16th century, in addition to a famous French lutenist, Antoine Gallot, who lived in Belarus in his older years.” In fact, he believes that the lute should be claimed as a Belarusian folk instrument.
Zmicier also aims to promote bagpipe playing, which he views as an ancient Belarusian instrument, known under the original name of ‘duda’. “Some think it has existed since pre-Christian times,” he explains. “The duda was first mentioned in Old Belarusian literature in the 15th century; and was illustrated by the 16th century. The instrument didn’t change, keeping its original form and, by the 1920s, was considered to be the major national instrument in Belarus. Our duda players represented the USSR at international exhibitions in Paris and Munich: in 1926 and 1928. Until WWII, bagpipes were the most commonly played instruments in Belarus. Expeditions and archives confirm that Belarusian duda players performed in villages even in the 1960s.”
Now, mainly enthusiasts — like Zmicier — play the bagpipes; the dulcimer has taken over as the major national instrument. In fact, Mr. Sasnouski, having studied literary archives, believes the dulcimer appeared late in Belarusian musical history. “The dulcimer was first mentioned in Belarus in Concio Ruthena (17th-18th century). It came to Belarus via travelling foreign orchestras and only spread to Belarusian villages in the 19th century. It gained popularity gradually, jointly with the Russian harmonica — forcing the duda out,” explains Mr. Sasnouski. “The head of a choir performing Belarusian folk instrumental music — Iosif Zhinovich — considered the duda to be ‘capricious’ and difficult to play. As a result, he preferred the dulcimer, which became the major instrument of the Belarusian nation. Its authority was indisputable.”
Of course, both the duda and dulcimer occupy a worthy place in Belarusian culture, stresses modern day musician and ethnographer Todor Kashkurevich. He sees the duda as ‘a man’s instrument, which awakens a call for action, while the dulcimer is a woman’s instrument which pacifies’.
Mr. Sasnouski doesn’t just search for authentic Belarusian folk instruments. He believes that Belarusian music, being rich in history, has influenced the musical art of neighbours close and far. “Many composers of Belarusian origin have gained pan-European recognition, such as Michał Kleofas Ogiński, Stanisław Moniuszko, Napoleon Orda, Mieczysław Karłowicz and Czesław Niemen,” Zmicier smiles. Most of these masters are well-known in Poland. “Russian composers Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov also used Belarusian folk melodies. Outstanding musicians, such as Fyodor Stravinsky (Igor Stravinsky’s father), Maria Guleghina and Irma Yaunzem, received their musical education in Belarus while, in ancient times, Belarusian musicians worked in Poland, serving at the courts of kings Jagailo, Alexander, Sigismund I, Sigismund II and Sigismund III.”
He continues, “Textbooks on the theory of music — by the Rector of Polotsk’s Collegium, Sigismund — were published in Mannheim, Cologne and Vienna. Belarusian folk melodies are found in the 9th Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, as well as in Frйdйric Chopin’s Grand Fantasie and Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov opera. Moreover, Belarusian composers used vocal cycles long before the official launch of this genre by Beethoven. Maciej Radziwiłł’s polonaises are the earliest orchestral examples of this genre in Europe. Ogiński’s music inspired Joseph Haydn to compose his famous The Creation while, eight years before Mozart wrote his Marriage of Figaro, Ogiński used a melody from the opera in his To Kasya. The first Faust opera was composed by Antoni Henryk Radziwiłł, in co-operation with Goethe. Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto begins with a melody from the ‘devil dance’ of Mephistopheles, from Radziwiłł’s Faust. Radziwiłł used leitmotifs later adopted by Wagner in his operas.”
There’s no doubt that these facts are impressive, especially taking when we realise that, until recently, no one studied the influence of Belarusian music worldwide. In fact, Belarusian music is hardly recognised around the globe. Historical musical studies are in their infancy in Belarus, although some Belarusian musicians have become known far beyond Belarus. Anna Meitschik, the daughter of a famous Minsk lawyer, has successfully performed at the New York Metropolitan Opera House, becoming a soloist at Milan’s La Scala and at Lisbon’s Sгo Carlos National Theatre. Belarusian singer Mikhail Zabeida has gained recognition in Italy, the Czech Republic and Poland, while famous Belarusian violinist and composer Mikhail Yelsky has played in Poland and Germany. This year, Zmicier Sasnouski plans to publish another part of his ‘encyclopaedia’, detailing more little-known facts from our musical history.
By Viktor Novak