Nabokov’s Lyubcha melodies

Composer Nikolai Nabokov, cousin of the famous writer, was taught music in an estate near the Belarusian town of Novogrudok
When Vladimir Nabokov was writing his “Lolita”, the namesake of Nikolai Dmitriyevich, composer, was widely known in America. What do they have in common? Historians agree: “Nikolai Nabokov has the same roots as his brother-writer. They have a common grandfather Dmitri Nikolayevich — the Justice Minister during the rule of Alexander the Second and Alexander the Third; a common grandmother — Mariya Ferdinandovna born Korf. The father of the future composer was Dmitri Dmitriyevich Nabokov, who was married to Lidiya Eduardovna Falts-Fein, in whose estate Lyubcha near Novogrudok of Minsk Province, Nikolai spent half his childhood. The parents soon split up. Stepfather Nikolai Fedorovich von Poiker (uncle Kolya) helped the mother raise the boy. Von Poiker lived next door in the estate of Pokrovskoye and Nikolai visited the estate since he was three years old. It was in Pokrovskoye that he fell in love with playing an old grand piano. The grand piano was tricky: legends say, it was blessed by Tchaikovski. In 1911 eight-year-old Nikolai Nabokov was brought to Petersburg, where he sometimes met with his father Dmitri Dmitriyevich…”

What is Lyubcha, Novo-grudok’s suburbs, where the talent of the future composer started to take shape? Many events of the past are hard to restore. But we shall try. In the second half of the 19th century Lyubcha was owned by Mariya Gogeloe, who owned 11.761 dessiatines of land in 1888. Ten years after she sold the estate to brothers Falts-Fein for 2348 roubles. Who knows, maybe she did that because the Gogenloes had no Russian citizenship and it meant certain juridical difficulties for running the estate. In 1904 Lidiya von Poiker (the composer’s mother) bought the estate together with 4200 hectares of land. We managed to recover information dated back to 1911 — an article in “Minskiye gubernskiye vedomosti” newspaper and information in Minsk Province Land Owners Registrar. Then Poiker owned 3676 dessiatines of land together with Delyatichi estate. Brothers Falts-Fein owned 1.524 dessiatines each.

In Lyubcha we met with a well-known Novogrudok land historian Mikhail Karpovich.

“You are asking about Lyubcha at the beginning of the past century?” Mikhail Mikhailovich is shuffling through old photos. “Of course, old traditions of secular book printing centre had been lost by the time. But Lyubcha still remained an unusual settlement. The very fact that the town had two emblems says a lot. In the 1900s it had around 450 houses, 3420 citizens. There was a parish school. Lyubcha also had a drugstore, a tavern, two inns, a beer shop. There were two lemonade plants and a cheese plant. Of course, today you cannot find old-timers, who knew Poiker and her first husband Dmitri Nabokov…”

Perhaps, after the divorce Dmitri never came to Lyubcha. But as far as we know Lidiya Eduardovna joined the majority in 1937. They say she was buried in Vilno. Out of scarce information the following picture emerged. Lidiya Eduardovna was likely to spend too little time on running Lyubcha estate. Poiker married off her younger daughter to prince Mirskiy, who owned Mir estate 50 km away in Korelichi District. As the owner of Lyubcha estate Lidiya Eduardovna spent most part of the year in Vilno. The estate was falling apart. The estate was mortgaged to the Land Bank to pay the debts. When the payment time passed, the bank divided the land into plots and sold them to neighbouring peasants. The Poikers were left with the territory of the former Lyubcha Castle on the bank of the Neman River, a large garden, a park near the estate, and timberland.

Maybe, as time went, memories of visiting the castle served the composer in writing some musical fantasies. It is quite probable that the composer lived in Lyubcha when he grew up.

In 1937 Lidiya Eduardovna died. The son inherited the estate. He was a poor owner as well. Nikolai Dmitriyevich lived in America since 1929. He left Paris for America after Dyagilev died, for whom the composer wrote music for “Russian Seasons”. By the way, Nabokov’s music (ballet “Oda” written for Dyagilev) was noticed in the Soviet Union. Musicologist Boris Astafyev wrote: “I can say that many pages of his music sing songs”. In the USA Nabokov started working with “Russian Ballet Monte-Carlo”.

Production “Peaceful Union” based on half-forgotten American folklore was a success. Everybody was surprised with the working capacity of Nikolai Dmitriyevich — one by one he wrote ballets “Polishinel’s Life”, “Vain Efforts of Love”, “Last Flower”, symphony “Prayer”, elegy “Pushkin’s Return”, cantata “America was a Hope”. He re-wrote 5 verses by Anna Akhmatova and 4 verses by Boris Pasternak for the orchestra. If it was possible to measure internal energy, I wonder, how much of Lyubcha childhood entered Nabokov’s work?

And which nationality is he — American, Russian, or at least a little Belarusian? The point is not the national issue in the art of a Novogrudok town native. Nikolai Dmitriyevich had a great creative potential and managed to realise it. The proof is the above-mentioned works and festival projects implemented in various countries across the globe. In 1952 Nabokov was the head of the “20th Century Paris Festival”. Two years later — head of a musical festival in Rome.

Nabokov’s destiny resembles that of Shagal. Remember, for example, the long road the artist took to return to Vitebsk, to the motherland. Will Nabokov’s music make at least a small path to native Lyubcha?

“The air smells of spring. I cannot fall asleep, sometimes somebody sobs and I hear words of a strange sad song sung by a woman. Above me are stars. The sea, boundless, unending is before me…” With these words Nikolai Nabokov ends the first part of his memoirs, which tell us about his childhood in Lyubcha, adolescence spent in Askania-Nova nature reserve. By the way, it was founded by his uncle Fridrikh Falts-Fein, who was, of course, a Novogrudok landlord. But it is another story. It was born without stars above Lyubcha.

Today in Lyubcha they are restoring an entrance tower. Land historian Karpovich is immensely glad with it.

by Nikolai Gaiba
by Ales Karlyukevich

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