Nesvizh court of musical wonders
[b]Open air concerts conquered the heart of Belarusian conductor Vyacheslav Volich during his tours of European cities; he saw classical concerts by the walls of ancient fortresses, in central squares and in open pits equipped with high-tech stages[/b]Since then, he’s been passionate about performing opera outside, rather than just in the theatre building. He’s keen for Belarusian audiences to feel the unique mood which is created when history, music and nature combine. The heads of the Belarusian Opera and Ballet Theatre are supporting his initiative, so all that’s needed is an appropriate venue. Fortunately, the Radziwills’ Nesvizh Palace has newly opened after being reconstructed.
Vyacheslav Volich during his tours of European cities; he saw classical concerts by the walls of ancient fortresses, in central squares and in open pits equipped with high-tech stages
Since then, he’s been passionate about performing opera outside, rather than just in the theatre building. He’s keen for Belarusian audiences to feel the unique mood which is created when history, music and nature combine.
The heads of the Belarusian Opera and Ballet Theatre are supporting his initiative, so all that’s needed is an appropriate venue. Fortunately, the Radziwills’ Nesvizh Palace has newly opened after being reconstructed. This former residence of the most prominent Belarusian noble family is a wonderful venue for hosting cultural events. In the late 18th century, Belarusian musical and operatic art flourished in Nesvizh so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that the inner courtyard of the castle has perfect acoustics! No microphones are needed to amplify sound; it’s as if the walls of the castle were made specially to host musical parties…
Open air classical music concerts have a long history. Many years ago, the aristocracy were charmed by the French enlightenment and thought it fashionable to act like peasants, organising picnics with musical performances in the open air. Although this ‘love’ was rather vague (as there was a strict division between the classes), the Radziwills’ genteel lifestyle overspilled into the neighbouring village, where peasants often heard the flute or clavecin playing in the castle.
The 18th century nobility often kept their own musicians and liked to follow fashions in music, composing for pleasure and, of course, playing at least one musical instrument themselves. From early childhood, a young gentleman studied dancing, fencing, horse-riding and music. It’s no wonder that all parties, dinners, walks in the park, hunting, masquerades and fire-shows — the usual noble pastimes — were accompanied by music.
The Radziwills’ Palace — always full of prominent Belarusian and Polish families — surprised its guests with its diverse opera and ballet performances. The family paid highly to buy the musical scores of Puccini, Gluck, Boccherini and Pugnani from travelling merchants and even wrote regularly to Haydn, who sent his symphonies to Nesvizh. Anything which was a success in Paris or Weimar, was staged by the Radziwills just a week later.
The nobility were sometimes eccentric in their desire to impress. Karol Stanisław Radziwiłł covered his fields with salt in summer to organise sledding. Meanwhile, Michał Kleofas Ogiński transported famous Salzburg pie (which spoiled within just 8 hours of baking). Similarly, music, like dainty dishes, was considered fresh in the morning but addle in the evening, with palace composers ranked little higher than the cook or shoemaker. Nevertheless, it was prestigious to work for the Radziwills, who gave their composer a huge staff of about 60-100 people, in addition to several orchestras: military, dance, janissary (consisting of drums and whistles) and rare horn. Each instrument in the latter could produce only one sound, so the conductor had to precisely choose when each musician should blow their horn. This unique ‘live organ’ — played only by peasants — was extremely popular in Nesvizh.
Peasants were often invited to join in stage performances, with the Radziwills even setting up a musical school for peasant children. Their studies were far from easy, with one record noting peasant women singing French and Italian arias — known for their touching melodies —while wearing full folk costume. Even the most talented peasant performers hardly compared with the opera divas of the day, such as Warsaw’s Małgorzata Jasińska and Italian Anna Bermucci (whom the Radziwills invited directly from her home country).
Karol Stanisław Radziwiłł owned Nesvizh Palace in the second half of the 18th century and, sadly, had no musical talent. Alexandra, a representative of the no less famous Sapegi family, wrote in her diary that a ‘clarinet in Karol’s hands grunted like a pig’. However, his lack of musicality did not hamper Karol from conducting a delicate politcal game with Russian Empress Yekaterina II, who wished to distribute her influence via trusted Polish King Stanisław August Poniatowski. “The King lives as a king in Krakow as Radziwill does in Nesvizh,” Karol Stanisław Radziwiłł liked to say. The Radziwills’ income exceeded that of the Polish King at the time.
The Radziwills also paid much to attract the best European masters — including Italian singer, conductor and composer Albertini and Czech composer, organist and pianist Jan Ladislav Dusik. It was no problem at all for the noble family to attract the greatest German composer, Jan David Holland; before moving to Nesvizh, he headed the protestant churches of Hamburg and composed church music. He may have decided to move to Nesvizh having become tired of composing masses or because his wife persuaded him, wishing to become an opera diva in Warsaw. No one knows the exact reason but, on coming to Nesvizh, Holland stayed for 20 long years.
In his correspondence, Holland sometimes complained that the Radziwills did not always pay their agreed salary and did not meet their promised conditions. Nevertheless, the composer did not cancel his contract, so we must assume that he had fallen in love with the Belarusian landscape and atmosphere. He witnessed the division of the Rzech Pospolita (which united the lands of Poland and Belarus) and the transition of the Radziwills’ estates to ownership by the Russian Empire. The gorgeous courtyard — existing for over fifty years — disappeared in the fog of the time, while the musical scores — which had witnessed the height of Nesvizh musical art — were removed without trace…
Twenty years ago, music historian and researcher Olga Dadiomova went to Poland to search for the lost manuscripts. She could hardly have imagined that she would find a true musical treasure in the libraries of Warsaw and Krakow: scores by 18th century Nesvizh composers. The find immediately changed the established beliefs that Belarus had lacked its own elite musical culture. “Soviet society formed a clear stereotype of the nobility as parasites and oppressors, refusing to talk about the noble culture of the past. It seemed that a ‘Bermuda triangle’ existed in the centre of Europe, where all cultural trends — the Renaissance, Classicism and Baroque — passed us by,” says Ms. Dadiomova.
She returned to Belarus with copies of those valuable scores and began compiling a scientific image of musical Belarus. However, famous cultural figures of her time could hardly accept that she was in possession of rare scores which were going unperformed. Honoured Artist of Belarus and the Opera and Ballet Theatre’s Director, Victor Skorobogatov, joined composer Vladimir Baidov and playwright Sergey Kuznetsov in restoring one of the newly discovered operas — Jan David Holland’s Another’s Wealth Serves No Good. Since it had been composed for playing in the Nesvizh Palace courtyard, it had to be adapted for the large stage. Arias for orchestra instruments were composed while the plot was perfected. Lost fragments of Holland’s score were supplemented by his music from other sources while the text was translated from the then popular Polish to understandable Belarusian.
The musical head of open air opera at Nesvizh, Vyacheslav Volich, has no doubts that the piece is a foundation stone. After two centuries, the castle’s halls again ring with music by one of the Radziwills’ favourite composers. “Among our audiences, there are many local residents whose grandparents could have played on the Radziwills’ stage. They react movingly to the opera, especially when the leading character, from Nesvizh, persuades others that it’s better to live in Nesvizh than in Paris,” says Mr. Volich.
A gala concert — scheduled for the second day of the recent concert programme organised at the palace — featured many works by Belarusian composers, including arias from Vladimir Soltan’s King Stakh’s Savage Hunt, Dmitry Smolsky’s Grey Legend and 18th century opera Apollo-Law Maker by Wardocki. Symbolically, the soloists were not from France or Italy (as they were many years ago) but from Belarus — all loved and known all over the globe. Among them were talented Oksana Volkova, Yuri Gorodetsky, Anastasia Moskvina, Nina Sharubina, Stanislav Trifonov and Ilya Silchukov — all winners of various international contests. Some are now on an internship in Germany while others work with the Russian Bolshoi Theatre and other companies abroad. However, they all expressed their wish to participate in the Nesvizh project as soon as they heard of it.
Stanislav Trifonov joined Belarusian opera soloist, Tatiana Tretyak, in her Melodies of Love concert, performing romantic Italian songs and old Russian romances in the cosy town hall of Nesvizh, which is decorated with old portraits of the Radziwills and with candles. The Serenade string quartet accompanied them.
There was an impression that time had shifted. For two days, the audience was able to feel the mood of the brilliant past, nostalgically recalling pride in their native land, which is even now filled with talented and spiritual people. Their feelings are easily explained. Whatever the age, people remain faithful to a single goal: seeking to inspire people and open their souls to beauty. We continue living and creating until inspiration and fantasy are alive in every mind and soul…
By Victoria Kamendova
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