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Volodymyr Ivasyuk, In memoriam

 

Memory of Thy Childhood

 

Memory of Thy childhood

Is so vivid, so palpable

That I can embrace it, touch it,

As one touches the reflection of the sky

in the water.

 

Memory of Thy youth, full of singing voices,

Is so vivid, so graphic

That I can wander through it

As one strolls the city streets.

 

Memory of the innumerable talks we had

Is so vivid, so vibrant

That I soar like a skylark into the blue,

Calling Thy name.

 

Memory of that day in spring

When thou did not come home

Is so vivid, so intense

That I fall into the pit of eternity

Without any hope of Resurrection.

 

“Memory of Thee” by Mykhailo Ivasyuk
(from the collection of poems,

Elegies for the Son)

 

In my life, the songs of Volodymyr Ivasyuk have been present since my birthday. Probably something similar can be said about the people of my generation in Chernivtsi. I was born in the year Ivasyuk died.

At concerts and shows when his Chervona Ruta is performed, the audiences sing along, standing on their feet.

This March he would have been 55, and this year I’m going to turn 25 — it was twenty five years ago that the 30-year old composer left his home to die.

 

There seems to have been far too many unexpected ups and downs, twists of fate and tragic events in Volodymyr Ivasyuk’s life — starting with carelessness of a nurse in the maternity ward that had near-tragic consequences (he could have been left blind for life) down to the abrupt and rude death at the prime of life — so many such events that one gets a feeling that, unconnected as they seem to be, they developed in accordance with a plan that had been worked out by forces beyond human control.

 

Musical prodigy and medical student

Our story begins in 1949 when on March 4, a baby son was born into the family of Mykhailo and Sofiya. “My joy was darkened somewhat by two black trickles that appeared, as though burned into his skin, on both sides of his nose. It was as though our boy was crying with black tears (the nurse put the wrong medicine from an eye dropper into his eyes — O.S.). The thought that my son could have lost his eyes in black tears is so horrifying that it makes me faint,” wrote Mykhailo Ivasyuk, a writer, well-known in Bukovyna, describing the day when he brought his newly-born son and his wife home from hospital. The child, almost miraculously, did not lose his sight, but the story of what had happened shortly after his birth, told him by his parents, must have inculcated the young Volodymyr with a desire to become a doctor.

The Ivasyuk family (Volodymyr had two sisters — Halyna, two years his junior, and Oksana, who was eleven years younger) lived in the town of Kitsman which is located in the Western Ukrainian land of Bukovyna, not too far from the regional centre, Chernivtsi. Even in his young years, Volodymyr showed aptitude for painting, writing poems and for music. As early as at the age of five, he began learning to play the violin at a music school. Later, he learnt to play the piano as well.

When his family moved to the city of Chernivtsi where his father was offered a teaching job at the local university, Volodymyr who by that time had already graduated from secondary school, went to study, quite unexpectedly, at a medical institute. It is not clear why he decided to enter a medical career. It could have been in response to the pressure put on him by his parents who wanted him “to have a good profession” so that he could become “a respectable citizen.” But it could have been a move taken independently by him himself whose motivation could have been purely rebellious. He studied at the medical institute but for a short time though. Volodymyr was expelled for taking part in “an act of criminal desecration.” The “act” had taken place when Volodymyr had lived in Kitsman. He and several other young people, in whose company he spent much of his free time, overturned the plaster bust of Lenin in a park, probably accidentally rather than with “a premeditated, malicious intent to besmirch the glorious image of the leader of the proletariat.” The investigation took some time “to find all the perpetrators involved,” and when the institute was informed that one of its students had been involved in “an act of political disloyalty,” he was immediately gotten rid of. Being “a politically unreliable person” in the Soviet Union spelled trouble and could ruin all the chance of a more or less successful career.

Volodymyr was denied an entrance into any other college, and there was little left for him to do but start looking for a job. But finding one was not an easy thing to do either. At last, he was hired to work in the forge shop of a factory. The level of deafening noise was such that the future song writer could have easily lost his hearing altogether, but luckily his musical talents were noticed and he was given another job — to be the factory choir’s artistic director. Thanks to Ivasyuk’s efforts, the choir soon became one of the best in Bukovyna. In addition to the usual selection of pop and folk songs, the choir performed songs written by its conductor and director.

A year later, Volodymyr made another attempt to enroll at the medical institute, and surprisingly enough, he was not allowed to take entrance examinations, he was matriculated. He did not abandon his involvement with music. He joined the Trembita Dance and Song Ensemble at the institute and the Karpaty Ensemble at a local community centre. In both he played the violin and offered his songs to be performed. And he resumed his studies at a music school. The next five years in Chernivtsi were filled with music, romance, successes and failures.

 

Songs about love

The sun’s rising.

Its rays are dancing on the window-panes,

They are playing on the keys of the piano,

They are lingering on the backs of books,

They are looking at Thy photographs.

In the burgeoning colours of the room

Rising from semi-darkness,

Thy eyes are lit by laughter.

From Mykhailo Ivasyuk’s collection

of poems Elegies for the Son

 

Volodymyr Ivasyuk was a very attractive person and his attractiveness was both physical and spiritual — he was greatly gifted, friendly, open, outgoing, affable, so nice to be with. Even a cursory look at his photographs shows that he was a handsome man indeed — blue-eyed, with an engaging smile, he must have been irresistible. But there were not many women in his life. As a high-school student, he had a crush on Lyudmyla Shkurkina (who was to become an actress). His parents would not mind having her as a daughter-in-law. He dedicated a song to her, “I’m sixteen.” But the budding romance did not develop too far, and as a freshman of the medical institute he was infatuated with Marichka, a fellow student. He wrote an elegy, “Ave Maria,” and dedicated it to her. We also know that a song, “Myla moya” (“My sweet lady”; later, it became a hit, “Ya pidu v daleki hory,” or “I’ll go sing in the mountains”) was inspired by another girl whose name was Nina. She worked at a television station and was one of the friends with whom Volodymyr often went hiking in the Carpathians. Halyna Tarasyuk, a newspaper journalist, was said to have inspired Volodymyr for writing “Pisnya bude sered nas” (“The song we shall always sing”) and “Elegy for Halya.” There are no other women’s names that we know of. But all of them, in their recollections of Volodymyr Ivasyuk, said very similar things which were summed up by Halyna Tarasyuk, “It [knowing him] was something so pure, so gentle and nice, like blooming poppies, with no gloom or shadow.”

Ivasyuk was an ambitious person as far as his music career was concerned, and given his modesty and timidity in relations with women, he must have decided he did not have time for both women and work. Also, his meteoric rise to fame induced him to work ever more intensively which left little time for anything else. His reluctance to make his private affairs publicly known may have contributed to our lack of knowledge of his romances. His sister Halyna said of him, “Volodymyr was always loath to let anybody into the sphere of his private feelings.” There is still another thing that could have led to our knowing so little about his private life. It was not in the Ukrainian tradition to make public things private, no matter how “public” the person was; and in case with Ivasyuk, the fact that his life ended so tragically and abruptly, made him an iconic figure, cleansed of “all too human feelings and emotions.”

Maybe, it can be considered the greatest success when the works of an artiste survive him and eclipse him, putting him into the background, and the image of the real person becomes undistinguishable from the one created by his songs.

 

“We do not sell either our children or our songs.”

Always,

No matter where I go,

Which paths I choose,

I eventually come back to the light

That is radiated by Thy blue eyes.

All the paths of the world

Merge into one road

That leads me only to Thee.

“I come back to the Light of Thee” by Mykhailo Ivasyuk,

from the collection of poems Elegies for the Son

 

There is one Hutsul legend, Pro sumni i vesely spivanky (About Sad and Cheerful Songs), that Volodymyr Ivasyuk was particularly fond of. He liked retelling it and there is even a tape preserved with a recording of Ivasyuk reciting this legend. He must have thought that this, not very sophisticated story, could better explain his drive to be writing music.

“Once upon a time there lived a man with his wife. They lived in great poverty — too many children and too little land to feed them. They toiled from morning till night, but could barely keep their souls and bodies together. There was only one thing that helped them in life — their love of singing. But one day the wife died and from that day on the grieving man could sing only sad songs. Their rich neighbour paid them a visit. He puts a bag with money on a bench and says, “How many children do you have?” “Ten,” answers the poor man. “Isn’t it at least one too many for you to feed? Your field is so small that a hare will take a couple of jumps to get across. I have no children and a lot of land. I’ll give this bag full of money if you let one of your children go and live with me.” The poor man calls out to all of his children to come over, and when they come, he says, “This gentleman wants one of you to go over to his place and live there as his child. He gives a bag full of money to us if we let one of you go. Who will go with him? The one who goes will have sweets after every meal, and will sleep on a feather bed.” The children began crying, saying, “No, we don’t want to go.” “See,” says the poor man, “None of them wants to go to your place to live.” The rich man thought it over and said, “All right, then I’ll give this bag of money on condition that you don’t sing your songs. I can’t sleep because of your singing.” “All right,” said the poor man and took the money.

The rich man returned home, and in the house of the poor man, they kept silence. The silence soon became oppressive. It was getting worse and worse, and suddenly this gloom was dispelled by the voice of the youngest son who could not stand the silence any longer. He sang so well that his singing brought tears of joy to everybody’s eyes. The poor man grabs the bag with money and runs to the rich man’s house. He walks in, throws the bag on the table and says, “Sir, take this money back. I don’t sell either my children or my songs.” And ever since, songs, both cheerful and sad, never stopped to be sung in the poor man’s house. They surely keep singing them, provided, of course, they did not die of hunger.”

 

His first song, Kolyskova (Lullaby) Volodymyr Ivasyuk wrote in his teens. The lyrics were his father’s. His song, Vidlitaly zhuravli (Storks were flying away) brought him the first place at a regional contest when Ivasyuk was seventeen. In 1970 he released “Chervona Ruta” (Ruta graveolens, Red Rue), probably his biggest hit, which was followed by “Vodohray” (Fountain). Chervona Ruta was originally and publicly performed by Ivasyuk in a duet with Olena Kuznetsova, a young music teacher and a soloist of a jazz band. Olena Kuznetsova recollects: “We were to sing at an open-air gig in Teatralna Square in Chernivtsi. It was to be broadcast live within the framework of a popular TV programme. A big crowd gathered. In fact, the square was packed to capacity. We sang. The crowd was ecstatic, and we woke up the next day to find ourselves famous.”

Music critics analyzed Ivasyuk’s songs in an attempt to find what has made them so popular. And there is something in these songs that keeps them popular over the years. Ivasyuk was blazing a new trail in pop music, combining folk roots with modern rhythms. There was not a iota of falsehood in his songs, and the feelings and emotions they carried were earnest, easy to understand and share.

Ivasyuk’s fame spread fast indeed. In 1971 his “Chervona Ruta” won the Best Song of the Year award, and his “Vodohray” was the best song of the next year. Not only the best in Ukraine but in the whole of the Soviet Union, of which Ukraine was a part then. “Chervona Ruta,” sung by the Ukrainian superstar Sofiya Rotaru, became a megahit, particularly after it featured in the first Ukrainian music film Chervona Ruta, directed by Roman Oleksiv (it was practically plotless, with one song following another). Sofiya Rotaru sang Ruta in a duet with Vasyl Zinkevych. Such an overwhelming success of a song written by “an amateur composer” (by the Soviet standards, a composer, or a musician, or anyone else for that matter, without specialized or higher education to back the claim of “professionalism” was considered to be “an amateur” and as such lacked privileges that “professional” composers were entitled to; in this sense, say, The Beatles would be considered “amateurs” — tr.) caused a measure of discomfort among the bureaucrats “responsible for music.” Their primary task was to make sure that “the Soviet people” listened to music prescribed — or at least approved of — by the Soviet authorities. Rock bands, that were given a funny name of “vocal and instrumental ensembles (VIE)” found themselves under a heavy pressure and were obliged to sing “politically correct,” “patriotic” songs, and songs “glorifying friendship between the peoples of the Soviet Union.” VIEs repertories could not include more than three songs by “amateurs” and Ivasyuk was one (since most of the VIEs were “amateurs” it also meant they could not sing their own songs). To survive in such an atmosphere you had to do a lot of adjusting and compromising — which Ivasyuk hated to do.

 

Joy and Sorrow

My son’s shirt

Was thrown into venom,

And when he put it on

His name was trodden underfoot.

“Destiny” by Mykhailo Ivasyuk, from

the collection of poems Elegies for the Son

 

Ivasyuk moved to Lviv and got enrolled at the music conservatory, the composers department. Upon graduation from the medical institute, he worked as a doctor, and even joined the post-graduate courses at the Department of Pathological Physiology to work for his next degree. There were several disappointments though that distressed him.

The composer who supervised his studies at the conservatory, refused to attend a show at which the Smerichka rock band (“vocal and instrumental ensemble,” that is) played his songs. The composer’s refusal upset Ivasyuk. Even more upsetting was the failure on the part of the authorities to put his name on the list of those who contributed to the staging of a play based on the novel Praporonostsi (Standard-bearers) by Oles Honchar, a writer of a considerable prominence. Ivasyuk wrote a suite for the play at the request of the director, Serhiy Danchenko, a well-known figure in the Ukrainian theatre. The play was well received and was even nominated for the top state prize. The coveted Shevchenko prize was awarded but Ivasyuk’s name was absent from the list of those who had taken part in mounting the play. Whether it was deliberately overlooked or it happened by chance will never be known, but Ivasyuk was bypassed and never got the prize which was shared by the rest (a similar story happened a couple of years later).

To add insult to injury, Ivasyuk was told at the conservatory that he had failed in fulfilling the tasks set by the conservatory for the freshmen and would have to take all the first-year courses again. In 1976 he was expelled from the conservatory altogether “for lack of progress in studies and for failing to meet the conservatory standards.”

His lagging behind was caused by several reasons. Firstly, he devoted very much time to writing that suite for Praporonostsi. Secondly, he did have to work to earn his living, and working as a medical doctor full time did not leave much time for the conservatory studies. Thirdly, he continued to write songs and other musical pieces which also took a lot of time.

The whole thing must have been shocking to a young aspiring composer with about a hundred songs to his name. He turned to doctors for help — he suffered from fatigue, irritability, insomnia and headaches. In April 1977 he was advised to go to hospital and stay there for treatment for some time. He did, and after less than four weeks was released, in good health. He never took his illness seriously, describing it as a nervous breakdown after his expulsion from the conservatory. He produced the medical conclusion given to him at the hospital and was reinstated at the conservatory. His new teacher was Leshek Mazepa, a composer, who immediately appreciated the extraordinary talent of his pupil, and did his best to encourage him to work along the chosen lines without undue pressure.

Ivasyuk tried hard indeed, and in one year covered the programme for two, successfully passing all the exams. He continued writing songs which kept winning prizes. An album, Volodymyr Ivasyuk’s Songs Performed by Sofiya Rotaru, was an instant hit, and several of his songs were released in the United States and Canada. He received thousands of letters from fans writing from all over the country, and his tours were always unqualified success. However, as his popularity grew, the attention the Soviet secret service was paying to him, also grew. He felt it, and though there seemed to be all the reasons for him to enjoy life, to keep writing songs and bask in the admiration of friends and fans, he looked increasingly worried and anxious.

 

Flowers and Festivals

I’m told,

Take yourself in hand,

But I have no hands —

My son used to have them.

 

I’m told,

Take care of your heart.

But I have no heart —

It used to beat in the breast of my son.

 

I’m told,

Wipe your eyes.

But I don’t have eyes.

My son used to have them.

 

I don’t have anything,

I don’t recognize myself.

I’m like a shadow falling on the field

From a little cloud high above.

 

I’ve turned into a leaf,

Withered and yellow,

The lonely leaf that stays on the twig

After all the others are gone.

 

Mykhailo Ivasyuk, from the collection

of poems Elegies for the Son

 

In April 1979, Volodymyr Ivasyuk who a month earlier celebrated his thirtieth birthday, went to the town of Khmelnytsky to sit on the jury of the first All-Ukraine Pop Song Contest. Those who saw then recollected later that he looked rather concerned about something, but he was not in a bad mood. Neither was he depressed. He returned home on April 24, and his parents did not notice anything in his behaviour that might cause their concern. Later that day, there was a telephone call from the conservatory. He told his parents he’d have to go there but not more than for an hour. “And then I’ll go straight back home,” he told his mother. He never came back.

His mother waited until the next day before she turned to police. Several weeks of anxiety and hope ended on May 18 when Ivasyuk’s body was finally discovered — in a forest, not far from Lviv, hanging on a beech-tree. The feet almost touched the ground and the body had bruises and other signs of rough treatment. Ivasyuk’s parents insisted that the investigation consider the possibility of a murder. They said that for some time before their son’s death there had been many telephone calls from unknown people; there had been a fight with drunks who had attached Volodymyr a week before his death; he had been seen getting into a car shortly before his disappearance; even the numerous bruises and abrasions on his body and the very position indicated that somebody else could have been involved. But following the results of the forensic examination, the investigation had officially concluded that Volodymyr Ivasyuk had committed suicide by hanging; a severe nervous breakdown caused by the disappointment at the failure to be nominated for a prestigious prize, had led to the suicidal act.

Neither his parents, nor his friends accepted the conclusions of the investigation. They categorically denied rumours that for some time before his death Volodymyr had been talking about killing himself, or even had chosen a tree on which to hang himself. It is so hard to imagine Volodymyr would go to a beech forest that gave the name to his native land (beech is buk in Ukrainian; hence Bukovyna, the land of Beeches — tr.) to look for a tree to hang himself on — it would have been so out of character!

Among the more probable causes that led to his death, two are considered most likely — a Lviv criminal grouping wanted something from him and when he refused they killed him; and the KGB machinations that eventually resulted in his death. The Soviet secret service had kept Ivasyuk under surveillance for quite some time — he must have been regarded as a dangerous “purveyor of nationalist ideas.” His death could have been planned as a warning to those who saw in him a champion of the Ukrainian national spirit.

 

Volodymyr Ivasyuk was buried at the Lviv Lychakiv cemetery on May 22 1979. Thousands of people attended the funeral; there were speeches, orations and a sea of flowers. But the official line was to look upon Ivasyuk “as a mentally deranged suicide” and his songs were banned from the radio and television; no expression of sympathy were allowed to appear in the press; his parents were refused the permission to erect a monument at his grave. The original of the film Chervona Ruta was destroyed. The archives with the materials of the investigation into the cause of his death were opened to journalists only years later.

But no matter how hard the Soviet authorities tried to suppress the songs of Ivasyuk, they failed dismally. Most of his songs continued to be performed and now, thirty years later such hits of his as Chervona Ruta continue to be popular. There are song festivals annually held in Ukraine, at which Ivasyuk songs are performed. Two of such festivals, Chervona Ruta and International Young Singers Pop Song Festival in memoriam of Volodymyr Ivasyuk, are attended by thousands of fans — it is the best evidence that the songs of “an amateur composer” “the father of Ukrainian pop song” who will never turn 31 live on.

 

By Olesya Sandyha

Photos have been provided

by the Bukrek Publishing House

 

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