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Born to Write Heavenly Music
Maksym Berezovsky, a Ukrainian composer of the eighteenth century, is among the first Ukrainian composers to acquire wide fame. Before the mid-eighteenth century, Ukrainian composers largely remained anonymous. Hanna KUZEMSKA has undertaken to present what is known about Berezovsky’s life to the readers.
Probably the first name of a Ukrainian composer who made a worthy contribution to the development of music comes to us from the seventeenth century — the Ukrainian composer Mykola Dyletsky introduced soprano singers to church choirs and emphasized emotional expression in his compositions. Ukrainian choral music reached its peak in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the works of Maksym Berezovsky, Dmytro Bortnyansky, and Artem Vedel.
Maksym Berezovsky was a tragic figure indeed. He began his life in provincial obscurity but was fortunate enough to get a good education — and fate brought him to Saint Petersburg where he became noticed by the all powerful Prince Potyomkin and the empress herself. His talents seem to have been admired and respected to such an extent that he got sent to Italy to further his education and musical training, the first composer of the Russian Empire to be so honored. But staying in Italy and winning recognition as a remarkable composer appears to be the pinnacle of his life. He could have stayed in Italy but he chose to return to St Petersburg only to find that the mood at the court had changed and instead of admiration he was treated to indifference. The social pressures and thwarted ambitions resulted in despondency, illness and early death. Had the Romantics of the early nineteenth century used the story of his life for a novel, it would have been a novel of great expectations, of much woe and of a proud spirit that was brought down from heaven to earth to die in obscurity which he had seemed to have left behind.
Maksym S. Berezovsky was born on October 16 1745 into an impoverished Cossack family in the town of Hlukhiv which at that time had the status of the Ukrainian Hetman’s capital. Hlukhiv, as far as it is known, was the only town in Ukraine (which by that time had already been swallowed up by the swiftly growing Russian Empire with only a bit of nominal autonomy) that had a music school. Maksym must have had his primary music education in that school. The boy also sang in the choir of the local church and in the chapel of Hetman Kyryl Rozumovsky.
Little is known about the early years of Berezovsky’s life. Strange as it may seem now, the research into Berezovsky’s life was strongly discouraged both in the Russian Empire and later in the Soviet Union for a reason which now may seem implausible but is, nevertheless, true — Berezovsky was of Ukrainian descent but he was persistently called “a great Russian composer” in Russian and soviet historiography, reference and textbooks. Neither the tsarist nor the soviet regime wanted a Ukrainian to have the honor of being called “great”.
It is known that Berezovsky studied for some time at the Kyiv Mohyla Acdemy (the most prestigious educational establishment at that time not only in Ukraine but in the whole of Russian Empire) and it was during his studies that he began writing music, specializing in choral music. His talents were noticed and at the age of 14 he was taken to St Petersburg to become a singer of the court choir whose conductor and director was another Ukrainian musician — Marko Pivtoratsky (Pivtoratsky, in his turn, had studied under the Italian director Francesco Zoppis).
At the age of fifteen Berezovsky created enough excellent choral music to earn him a wide recognition (only a few of his works of that time are extent and they reveal Berezovsky’s early mastery of his craft). His singing abilities promoted him to become an opera singer but he never stopped writing music. His choral concert “Ne otverzhy mene vo vremya starosti” — “Do Not Reject Me When I’m Old,” is a choral piece that puts it among the best ever written in this genre.
It is rather exceptional that a piece of music dealing with the theme of aging and of being neglected in an old age should have been written by a person in his late teens! At the time of writing Berezovsky seems to have been doing well socially, financially and physically and yet he wrote poignant music that comes straight from the heart and seeks heavenly rather than earthly rewards.
Most of the religious music in the Russian Empire at that time was written by Italian composers and Berezovsky’s music stands out among this rather formally written music by its earnestness and heartfelt emotion. Berezovsky managed to combine in his music the Italian mastery, Byzantine sophistication and Ukrainian melodiousness and profound spirituality.
In 1769, Berezovsky was sent to Bologna, Italy, to continue his music education. He was the first composer from the Russian Empire to go to Italy to further his education and musical training. It is not known who made it possible for Berezovsky to go to Italy or provided him with financial backing.
In Bologna’s Academy, Berezovsky’s teacher was Giovanni Batiste Martini, who was known for his profound knowledge of, and adherence to Italian musical academic traditions. He did not attempt to curb music writing initiatives and aspirations of his most talented pupils, encouraging them to improve their skills as possible but not interfering with their music-writing intentions. Berezovsky must have been among Martini’s most favored students.
Martini must have found Berezovsky to be exceptionally talented and he promoted the young composer to become full academician — but to become one, Berezovsky had to take a most comprehensive examination.
He sat for an exam in May 1771 with distinguished musicians on the examination panel. As an indication of the seriousness of the exam one can mention the fact that it was W. A. Mozart who was granted, after a similar examination, the status of full academician the previous year. The fifteen-strong jury assessed the claimant’s music skills and his music-writing abilities — a piece of music that Berezovsky had written to be presented at this examination had to comply with the most stringent requirements. All the fifteen members of the examination panel who voted by secret ballot by casting white — approval, and black — rejection — balls, gave Berezovsky only white balls.
Maksym Berezovsky was honored with a marble plaque with his name carved on it. The plaque with gold lettering was fixed to the wall of the academy next to the one that bore Mozart’s name. His portrait was painted too but unfortunately it was not preserved.
In Italy, Berezovsky wrote not only choral music but also chamber music concertos, sonatas and symphonies. His music for liturgy was called “truly inspired by God.” His opera, Demofont, was staged in the opera house of Livorno. The Italian sophisticated and demanding opera-goers appreciated this musical piece for “the heavenly beauty of its melodies.” Music academies in some other countries of Europe elected Berezovsky to honorary membership.
Berezovsky could have stayed in Italy where he had been accepted as a fully-fledged composer of great talent. But Berezovsky chose to go back to St Petersburg. Whether it was nostalgia or other considerations it is impossible to say now but one of the things that could have motivated his return was his desire to establish a music academy similar to the one in Bologna. And he wanted such an academy to be founded in his native land — Ukraine.
Upon his return, Catherine II’s favorite Prince Potyomkin (1739–1791) promised Berezovsky to request the empress’ approval for having a music academy established. Potyomkin even promised to make Berezovsky director of this new academy. Even the town was chosen to host the academy — Kremenchuh.
But Berezovsky’s dream never came true. The Empress Catherine II was not an admirer of Ukraine — the other way round, she was responsible for doing away with the last vestiges of Ukraine’s autonomy and it was not in her interests to promote culture in Ukraine.
The failure to have a music academy established marked the beginning of hard times for Berezovsky. The Italian-trained composer did not seem to be wanted at the court any longer. There must have been some people who envied Berezovsky’s talent and his skills and they could have contributed to Berezovsky’s fall from grace. He failed to get any official post in St Petersburg; all he was granted was a place of a singer of the court choir — but he was not put on the payroll. His works were not performed either. His descent into poverty and obscurity was rather swift and damaging to his ego. In spite of his speedily worsening financial situation, he never stopped writing music.
There was a lot of sadness and pain and anguish that he put into his creations which, in spite of that, retained heavenly beauty, elegance and perfection. And there was no hopelessness in it either — its high spirituality always came first and above the earthly woes.
There seems to have been no one to whom he could go for encouragement and support. He must have wanted to return to Ukraine but even that was denied him. His music throbbed with longing. His music must have been inspired by his memories of Ukraine and of his early success in life. His Ukrainianness that he had never discarded must have complicated Berezovsky’s position still further. He was stunned when he learnt that the Ukrainian Cossacks’ Zaporizka Sich was disbanded by the imperial decree. It must have been the last straw — he succumbed to grave illness.
Illness, depression and lack of prospects for a better future must have combined to make a desperate decision — the composer took his own life. He cut his throat on March 22 1777 in a fit of despair. There were rumors that he was actually murdered. The empress was said to have ordered all the papers that were found in his room to be burned. And among the papers, of course, were his never performed musical works.
Maksym Berezovsky was only 32 when he died — and he died destitute. He left no money even to pay for his funeral. As a suicide, he could not be given a proper Christian funeral service either. N
Art School in Hlukhiv named after Berezovsky.
Monument to Maksym Berezovsky, erected in 1995,
Choir singing works of religious choral music