Bach in the Gulag

Pianist Jascha Nemtsov performs Zaderatsky’s ‘24 Preludes and Fugues.’

Pianist Jascha Nemtsov (photo credit: PR)
Pianist Jascha Nemtsov
(photo credit: PR)
"The story of the creation of this piece is unique, but it must be listened to not because the composer, due to his tremendous willpower, wrote it under unbearable conditions of the Gulag but because this music is just wonderful,” says pianist cum musicologist Jascha Nemtsov. On March 20, Nemtsov will present the Israeli premiere of 24 Preludes and Fugues by Vsevolod Zaderatsky (1891 – 1953).
Today, Zaderatsky is counted among the major Russian composers of the 20th century, but his name has become familiar to the wider audience only recently. As an “enemy of the people,” Zaderatsky was deleted from his country’s cultural context, and his music was neither published nor performed.
“His life story deserves to be told in an adventure novel,” says Nemtsov.
“It’s hard to understand how he managed to survive in such tumultuous and cruel times.”
Born into the family of a railroad official, Zaderatsky studied piano and became a teacher of the crown prince of the Russian Empire. He was drafted during WWI and, after the Russian Revolution of October 1917, fought the Bolsheviks as an officer of the White Guard. He was imprisoned but released and imprisoned again in 1926. In prison, he attempted to commit suicide, as everything, including his music and literary works, which he had created by the age of 35, was destroyed. He was released two years later and continued to compose music. In 1937, at the peak of Stalin’s purges, he was arrested again. His sentence of “10 years behind bars without the right of correspondence” was an official euphemism for capital punishment, which families of convicts were not aware of. However, Zaderatsky was not executed but was sent to a labor camp. He was released two years later, perhaps as the result of an appeal made by his wife.
For the rest of his life Zaderatsky, being banned from the major cities, lived in provincial centers, composing and teaching. He emerged as a talented tutor, as some of his students had good careers in the Soviet Union.
It was between 1937 and 1939 that Zaderatsky, a convict in a labor camp, created his major piece 24 Preludes and Fugues, in which he relates to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.
“He was given a pencil on condition that he would write nothing but music,” says Nemtsov in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where he is on tour performing Zaderatsky’s music. “There was no music paper, of course, so he used telegraph message blanks.”
Nemtsov goes on, “Until recently, Dmitry Shostakovich was regarded as the first Russian composer to write 24 Preludes and Fugues, but now we know that Zaderatsky was some 15 years ahead of him.”
Nemtsov, a graduate of the Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) Conservatory, has made Berlin his home since 1992. He says that he came across Zaderatsky’s musical heritage almost by chance.
“In 2009, a Berlin magazine called Eastern Europe commissioned me to write an article about composers in the Gulag. I found the name of Zaderatsky on the Internet. It turned out that his musicologist son lives in Moscow. He provided me with information about his late father, as well as his compositions. Initially I had planned to write an article, but it did not take long for me to realize that Zaderatsky was an outstanding composer,” he recounts.
As a result, Nemtsov started learning the composer’s piano pieces.
Now he performs them extensively in Germany and elsewhere and is working on a five-disk anthology.
Four disks have already been recorded.
For Nemtsov, the captivating life story and artistic heritage of Vsevolod Zaderatsky are not his first research work.
“In my first months in Germany, I was approached by a woman who organized concerts of Jewish composers who had been imprisoned in the Teresienstadt ghetto. As a newcomer seeking work, I did not have much choice. And I was happy to realize that theirs was most interesting music,” Nemtsov says.
But he became a “true musicologist,” as he puts it, when researching the story of a group of Russian Jewish composers who took upon themselves the mission of creating Professional Jewish Music.
“The group was founded in 1908 and existed until the mid-1930s, not only in Russia but also in Europe. My research led me to more than 20 archives in Russia, Israel, the US and Europe. This was almost detective work of piecing together tiny bits of information in order to recreate the entire story. For this research, I received a doctoral degree and later wrote a book,” he says.
Jascha Nemtsove will perform a concert of music by Shostakovich, Zaderatsky and Victor Ulman on March 20 at the YMCA auditorium in Jerusalem in the framework of the First International Bach Festival in Jerusalem.
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