A Symphony for Solo Piano: My Transcription of Virko Baley's Symphony no. 1 "Sacred Monuments"
In 2012, I began my teaching career at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and at that time I met the Distinguished Professor of Composition, the Ukrainian-American composer, Virko Baley. We immediately became friends and frequent collaborators when he convinced me to learn, perform, and record a number of works by relatively unknown but important Ukrainian composers; Lyatoshynsky, Silvestrov, Hrabovsky, Bibik, Kosenko, and others. In 2014, Virko asked if I would be interested in making a piano transcription of the third movement of his Symphony no. 1. I agreed and finished the first version later that year. I performed it often and it became a kind of warhorse of mine. After one such performance, Virko’s close friend (also a composer) suggested that I make a transcription of the entire symphony which, frankly, seemed impossible to me (and to Virko). However, I toyed around with the idea over the next several years, eventually finding the audacity to do it. It was not until the Fall of 2018 that I decided, definitively, to make a transcription of the complete work - a massive, hour-long Symphony for Solo Piano. I gave the world premiere in June 2019 at the University of Silesia in Cieczyn, Poland and the U.S. premiere in July 2019 at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.
In general, I do not like to give away too much information about a new work, preferring instead to let the audience hear the piece with fresh ears. However, I do think that given the complexity of this work, a few words regarding its programmatic elements can be quite helpful for new listeners.
Symphony no. 1, Sacred Monuments was an attempt to create a kind of Ukrainian national symphony. The “sacred monuments” refers to four influential Ukrainian composers of the past, composers that were very important to Virko’s development as a composer. The second movement was composed in 1985, and the other three movements were composed from 1997-99. It instrumentation includes strings, woodwinds, brass, harp, two pianos, celeste, harpsichord, and two percussionists.
The first movement’s title The Hour of the Wolf comes from Scandinavian mythology (as well as Ingmar Bergman’s film of the same title) and illustrates the moments between midnight and dawn, which, as legend puts it, is the time “when nightmares are most palpable...when ghosts and demons hold sway.” This piece is a reliving of the final, tragic hours of the life of the composer, Maksym Berezovsky (1745-1777), who committed suicide at the age of 32. Fragments of his Chorale Concerto no. 3, based on Psalm 71 “Do Not Reject Me in My Old Age,” appear throughout the piece. The movement begins with an oboe solo, symbolizing loneliness, before the solo line becomes increasingly agitated and contrapuntal, eventually leading to dance-like section that becomes frenzied, reflecting on the mental stress that Berezovsky must have endured. The dance-like section erupts in a climax and is immediately answered by the Treny. The term treny comes from the Renaissance Polish poet, Jan Kochanowski (1530-84) who composed a series of poems as a lament for the death of his daughter. In the same way, this moment is a passionate lament for Berezovsky. Following the Treny is the Parastas, an ancient orthodox memorial for the dead. This moment is less passionate, but more mysterious and beautiful; a series of simple, distant-sounding chords that somehow appear to come from antiquity. The Parastas leads directly into the Persona, literally the personality of Berezovsky himself. This section features a cello melody wandering somewhat aimlessly, accompanied by two voices in the upper register. The effect of the persona is extraordinary and original; the music’s pace becomes increasing exhausted, showing the gradual loss of reality. An unexpected scherzino appears briefly, the spontaneous remembrance of his childhood, just before the persona stops entirely and time stands still. The moment of self-execution occurs after this grand pause and it is quite shocking, even when the listener is anticipating it. All in all, The Hour of the Wolf presents a harrowing view of the fragility of the human mind.
The second movement, Duma, a Soliloquy is an homage to Artem Vedel (1770-1808), who had an equally tragic life story. Vedel, like Berezovsky, was a talented composer of choral music, but was arrested for protesting serfdom and placed in an asylum for the insane and invalid. He stayed there for nine years and died shortly after his release. His was a life full of potential, but taken away unjustly; a victim of Czarist persecution. This movement, like The Hour of the Wolf, is a kind of nightmare. It does not follow a typical, symphonic form, but instead utilizes a stream-of-consciousness form. The piece exemplifies a series of frightening characters and surreal images that may have little to do with each other on the surface, but nevertheless, grow out of each other in an organic manner to form a large musical arc. Towards the end of the movement, a Trembita occurs; a funereal call well known in the Carpathian Mountain region. Acting like messengers of death, two horn players play into the mountains, allowing the mournful sounds to become distorted with the echo effects. This section makes a brief reference to Myroslav Skoryk’s Concerto for Orchestra “Carpathian,” another work which uses this effect. Following the Trembita, is another Treny, containing a very small quote from Vedel’s Chorale Concerto no. 3, based on Psalm 13 “How Long, O Lord, Wilt Thou Quite Forget Me?” and concludes with a few short “Amen” cadences. It is one of the few moments of relief in a chaotic atmosphere; a triumph of spirituality over disorder.
The third movement, Agnus Dei, is an homage to the very successful composer, Dmytro Bortniansky (1751-1825). Unlike Berezovsky and Vedel, Bortniansky enjoyed fame and a long life. He directed one of the best choral ensembles in Europe, the Imperial Chapel Choir in St. Petersburg, which was selected by Beethoven to perform the premiere of his Missa Solemnis. As a composer, Bortniansky was admired by Berlioz, for his striking originality and skill in the laying out of the choral parts. Large sections of his Choral Concerto no. 15 “Come, O People, Let Us Praise” can be heard within Agnus Dei. The overall mood, despite the minor key, is joyous and celebratory, and it is also the only movement of the symphony which follows an expected symphonic form, Scherzo-Trio-Scherzo-Coda. Although the movement is long, complex, and full of themes and quotes, the form is quite clear, even on the first listening. In addition to the quotes from Bortniansky, there is also a quote at the end of the movement from Bach’s Cantata no. 4 “Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death.” This cantata is centered on the story of Easter, the idea that Christ died for the remission of sins. This duality is often reflected in Agnus Dei through its contrasting major and minor key themes, representing tragedy and peacefulness. It is, in short, both a reflection of death as much as it is a celebration of life- a very Slavic mindset that is without contradiction.
The fourth movement, Postludium, departs from the traditional symphonic finale. It is not a finale at all, but rather a coda to the first three movements. It is deeply nostalgic, meditative, and even philosophical, always looking backwards rather than forwards, even though it is mostly composed of new musical material. The composer to which this movement is dedicated is Boris Lyatoshynsky (1895-1968), who is often credited as one of the pioneers of modernism in Ukraine. He was also the teacher of two important living composers, Valentin Silvestrov and Leonid Hrabovsky, both of whom are close friends with Virko. The first three chords of Postludium are taken from Lyatoshynsky’s 3rd symphony, but beyond that, there is very little that directly corresponds to his works. Instead, this movement acts simply as a memorial to him. The piece does, however, share some general characteristics with Boulez’s Rituel and Strauss’s Metamorphoses. In both of those works, Boulez and Strauss forgo coloristic effects and embellishments in favor of raw, direct expression. Postludium too, favors straightforward emotion while lacking artifice. Overall, it is slow, calm, reflective and, therefore, a perfect balance to the activity and restlessness of the first three movements. Postludium is a satisfying and necessary conclusion given the epic scale of the symphony as a whole.
Studying and transcribing this large work was time-consuming, but it was always a labor of love for me. I believe it is a work of the highest artistic excellence and an expressive reflection of our time. For me, it is not just a symphony, but also a kind of sacred cantata, dramatic opera, and historical archive all wrapped into one. I hope you enjoy this piece as much as I had in preparing it.