Vsevolod Zaderatsky and His 24 Preludes and Fugues for Piano

Magadan – for Russians the name of this port in north-eastern Siberia has a special resonance. For decades this town was the administrative centre of the regional Gulag, the so-called “Sevvostlag” (North East Camps) in one of the most inhospitable regions of Russia. Magadan also served as a transit camp for countless slave labourers during the Stalin era. They were transferred from there to the vast valley of the Kolyma River, where, under barbarous conditions, they were forced to mine gold, diamonds or uranium from the permafrost and almost all perished within a few months. It was here that my father was brought ashore from a prison ship, and it was in this town that I myself was born 25 years later.

Only a very few ever returned to the town from the Kolyma valley camps. In August 1939, when the short polar summer was already drawing to a close, there appeared in Magadan a man whose emaciated body and ragged clothing immediately marked him out as a former prisoner. In his pocket he had a document that officially certified his right to life: “This is to certify that Citizen Zaderatsky Vsevolod Petrovich was held from 17 July 1937 to 21 July 1939 in a camp in the Sevvostlag of the Commissariat for Internal Affairs, and has been released because his case has been closed.” The photograph on the certificate showed the haggard face of the 47-year-old, already looking like an old man.

In addition to this document Zaderatsky was carrying a pile of telegram forms and sheets from a narrow notepad, all covered with musical notation. This music, written down in pencil, was his own composition – 24 preludes and fugues for piano in all keys – which he had written while in the camp. His sudden release from the Gulag was a rare, fortuitous event. But it was an act of unparalleled courage and singular mental strength to create this work (the first of its kind in the 20th century) in the Gulag in 1937/38. It was written in the face of almost certain death and without any of the basic material requirements such as manuscript paper, pens, musical instruments or opportunities for performance – a phenomenon that deserves to take its place in the annals of 20th-century music.

The history of music in the last century includes many instances of the work of individual composers or even whole trends in music being suppressed. But even against this background Vsevolod Zaderatsky’s case is exceptional. There is no other known instance of a composer of his stature being so consistently politically suppressed throughout his life and being denied the opportunity to present his music to the public in any way at all. Not one of his works was published in his lifetime, and there were no performances to speak of. His physical survival under Stalinism is little short of a miracle. Many of his compositions, on the other hand, did not survive: they were either deliberately destroyed or fell victim to the dramatic circumstances of his life.

Vsevolod Zaderatsky (1891–1953) was born in Ukraine and attended the Moscow Conservatoire, studying composition (under Sergey Taneyev, among others), piano and conducting. During 1915 and 1916 he was a music teacher to the family of the Tsar and taught the heir to the throne, Alexey. The composer’s son is convinced that this episode was the key reason for the later systematic persecution of his father and his almost total exclusion from Soviet musical life. Zaderatsky spent most of his life in the Soviet Union in various places of exile, and was twice imprisoned. On his arrest in 1926 all of his manuscripts, which included not only musical compositions but also some literary works, were destroyed by the State Security organisation. He subsequently attempted to commit suicide in prison. Zaderatsky was released after two years of imprisonment. The unusually sombre mood and extremely harsh harmonic language of the two piano sonatas which he composed immediately afterwards bear witness to his psychological state at the time.

The years from 1929 to 1934 were the only period when Zaderatsky was allowed to live in Moscow again. The ban on performances of his music was not relaxed even then, but the composer was able to participate to a limited extent in the cultural life of the capital. He became a member of the Association for Contemporary Music, to which the foremost representatives of the Russian musical avant-garde belonged, among them Dmitry Shostakovich and Alexander Mosolov, who was a personal friend of his. However, this organisation was crushed by the proletarian music activists as early as 1931 and definitively banned a year later. A detailed account of Zaderatsky’s life can be found here.

The cycle of 24 preludes and fugues is the central work of Zaderatsky’s musical legacy. The first performance of the complete cycle took place in June of 2015 at the 6. International Shostakovich Days in Gohrisch, Germany. The audience (which honoured it with standing ovations of more than 400 people) and the critics unanimously estimated this concert as an extraordinary event in the German cultural life:
“The most exciting, if tragic, revelation was a cycle of preludes and fugues by Zaderatsky, performed in their entirety for the first time, by the Russian-born pianist Jascha Nemtsov. […] While much of his music was destroyed, these works miraculously made it into the hands of his son, who in the 1970s began the painstaking process of deciphering and copying them onto full-sized note paper. When Nemtsov came across the music three years ago, he at first put them to the side because of their difficulty, but eventually decided to take on the challenge. […] the works reveal a melodic invention and mastery of form that establish Zaderatsky as a major voice in 20th-century piano music. […] Nemtsov’s performance can only be described as a virtuosic feat. He brought out the individual character of each piece while maintaining immaculate technique […].” [Rebecca Schmid, “Festival reveals piano gems from a Siberian prison” in Classical Voice of North America. Journal of the Music Critics Association of North America].

My studio recording of the complete cycle was produced by the Radio Berlin Brandenburg and released as a double CD with the German label Edition Profil in January of 2016. The score was published at the same time in Moscow.