I was sitting with friends, John and Robert Bastady, on their breezeway bench Friday afternoon. It’s a daily checking-in ritual we have maintained through the pandemic, maintaining social distance in order to maintain social connectedness. It has worked for us, I think. All three of us need to keep our creaky social skills wired to other humans somehow.
John wondered out loud about the word “Kyiv.” In all my big-sisterly glory, I gently let him know that when we were in school half a century ago, it was spelled “Kiev,” and then pronounced it for him as we’d learned it then.
“Oh!” he brightened. “That’s like the Great Gate of Kiev!” and proceeded to look it up on his phone. YouTube cooperated and produced a magnificent symphonic recording 5 minutes long, which proceeded to bring me to tears, then sobbing. Both of us had played it in some band or orchestra sometime in high school, though at different schools in different states. It took my breath away to hear it again.
We began remembering other fragments, which his phone supported: it’s part of “Pictures at an Exhibition,” written by Mussorgsky (first name: Modest). With Kyiv so blatantly, bloodily in the news, I suddenly wanted to know much more about the music, which is majestic and exciting as only Russian composers from that period could write. Suddenly I wanted to know more about Ukraine’s history, and where that music fit in.
“Pictures,” for those of you who are interested, was written in 1874, for piano, after the death of Modest’s painter friend, Viktor Hartmann from an aneurism at only age 39. Mussorgsky was devastated. So he helped organize an exhibition of 400 of Hartmann’s paintings in St. Petersburg. Then, just a few months later, he composed the 10 pieces in “Pictures” in three weeks, including “The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital in Kiev)” as the last piece. Maurice Ravel arranged it for symphony orchestra in 1922, which has become the most well known and loved version of the suite.
The history of the gate itself is much longer and more complicated. According to WikiPedia, “modern history accepts this gateway as one of three constructed by Yaroslav the Wise, built in A.D. 1017–1024 (or 6545 by the Byzantine calendar.)” It was somehow associated with Saint Sophia Cathedral, built at the same time. It was the main gate in the fortification of Kiev/Kyiv, when the city was the capitol of Kievan Rus’. It was then called “the Golden Gate” after the Golden Gate of Constantinople. For almost 500 years it served as the city’s Triumphal Arch, a symbol of the city’s magnificence. It later became known as the Great Gate of Kiev.
In 1240, the gate was partially destroyed by Batu Khan’s Golden Horde. The gateway was used for ceremonies well into the 1700s, but it fell into ruins. In 1832, the ruins were excavated for an initial archeological survey; in 1982, the gate was completely reconstructed for Kiev’s 1,500th anniversary.
As I wandered online through the references, I became aware of my massive ignorance of this part of the world, and the fact that I had written it off as having no particular importance to me. The present war, of course, has shaken hard that ignorance and brought the fact of interrelatedness completely to the surface. I have felt repentant about it, and ordered a few books from the library, hoping to expand my knowledge.
But it was my heart that broke me open, the connection between music learned and loved 50 years ago and the current devastation of life and land under the hands of yet another madman, the kind who will always surface no matter what we do. Art—in this case, music—is the great gate between heart and mind. We must work always to keep it open.
Trudy Wischemann is a former flute player who sings and writes. You can send her your beloved melodies and memories c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.