Leonid Polovinkin

“My whole life's most passionate moments
have been filled with either exceptional happiness,
or agonizing sadness,
or incredible tranquility.
And I remembered the music I heard in a dream...
Mozart's Violin Concerto.”

L. Polovinkin

Сomposer Polovinkin's night dreams. Five dreams and five decades of the composer's life.

The first dream. First sensations…

“I was born during a journey,
on the railroad that my father was putting through.
For the rest of my life I've loved wandering.”

From L. Polovinkin’s memoirs

He lived in Vozdvizhenka. His family was wealthy, generous, hard-working. His father, Alexei Petrovich, was a well-educated person and a brilliant engineer who laid new railway lines. He was one of the designers of the Baikal Railway Line ─ a grandiose project. His mother, Anna Gerasimovna, came from a merchant family of Old Believers, she was a daughter of Gerasim Morozov. “Pray, work and study – be always clean in thought and deed”, was the slogan in which the children were brought up.

Young Lyenya Polovinkin was rather like young Mozart – both in his appearance and the life style which was defined by his many nannies and teachers. By the age of 6 he could play the violin and the piano and studied French and German – which helped him later to compose romances to original foreign poetic texts. In 1906 little Leonid composed his first music – some short piano pieces. Polovinkin's first serious work – a waltz – was composed in 1912, but was published only in 1927. It shows strong influence of Chopin and Scriabin.

A childhood reminiscence of Leonid Polovinkin: “…It was an old mansion in Vozdvizhenka. It had a garden with some benches, a lovely entrance. There was a large living room, full of mirrors and flowers, with beautiful furniture, and a piano... Guests would come, music would sound, everyone would talk. Among the frequent guests was Konstantin Stanislavsky who was also often around at the neighbour’s, Varvara Morozova, a well-known patron of arts. The whole Moscow Bohemian set might be seen there – painters, writers and poets, such as Korovin, Bryusov, Bely, Balmont, and Soloviev”. The Polovinkin-Morozov’s house was well-known in Moscow for its refined guests discussing the most topical issues of life and culture. The Polovinkins were famous for their home theatre and their love for Ostrovsky, Pushkin and Griboyedov.

A childhood reminiscence of Leonid Polovinkin: “I adored our performances, the way we rehearsed, trying to penetrate into our heroes’ souls. My favorite role was Chatsky. It seemed to me that my own character was very close to his nature – passionate, nervous, yet contemptuous towards people and the era, suffering from loneliness… That's me.”

Their house was always full of music. His mother was a wonderful musician. “We never missed a single performance or a single concert at the Conservatory”. The first entry in the young grammar-school pupil Polovinkin's diary was???: “I'm stunned by Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. How can one keep living if such music was already composed?”

At the age of 12, Leonid enrolled on the second grade of Polivanov Grammar School in Prechistenka Street – one of the most famous schools in Moscow. It was a fee-paying school, 300 roubles per year, but his parents never economized on his education. That Grammar School educated Russia's future elite – scientists, cultural and artistic figures. Among its teachers were professors of Moscow University and leading academicians – historian Gautier, philosopher Lopatin, philologist Pokrovsky. They used specially-prepared textbooks in their teaching which met the school's educational mission – educating citizens of the country “that wished to live lives worth of history”. Apart from scientific subjects, the pupils were taught how to think and reason clearly, to create and to improvise. Instead of the boring official clothes, pupils at Polivanov Grammar School had elegant uniform – black jackets, belts, coats and soft hats. They took especial care of gifted children, among which was Leonid Polovinkin. His father wrote a letter to him saying: “May God aid you in your studies at Polivanov school. I'm coming home soon, and we'll all be together in Moscow. In summer we'll sail down the Volga on a steamship or set off for Crimea. Kisses from your dad.”

Leonid was very active in his school drama group, and there were periods when he spent all his spare time there. The theatre fascinated him for the rest of his life. The pupils performed adult plays, such as “Romeo & Juliet”, “Twelfth Night” and “Henry IV”. The school pupils were taught to be individuals, to respect each other, to foster their own self-esteem and independent judgment. That was the idea behind bringing up individuals “capable of giving the society the valuable gift of their own individuality; able to work on their own initiative and solely for the sake of the good”, as the school's founder, Lev Polivanov, said. Among the school leavers were painter Alexander Golovin, poets Andrey Bely and Valery Bryusov, chess grand-master Alexander Alekhin and many other bright names. That was the community Polovinkin belonged to. His father praised him – he studied perfectly well, and as Polivanov School was the best in Russia, it was not easy to become its best pupil. Leonid's abilities were outstanding – his English, German, Latin and French were assessed very highly, while his mathematics and physics showed signs of a possible future profession. The music teacher who had taught Leonid from the age of five advises his parents to pay special attention to his unusual abilities in the subject. Music is rest for the soul. His father was strict – the boy needed a serious and worthwhile profession which would ensure a high salary. Leonid left school in 1913, and his family decided that he should continue his education by studying law at Moscow University. “You'll always have your music”, his mother comforted him, “you should learn not to take offence. Destiny offers you many choices...” Yet Polovinkin continued studying music… “Obstacles make me feel delight because I love to overcome them. Problems are my joy. My passion for learning is the guiding aspect of my character,” wrote Leonid Polovinkin.

The Second Dream. Getting adult

“I often have exactly the same dream…
It's early morning, the sun has just risen...
There's a huge mountain, and a man climbing it,
with all his might…upwards and upwards...
I feel closeness of the sun, how hot it is...
And I hear my mother's voice saying – “Don’t be afraid…”

Mum used to say: “You're a clever boy and
a brave one, you’ll manage everything.
You're a real lion – strong, proud and handsome.”

From L. Polovinkin’s memoirs

His parents chose the most profitable profession for their son – a barrister. Leonid Polovinkin studied hard at the law faculty of Moscow University and also attended lectures at the historical and linguistics faculties, but he sat at the piano in the evenings and kept dreaming of a musical career. While studying at Grammar School, he thought of art as the main purpose of his life. He wrote: “My passion for theatre and music began during my schooldays. Then, at high school, when music began to predominate in my education, I started preparation for a professional career in it. However, I met no support in either my parents or teachers for the idea of playing the piano as a career, and I began to feel they wanted me to do it as an amateur only. At my father's wish, I entered the law faculty of Moscow University – but I defended my vision of my future by preparing for Conservatory, too.”

In 1914 Leonid finally entered Conservatory, as a piano student of professor Lev Konyus. He also attended the virtuoso classes of Carl Kipp. By his sixth year Polovinkin had already joined the composition class where harmony was taught by Vasily Zolotarev, polyphony by Reinhold Gliere, musical forms by Georgy Katoir, and orchestration by Sergey Vasilenko. These were all famous professors, acknowledged experts throughout Russia's musical world. The period of his Conservatory years saw the composition of Polovinkin's first opuses – a piano sonata, a mazurka, and a piece entitled “Incidents” which found immediate popularity. In parallel with it, he studied at University, from which he graduated in 1918. His second-class diploma would have allowed him to earn a good living as a barrister – but meanwhile, things in real life were changing rapidly, a new era had come. The new Revolutionary age changed Russia's old laws, having replaced them by dictatorship of proletariat. Polovinkin's contribution to the new age was a competition entry for a Hymn for the Red Army. He began his career as a solo pianist. There remains a concert poster from 1918 ─ “21st April, Studio No 2 at MKhT. Concert with participation of the following artists…V. Pashennaya (narration); M. Kandaurova (ballet); L. Polovinkin (piano)”. Polovinkin was popular as a barrister, as a pianist, and also as a composer. Kabalevsky recalled: “The most fashionable composers of the 1920s were Mossolov and Polovinkin.”

He graduated from Moscow Conservatory with honors in 1924, and his name appeared on its Board of Distinction. Reinhold Gliere was excited and proud of his student. “Leonid is a brilliant pianist and the most interesting composer. The main thing is that he has no desire to adjust to the dictatorship of fashion.”

Polovinkin believed it was time not only for new music, but also for new ways of performing it. “Don't be afraid to connect the non-connectable.” He composed a cycle entitled “Incidents” and explained: “When people lived in Medieval castles, in the times of knightly tournaments and hymned unknown beauties, they wrote ballads. Today, in our modern industrial ages, in our cities we only have Incidents.” His “Incidents” compositions came out between 1922 and 1927 and are characterized by expressive style of emotions that reflected the actual “incidents” in his own life, in his consciousness and in his perception of the world. It is notable that Liszt’s-styled passages in the melody of his first “Incident” are emphatically veiled by strict harmony from the very beginning. The appearance of this “Liszt’s theme” in the conclusion of the first “Incident” is shown as its reflection in the distorted mirror of consciousness. The gloomy lyricism of the second “Incident” is combined with some excitement and nervousness which have nothing in common with the naive, but sincere inspiration we see in the First Sonata. The jumpy and uneven movement is characteristic of the third “Incident” where the lyricism of the middle part is sensual, with muted passion. These most intimate conflicts, as if somebody is trying to escape from a confined sense of self – are heard in the sixth “Incident”. The barely tangible shades of delicate melodies have a clear stamp of the Scriabin’s influence. The entire work is filled with a feeling of deeply intimate pathetic. “The three episodes of the seventh “Incident” ─ “Premonition”, “Action” and “Memories” – are not stylistically related to each other, and can be seen as a sort of miniature musical and psychological triptych. The structurally simplest part of the triptych ─ “Action” ─ by its motor-dynamic music counterbalances the vagueness of the “Premonitions” section,” the musicologist Georgy Polyanovsky noted.

Polovinkin becomes known in the West, too: “Polovinkin has revealed an intense influence of Prokofiev's “enlightenment”, as well as the “sprouts” of his own style – which, we may hope, will soon develop further,” wrote Leonid Sabaneyev.

From the poetry of the 1920s:

“Let us praise the twilight of freedom, brothers,
the great year of twilight.”

“I'm the tram cherry of a ghastly era,
I have no idea what my existence is for.”

Who were they? They were the poets of the era of new perception of the world, the new art, and creators of the new perception of things. Art has its own internal logic – it does not destroy things, it helps us to understand them.

“Everywhere we find insane nonsense,
Sheets of sleepy bales
They're drenching the window, clinging to the roof
Set your hair on end.
And night, like an imposter
Opens her milky eyes
Sways in a vodka jar
And asks to go back skywards.”

“I don't believe in the multiplicity of stars.
I believe in one single star.”

“I'm a truly sad individual
I'm forecasting the end of the world.
I sense the Imposter's arrival
My lyre's sound has gone dead.”

“My aim,” wrote Polovinkin, “is to be original in everything.” He demanded that his “Incidents” were played in an unusual way. “You have to wedge cigarette-box tops under the piano-strings.” Polovinkin's diary has this entry: “You have to work without paying the slightest attention to anyone or anything and become strong... What are we afraid of these days? Everything is too loud...”

Polovinkin's music was widely performed at concerts. Newspapers wrote about him, he was showered with orders. But hostile reviews appeared, too. “Polovinkin is too mushy and lyrical. Mozart, Chopin, Glinka – they could be Polovinkin's fathers!” His wise teacher and friend, Myaskovsky, offered delicate advice. “Listen, mate – be quiet and cautious. Praise can be dangerous these days... But all you should do with criticism is to recognize it.”

Polovinkin left Moscow for the beautiful scenery of the Russian south where he found the sea, cliffs and sunshine... Love and marriage… He is married to Vera Vladimirovna Bakhrushina. Polovinkin wrote to Myaskovsky: “I'm married, in love and happy. I'm here with my wife, finches, strawberries, cuckoos, and “pinkish pine-tree trunks”. I live in Tempo Di Valse, in the pulsating rhythm of happiness. I made a decision: I’ll never tell anyone about happiness, I’ll hide everything which is dear to me – otherwise, the world may scare your happiness and joy away.”

The Third Dream. Mastery

“I see a long road… It's getting dark, but I must keep going. Somehow it's hard,
I feel the bitter wind, but still keep going... and slowly I feel...
no, it’s better to say, I hear the sound of the wind, turning into music...”

From L. Polovinkin’s memoirs

The 1920s... Polovinkin is working extremely productively. His time had come. In 1923 he set up a group of composers which included Shebalin, Kryukov and Shirinsky. A year later he became the secretary of the Association of Modern Music. Their office was in Prechistenka – the same street where he used to study at school. Destiny seemed to lead him in circles. He is trying to find himself: left for a soul-searching trip to Leningrad for two years where he led the music department of the Pushkin Academic Theatre – the pre-Soviet Alexandrinsky Theatre. In Leningrad he composed music for “When the sleeper wakes up”.

Leonid Polovinkin was planning to stay in Leningrad. He was engaged in the project of setting up the Studio of Monumental Opera & Ballet Theatre, or “Mammoth”. The studio appeared in Leningrad in 1924, with the director Nikolai Vinogradov as its head. Apart from Polovinkin, the project involved Boris Asafiev and Fyodor Lopukhov. The idea was to set up a laboratory experimental theatre which would train a new generation of revolutionary actors. This was all very close to Polovinkin's own ideas – a new theatre, a new repertoire and new music. “Mammoth” was supposed to carry out the following ambitious projects – creating new “Red” opera in the “grand style”, new revolutionary ballet called “Volkhovstroy”, a drama “The city of Lenin”, and a revolutionary operetta about New Economic Policy traders, to be called “The Golden Horde”. They also decided to rework the librettos of Puccini's “Tosca” and Meyerbeer's “Les Huguenots”. The Meyerbeer’s work was to be converted into the opera “The Decembrists”, while “Tosca” found a new existence as “The Struggle for the Commune”, with its action moved to Paris of 1871. Floria Tosca became the Russian female revolutionary Zhanna Dmitrieva, while Baron Scarpia turned into General Galifé. However, none of these projects saw the light of day. Polovinkin had to return to Moscow.

Нis theatre music would have future – at the “Theatre of the Revolution” which staged “My Friend”, and at the Chamber Theatre which produced “Mashinall”. Moscow Arts Theatre II produced “The Mitka’s Kingdom”, while the MOSPS theatre staged “The West Is Worried”. At the State Theatre of Belarus they produced “Razlom” and “The Golden Key”.

On returning to Moscow, he composes prolifically – his pieces “Telescope I” and the “Electrification Foxtrot” emerged, as well as the “Dances of Riddles” suite, and a piano sonata. He also composed a lot of songs and romances to verses by Yesenin, Balmont and Blok.

It was the era of the NEP (New Economic Policy). It created both new opportunities and new needs in everyday life and in art. Shostakovich and Prokofiev announced “a new era of music”. “Our Polovinkin is a real lion. A fearless and furious defender of alternative music – of an alternative direction in art.” Composers began to show interest in mechanical sounds. “Trains, locomotives, factories, machines – they're all living beings which I love, just as others love women or horses.” Polovinkin composed his piece “Telescopes” and explained: “Telescopes are really modern things. A telescope shows you something that is not visible to the naked eye. It is a perfect device for our times.” However, “Telescopes” were not admired by everyone. One of its opponents was Mikhail Gnessin. “Why not just call it “Toilet bowls”? “Toilet bowl No 1”, “Toilet bowl No 2”, and so on...”

In 1927, Polovinkin was working for Alexander Tairov at his Chamber Theatre which was staging “Sirocco”, based on the book by the author Andrei Sobol, “The Story of the Blue Peace”. The play was set in a luxurious hotel by the Mediterranean sea where wealthy guests were trapped by the fierce sirocco winds. Thanks to Polovinkin's music, the performance was a phenomenal success. Polovinkin's innate humor and his love for the grotesque made it possible for him, as actress Alissa Koonen said, “to throw the accent onto the situations and the main characters. Sometimes the music cut in the conversation, as though underlying one particular line or another, and at other times it seemed to provoke the conversation. Although there were no particularly memorable tunes, it still managed “to talk.” Critics said that Polovinkin had masterfully used the jumpy rhythms and the means of musical parody. His music played as an important role in the show as the dramaturgy and sometimes even a more important one. Another show to Polovinkin's music was “Kukirol” (to lyrics by P. Antokolsky and dialogue by N. Erdman), but it was a flop.

That summer Polovinkin headed for Crimea, where Knipper-Chekhov’s house in Gurzuf became a gathering place for the theatrical society – his friend Lev Knipper, the actors from the Moscow Arts Theatre and Kachalov’s family. “Theatre is the best kind of refuge from the woes and worries of reality.” (from Polovinkin's diary).

The Fourth Dream. A fairy-tale

“I dreamt of a fairground carousel...
Horses rushing after each other,
bunny-rabbits, princes and princesses,
robbers, magicians...
The whole thing gets faster and faster...”

From L. Polovinkin’s memoirs

The 1930s … For ten years the composer worked at Natalya Sats’s Children's Theatre. Sats was the daughter of a famous composer and the niece of actress Natalya Rozenelle, Lunacharsky ’s wife. A young and beautiful Natalya Sats inspired him with her ideas to set up the first in the world Children's Musical Theatre. They fell in love, in a whirlwind romance. He was ten years older than her, witty and handsome – with a never-ending repertoire of puns and jokes. “What do we have in common?” Natalya Sats once asked him. “I can tell you myself. Before the revolution your father had been a very rich man who began his career as an engineering contractor. My dad, as you know, was a composer. Now things are the other way round. I'm a contractor for you, and you're my composer.”

Natalya Sats's memoirs go on. “He would arrive at the theatre like a youngster at his first date... His rehearsals were long and detailed. He said the most valuable thing for him was “to check with the orchestra what I've already heard in my head.”

The musical show “The Negro Boy and the Monkey” was meant to be a pantomime and dance show. Polovinkin became engrossed in the libretto; he sat down to compose the score with all his youthful ardor. “The music grew like the tropical forest where the action of the show was set. Our dialogue lines got additional value and volume due to Polovinkin's music, while interesting and varied rhythms prompted new colours and shades. Composers including Myaskovsky, Vasilenko, conductor Golovanov, actress Nezhdanova became permanent visitors to our theatre after that premiere,” wrote Sats.

Polovinkin said: “I thought up the main tune of the show – it's a pipe tune, with a tender melody, quiet – but it still manages to drive the darkness away…”

In addition, Polovinkin was writing music for the theatre productions, including “The Land of Eternal Ice”, “About Dzuba”, “The Robinson Crusoes of the Altai”, vaudeville called “Signs” and other variety performances…

In 1931 they went to Argentina together to the Theatre Colon, to stage Richard Strauss's “The Knight of the Rose” and Mozart's “The marriage of Figaro”. The conductor was to be Otto Klemperer – another Natalya Sats's admirer. The whole thing turned into a love triangle. Sats was warned: “Look out! Pretty women get kidnapped there!” She understood that she couldn't go there without Polovinkin. They sailed for 16 days in a luxury-class cabin. Such a strange couple caused questions from the noble public – he is in a tailcoat while she is in a modest dress. People asked him: “Who is that teenager accompanying you? Is she your niece or stenographer?”

Natalya Sats was married three times, she had a rare talent of being able to divorce her husbands quietly, without creating a scandal. Her daughter, Roksana Sats (b. in 1927), recalled: “But none of the men who she left felt bitterness – which is a rare thing in such cases. One of the most memorable impressions of my childhood was when all her men gathered around one table – Leonid Polovinkin, my father Nikolai Popov and Sergey Rozanov (her first husband). They all looked at her with admiration, and she kept helping them all with their creative work. Their romantic relationships were over, but her multifaceted nature remained unchanged.” In 1937, Natalya Sat's arrest led to a complete break-off in her relationship with Polovinkin. During her interrogation, they demanded that she put her signature to an admission incriminating Polovinkin, Prokofiev, and Koltsov. The claim was that those people were wearing masks which concealed their counter-revolutionary activities and spying. Sats was supposed to expose them, in return for which she was promised a release from imprisonment and return to her favorite theatre. However, she refused to sign. It was a time when all children in the USSR were singing a song composed by Polovinkin:

“Our nation rejoices and smiles
Our fun is lit up so gaily
All because we're so happy to live
As kids of a wonderful country,
Our childhood is happy,
Let the song ring out loud.
Thanks to Great Stalin
For the wonderful days you have given us.
Every dawn we laugh happily
Our dreams have never ever been sad.
I wish all children
Could be as happy as we are.
Each our step, our studies and our rest
Are so joyful now as they have never been before.
And it’s all because our Great Stalin
Is the best friend we, children, could only wish”.

Sats often sang a couplet from that song during the interrogation, making the investigator furious. She spent five years in a prison camp.

Yet Polovinkin managed to survive. It seemed that he had found his new self in music for children. He used to say that communication with children “made him better”. His songs “About the New-Year Tree”, “Song about the underground”, “About Natalka”, “March of Octobrists ” are in line with the music he later composed for filmed fairy-tales.

Polovinkin’s meeting with Alexander Rowe and Georgy Millyar marked a new stage in his life ─ he composed music for the fairy-tales “Vasilissa the Beautiful” and “The Humpbacked Horse”.

Polovinkin composed the opera to Pushkin’s verses “The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish”. “I'd like the music to be as exciting as Pushkin's words. It ought to be light and simple.” He also composed Piano Trios devoted to Pushkin. Among his creative works were “Magnets” (four pieces for piano), an opera “Churilo Plenkovic” (unfinished), “The Mirror” (based on Synge's play “The Hero”), “The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish”; ballets “Gypsy”, “I am weak, we are strong”; musical comedies “Sirocco” and “Even in Knitwear”, symphonic suites: a radio film “Dneprostroy” (with the playwright Afinogenov), music for films (“Marionettes”, etc). There were also his “Dances of Riddles”, “Dances of Movement”, “Dancing”; concert waltzes, overtures, four quartets, two trios (one for strings), three series of romances for voice with pianoforte, 12 songs for the Central Children's Theater, “Bird Dance”, children's song games, five sonatas (the fifth one he called “The Last”), “The Ironic Novella”, “Lyrical Dance”, 24 postludes, rhapsody and a piano concerto.

The press began openly hostile criticism of Polovinkin, blaming him for his political apathy: “This composer leaves a nasty smell behind – that of affectation, sugariness, indifference to the needs of our time. His waltzes reveal his petty-bourgeois nature... he is in terminal creative decline and decay”. Polovinkin was attacked “for his constructivist works and formalistic approach”. In 1928-1929 he was involved in composing of the ballet “Four Moscows” which was never staged. He composed the first act, “Moscow at the times of Ivan the Terrible”, while the second act ─ “Moscow in 1818” ─ was composed by A. A. Alexandrov. It was Shostakovich who composed the third act ─ “Moscow in 1919”. The fourth one ─ “Moscow in 2117” ─ was delegated to Mossolov.

Polovinkin's friend Mossolov whose compositions he often performed with his orchestra, suggested that they should fight, and wrote a letter to Stalin, while Polovinkin chose another way. It seemed to him that complete escape to the music for children would make him safe. Yet, at the same time, he says: “I'm being pushed aside”.

In 1932 another interesting thing happened. Nine new creative and production teams were formed at the Maly Opera Theatre (MALEGOT), aimed to produce a repertoire of “Soviet classics”. The leading avant-garde composers ─ Polovinkin, Popov and Deshevov ─ were also attracted to that work. Each team was supposed to work on their own theme. For example, the writer Tikhonov, the composer Knipper, the artist Dmitriev and the conductor Samosud were to “give birth” to an opera about construction work in Tajikistan. The topic of the class war was Western countries was assigned to Aseyev as a writer, Shostakovich as a composer and Rabinovich as an artist. The plot was about a Soviet citizen who goes to Germany to encounter the western way of life. The scenario is then used to produce a satire of social conflicts to be found in modern Germany. The topic of the Civil War was assigned to Polovinkin, with Kornilov as a librettist and Levin as an artist. The three of them were to rework Babel’s “Salt” for staging.

In the early 1930s Leonid Polovinkin attended a series of lectures devoted to the Renaissance, given by historian Alexei Djivelegov. Polovinkin said: “I found a solution ─ a fairy-tale, a night dream. The further we go from reality, the brighter and clearer our lives are.” His favorite story was the “The Tale of the Sleeping Tsarevna ”. She is sleeping because she is saving energy for better life. She is sleeping ─ and she is waiting. There are times when it is better just to fall asleep.

The Fifth Dream – Back to Square One

“Shadows… stray… interlace…
It's dark… the shadows start circling around…
It is a mysterious and weird dance.
It seems to be scary, even creepy,
But eventually you get used to it…
peering with curiosity into the theme and everyday life...”

From L. Polovinkin’s memoirs

The 1940s came… Polovinkin had a special gift to discover new talents. He was not afraid of competition and was not envious at all. It was he who brought young Tikhon Khrennikov, a Conservatory student no one had heard of, to the theatre. Being introduced to Sats, he did not dare to utter a word. “It was hard work to stir young Khrennikov up ─ he either blinked or closed his eyes, keeping his mouth firmly shut. I gave him Shestakov’s play to read, showed Ryndin’s layout ─ he listened while I was sharing my director’s plans with him, ─ and kept complete silence. “Alright. Are you sure you would like to compose music for our performance?”─ I asked impatiently. He muttered “yes” and disappeared. I gave Polovinkin a reproachful glance. Who did he bring?” However, Polovinkin succeeded in persuading Sats that she ought to take on that promising young man. Fifteen years later Tisha – as his fellow composers nicknamed him – would be thundering the formalists from the lectern of the Union of Composers where Stalin appointed him as a director. They banned Polovinkin's music. Another Conservatory student, Dmitry Kabalevsky, was also obliged to Polovinkin ─ he invited Kabalevsky to replace an orchestra pianist who had fallen ill.

In Moscow Polovinkin lived in the famous composers’ block of flats in Miusskaya square. His neighbor was the famous conductor Nikolai Anosov. Their apartments shared a balcony which they used to visit each other. They called it “the half-balcony with Polovinkin”. Anosov’s son studied the piano at Central Musical School. Professor Konstantin Igumnov gave him a task to learn some pieces by composer Polovinkin, entitled “Postludes”. That seemed an odd title to the boy who was more used to the title “Preludes”. Nevertheless, he liked those “Postludes” and asked “Uncle Leon” ─ the author ─ to listen to his playing. The boy got to the composer’s apartment through the “half-balcony”. Polovinkin listened to his performance, approved of it on the whole, and gave the boy a number of very exact and practical comments, having offered his fingering in some places. Polovinkin praised the young pianist and presented him with the orchestral score of Wagner’s opera “Parsifal”. It was an exquisite rare old edition printed on very thin, almost cigarette, paper. The boy was extremely delighted, as it was his ambition to become a conductor ─ he used to open the score again and again, carried away by the dream in which he was conducting the orchestra. The boy's name was… Gena Rozhdestvensky. Gennady became an outstanding conductor and remained grateful to Polovinkin for the rest of his life. Later Rozhdestvensky gave several performances of Polovinkin's work “What is Telescope II?”. Polovinkin composed four “Telescope” pieces – all orchestral fantasies, written for different orchestral groupings, but united by a particular idea – observation from a distance. For example, “Telescope II” is richly saturated with musical ideas from Latin America, themes of countries far away from us. Yet at the same time, Polovinkin's “Telescopes” reveal certain details which are not visible to the naked eye. This refers to unexpected bringing to the foreground of some polyphonic lines, building up polyphonic fragments on the basis of the material which originally did not seem to be suitable for it. In “Telescope II” Polovinkin shows himself as a true master of the orchestra, knowing all the hidden secrets of this organism.

The 1930s and 1940s. It is the period when everything personal goes away, hides itself. There is only brief, business-style correspondence. The story that shocked everyone happened to the Conservatory professor Goedike who went insane. One night he saw the people who came to arrest his neighbor, a respected scientist. The visitors were dressed entirely in black. They grabbed him, dragged him down the stairs by his legs, with his head pounding on each step – a dull, hollow sound. Goedike crouched in the corner, did not react to anyone, wept and sang from time to time: “The tune of the severed head, how would you like it?” He laughed and wept crazily…

Polovinkin stops socializing with a lot of his acquaintances. “Keeping silence is the best thing you can do these days. I spend my time in contemplation. I have just walked in the park flooded with the rays of the setting sun ─ mixed with the rain drops. You have to create your own cosmos which turns chaos into harmony.” “I bathe a lot, take showers and go for mountain walks… This is the way we, human beings, can cure ourselves from all kinds of illnesses caused by today’s nervous and moral cruelty” (from the Polovinkin’s letter, Crimea, late 1930s).

Не composes a lot, and each piece is better than the previous one. He keeps returning to the theme of “Telescopes” peering into the world we see ─ more exactly, we can see ─ or we want to see?

He composed the opera “The Hero” with Korney Chukovsky. It was based on an old Irish legend. A terrible tyrant, hated by everyone, lives in a village. Once the villagers learn that the tyrant was killed by his own son. Their initial horror gradually turns into joy. The villagers decide to save the heroic murderer and hide him from the police and the justice system. Suddenly it turns out that the tyrant is alive ─ he was just away for a short period, and his son made up the whole story. The villagers are deeply disappointed and angry ─ they bring their hero to the police station to be arrested for an attempted murder. They stigmatize the hero and hate him. “Protest can’t change anything”, Polovinkin writes to Chukovsky. “The hero has to submit ─ time for decisive actions has not come yet, and it’s doubtful whether people are ready for them.” The opera was never staged.

The war began. Leonid Polovinkin composed his “Seventh C major Symphony”. Altogether he composed nine symphonies. The third symphony was also called “Romantic” or “October Symphony” (1932), and the fourth one was called “The Red Army Symphony” (1933). During the war he composed the last four symphonies (in 1942-1944). He goes to evacuation where he starts working with the poet Josef Utkin writing songs to his lyrics. Being in evacuation, Polovinkin gets acquainted with Alexey Tolstoy and Anna Akhmatova. Lidiya Chukhovskaya wrote about one of such parties at Tolstoy’s place: “A very stupid composer called Polovinkin performed music to verses by Utkin which the author had performed previously.”

“I saw a dead girl
Flowers stood on the table,
With her eyes shut forever,
The girl seemed to be asleep.
Her dream, perhaps, was light,
She was completely tense.
As though the child was expecting something…
Just ask what she was waiting for.
She was awaiting a message
From you, comrade, at the battlefield
About the terrible and ruthless revenge
For her, innocent victims, death.”

“In a thunderstorm one has to keep not only calm, but also tender… to people…to the beloved ones… It is important to know beforehand that you are loved”
(from Polovinkin’s letters).

In 1943 the composer returned to Moscow where he took part in the contest to compose music for the “State Anthem of the Soviet Union” to the text by Mikhalkov and El-Registan. Once the war was over, he composed cello pieces, four string quartets, songs, and returned to “Telescopes”, still being fascinated by the idea of peering. His music for the film “The sun tribe” (“Bee people”) is interesting and unusual. “In some ways you could call this music an extension of the “Telescopes” idea. Peering, pondering, seeing what is there in the depths…” His music for this film won the First Prize at the World Cinema Festival of Popular and Scientific Films in 1947. He became interested in the works of Maeterlinck and mysticism. “I go further and further from the visible ─ what a wonderful way” (from Polovinkin’s letters).

Leonid Polovinkin wrote a lot of music for films: “Taimyr calls you”, “Olesya” and others. He is in demand again, he gets new offers. He happily agreed to them – at last, once again – the theatre with its delightful, magical reality. Polovinkin goes to the Drama Theatre in Herzen street and signs a contract with them. “A new fairy-tale is waiting for me…”. It was a bright February morning, the feeling of spring on its way. “The sun rays... The silvery glint of snowflakes, the sounds of drops ─ so light, so bright, so delightful… How much I love such days…”.

A short announcement in small print appeared in “The Trud” newspaper on 8 February 1948: “Today, on the way to the theatre, composer Leonid Polovinkin died suddenly.”

Leonid Polovinkin: Photo gallery

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Leonid Polovinkin: Music composer

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