The great Russian/Soviet tenor Sergei Lemeshev is well known in the West as "Lensky" from the main Soviet recording of Eugene Onegin (1955, with G. Vishnevskaya, E. Belov, conductor B. Khaikin). Meanwhile, for Russians, Lemeshev is much more than an operatic tenor; he is considered one of the greatest singers in Russian history, a truly national voice, like Feodor Chalyapin was for pre-revolutionary Russia.

Thirty years after Lemeshev’s death he is still loved and admired; his name gradually became a common symbol of vocal excellence—"to sing like Lemeshev" is what people say when they hear a beautiful, freely flowing voice.

On this site, a reader can (1) discover how Lemeshev, who was born to a very poor peasant family, made his impressive career at the Bolshoi, (2) learn what it was that made him the greatest star for millions of Soviet people, and (3) find out what it was like to be a famous tenor in the USSR. Also, one can read about his beliefs, his personal life and his huge army of fans.

The main part of the material comes from Lemeshev’s memoirs Put k iskusstvu (The Way to Art (1968), as well as from his articles. Initially, this site was to have been an attempt to translate several chapters from his book. However, I later chose to add many different facts and anecdotes, along with the personal reminiscences of many people who knew Lemeshev or worked with him: singers, conductors, and fans alike. I hope the result will be informative for everyone interested in the Soviet period of the Bolshoi theater.


I would like to thank Professor Edmund St. Austell, the author of the blog Great Opera Singers, for his invaluable help in translating Lemeshev’s biography to English. His profound knowledge of vocal technique and operatic styles was an inspiration to me .

I would also like to thank the many opera lovers whose interest in the history of the Bolshoi Theater encouraged me to work on this project.

Natalia Bukanova

пятница, 30 марта 2012 г.

1. Peasant childhood.

Sergei Lemeshev was born in the village of Staroye Knyazevo, some 50 kilometers from the small town of Tver.  It was a poor little village that still had no roads as late as the 1980's.  His parents, Akulina and Yakov, had married without their families' blessing.  Yakov's father Stepan was a "wealthy" peasant—who became so angry upon learning that his son had married a girl from a poorer family that he did not give the newlyweds any real estate at all.  Peasants without land automatically became farm laborers.  Only beggars were poorer and more looked down upon.
Akulina got a job from a local landlord.  Yakov was often absent, since he  travelled from one town to another, trying to earn money as an unskilled worker.  Soon Akulina gave birth to sons Nikolai and Sergei.  In his memoirs, Lemeshev described the earliest period of his childhood:
"My first impressions in life were limited to the walls of the servants' room at the local landlord's mansion, in the corner of which my mother, along with me and my elder brother—who soon died—had found a shelter.  Sometimes I was able to sneak into the landlord's rooms, where I felt as though I had  stepped into a fairy tale.  Everything enchanted me—beautiful furniture, paintings, porcelain knick-knacks, crystal, and especially a piano, that sang wonderfully when I timidly pressed its key.  But I caught hell  from my mother for those excursions and I did not dare to repeat them often.  I felt free only in the back yard. I was on particularly friendly terms with the dogs.  They  saved me from my worst enemy—an old turkey, which hated me for some reason and always tried to peck my leg.  As I usually took something for my four-legged friends (bones or crusts of bread that I had surreptitiously taken from the servants)—they ran to me as fast as they could when they saw me coming.  The turkey had to retreat, knowing that it was no match for the dogs.” 

 Vicinities of Staroye Knyazevo

At age three or four Sergei began to "sing."  Spending a lot of time alone at the servants' quarters, he stood on the window sill and "sang" lispingly about everything he saw in the back yard, for example "The-e-re go-o-es Mikha-a-alka, the coooach-man." 
"At that time my father did not live with us.  Looking for a brighter future, he went to the city to work.  He was a stevedore, loading 80-kilo bags.  He then got a job at Morozov's textile factory in Tver, and then went somewhere else.  Not having any profession, he earned little and often changed jobs in futile attempts to rise out of poverty.  He was barely able to help us.  All the difficulties of raising a family fell squarely upon the shoulders of our mother.  She looked small and frail, but was diligent and hard-working .  She got up at dawn and worked late into the night.  She cleaned the landlord's entire house and was in charge of the greenhouse and the poultry-yard.  We seldom saw our mother but always felt her care.  I don't remember her ever raising her voice to us.  Only once, for some terrible fault of mine, did she threaten to whip me, but  slid the piece of rope under the bench with her foot, and pretended that she could not find it.” 

 Reapers.The 1900's

When Sergei was five, his father converted an old barn in the village into their first home—a small log cabin with two windows and a low ceiling.  The family moved in and Akulina began to work for prosperous peasants.  Her third son, Alexei, was born at that time.  Since she worked all day long in the field, Sergei helped her to care for the baby, rocking him to sleep in the cradle or bringing him to the field to his mother.
"I started going to the field during harvest time at the age of five.  It is interesting that I don't remember any rainy weather in those years.  On the contrary, the sun burned mercilessly from dawn until dusk, and it was very hard for reapers to work in that heat.  The harvester's main tool was a sickle, and the number of sheaves—and therefore  her wages—depended upon her skill.  My mother was very skillful at reaping and always had a job at that time of year.  A lot of us, both boys and girls, gathered in the field.  Many kids brought their little brothers and sisters in homemade baby buggies.  Each buggy wheel [and the buggy was really just a wooden box on four disks, sawed from a birch-tree trunk] creaked and squeaked stridently in its own key and with  its own melody.  The field was about one and a half or two kilometers from the village.  The road was bumpy, and there were usually up to ten kids with baby buggies.  It's easy to imagine what symphonies we made!  We had fun in the field.  Babies, fed with their mothers' milk and tired from the difficult ride, fell asleep.  We began to play and run around the sheaves of rye.  Dogs, the main companions of peasant children, always took part in our games." 

 Peasant children in the field. Painting by A. Kivshenko. 1878.


No matter how hard Akulina worked in the field, she could get no rest at home. “ Like all children, we had no mercy on our mother.  As soon as she came home, tired out, we usually began to pester her for fairy-tales!  She was a good story-teller, but often fell asleep from fatigue half way through a word, and we pitilessly woke her up, demanding that she continue exactly from the same place at which she fell asleep.  We knew those fairy-tales so well that we easily corrected her when she made mistakes.”

 Fun and games continued for peasant children for three or four years,  then, at age eight or nine, they were considered adults.
Peasant life was severe, and was not essentially different from that of the 10th century.  Bad soil and ancient agricultural methods led to the permanent danger of hunger, especially for vulnerable families like Akulina and her children.  Patriarchal laws, which made it possible for Yakov's family to watch indifferently as Akulina struggled against poverty, made the situation worse.  She was only able to get help from her mother and four younger brothers, also poor, who lived in the adjacent village.  Sergei remembered his uncles fondly:  "I loved being at my grandmother's.  They were friendly, got on together very well and treated my mother with tenderness and sympathy.  I never saw them drinking vodka, and never heard swear words from them.  We did not associate with my father's family, though our log cabin stood within three meters of my grandfather's house." 

 Sergei's grandfather Stepan and his daughters Anisa and Pelageya. 1900.

If Akulina and her relatives were mild and quiet people, Yakov was a different kind of person.  Sergei remembered him as a hot-tempered man, whose wrath could scare other villagers.  He was also an excellent singer, though there were good singers on both sides of Lemeshev's family. 
"I cannot imagine my father without songs.  Maybe that's because he usually came home on holidays; people always crowded into our small hut (he had many friends)—and asked him to sing.  He always sang zestfully, with feeling, like everything else he did.  I don't remember him being calm or neutral.  His voice was sonorous and clear, and he himself was very handsome, as I now realize.  My mother called him "good for nothing," with sadness and affection.  But later, when I asked her why she had married a "good for nothing" she replied, "You know, there wasn't anyone as handsome as him.”
Yakov usually sang “troykas” (coachmen’s songs).  As Sergei wrote about his father’s singing,  "It seemed to me that my soul flew after his voice.”
Akulina was one of the best singers in the village.  She had a fine voice and sang very expressively. 
"My father's sisters also loved to sing, especially two of them.  Natasha had a powerful, clear soprano, which stood out in every chorus.  We recognized her voice from three kilometers!  The voice of the youngest sister, my aunt Anisa, had a wonderful timbre.  Anisa herself was very gentle, kind and extraordinarily shy.  When I was thirteen, she married a young man from the nearby village, but immediately after the wedding she escaped from her husband's home and came back to her parents.  She lived all her life with her older sister."  [Sergei did not write, due to the Soviet atheistic ideology, that Anisa was very religious,  along with some other relatives of his.]  “Because of her shyness, Anisa sang mostly when she was alone.  One day I was fishing and overheard her singing.  She gathered flowers and sang "Nichto v polyushke ne kolyshetsa," /"Nothing sways in the field."  Her voice was, as they say, angelic—I've never heard such a timbre again.  If the Revolution had occurred ten years earlier, Anisa would have been a famous singer."
Later, Lemeshev's younger brother Alexei developed into a dramatic tenor.  But Lemeshev's family was not exceptional.  The village of Staroye Knyazevo, like any other Russian village before the Revolution, was full of good singers.  Fyodor Chaliapin, in his book "The Man and the Mask," wrote about the great peasant culture of singing:"  You see, Russians sing from the cradle, they always sing.  At least it was so in the days of my youth.  People who suffered in the darkness of life sang the songs that were full of pain or were desperately joyful [...] Russians were obsessed by singing." 
As if to confirm Chaliapin's words, Lemeshev wrote in one of his articles, "Many musicians and singers, when speaking of themselves, often start by saying, “I was born into a musical family, my grandmother played the piano, etc.  I cannot say this about myself.  My grandmother did not even know what a piano was.  But I can say something more significant—I was born in a musical village.  In the years of my childhood, poverty and backwardness were not the only difference between villages and towns.  Villages sang.  Peasants took their singing very seriously, and it helped them to overcome troubles that occurred so very often in their lives.  Why did people sing so well then?  Could it be that they were all talented and had fine voices?  Definitely possible.  But it would be more correct to say that only those people sang who had a good voice and perfect pitch.  For example, if forty people were coming back from work in the field, only twenty or twenty five of them sang, while others listened reverently." 

Aside from singers, there were also good musicians among the peasants.  Lemeshev mentioned the shepherd Vasily, who played the horn beautifully, "Every time I hear the oboe solo from the second scene of 'Eugene Onegin,' I remember him.  He usually accompanied my father's singing, and their "performances" led to friendship.  Vasily was weak, and given to bouts of heavy drinking, but he had the soul of a poet.  Peasants forgave him almost everything for that.  Besides, perhaps because of his horn playing, animals loved him.  Sometimes, when he drank, the villagers fired him, but cows, as if to protest, gave less milk than usual, and Vasily was called back to "reign."

 A shepherd . Photo by N. Svishchov-Paola, before 1917.

Sergei began to sing consciously when he became his mother's main helper, at age ten.  A typical peasant boy's "jobs" were fishing and picking berries and mushrooms.  This required him to spend a lot of time alone and he could sing, because the patriarchal laws prohibited children from singing in the presence of adults.
  His father died in 1912.  Apparently, Yakov had sapped his strength a long time before.  In early Spring he forded the river and fell ill, presumably with tuberculosis.  He did not live to be forty, but several years before his death he had shown Sergei how to fish, which was very helpful.  Soon Sergei became such a master that he not only provided his family with fish, but sold fish to other villagers.  Aside from the small fees he received, this earned him respect and praise from his mother and neighbors.  Another job of his—picking mushrooms for his family and selling the surplus, was also profitable.  He knew every bush in the forest which sheltered mushrooms:
"I loved to pick mushrooms alone so no one could get in my way.  But there was another reason why I loved being alone in the forest:  only there, in the company of birch trees, did I dare to sing.  It's interesting that songs drew my attention when I began to understand the lyrics, and the meaning of the words.  I don't know why, but all my favorite songs were very sad.  I sang "Solov'yom zalyotnym ("Like a flying nightingale...) more than any other song.  I was so moved by the fate of its character, that I always finished the song bursting into tears .  At that time I was 10 or 11." 

All this does not mean that Lemeshev's childhood was sad.  There were many holidays in which he and the other children took part.  Weddings, along with Spring and Autumn agricultural holidays, were celebrated with songs, games and "khorovod" (a peasant round dance).  All the boys, including Sergei, dreamed about becoming an accordion player.  It was "prestigious," as accordionists were the main heroes of every holiday. 

 "Khorovod", 1902.

Another joy in children's lives, though connected with certain difficulties, were the visits of an old junkman, "Uncle" Ilia.  He traded cheap sweets and candies for old clothes and bones.  (Perhaps he collected them for making glue or paper.)  As soon as Ilia's cart appeared in the village, all the kids rushed headlong to their houses.  

"We grabbed everything that came our way:  our mothers' torn skirts, our fathers' old trousers”—and tried to trade them for sweets.  "We often caught it from our parents; in our home almost everything was suitable for Uncle Ilia!  All my clothes, along with those of my brother and my parents, could be given to a junkman without hesitation.  But I understood that our clothes, though patchy, were inviolable if we still wore them.  Finding junk got more and more difficult with every day.  However, to miss Uncle Ilia's "chariot" and not to trade anything for sweet fried sunflower seeds (we did not even dream about candies) seemed impossible." 
Knowing peasant poverty, Ilia often refused to trade, and sent the kids back home; his plans did not include a quarrel with their parents.  "Bones were the most desirable things for the junkman.  But where could I find them when we rarely ate meat?  One day, being in sheer desperation, I decided to swindle him:  I took a cloth, wrapped a piece of brick in it and, with my head bowed from embarrassment, gave it to him as a bone.  Uncle Ilia noticed the swindle immediately, but apparently my face had turned red from blushing, and this caused him to take pity on me and go on as though nothing had happened.  He tossed my wrapped brick on his cart and gave me a fistful of sunflower seeds—exactly as much as stuck between his fingers. Now, more than fifty years later, I still remember that incident with a sense of shame." 

The most pleasant of "jobs" was, perhaps, pasturing horses for the night during the harvesting season.  The Lemeshevs did not have their own horse, but Sergei willingly worked as a shepherd for richer peasants.  "First, that always made it possible for me to be among people of my own age; second, the small fees I received for my work, such as a flat cake or an egg, provided a welcome addition to my rations, because I rarely got enough to eat at home.  But material things were not the main attraction.  We used to gather at sundown, mount unharnessed horses, and lead one or two more horses on a rein.  A big piece of sackcloth, which we used at night as a bed and a blanket, served as a saddle.  Fore the pasture we chose a meadow within 2 or 3 kilometers of the village, usually near the swamp or at the edge of the forest where the grass was unsuitable for use as hay. There, fifteen or twenty boys and girls, from age 8 to 15, hobbled the horses, found a cozy place somewhere under the tree or in the bushes, and settled around the bonfire.  Then we got out our food and told funny stories or fairy tales (usually scary) while we ate.  The fairy tales were usually about witches, demons and rogues.  Scary or humorous stories were always the most successful, and there were excellent story-tellers among us.  You would shake from fear, with shivers going up and down your spine, but you could not stop listening.
We also loved fairy tales about foreign princesses and Ivan The Fool, who got half of the kingdom and a beautiful bride.  Everyone dreamed that it would happen to them. We believed in our future and made plans, which bore little resemblance to our parents' lives.  Peasant life did not attract us… Perhaps that was the reason for the vague dreams and our love of fables.  When we had heard enough of scary tings, we wrapped ourselves up in our pieces of sackcloth and fell asleep to the sounds of frogs croaking, night birds singing,  horses neighing and crunching grass with their jaws.  Now those sounds of the night seem like wonderful music to me." 
At age twelve, Sergei had already finished his education.  Three years at parish school were all the education that a peasant could receive.  At a typical parish school, children learned the Bible, reading, writing and simple arithmetic.  Usually, one teacher taught all the children, of different ages, at the same time, and lessons were  noisy . 

 At a parish school. Painting by V. Makovsky, 1883.


 Lemeshev was a clever pupil and soon the teacher began to ask him to control the younger children while she was busy with the older ones.  "Walking past our cabin, she often praised me to my mother:  "Akulina, your Sergei should be sent to town to study in gymnasium."  But that was impossible.  The family needed a worker.  In 1914, after he finished school, he began to learn shoemaking.


S. Lemeshev “Put k iskusstvu” 1968

E. Grosheva “S. Ya . Lemeshev” 1987.

V. Vasil’yev. “S. Lemeshev. Vospominan’ya, fotografyi,  dokumenty.” 1999.

 Copyright © 2012 by Natalia  A. Bukanova.  No part of this blog may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the author.

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