A composer’s voice emerges from the gulag

High atop the campus, with the bright lights of Center City twinkling in the distance, the rooftop lounge of Hamilton College House played host to a resurrection of art and history on Oct. 20. Oleg Timofeyev brought the hauntingly beautiful strumming of Russian seven-string guitar to a crowd of Penn faculty and students.

Timofeyev, acclaimed as the foremost expert in the United States on the traditional Russian instrument, performed his series entitled “Guitar in the Gulag,” comprised of music by the late composer Matvei Stepanovich Pavlov (1888-1963).

Pavlov, known in the artistic community as Azancheev, was a seminal figure in the development of Russian guitar and an unlucky victim of circumstance. He was imprisoned in the infamous gulag camps of the former Soviet Union for 10 years from 1941 to 1951, reportedly for telling a joke. While in the forced labor camp, Azancheev, a professional cellist and conductor, was a prodigious composer of music for the guitar, the only instrument that he had access to.

As part of the program, Timofeyev explored the human and historical element of Azancheev’s incarceration as well as the music. Between songs, Timofeyev read aloud excerpts from the letters Azancheev wrote from his internal exile.

The letters painted a portrait of a famous musician from a noble family reduced to relying on the charity of a few well-wishers for such common items as guitar strings and blank composition paper, giving the audience a chance to better comprehend the challenges the composer faced as well as the damage the gulag caused to the larger Soviet society. Azancheev’s nostalgic songs of persecution and perseverance, as performed by Timofeyev, appeared to put the audience in a pensive mood.

“In the 20th century there were not that many great composers for the guitar, even in the West,” said Timofeyev. Given such a drought, Azancheev created a brilliant legacy from the most unlikely of places, he argued. The way in which Azancheev overcame the obstacles of imprisonment for the love of art captured Timofeyev’s interest and led to his intensive study of Azancheev’s work.

Following the concert and recital, Kevin Platt, chair of Slavic Languages and Literatures, expressed his gratitude. “He is such a unique hybrid as an academic, both in intensive archival work and as an active recording artist. We were lucky to have him.”

Timofeyev was invited to perform in conjunction with the class, History of Conformity and Dissent in the Soviet Union, offered by the History and Slavic Languages departments. Platt hopes to parlay the concert’s success into a symposium on Russian musical culture in the spring.

Originally published on October 30, 2003