Friedrich Lips

Recollections on the Composer’s 60th Birthday

Alexander Shurbin began writing for the bayan when he was a student at the Gnessin Institute in the composition class of N I Peiko. At the Institute he developed a creative partnership with the bayanist G Chernichka, who premiered his first works. In practice however, his works were only played in examinations. At the time I was attending the beginners’ course and was not very enthusiastic about contemporary music. For this reason my interest in the music of Alexander Handelsmann (his surname then from his father’s line) was limited. When he had finished at the Institute, Alexander moved on to the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in Leningrad in Y G Kon’s class. A few years later we met by chance again at the Gnessin Institute and he suddenly asked me:

“Why are you not playing my music?”’

He already knew about my co-operation with Vladislav Solotaryov, through which the bayan repertoire had achieved a new quality.

“Please listen, all your pieces are written for standard bass, but nowadays you should be writing. for the melody bass instrument.”

“OK. I will write a new work immediately especially for you.”

Some time later I received a manuscript from him: Alexander Shurbin (by this time he had adopted his mother’s surname) – “Fantasy and Fugue”. It was quite an avant-garde work for the time, because for the first time in bayan playing “aleatoric” elements were introduced–improvisation by the performer himself and a choice of ordering of the written out parts of the score. While I learned the “Fantasy and Fugue” and began to play it in concerts, a desire arose in me to “reanimate” his earlier works, which in their original version were not very popular among bayan players. I made a new version for the modern melody bass bayan of the Sonata    No 1, the Suite, the Concert Diptych and the Toccata. “Diptych” and “Toccata” became part of my concert and recital repertoire

Over time Alexander Shurbin became quite well known as a composer of songs through performances by popular singers such as Irina Ponarovska. After the performance of his rock opera “Orpheus and Eurydice” in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) he became famous virtually overnight, because it was the first rock opera in the former USSR. We met once, to discuss plans for the idea that he should write a second sonata. I suggested to him that he should produce a kaleidoscope of different styles: a fragment in the style of Mozart with elements of jazz, tango etc. Soon afterwards he wrote Sonata No 2 with the sub-title “Nostalgia or Sonata quasi una… “ When I asked him why he had chosen this title he replied:

Everybody knows the sub-title of the “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven, “Sonata quasi una… “ people can think what they like. In principle the piece is about nostalgia for good old well-known rhythms.

“And how do you explain why it is a sonata? There is no theme, development second theme or reprise in the usual understanding of the conventional sonata form.”’

“But “sonata” in Italian means anything that makes a sound”, explained Schurbin unexpectedly.

Sonata No 3, which followed, was also written at my request.

“Sasha, I have the .following idea! I go,for a walk in the park, and I come across a barrel organ; somewhere there is the sound of a provincial brass band, playing out of tune; then a group of gypsies approaches… “

Shurbin writes quickly. The third sonata with the sub-title “Walk in Nveskuchny Sad” was soon completed. (Nveskuchny Sad is part of the Gorky Park for Culture and Recreation, a favourite place for folk festivals in Moscow in the I9th  and 20th centuries.)

I asked Shurbin for one other piece: for an ensemble of bayanists, all playing in unison. Our bayan orchestra at the Gnessin Institute was going on an exchange visit with the Kansas City University orchestra in the USA. It seemed to me very effective to have the bayanists sitting in a row, playing bellows tremelo and ricochet at the same time. In fact, the “Concert Burlesque” was a great success both in the USA and at home. The composer subsequently also used the music from “Burlesque” in a film called “The Forest”. In general, it should be mentioned that Alexander Schurbin, besides writing chamber and solo music, also wrote a lot of music for the theatre and cinema. During his working life he has been a very active and public person, who has been open to new ideas and has retained the happy sense of childlike naturalness and joy. I am very proud that three of his works have been dedicated to me: “Fantasy and Fugue”, Sonatas No 2 and 3. All his works for the bayan have been published in my publishing house, and both the sonatas and the “Concert Diptych” have been recorded on CD.

I am convinced that Alexander Shurbin’s concert pieces for bayan have made an important contribution to the treasure chest of the contemporary bayan repertoire.



Original in Russian. The German translation by Herbert Schiebenreif has been used to produce this English version by Barbara Harrison and Roland Williams.

Sonatas No 2 and 3 are recorded on the CD “Cinema” (Lips CD 012), available from Dr Herbert Schiebenreif, Resselgasse 2, 2620 Neunkirchen, Austria.