Happy Birthday to a Russian Poet

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Marina Tsvetaeva.

The poetry of Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), now considered one of the greatest Russian poets, was suppressed in the Soviet Union for most of the 20th century. Her husband, Sergei Efron, had served in the White Army during the Russian Revolution. The couple then lived in exile in Czechoslovakia and France.

Interviewed last summer during a visit to New York, composer Alexander Zhurbin, born in Tashkent in 1945, remembered how difficult it was to find literary works in Soviet bookstores in the early 1960s. “Mostly it was a kind of political literature, like about Lenin or Marx or whatever, and some fiction, but mostly Soviet fiction — no American, no French, no Italian,” he said.

“But Tsvetaeva was the most rarest book … And suddenly in year, I believe, 1964, they suddenly publish big folio of Tsvetaeva and it was big, big riot. You cannot buy it anywhere.” When he found a copy in a small city in Uzbekistan, “I bought it immediately and started to read. And immediately I understood that it is my poet, it is my lyrics, it is my kind of literature. I was really infatuated with Tsvetaeva.”

That infatuation eventually resulted in a three-part work for mezzo-soprano, baritone and piano, “Tsvetaeva,” which will have its American premiere on Friday, Oct. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the Embassy of France, 4101 Reservoir Road NW, presented by the Russian Chamber Art Society.

And on Tsvetaeva’s birthday, Monday, Oct. 8, Georgetown’s Bridge Street Books, 2814 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, will host a free reading of her poems — in English translation and in the original Russian — at 7:30 p.m. Among the participants will be Uli Zislin, founder of the Washington Museum of Russian Poetry and Music, and mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wor, who will perform at the Oct. 12 concert with baritone Timothy Mix and pianists Genadi Zagor and Vera Danchenko-Stern, RCAS founder and artistic director.

“Tsvetaeva,” Zhurbin’s triptych of vocal cycles, has its roots in a work for rock band, “Marina,” which he composed in the 1980s. “It was still Soviet Union. It was still Brezhnev in the Kremlin, but somehow it was a little bit easier,” he said.

A composer who works in both classical and popular genres, Zhurbin — whose “gurus” are Leonard Bernstein and Kurt Weill — had written a rock opera, “Orpheus and Eurydice” in 1975 that he called the “biggest hit in a hundred years.” A touring company performed it three times a day in some Russian cities. “I always say that even the Rolling Stones can’t do that,” he joked.

Later, after rewriting “Marina” for mezzo-soprano and piano, he composed a second cycle, “Poet.” “In Russia, they have another word called ‘poetessa,’ which means female, but she never called [herself] ‘poetessa.’ She always said, ‘I am poet,’” explained Zhurbin. “Her mentality was a man-mentality … she was very strong, very stubborn, very passionate, all this. And she was fantastical. Very unfortunate, very, very unlucky woman. All her life was terrible. She was always beggar, she was almost homeless … until her end. But God is with her. I mean, now she is a goddess.”

“Love,” the third cycle, in which the mezzo-soprano is joined by a baritone, portrays a love affair Tsvetaeva had in 1916 with poet Osip Mandelstam. After remarking, “It’s not my business with whom Tsvetaeva slept,” Zhurbin said: “But because of this romance, it was left several wonderful poems from Mandelstam and from Tsvetaeva … and I did something very, you know, unusual … Woman sings woman part and man sings man part with totally different lyrics and they sing it together. It’s kind of very strange mix … but in Russian it’s very understandable.”

Zhurbin, who has also written dozens of musicals and film scores, pointed out that two of his operas were running simultaneously in Moscow. “I’m right behind Verdi and Puccini,” he said, chuckling. He is now at work on a comic opera based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” It’s “a little bit satirical,” he said. “A little about our guy, a little about your guy.”

For details about the Oct. 12 performance of “Tsvetaeva,” visit thercas.com.

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