Sometimes we are blessed to discover an artist whose miraculous gifts touch the soul, who introduces us to undiscovered beauty and treasured memories; I can think of no finer example than Dmitri Hvorostovsky. One of the foremost interpreters of Verdi, Hvorostovsky had the uncanny knack of making even an operatic villain a fully dimensional, sympathetic character; I am thinking now of his portrayal of Count di Luna in Il Trovatore, exemplified in the aria Il balen del suo sorriso. (The Metropolitan Opera has posted on YouTube this performance from 2011.)
Yet Hvorostovsky’s talent was not limited to opera; some of his most beautiful, powerful singing was of Russian war songs. Perhaps it is inconceivable that an American singer would forge his reputation and the love of the people of his nation by singing songs of World War II in the first decade of the twenty-first century but a recital program by Hvorostovsky of new arrangements of songs from the era of “The Great Patriotic War”, Where Are You My Brothers? was given in the spring of 2003 in front of an audience of six thousand at the Kremlin Palace in Moscow, and seen on Russian Television by over ninety million viewers, an event that made him a beloved legend in Russia.
To put the difference between the American experience of World War II and Russia’s in perspective, Professor Stephen F. Cohen has written and discussed the terrible human cost of the Nazi invasion of Russia, as much of what we learn in textbooks and especially schools and popular media is false:
Most Americans today believe that “we defeated Nazi Germany,” as President Obama wrote on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, a misconception promoted by Hollywood films that portray the US landing at Normandy in June 1944 as the beginning and eventual end of the war against Hitler’s Germany. In truth, America won the war in the Pacific, against Japan, but the Soviet Union fought and destroyed Hitler’s war machine on the “Eastern Front” almost alone from 1941 to 1944, from Moscow, Kursk, and Stalingrad, and eventually to Berlin in 1945. Some 75 to 80 percent of all German casualties were suffered on the Eastern Front. By the time US and British forces landed at Normandy, Hitler had relatively few divisions available to withstand the successful invasion, many more still embattled against the Soviet Union.
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Soviet losses were almost unimaginable. More than 27 million Soviet citizens died, 60 to 70 percent of them ethnic Russians. Some 1,700 Soviet cities and towns were all but destroyed. Most families lost a close or extended member. Perhaps most tellingly, only three of every hundred boys who graduated from high school in 1941–42 returned from the war. This meant that millions of Soviet children never knew their fathers and that millions of Soviet women never married. (They were known as “Ivan’s widows,” many doomed to lonely lives in the often-harsh postwar Soviet Union.) This is an enduring part of Russia’s “holiday with tears.” This is in large measure why so many Russians, not just the Kremlin, have watched with alarm NATO creep from Germany to their country’s borders since the late 1990s; why they resent and fear Washington political claims on the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia; and why they say of NATO’s ongoing buildup in the Baltic states and Poland that “never has so much Western military power been amassed on our borders since the Nazi invasion in June 1941.” All of this history and living memory underlies Russia’s reaction to the new Cold War.
I can’t explain why I feel such a special connection to Dimitri Hvorostovsky; it’s not just that I love his singing or my late mother, who introduced me to his work, had such affection for him. Yet there was something about his warmth, the way he connected with audiences, his passion that made me feel a bond with someone I’d never personally met. I can’t put into words the sorrow I felt when I discovered he was diagnosed in 2015 with brain cancer; in fact, impulsively I reached out to the contacts on his website via email to tell them about the writings of Bill Sardi on cancer.
Hvorostovsky has also performed and recorded Russian Orthodox sacred and Russian folk songs; I played his album The Bells of Dawn: Russian Sacred and Folk Songs soon after I learned of his illness and more than ever, especially only a few short years after the death of my mother, his artistry moved me to tears.
Sporadically, I’d check for news about Hvorostovsky. But one day this year something compelled me to do a search and I found this article on line at Operawire.com: Metropolitan Opera 50th Anniversary Gala Review: Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Surprise Return Among Many Highlights in a Memorable Night. Author David Salazar wrote:
The Emotional Core of the Night
But before I do that I want to highlight possibly the most emotionally riveting moment of the entire evening. Halfway through the first half of the 5-hour gala, general manager Peter Gelb came on stage to deliver a surprise announcement – Dmitri Hvorostovsky would be singing “Cortigiani! Vil Razza!” The audience exploded with passionate applause as the baritone, who has been battling cancer for the last few years, walked onstage. He delivered the opening sections of the aria with a bitter quality, his sound pointed and shrewd. But the second half of the aria, during which Rigoletto begs for clemency showcased Hvorostovsky at his most passionate, his phrasing rising with intensity at each plea. When put into the scope of his own personal plight, this scene and choice of aria really struck an emotional chord. That was undeniably the winner of the emotional moment of the night.
A video of this performance, brilliant as always, can be seen on YouTube; his frailty, his grave illness is also all too evident; I thought after his long fought battle with cancer, it was clear he was losing. On November 22nd, Dimitri lost his battle with cancer.
One of Hvorostovsky’s most powerful, heartrending performances is of Zhuravli (Cranes); it is on the DVD Russian Songs from the War Years from the VAI label. After his diagnosis, he performed it in a memorial concert on May 2015. You can see in the faces of the audience that they are still haunted by memories of the war.
The history of the song is that the Dagestani poet Rasul Gamzatov, when visiting Hiroshima, was impressed by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and the monument to Sadako Sasaki, who folded over one thousand paper cranes, which according to Japanese legend will so grant a wish; from the encyclopedia’s article:
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The memory of paper cranes made by the girl haunted him for months and inspired him to write a poem starting with the now famous lines:
“It seems to me sometimes that our soldiers
Who were not to return from fields of gore
Did not one day lie down into our land
But turned into a skein (wedge) of white cranes…”
The poem’s publication in the journal Novy Mir caught the attention of the famous actor and singer Mark Bernes who revised the lyrics and asked Yan Frenkel to compose the music. When Frenkel first played his new song, Bernes (who was ill with lung cancer) cried because he felt that this song was about his own fate:
“There is a small empty spot in the crane wedge
Maybe it is reserved for me
One day I will join them, and from the skies
I will call on all of you whom I had left on the Earth.”
The song was recorded from the first attempt on 9 July 1969.
In many respects, my country, America, has changed beyond recognition—or I’d only ever known an illusion. Chuck Baldwin wrote in an article posted on LewRockwell.com:
A recent survey conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) revealed a chilling discovery: a majority of Americans are apparently agreeable to preemptively nuking other nations, knowing that millions of civilians would die. The theoretical nation used in the survey was Iran. And the MIT survey found that 60% of the American people would be willing to preemptively nuke Iran, knowing that 2 million civilians would be killed. (How paradoxical that I am reporting on this unnerving news on the day that we remember when Japan preemptively attacked our naval installations at Pearl Harbor in 1941.)
But he also wrote at his dismay at Americans who consider themselves to be Christian:
Moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem holds ZERO spiritual significance and ZERO political benefit. Instead, in the modern geopolitical environment, Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a deliberate incitement of war. It gives U.S. condonance and recognition to an illegal occupation force, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and it condemns Palestinian Christians and Muslims to greater persecution and oppression.
It is obvious that TRUMP WANTS WAR—and apparently so do a majority of Christian Zionists in this country. Of course, the warmongering Christian Zionists think they are all going to be “raptured” to heaven before the nuclear Armageddon that they are helping to create incinerates THEM. They are in for a very rude awakening.This new philosophy adopted by the American people—abandoning “Just War” principles—is the direct result of the combined indoctrination emanating from FOX News and, especially, from America’s evangelical pulpits.
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It seems to me that these evangelical Christians are the new Pharisees; I myself wrote about what Christ’s relationship to Rome was in God and Empire: The Writings of Ted Grimsrud. And with recent events that Baldwin described it seems that war is more likely; but Americans, unlike the Russians last century, will not be fighting against an invader; they will be the invaders.
And it also seems to me that the leaders of the new Rome—Washington, D.C.—are doing everything in their power to dehumanize Russians. Caitlin Johnstone wrote on Medium.com:
James Clapper, former head of the “17 intelligence agencies” purported to have confirmed Russia’s attempt to interfere in the US election (a thoroughly debunkedlie, by the way) has gone on record since his resignation making downright Klansman-like assertions about Russians being “genetically driven” toward nefarious behavior and subversion. This is not merely xenophobia; a position on a group’s genetic disposition toward subversion is not in any way different than saying that Jews are “genetically driven” to cheat or that black people are “genetically driven” to steal. This is outright racism, and it is coming from one of the primary intelligence architects behind the current Russiagate hysteria.
This was not some conversational accident or gaffe on Clapper’s part. Prior to his inflammatory comments on NBC News, Clapper expressed the same exact sentiment in a speech in Australia, saying, “But as far as our being intimate allies, trusting buds with the Russians that is just not going to happen. It is in their genes to be opposed, diametrically opposed to the United States and to Western democracies.” The advancement of this racist, eugenicist, Naziesque argument is a willful decision on Clapper’s part.
How can anyone with any intelligence, compassion, or knowledge of Russia and its history and culture feel that way? How can anyone who’s experienced the God given genius of Hvorostovsky think and feel like Clapper or his ilk? How is it that so many who consider themselves Christians are willing to wreak havoc and death on innocents? Do they not care the grief and suffering they will bring about are the very opposite of what God wills, that their deeds would further separate us from Him?
Amazingly, The New York Times’ obituary of Hvorostovsky was titled “Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Silver-Maned Baritone From Siberia, Dies at 55.” The truly deplorable newspaper could not bring itself to tell the truth: he is Russian. Of course he is Siberian but he is first and foremost Christian and Russian.
Human beings with gifts like Hvorostovsky’s are like lights in the great darkness; some sing into being joy, grief, suffering, and happiness; instead of dividing us, they bring us together.
At his memorial service, the recording of Hvorostovsky singing Zhuravli played. It is difficult to watch his children, wife and surviving parents in mourning; yet the service is terribly affecting. For Christians, our faith in Jesus does not mean we do not grieve, for we have been separated from our loved ones for the remainder of our days on this earth. Yet like God’s love, their love for us is eternal and sustains us and embraces us.
I write these words on the first snowfall of the season; the world outside seems bright and pure. Christmas is coming. If Jesus’s words echoing through the centuries do not change hardened hearts, am I not foolish to believe mine can make a difference? Yet I pray that those reading what I write discover Hvorostovsky and seek out the heart of Jesus’s teaching; for each of us may not be able to reach millions but we can reach one person at a time. As Edith Hamilton wrote in her introduction to Witness to the Truth, and reminds us of what we must do if we Christians are to be Jesus’s faithful servants:
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It was said of a great English scientist, “He made it easy for people to believe in goodness.” Whoever does that in any degree, through an unselfish deed or a courageous word or a compassionate thought, helps others to believe in the indestructibility of goodness; and belief in goodness makes it indestructible. This lifts up the life of every man to an overwhelming importance. All that is good in the world now is in our hands. Upon us depends the reality of God here on the earth today. We alone can give proof that He is. “No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another God dwelleth in us.”
Sometimes it seems to me each fallen soldier
That never came back home from fields of gore
In fact did never perish, as they told you,
But turned into a crane as white as snow
And ever since those days in their due season
We’ve seen them soaring high across the sky
With distant voices giving us a reason
To stand in tears and watch them flying by
A wedge of cranes is fading in the distance
So far away I can no longer see
When I run out of days of my existence
I hope those cranes will find a gap for me
That I may soar above my pain and anguish
And join their ranks as many years ago
Recalling all their names in my new language
And names of those whom I have left below
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