Mitrofan Pyatnitsky bust and monument, Voronezh

Click on photos to enlarge.


Pardon me if I repeat myself. But there are times I think that, were it not for this blog, I would be completely and utterly ignorant. Doing the little bit of research I do for many of my posts, I have learned things I had never dreamed of. And it’s happened again today.
Most anybody who knows Russian culture has heard of the great Pyatnitsky Choir of Russian folk music. If you haven’t, you can go to YouTube and watch an entire recent concert that was put on to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Pyatnitsky’s birth. Pyatnitsky was born June 21, 1864, in the village of Alexandrovka in the Voronezh region. He died January 21, 1927, in Moscow and is buried in the Novodevichy Monastery cemetery. He was born into the family of a priest and he studied at a Russian Orthodox school. His brother went on to be a priest, while Mitrofan went, perhaps, in a different direction. He was fascinated by folk music and he became one of Russia’s great collectors of folk songs. Meanwhile, after moving to Moscow in 1897, he began working at a Moscow hospital in 1899, remaining in employ there until 1923. During World War I he found a way to combine these activities, creating a so-called “invalid choir” out of patients and nurses and hospital workers.  In 1904 he published his first book of collected songs, Twelve Russian Folk Songs. He made major song collecting expeditions in 1904, 1910, 1920 and 1925. He founded his first folk choir – the one that continues to be known as the Pyatnitsky Choir today – in 1910 or 1911; sources differ on that. It does appear to be fact that he created the choir on the basis of singers from the Voronezh and Ryazan regions, and that their first Moscow concert was held March 2, 1911. From 1921 to 1925 Pyatnitsky taught singing at the the Moscow Art Theater Third Studio, that is, the studio that Konstantin Stanislavsky gave over to Yevgeny Vakhtangov.
There, in a nutshell, you have Pyatnitsky’s basic encyclopedic biography. So now for the interesting stuff.
Pyatnitsky’s departure from the seminary as a youth was fraught with difficulties. It seems his teacher, a strict priest, not only frowned upon the young man’s interest in folklore, he forbade it. According to a detailed article on the Three Ages website, which is the source of much that follows, Mitrofan “secretly” bought a book of folk songs and spent his evenings and nights memorizing them. When his teacher found him out, he was furious. He wrote a letter to Mitrofan’s father telling the father precisely how he should go about beating his son as punishment. Mitrofan, a sensitive young man, could not bear to give his father the letter, and, from worry and anger, soon experienced a mental breakdown. It was called “brain fever” at the time. After he righted himself (because I doubt there was much help of value), he begged his father not to send him back to the seminary, and showed him the letter that he had held for months. His father, thankfully, agreed not to make him go back to school. This was in 1876 and Mitrofan was 12 years old at the time.

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At first Pyatnitsky helped his mother look after the geese around their home. Then he learned several trades. He became a metal worker and worked in the city. He worked also as a scribe, later became a bookkeeper and an “economist” – that is, someone who looked after an organization’s financial affairs. As fate would have it, he got a job doing just that at the seminary where he now worked for the priest who once had wanted him to be beaten for singing folk songs.
After seeing a traveling troupe of Italian opera singers perform in Voronezh, Mitrofan decided he wanted to sing like that, too. His boss and old nemesis tried to talk him out of it. But when he realized the young man’s talent – God love him – he helped him find a proper teacher. So successful were Mitrofan’s studies that he eventually, in 1896, was able to gain entrance to the Moscow Conservatory. This was unheard of for someone his age and background. But such was his talent. There was a hitch, however: he had to work as a financial officer for the Conservatory while matriculating. As financially unadvantageous and humiliating as this was, he agreed. It was an opportunity he could not afford to ignore.
First, however, he had another hurdle to jump. While still in Voronezh he happened to be walking by the river one day. And right before his eyes a young woman leaped in and tried to drown herself. Pyatnitsky also jumped in the water and pulled her to safety. He learned that she had fallen in love with a traveling rake, given in to him one time, and had become pregnant. The rake, of course, skipped town. Pyatnitsky, however, not only fell in love with her. He took her under his wing, giving her a place to live and providing her support and comfort. Finally, the young woman agreed to marry her benefactor. But – benefactors everywhere, take note! – Pyatnitsky’s noble behavior was not enough. When one week was left before the wedding, the rake returned and, in an echo of Alexander Ostrovsky’s great play Without a Dowry, he swept the girl off her feet again. The pair absconded, leaving Pyatnitsky devastated.
History remains mum as to the further fate of the passionate lovers, but it records much about what happened to the jilted groom. Pyatnitsky could not bring himself to go to Moscow to begin his studies, and, instead, literally hid out at his parents’ home in the country. He refused to come out of a shed and would talk to no one. He grew so weak something had to be done. He was put in a straightjacket and admitted to an insane asylum in Voronezh.
Believe it or not, it was his old nemesis again – the priest who wanted to have his father beat him – who came to his rescue. The priest arranged to have Pyatnitsky admitted to the best hospital in Moscow, a place where he was treated with dignity and good care. Straightjackets were not among the methods they used. After some two and a half years, Pyatnitsky was able to leave and rejoin the world without serious lingering difficulties.
By this time, of course, the Conservatory’s offer was long forgotten. However, Pyatnitsky, now in his mid-to-late 30s, refused to give up on his dream of becoming a singer. He would sing for free whenever he could and at one point was even able to get the great bass Fyodor Chaliapin to give him an audition. Chaliapin was so impressed that he arranged to schedule a special concert to show off Pyatnitsky’s talent. But even this worked against him. The night of the concert Pyatnitsky was struck so badly with a case of nerves that he lost his voice. That humiliation caused him to suffer still another nervous breakdown. Chaliapin, however, did not abandon the man whose talent he recognized. He visited him in the hospital and when it became possible, helped Pyatnitsky join the Moscow University Society of Natural Sciences, Anthropology and Ethnography. This was in 1903, and it, essentially, put a serious start to the great career that is summarized at the beginning of this blog.
A few words on the monument. It was erected September 17, 1988 (about a week after I arrived in Moscow to stay – although I did not know that at the time). It is located in the center of a small square that stands next to the Officer’s House on Revolution Prospect. It was created by the local sculptors Elza Pak and Ivan Dikunov, and consists of the bust and a few bronze instruments that lay leisurely on a bronze drape spilling over one end of a marble semicircle behind the bust. The leafy birch trees planted behind all of this, we are told by those who know, are intended to represent the many voices of Pyatnitsky’s choir.
One final thing. Take a look at the last two photos. Poor Pak and Dikunov surely had no idea that one day someone would open a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant right next to their monument. How could they know that Colonel Sanders himself would spend 24 hours of every day peering at the serious-faced Pyatnitsky with a grin that almost achieves ridicule. Pyatnitsky just stares straight ahead, doing his best to ignore the Colonel.

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