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Dmytro Stepanovich Bortniansky (1751-1825)

Dmytro Stepanovich Bortniansky was born in Hlukhiv in the province of Chernihiv, Ukraine in 1751. He began his music education at the singing school in his home town. His exceptional talents were soon recognized, and at the age of seven he was sent to St. Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire, to sing with the Imperial Chapel Choir. Bortniansky possessed unique musical gifts, and he also had a beautiful soprano voice. When he was eleven, he sang his first operatic solo with the chapel choir. He also began his studies of music theory, harmony and the art of the harpsichord at this time.

The Italian master Baldassare Galuppi, director of the Imperial Chapel Choir from 1765 to 1768, devoted special attention to his talented Ukrainian singer, and began to teach him the foundations of music composition. In 1769, through the efforts of Galuppi, Bortniansky was sent to Italy to con-tinue his studies. His eleven year sojourn abroad marked the completion of his musical education and the de finitive formation of the young musician's aesthetic and artistic philosophy. In Venice, Bologna, Rome and Milan, Bortniansky steeped himself in the music, painting and ar-chitecture of Italy. His first significant large works were written in Italy, and earned him recognition and high acclaim within musical circles. Bortniansky's first opera, Creonte, was per-formed in Venice in 1776, followed by his opera Alcide two years later. In 1779, a performance of his third opera, Quinto Fablo, in the Greek theatre at Modena met with a triumphant reception.

On his return to St. Petersburg in 1779, Bortniansky was appointed Kappellmeister of the Imperial Chapel Choir. For twelve years, he served as harpsichordist and composer at the "little court" of crown prince Paul in Gatchina, near St. Petersburg. During this period, he wrote numerous instrumental compositions and works in the genre of musical theatre. These include the operas Le FĂȘte du Seigneur (1786), La Faucon (1786) and Le Fils-Rival ou Ia Moderne Stratonice (1787); a sonata for harpsichord, strings (violins) and piano; and numerous songs and romances. Even his earliest works showed evidence of Bortniansky's reawakening of the national traditions of his Ukrainian homeland. His "Kheruvyms'ka ("Song of the Cherubim", 1782) gained tremendous popularity and is considered a classic of Ukrainian music of the eighteenth century.

When Dmytro Bortniansky was appointed "Director of Vocal Music and Administrator of the Imperial Chapel" in 1796, he was a musician at the height of his creative powers. Within a short time, he brought the chapel choir to unprecedented heights. The excellence and artistry of the chapel choir under Bortniansky's direction is evidenced by the fact that in 1824, at the express wish of the composer himself, Ludwig van Beethoven's Missa Solemnis was premiered in St. Petersburg by the Imperial Chapel Choir.

Dmytro Bortniansky created an entire epoch in Ukrainian choral music. His mastery of Italian and European compositional techniques was irreproachable, but he did not merely imitate Western European examples. Instead, Bortniansky created original compositions constructed on a foundation of national Ukrainian melodic principles.

With his sacred choral concertos, Bortniansky renewed his efforts to create large, cyclical works in his own unique style - characterized by a natural simplicity, brightness and harmony, a rare melodiousness, and deep emotional expression. The French composer Hector Berlioz characterized Bortniansky's music as displaying a rare expertise in the grouping of vocal masses, and a wonderful understanding of nuance and full sounding harmony. Berlioz also marvelled at Bortniansky's incredible ease in the laying out of choral parts, and his disdain for the mere conventions employed both by his predecessors and his contemporaries especially those of the Italian school, whose student Bortniansky considered himself.

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