People from all around the Soviet Union adored Vanya Kleebern, as we lovingly called him. In 1958, the 23-year young genius broke through all the ironclad rules of the Cold War, melted the hearts of the jury and the audiences, and took the top prize at the inaugural Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. I am convinced that Van's genuine love and interest in Russian culture and its people -- since 1958 and through all his life -- did much more for peace between the two great nations than any political and diplomatic efforts could ever achieve.
Cliburn’s famous recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 - which my mom owned on LP and played quite often - was my first introduction, and indoctrination, into classical music at a very young age. The way he SENSED and expressed the Russian repertoire through his fingers and through his soul touched deeply and spoke directly to so many Russian hearts. His interpretations set the golden standard for many aspiring musicians and listeners.
In the last months of his life, fighting a terminal illness, Cliburn planned his own funeral. He compiled a list of his favorite music pieces to be performed at the service. Among them were America the Beautiful, Tchaikovksy’s Our Father from Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Moscow Nights, and a little-known in the USA Russian folk song called Ducks Are Flying.
The Maestro passed in the morning hours of Wednesday, February 27th, 2013. The organizing committee got to work to prepare for the state funeral which would be broadcast nationwide.
The committee included: Tom Stoker, a longtime friend of Van and his mother, who was in charge of the choral music for the service; Archie Bailey, Executive Director of Fort Worth Chorale/ Schola Cantorum of Texas, one of the local choirs to sing at the service; Miguel H. Badoya, director of the Fort Worth Symphony; and Dr. Al Travis, the organist and a personal friend of Van. (By the way, the Broadway Baptist organ – the Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn organ - was dedicated to Van’s mother and is the largest in the Southwest.)
The service was to take place on Sunday, March 3, at Cliburn’s home church, Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, TX. In attendance would be President George W. Bush and Laura Bush, Rich Perry, Governor of Texas, Joseph W. Polisi, president of the Juilliard School, Olga Rostropovich, daughter of the late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya, and many other VIPs. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a personal statement of condolences.
As they were finalizing the program and coordinating the rehearsal schedule for orchestra and choir, the funeral organizers faced one problem: no one had any idea about that obscure song Ducks Are Flying and where to even begin looking for the score. All they had was the song’s English title as written by Van.
In an urgent effort to find the song, Archie Balley called a friend in Moscow who rushed to a local music store but couldn’t find it under the given title. The time was short and the committee had to make the final program decisions.
Enter Rebecca Krzystyniak, a Schola Cantorum singer and board member, who took the issue with the missing Russian song to heart. She suddenly remembered that a few years earlier, while at the Berkshire Choral Festival summer camp in Massachusetts, she had met a Russian native colleague (yours truly) who could possibly help out. Luckily, Rebecca saved my business card!
Around 3 pm, on Wednesday, February 27th, my phone rang with an unknown number from Texas. Something moved me to answer even though it was against my strict rules to ignore calls from strangers, especially those from out of state.
Imagine my surprise at how random life can be when, out of the blue, I heard Rebecca’s voice and her hurried introduction. As I was still struggling to remember what she looked like, Rebecca informed me that Van Cliburn died that morning. (Oh no! But this just can't get more random...). After the initial shock started setting in, I heard her asking if I could help find this Russian song he had picked out for his funeral. She said I was their last resort, nobody else knew any Russians in Fort Worth and the time was of the essence.
Of course! I would do anything in my power for Vanya Kleebern!
Have I heard of this "Ducks song"? Hmmm, the English title didn't ring a bell, however, the image of ducks is frequently featured in the Russian folklore, so I hoped we could identify it. The trick was to translate the title Ducks are Flying back to Russian correctly. There is no such song if you use direct translation. But the reversed word order (Flying are Ducks) brings us to Летят Утки, a beautiful song about saying a final goodbye to a loved one. What a perfect song for Cliburn to choose for his own farewell!
After a few quick clicks, I found the song and some good initial material online which I immediately sent to Rebecca: a PDF of simplified version for two voices and piano and a gorgeous recording of the Ducks for female voices by the Voronezh State Folk Choir:
She wrote back with disappointing news: cancel the search, sorry. The committee felt overwhelmed: the demands and logistics of the state funeral and national broadcast just three days away created enormous stress for all of them. Any risk of a less than perfect performance had to be eliminated. And since this particular song would surely require more time to prepare, it was decided to take Ducks off the list.
I got upset. Even angry. I felt so powerless: Cliburn’s wish was not being honored and there was nothing I could do. That evening I went through a full emotional roller-coaster before I finally realized something amazing...
Well, I thought to myself, they can’t sing the Ducks on Sunday in Fort Worth. But what is stopping me from singing it here, at home, in Pennsylvania? Nothing!
Deep breath... The issues in Texas no longer mattered. Vanya wanted this tune to be sung on the day of his funeral, and it will be so!!! I will sing it for him, his soul will surely hear it, and thus, his wish will be fulfilled.
Now that I could relax and think clearly, I did a more in-depth online search and uncovered a beautiful SATB arrangement of the Ducks on a public Russian language domain. I shared it with Rebecca as well -- I knew she would appreciate the find even if the song was off the program. Indescribable calmness came all over me, and I was able to completely detach from the situation. Feelings of deep gratitude flooded my heart and I fell peacefully asleep.
Part 2: Van Cliburn's Funeral Service (coming soon)
Part 3: Ducks Are Flying finds new life in America, thanks to Cliburn’s last wish (coming soon)