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30 March, 2012  ▪  Спілкувався: Roman Horbyk

Requiem for the Indifferent

Austrian composer works on a symphony about Holodomor

“What is best in music is not found in the notes” – this dictum by Gustav Mahler appears as a motto on the personal website of young Austrian composer Stephan Maria Karl.

At a meeting with a modest group of admirers and critics, he beams with friendliness and pure Viennese politeness: a sincere broad smile and “Mozart” candies for all his guests. But his eyes shine with passion when he talks about his first symphony which he started only recently.

The venue of the meeting is Kyiv, and for good reason. Karl’s debut opus magnum is a tribute to victims of the Holodomor – the symphony tells the story of one of humankind’s greatest tragedies. The premiere is scheduled for autumn 2013 in Kyiv, ahead of the 80th anniversary of the genocidal famine.

What made this young Austrian man become concerned with the historical episode to which many people, even in Ukraine, are indifferent? Karl speaks about his decision as something self-explanatory. “Like most people in Western Europe I didn’t know about the Holodomor and had never heard about it. I am ashamed that we are not aware of it and do not study it in school,” he says.

He learned about the 1932-33 tragedy from his acquaintance, historian Marie-Aude Tardivo. Tardivo was writing a thesis on the GULAG which she was not permitted to defend in her native France. So she had to do it in the Ukrainian Catholic University in L'viv. “Russians have a lot of clout in Paris,” Stephan says, laughing. “But it seems to me they are influential everywhere. So if you want to reach success, you need to jump over barriers like that.”

Stunned by his friend’s story, the composer consciously chose a difficult path to success – through one of the most hushed-up tragedies of the 20th century which is now on the margins of world history. “I am interested in topics with a humanitarian dimension. I do not want to make art for art’s sake as many contemporaries do. I want to use my talent for good causes, because the goal of an artist is not to humiliate people but lift them up,” Karl explains.

“The topic of the Holodomor captured my imagination immediately. Marie-Aude and I set up a foundation called Beauregard in Paris whose mission was to change the world for the better through art. The first project was going to be about the Holodomor, because this is an issue that requires support and coverage abroad and not only from inside of Ukraine. Then we were planning to tackle environmental issues and famine in contemporary Africa. We even had one of the most talented PR specialists in Paris who was ready to work with us.”


The concept for the project – the Holodomor symphony – emerged right away. Karl, 33, graduate of Salzburg, Munich and London music academies, received regular commissions and felt confident at the beginning of his career. However, the career of a composer truly starts, in most cases, with his or her first symphony. “When we got down to work, we met with many representatives of the Ukrainian diaspora in London and Paris. In general, everyone was impressed and convinced that the project was useful. As a result, everyone was willing to help out a bit, but no-one wanted to make a bigger commitment. So we asked UNESCO for help, because their involvement would have been ideal for the project. But they offered us nothing more than moral support.”

“We wanted to contact the authorities in Kyiv through the Ukrainian delegation to UNESCO. But [Viktor] Yanukovych was elected president soon after we made contact. I don’t know whether it was him or an ordinary clerk who shelved our letter, but we have received no reply. I think that members of the Ukrainian delegation to UNESCO were simply afraid to lose their jobs after the election.”

Finally, the participants were forced to stop the project in summer 2010. “We lost motivation, because we had met with true lethargy and stagnation. We had spent a pile of money on trips and other things and had not gained anything in return.”

It was only in November 2011 that Karl obtained, for the first time, some financial support from Ukrainian businesses. The support came only from medium-sized businesses however, as the country's oligarchs kept their distance. After the foundation fell apart, the Austrian composer was left to paddle his alone, but he did not abandon the idea of the Holodomor symphony. He says the only thing he needs now is to have some specific institution or person assume responsibility for the entire project.


Karl already has a detailed draft version of his symphony which will convey through sound the sufferings of people who were starved to death, Stalin’s maniacal obsession for power and the merciless collectivisation steamroller. “The audience will feel the same thing in their guts that famine victims did,” the composer says referring to his ambitious design.

But the focal point will be the idea of reconciliation, and the key stylistic technique will be a natural combination and flow of tonal and atonal parts. “Something like this was attempted by Schnittke,” the composer says. “But I want to do it not as a collage but as a natural succession of different parts. By employing both systems you can express any feeling and easily allegorise anything you want. This approach radically expands the arsenal of available means.”

The future symphony will consist of three large parts divided into smaller units. The composer will make some, limited, use of folk music and has familiarised himself with contemporary Ukrainian classics, particularly works on the Holodomor, such as Yevhen Stankovych’s Panakhyda za pomerlymy z holodu (A Funeral Service for the Starved to Death). But his general impression is that art in Ukraine is very old-fashioned, and music is not an exception. So he does not see a point in looking at it as a model. His symphony will be something totally original.


Karl could even be called a conservationist in art because of his well-argued attacks against modern, experimental, self-centred music which is indifferent to social problems. He could be called that if it were not for his disinclination for paths well trod, all things old-fashioned and the passion with which he speaks about the main requirement set to every artist – to break new ground in his craft. But he always sees people behind this craft, those whom it must serve.

“The Holodomor is important for the project of a future Ukraine, because all of us are products of our past,” Karl reasons. “After going through some terrible experience, such as rape, a person must reinterpret it in order to cope with it. You can repress this kind of experience, but it will lead to such issues as depression, loss of faith in people, etc. Another way is to hate the rapist for life, but his hatred will only harm the victim. Finally, there is therapy – reconciliation with the pain. Forgiveness heals. But only strong people can achieve it. So far most Ukrainians are trying to hide the tragedy of their history, ignore it or hate the Russians. Many artists who address the Holodomor are fixated on the negative. And I understand that; it is normal. But they do not offer ways to overcome this pain.”

“The more I get to know Ukraine, the more I am convinced that it needs discussion about the Holodomor. I can see this pain in young people, even when – and exactly when – they don’t want to speak about these things. This is evidence that the pain is repressed; it has not been worked on in education and life. The Holocaust is not the only mistake of the 20th century, but it is one of the biggest mistakes, and we need to learn from such tragedies. We need to fight against oppression and defend the truth rather than power or money; these are all lessons of the Holodomor,” Karl says.

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