Levon Bohemyan

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Levon Bohemyan or Bohemian (Armenian: Լևոն Բոհէմյան; Russian: Лев Иванович Богемян) (September 17, 1887 – March 18, 1939) was an obscured Armenian-American composer and pianist, claimed by some to be one of the finest pianists ever lived. His works are representative of the Armenian bloom of Romanticism in music. His main influences, Musorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, together with a strong Armenian nationalism and a keen ear for the traditional music of his fatherland, gave Bohemyan his very distinctive idiom.

The piano figures conspicuously in Bohemyan’s compositional output, usually as a solo instrument but sometimes also as part of an ensemble. His orchestral works, most of them orchestrated in a highly uncoventional way, are supposed to have a hypnotic effect on the audiences due to the use of the kemenche (a string instrument prominently featured in Armenian music, which is normally not included in a symphony orchestra).

Perhaps it is because of the nationalistic idiom that Bohemyan’s music has not been widely appreciated outside the Armenian people. Nevertheless, some of the most important Soviet composers, most notably Dmitri Shostakovich, have admitted to have been influenced by Bohemyan and his heretic orchestrations.

edit Early Life

Levon Bohemyan was born in Gyumri, son to the seamstress Vardouhi Danielyan and Hovhannes Bohemyan, a well known juggler of the time, and one of the first to achieve national fame. Hovhannes used to perform dangerous acts of juggling while playing the accordion and apparently this had triggered an early interest in music to young Levon.

The father died in a juggling accident in late 1891, when Levon was only four years old. It is reported that he was trying to balance twelve sharp butcher’s knives on his neck while dancing the traditional dance Bijou. Levon never managed to overcome the sudden loss of his father and some of the best music he has composed is dedicated to his memory.

In 1906 Levon’s mother was slaughtered by a butcher due to a trivial argument about some change. Again the instrument of death was a butcher’s knife and this has caused a severe nerve breakdown to young Levon, then aged 19.

Trying to recover he fled Armenia and moved to St. Petersburg. In the then Russian capital he had a difficult start making his first money as a street juggler and a conjurer. After a very difficult year, he began studying at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. There he received his first piano lessons from Anna Yesipova, and after her retirement in 1908 he continued under Anatoly Rostovsky. The latter was impressed by the rapid progress of his Armenian student in piano playing. Meanwhile, he studied musical theory, harmony, orchestration and composition with Vasily Kalafati. He also showed great interest in conducting, and he was lucky enough to take lessons from the great Nikolai Tcherepnin.

edit America

In late 1913, after having spent five years studying music with Rostovsky and Kalafati, Bohemyan followed Rostovsky’s advice to continue his piano lessons with the great Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski, who had just settled in the U.S.A. In January 1914 he moved to California and, after five years under Paderewski’s experienced guidance, he finally perfected his piano technique. Paderewski was accompanied by Bohemyan in some of the numerous piano-duet recitals he was giving across the United States. One of these performances, in Carnegie Hall, on February 24, 1920, played a crucial role in the evolution of Bohemyan’s artistic fame. It was there that he met Josef Stransky, the music director of the New York Philharmonic. Stransky was imposed by Bohemian’s talent and proposed him to play Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 1 with the NY Philharmonic. The result of their collaboration was a great success. Bohemyan signed a contract with the NY Philharmonic and, from October 1920 until his death in 1939, he was appearing regularly as a pianist in concerts and solo recitals. During these 19 years, under the baton of Stransky (and later Willem Mengelberg and the legendary Arturo Toscanini), Bohemyan performed the most famous piano concertos of the Romantic era, mostly those by Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Rachmaninoff. He also performed his own piano compositions, among them two Piano concertos with highly demanding technique, and he presented some of his orchestral music and his three operas.

In 1922 he married Blanca Rica, an American actress of Armenian origin, but the marriage lasted only two years. There is no trace of Blanca Rica’s life after her divorce with Bohemyan.

During his stay in the United States, despite the distance between him and his beloved fatherland, he never stopped caring for the troubles of the Armenian people and from 1915 and on he had never missed a chance to openly state his deep nationalism. It is known that somewhere around 1930 he had meetings with Victor Hamazaspovich Hambartsumian.

In later years, His Holiness Vazgen I, has called Levon Bohemyan, "The beloved child of Armenia".

edit Suicide

Bohemyan committed suicide at the dawn of March 18th, 1939, using a well-sharpened butcher’s knife, just a few minutes after he had finished composing his swan-song, the symphonic poem Knives of Grief. His signature on the autograph score was written with his own blood – a unique and very grim case in the history of music. After such a successful career as a pianist and composer, the reasons for his decision to commit suicide are still considered a mystery.

edit Work

Some of Bohemyan’s most characteristic works are:

  • Three Armenian Dances for piano duet, op. 11 (1905, revised 1927)
  • Four Armenian Dances for piano solo, op. 12 (1905, orchestrated 1918)
  • Two Armenian Dances for piano solo, op. 13 (1906)
  • Seven Armenian Dances for orchestra, op. 18 (1910, revised 1927)
  • Two Preludes for piano solo (I: D minor, II: G major) op. 19 (1910)
  • Six Armenian Dances for large orchestra, op. 24 (1913)
  • Threnody For My Dead Fellow-Countrymen for String Orchestra and kemenche, op. 28 (1916)
  • Tamuz-Ara (symphonic suite), op. 31 (1918)
  • A Life for Gagik (opera), op. 37 (Metropolitan Opera, 1923; first Armenian performance: Yerevan, 1963, translated in Armenian)
  • Piano Sonata “Blanca Mea”, op. 38 (1923)
  • Piano Concerto no. 1 in A flat minor, op. 39 (1923)
  • Armenian Soil (symphonic poem, featuring a lengthy kemenche solo), op. 44 (1925)
  • Death of a Butcher (opera), op. 46 (1928)
  • Piano Concerto no. 2 in F sharp major, op. 47 (1929)
  • Five Armenian Dances for large orchestra, op. 52 (1931)
  • The Juggler who Ruled (opera), op. 56 (1934)
  • Three Armenian Songs and Two Armenian Dances for large orchestra, op. 59 (1937)
  • Knives of Grief (Armenian: Վիշտին դանակներ / Vishtin danakner), symphonic poem for large orchestra, op. 61 (1939).
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