Sergei Eduardovich Bortkiewicz was born in Kharkiv, Russian Empire (in present-day Ukraine) on 28 February 1877 in a Polish noble family (father, Edward Bortkiewicz; mother, Zofia Bortkiewicz née Uszyńska) and spent most of his childhood on the family estate of Artemivka, near Kharkiv. Bortkiewicz received his musical training from Anatoly Lyadov and Karl von Arek at the Imperial Conservatory of Music in Saint Petersburg.
In 1900 he left Saint Petersburg and traveled to Leipzig, where he became a student of Alfred Reisenauer and Salomon Jadassohn, both pupils of Franz Liszt. In July 1902, Bortkiewicz completed his studies at the Leipzig Conservatory and was awarded the Schumann Prize on graduation. On his return to Russia in 1904, he married Elisabeth Geraklitowa, a friend of his sister and then returned to Germany, where he settled in Berlin. It was there that he started to compose seriously.
From 1904 until 1914, Bortkiewicz continued to live in Berlin but spent his summers visiting his family in Russia or travelling around Europe often on concert tours. For a year he also taught at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory, where he was to meet his lifelong friend, the Dutch pianist Hugo van Dalen (1888–1967). Van Dalen premiered Bortkiewicz's Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 16, in November 1913 in Berlin with the Blüthner Orchestra conducted by the composer.
First World War
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 changed Bortkiewicz's life: Being Russian, he was initially under house arrest and later forced to leave Germany. He returned to Kharkiv, where he established himself as a music teacher, while at the same time giving concerts. The end of the war saw the beginning of the Russian Revolution, which forced the composer and his family to flee the family estate at Artëmovka owing to occupation by the communists. In June 1919 the communists fled before the White Army and Bortkiewicz was able to return and help to rebuild the family estate, which had been completely plundered. This, however, was short-lived and whilst on a trip to Yalta with his wife, the fall of Kharkiv to the Red Army meant that his family could not return to Artemivka. With the area now surrounded by the Red Army, the composer watched his mother and the husband of his sister, Vera, fall ill with typhus, both dying in the chaos at Novorossiysk. Bortkiewicz sought to escape from Yalta and succeeded in obtaining passage on the steamer "Konstantin" which brought them safe, but penniless, to Constantinople in November 1919.
Between the wars
In Constantinople, with the help of the court pianist to the Sultan, Ilen Ilegey, Bortkiewicz began to give concerts and started teaching again. He became well known throughout a number of embassies and made an acquaintance with the wife of the Yugoslavian ambassador Natalie Chaponitsch, to whom he dedicated his Trois Morceaux, Op. 24 (1922). She organised musical gatherings for Bortkiewicz within the embassy, and it was with the help of her husband that the composer and his wife were able to obtain a visa for Yugoslavia. Bortkiewicz and his wife came to Sofia via Belgrade, where they had to wait for some time before obtaining an Austrian visa. On 22 July 1922 the composer and his wife reached Austria.
Initially Bortkiewicz chose Baden, not Vienna, as his residence; here he remained until 1923. He then moved and settled in Vienna, where he was to remain for the next five years and where in 1925 he finally obtained Austrian citizenship.
In 1928 Bortkiewicz went to Paris for six months and then returned to live in Berlin. In 1933 he was forced to leave Germany again—being a Russian he was now facing persecution from the Nazis and saw his name being deleted from all music programmes. He returned to Vienna, where he established residence at Blechturmgasse 1 door 5 in 1935. He lived there for the rest of his life. It was during these years that Bortkiewicz suffered with serious financial difficulties and needed to ask for financial help from his friend Hugo van Dalen many times, which the pianist always gave freely. It was also during this period that he translated from Russian into German the letters between Tchaikovsky and Nadezhda von Meck. These letters were published as Die seltsame Liebe Peter Tschaikowsky's und der Nadjeschda von Meck (Köhler & Amelang, Leipzig 1938). Van Dalen adapted Bortkiewicz's book for a Dutch readership, and published it as Rondom Tschaikovsky's vierde symphonie (De Residentiebode, 1938).
Second World War
World War II (1939–45) was also a terrible time for Bortkiewicz and his wife. At the end of the war he described in a letter dated 8 December 1945 to his friend Hans Ankwicz-Kleehoven how he still lived:
"I'm writing to you from my bathroom where we have crawled in because it is small and can be warmed on and off with a gas light. (!) The other rooms cannot be used and I cannot touch my piano. This is now! What awaits us further? Life is becoming more and more unpleasant, merciless. I teach at the Conservatory with the heat at 4 degrees, soon even less! [. . .]"
During these terrible years he composed a number of works including his Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 60. The sonata was first performed by the composer on 29 November 1942 in the Brahmssaal of the Musikverein in Vienna. Hugo van Dalen gave the Dutch premiere on 9 February 1944 in Amsterdam.
The Second World War brought Bortkiewicz to the edge of despair and ruin. The greater part of his printed compositions, which were held by his German publishers (Rahter & Litolff), were destroyed in the bombing of German cities and hence he lost all his income from the sale of his music. Bortkiewicz and his wife were physically and mentally exhausted at the end of the war and were both in a desperate situation when his friend, the chief physician Dr. Walter Zdrahal, admitted the couple to the Franz Joseph Hospital in Vienna in order to treat them.
In the autumn of 1945 Bortkiewicz was appointed director of a master class at the Vienna City Conservatory, which helped to give the composer some of the financial security he so sought. During this period he composed his Six Preludes, Op. 66 (1946–47), of which only two—Numbers 1 and 3—have so far been located. These preludes are dedicated to the Dutch pianist Hélène Mulholland (1912–2000), who helped him after the war by sending much needed food and clothes. After his retirement in 1948, the community of Vienna awarded him an honorary pension.
After World War II
At the instigation of Hans Ankwicz-Kleehoven, a Bortkiewicz Society was founded in 1947 in Vienna in order to keep the memory of Bortkiewicz's music alive. The inaugural meeting took place in the library hall of the Akademie at Schillerplatz on 10 April 1947. As a result of that meeting, on the first Monday of each month from November to May, friends of the composer and members of the Society gathered in the Künstlerhaus and listened to concerts of the composer's music much of which was played by Bortkiewicz himself. The Bortkiewicz Society was dissolved on 6 March 1973.
In the years after 1949, and primarily as a result of the war years, Bortkiewicz's wife was diagnosed as suffering from manic depression, which caused great concern for the composer. Nonetheless the composer's light continued to shine brightly and on 26 February 1952 the Bortkiewicz Society along with the Ravag Orchestra celebrated the 75th birthday of the composer at a concert in the Musikverein Hall in Vienna. Bortkiewicz conducted the orchestra with Felicitas Karrer playing the Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 16, the violinist Jaro Schmied played his Des Frühlings und des Pans Erwachen—ein lyrisches Intermezzo nach Gemälden von Sandro Botticelli, Op. 44, and the concert was concluded with his Symphony No. 1, Op. 52, "Aus meiner Heimat", which contains a touching quotation from "God Save the Tsar" in the finale. This was to be his last great concert and the excitement of the event was illustrated in a letter dated 18 March 1952. The composer wrote to van Dalen:
"Finally I had the opportunity to show, in a large hall with a large orchestra and soloists, what I can do. Not only the critics, but others who know me, were surprised and amazed. [. . .] I can always feel happy to have found so much recognition at the age of 75 years, which really comes in most cases after death to someone who really earned it. [. . .]"
Bortkiewicz had been suffering for some time from a stomach ailment and on the advice of his physician, he decided to undergo an operation in October 1952. He never recovered and died in Vienna on 25 October of that year. His wife, Elisabeth, who was childless, died eight years later on 9 March 1960 in Vienna. The graves of Bortkiewicz and his wife can still be found at the Zentralfriedhof, Vienna.
Bortkiewicz's piano style was very much based on Liszt and Chopin, nurtured by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, early Scriabin, Wagner and Russian folklore. He was unaffected by the music trends of the 20th century: The composer never saw himself as a "modernist" as can be seen from his Künstlerisches Glaubensbekenntnis, written in 1923. His workmanship is meticulous, his imagination colourful and sensitive, his piano writing idiomatic; a lush instrumentation underlines the essential sentimentality of the melodic invention. But Bortkiewicz was not merely an imitator—he very much had his own style that drew upon all the influences of his life and that can be immediately recognised as a typically Bortkiewicz tone: lyrical and nostalgic.
With much thanks to Hugo van Dalen, his close friend, we can still enjoy Bortkiewicz's music and learn much about his life from the many letters he sent to the Dutch pianist. When van Dalen died in 1967 his family bequeathed the manuscripts of several compositions (such as the 12 Etudes, Op. 29, dedicated to van Dalen); a written autobiography Erinnerungen (published in German in Musik des Ostens, 1971, pp. 136–69, in Dutch by Hugo van Dalen in De Zevende Dag, July–August 1939, and in English by B. N. Thadani, Recollections, 2nd ed., Cantext, 2001); plus a number of letters and printed music to the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, which recently passed it on to the Netherlands Music Institute (NMI). The NMI has the only existing copy of the manuscript of the Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 60, and of two of the Preludes, Op. 66.
- Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins (Hyperion)
- Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 16. Marjorie Mitchell (piano), Vienna State Opera Orchestra, William Strickland (American Decca - Brunswick UK)
- Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 16. Stephen Coombs (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Jerzy Maksymiuk (Hyperion)
- Pieces for Violin and Piano. Christian Persinaru (violin) and Nils Franke (piano) (Apex).
- Complete Piano works Jouni Somero (FC-Records, in nine volumes)
- Piano works. Stephen Coombs (Hyperion, in two volumes)
- Piano works. Pierre Huybregts (Centaur)
- Piano works. Cyprien Katsaris (Piano21)
- Piano Concertos Nos, 2 and 3 Stefan Doniga (piano), Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra, David Porcelijn (Netherlands Muziek Instituut)
- The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians, ed. 1980, p. 70
- Bortkiewicz website
- Nederlands Muziek Instituut (Dutch)
- Free scores by Sergei Bortkiewicz at the International Music Score Library Project