Golovanov Musical Portrait
by Olga Fyodorova
…In 1948 the Bolshoi Opera was rehearsing Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov with Nikolai Golovanov steering the orchestra through the difficult score of this operatic evergreen…
“Louder! Louder!!! Come on, give me all you’ve got! It’s not music, it’s some lifeless hiss!! Louder!!! Crank it up! Louder! Just go for it! …Stop! Are you trying to sabotage this whole thing? What a shame!!!”
“Maestro, the composer had in mind some very subtle nuances here, don’t you think?”
“And I’m telling you to give me all you’ve got! Notes are just small little signs on paper, nothing more. They can’t show you the sky is blue, the sun is hot, the meat is juicy and the wine is going right into your head, can they? Music cannot be dull and uninspiring, neither can life itself!”
Hard driven and impassioned, Golovanov savored life’s every single color, the whole Universe! His superhuman energy was simply irresistible and the very moment he picked up the baton, he was God and he was the Devil making even the impossible happening…
It was by sheer chance that he landed the job of a Bolshoi theatre conductor. Once, just minutes before show time, the conductor fell ill and it turned out that Golovanov, then the theater’s young choirmaster knew the whole score by heart and so they let him try his luck. And try he did with such resounding success that they asked him to conduct other operas too. His authority was growing fast and, a few years later, Nikolai Golovanov was appointed the chief conductor of Russia’s oldest opera theater.
The Bolshoi old-timers say that working with Golovanov was exciting but never easy because he had a very special vision of things he worked on.
All his ideas and hard-thought nuances he painstakingly scribbled down in red and blue into his scorebook. His friends often saw him crawling over pages of notational paper strewn all around his apartment.
He came to rehearsals well ahead of time and, crouching on a tall stool in front of his stand, sifted through his papers, humming under his nose and, suddenly raising his arms, started conducting. Knowing full well the maestro’s brisk temper, the musicians made sure to show up at least half an hour before it all started.
In everyday life Golovanov was a different man, amiable and noble-mannered, affable and always ready to help his colleagues and sort out conflicts...
With the baton, he was a despot. As if hating to fall victim to his inborn kindness, he often went way too far snapping commands, in no uncertain terms, to his musicians and everyone around him. During those occasional outbursts he spared no one, even the Bolshoi’s big names.
They responded in kind twice putting his very job on the line. Rattled as he was by those occasional pitfalls, Golovanov kept working venting his bubbling energy conducting symphony and Conservatory orchestras, and providing piano accompaniment for his great wife, Antonina Nezhdanova, for whom he wrote several love songs.
His dismissals never lasted long, though, because none of his replacements could measure up to the great maestro… People quickly forgot their hard feelings smiling at Golovanov’s dictatorial ways, acutely missing his drive and passion…
Golovanov too just couldn’t live on without the stage and the passions it inspired in people, always happy to oblige when they invited him back. For a week or two everything went swell, but the moment they took up a new opera, Golovanov relapsed into his dictatorial matter burning for something that was larger-than-life, something no one had ever done before him…
“On the outside, every art form that is in your face may seem rowdy,” he said, “but its force simply overwhelms you – which, after all, is what the Russian heart and soul is all about…”
He was very impartial to Russian art and, a real connoisseur, boasted an excellent collection of Russian paintings. He could spend hours listening to a church choir where he once sung himself, first as a choirboy and, after finishing a Synodal music academy, as a precentor. Like we said, he began his stint at the Bolshoi as a choirmaster.
The choir was his lifetime passion, but even here he gave full vent to his all-or-nothing attitude. He only went for very big choirs. 90-strong outfits just didn’t mean anything to him and even when he had a staggering 150 singers blaring his lungs out, he hollered: “Where’s everyone?! Why is the stage so empty?! I can’t hear a real-to-God choir here!”
He loved overwhelming the audience with an unstoppable avalanche of sound and power, especially when it came to his interpretations of Sergei Rakhmaninoff’s music…
By the way, Nikolai Golovanov was the only conductor around who dared to play Rakhmaninoff after the composer left Soviet Russia – which was then tantamount to political death… Under Josef Stalin, Golovanov’s daring could cost him his freedom and even his life itself…
He also undertook to play Alexander Skryabin whom the Soviet critics dismissed as a “pleasure-seeking bourgeois composer”. Golovanov was at his most satisfying with Skryabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, which he built up to an overpowering crescendo that literally hoisted people out of their seats…
Nikolai Golovanov died when he was only 62 years old. Incinerated by his burning energy and, like a supernova, leaving a long afterglow in his wake...
Discography of Nicolai Golovanov
by Brendan Wehrung
“The "Russian Furtwaengler" remains almost entirely unknown to record collectors of the West. Vagaries of sound reproduction, political climate and record distribution confined his admirers to a relative handful until the advent of the compact disc. This listing is offered as partial remedy for his neglect; it is by no means complete, but consists of recordings discovered in a close reading of The World's Encyclopedia of Recorded Music, and what has appeared in digital format (researched on the Internet). Others exist in Russian catalogs and radio archives.”
Romy the Cat
"I wish I could score everything for horns." - Richard Wagner. "Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts." - Friedrich Nietzsche