Glory and Ordeal: Oskar Böhme’s Life and Death in Russia

Cite this article as:

Max Sommerhalder. (April 24, 2019). Glory and Ordeal: Oskar Böhme’s Life and Death in Russia. International Journal of Music. Accessed July 13, 2024. https://ijm.education/winds/brass/trumpet/glory-and-ordeal-oskar-bohme-life-and-death-in-russia/

Oskar Böhme, the celebrated German-Russian trumpeter and composer, is often remembered for his enchanting Concerto in E-minor, a jewel in the crown of 19th-century romantic trumpet repertoire. However, the latter part of his life, particularly his time in Russia, remained shrouded in mystery until the release of Christian Neef’s enlightening book, “Der Trompeter von Sankt Petersburg” (The Saint Petersburg Trumpeter) on April 5, 2019. Neef, a correspondent for the German magazine Spiegel in Russia, meticulously unravels the enigma surrounding Böhme’s life, presenting the last photograph of the trumpeter from 1938.

Oskar Böhme (1870-1938) holds a pivotal place in the history of the trumpet, not only for his acclaimed concerto but also for his composition of the Trompeten-Sextett Op. 30, a masterpiece in romantic chamber music for brass. Böhme’s influence extended beyond his compositions, inspiring Soviet composers like Shchyolokov and Peskin to create their own romantic trumpet concertos, echoing the emotive qualities found in Böhme’s work. Today, his concerto is considered a “must” in the trumpet repertoire.

Despite his contributions, Böhme fell into relative obscurity after World War II, and details about his life in Russia were scarce until the late 1970s. Researchers like Lars Naess and Edward H. Tarr delved into Böhme’s familial and educational background in Germany and Hungary, shedding light on his early years. However, the reasons behind Böhme’s decline from a prominent position in the Mariinsky opera orchestra to a music school teacher in a distant provincial city remained speculative until Christian Neef’s revelations in 2019.

Neef’s book discloses the tragic fate of Böhme. In 1935, he was banished to Orenburg and later executed by the local agents of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) on October 3, 1938, following a fabricated trial. A victim of Stalin’s Great Purge, Böhme’s innocence was officially acknowledged in 1989, with his guilty plea deemed extracted under torture.

Neef’s journey to uncover Böhme’s story began with the discovery of the trumpeter’s file in the archive of Anatoly Razumov, a scholar who documented the records of Stalin’s Great Terror victims. Accessing numerous documents, from Mariinsky Theater’s personnel files to the FSB’s interrogation records, Neef meticulously chronicles Böhme’s four decades in Russia. The narrative unfolds Böhme’s application for Russian citizenship, his service in the opera orchestra, solo tours, marriage to a wealthy widow, honorary citizenship in St. Petersburg, and his struggles during World War I and the October Revolution. The book details his political troubles, loss of employment, and subsequent descent into precarious livelihoods, leading to his arrest, banishment, and eventual demise in Orenburg.

Neef’s work not only narrates Böhme’s life but also explores the lives of four other St. Petersburg families of German origin, adding depth to the historical context. The book reads like a captivating novel, providing readers with a compelling tutorial on history.

The impact of Neef’s revelations extended beyond the pages of his book. Orenburg TV produced a documentary highlighting Böhme’s virtuoso work and tragic fate, titled “The Trumpeter: The Living Music of Oskar Böhme,” emphasizing the enduring significance of his musical contributions.

As a notable by-product of his research, Neef stumbled upon and acquired a previously unknown manuscript by Böhme, “In süßem Zauber” (In Sweet Enchantment) Op. 16, a composition for voice and piano. This discovery, bound in gold-engraved linen, further enriches our understanding of Böhme’s artistic legacy.

Russia could not stand idly by while Neef’s book was being printed. Orenburg TV produced a ten-minute documentary by Nataliya Politika (in cooperation with St. Petersburg trumpet professor Boris Taburetkin) on the composer’s virtuoso work and sad fate: The Trumpeter. The Living Music of Oskar Böhme.

As a “by-product” of his research, Neef found and purchased a hitherto unknown manuscript work by Böhme, In süßem Zauber (In Sweet Enchantment) Op. 16, for voice and piano, beautifully bound in gold-engraved linen.

The discovery of this manuscript sheds light on Böhme’s lesser-known compositions, revealing another layer of his artistic prowess. In süßem Zauber, a composition for voice and piano, showcases Böhme’s ability to convey enchantment through his music. The manuscript, with its gold-engraved linen cover, speaks not only to the beauty of the composition but also to the care and reverence with which Böhme’s work is preserved.

Neef’s meticulous research, fueled by the curiosity sparked by Böhme’s file in Anatoly Razumov’s archive, provides a comprehensive and poignant narrative of Böhme’s four decades in Russia. The great cornetist and composer’s journey, from applying for Russian citizenship to serving in the opera orchestra, touring as a soloist, and marrying a wealthy widow, is chronicled with a delicate balance of sensitivity and precision. The upheavals of World War I and the October Revolution, which cost Böhme his job for political reasons, are explored in detail, offering insights into the challenges faced by artists during times of political turmoil.

The book further delves into Böhme’s struggle for survival after losing his position, as he navigates precarious employment and the tumultuous socio-political landscape of Russia. The arrests, banishments, and eventual tragic end in Orenburg paint a vivid picture of the harsh realities faced by individuals during Stalin’s Great Purge. Neef’s access to documents ranging from Mariinsky Theater’s personnel files to the FSB’s interrogation records allows for a nuanced understanding of Böhme’s life, capturing the essence of his experiences.

While narrating Böhme’s story, Neef also intertwines the lives of four other St. Petersburg families of German origin, offering a broader perspective on the historical context. This multi-layered approach enriches the narrative, providing readers with not only a biography of Böhme but also a glimpse into the interconnected lives of individuals navigating a complex socio-political landscape.

The impact of Neef’s revelations transcends the written word. Orenburg TV’s documentary, “The Trumpeter: The Living Music of Oskar Böhme,” serves as a visual companion to the book, bringing Böhme’s virtuoso work and tragic fate to a broader audience. The collaboration with St. Petersburg trumpet professor Boris Taburetkin adds a scholarly dimension to the documentary, ensuring a thorough exploration of Böhme’s musical legacy.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Christian Neef’s meticulous research and compelling narrative in “Der Trompeter von Sankt Petersburg” not only unveil the mysteries surrounding Oskar Böhme’s life and death but also contribute significantly to the understanding of the challenges faced by artists during tumultuous periods in history. The book, along with the accompanying documentary, pays homage to Böhme’s enduring musical contributions and serves as a testament to the resilience of artistic expression in the face of adversity. The hitherto unknown manuscript, “In süßem Zauber,” adds a poignant touch to Böhme’s legacy, emphasizing the importance of preserving and celebrating the artistic treasures left behind by remarkable individuals like Oskar Böhme.

References

Neef, Christian. 2019. Der Trompeter von Sankt Petersburg (The Saint Petersburg Trumpeter). Munich: Siedler Verlag.

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