Real Talk with Musicologist Elena Borysenko
Updated: Jul 25, 2019
Not Every Classical Musician's Story Is Sunshine & Rainbows
In May 2015, I had no idea what to expect when first discovering that I would be moving to Rochester.
All I knew was that both the Eastman School of Music and that my beau's family lived there. I figured Rochester would be just another city to work hard in for a year or two then on to the next one and figure life out as each day progresses.
Little did I know that this city would bring me close to someone very special: an intelligent, sensible, and fearless woman who I wound up meeting at an RPO marketing location at the Rochester Transit Station.
(Dr.) Elena Borysenko received her PhD in Musicology from the Eastman School of Music.
Her dissertation were the discoveries & analyses of the cantatas of
Johann (Wilhelm) Friedmann Bach.
All twenty-three of them.
An 890-page dissertation.
Here is her story:
Dr. Elena Borysenko: Musicologist & Rochesterian
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I thought I wanted to be a ballerina. I gave that up after three years when I discovered that it wasn't just floating around in a pretty costume: It was hard, strenuous work. But I always loved music and that interest took over shortly after.
How did you get your start in music?
My parents decided that I should take piano lessons. We lived in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania at the time and there was a piano at the house we moved into.
Before then, we were immigrants. I was born just outside of Munich, Germany. Today marks my sixty-fifth (now sixty-seventh) year of living in America. I was eighteen months old when we moved here. My parents both loved music. They decided when I was three years old that they wanted me to take piano lessons, but those didn't start until I was seven.
My first teacher told my parents that I would never grow up to be a concert pianist due to my size, however, her mother-in-law was also a piano teacher. My parents asked her if she could give me piano lessons. The mother-in-law began to teach me from that point on. That was the beginning. She was an excellent teacher.
Her predecessor was Hans von Bulow (Franz Liszt's son-in-law). He was also a conductor, composer, and pianist. He was taught by Liszt, so the pedigree goes back pretty far. I continued taking lessons and discovered around age ten or eleven that I had the dream of becoming a concert pianist.
Where did you go on to study?
The Eastman School of Music.
What was your declared major?
I majored in music at the River campus, with piano as my main instrument. We had to declare two minors: one of them was Music History.
How was the transition from your studies as an undergraduate student to a graduate student?
Throughout my time as an undergraduate student, I realized that the reality of becoming a concert pianist would eventually come to an end: My hands are so small, and I have an overall small physique. I don't have the musculature you need these days to become a concert pianist. I also didn't have the patience to sit in a practice room for four to five hours each day. My muscles started getting tense over time. As I became older, nervousness started taking over. After coming to this realization, I knew that, deep down, I still wanted to stay involved with music. From there, I applied to the Masters program in Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.
What is Musicology?
Musicology is the "study of music." Basically, a lot of it revolves around the combination of Music History and Music Theory. We investigate areas of music that are of interest and areas that need to be investigated.
How did you narrow down your focus within Musicology to investigating the cantatas of Wilhelm Friedmann Bach?
My Masters thesis was in medieval music. Everyone, including myself, thought that I would stick with medieval music, but while I was doing some research one day, I came across a reference to Wilhelm Friedmann Bach's instrumental music. I couldn't, however, find any references to his vocal music. I thought it was interesting: composers during that period, and he especially being the eldest son of J.S. Bach, I thought; "That's odd - Didn't he write vocal music?"
From there, I began to investigate through various sources and, yes, he did!
I didn't prepare for this when I started my dissertation, but it was in 1975 that I started to do research on it. I don't remember all the details from forty years ago.
After investigating, I noticed that none of the cantatas had been published, except one in Germany and later I found one that was published in France. We actually had a copy of the one that was published in France in our own Sibley Music Library, way after W.F. Bach's lifetime. I began to study it and found out about his other cantatas. The research started happening in 1913 by William Fouck.
He wrote a little bit about them; describing the ones he found in Leipzig and in France, very generally. I thought that these were interesting and continued to wonder what the rest were like. I was looking for a dissertation topic all along in the medieval area, and began to reconsider switching gears to the cantatas of W.F. Bach, which I did.
Where did your research begin?
I requested microfilms of the manuscripts of his cantatas; the main source was located at the Stadtische Bibliotheken in Leipzig, Germany. I requested microfilms from that library. There was a small handful from France that I requested, as well. I also had the modern publication of that. It was published in 1964, which was recent, in comparison to the start of my dissertation. Receiving all of the works took a very long time, then I began to work.
I transcribed all of the works I found - All of them. There were twenty-three.
I would sit at the microfilm reader, I would analyze them, and I would figure out the harmonic structure, any chorales that were used, and translated the text of those cantatas that I would then use as examples for the lectures I gave.
My first volume is a discussion of the cantatas: the structure overall, and how they compare with his father's cantatas. The other two volumes are the transcriptions: one entire cantata that had never been published in its entirety, and the others are just selected movements from them.
Could you find those volumes anywhere in Rochester?
I am not sure. At this point, there might be something. I haven't done musicological work in about twenty years, so I am not certain.
Was there any encounter of gender equality through your line of work?
Not from my perspective: a lot of people in the area were all for women in the workplace of music research. During undergrad, I was involved in what was called "Women's Lib." I was also a member of NOW: the National Organization for Women. I always pushed for gender equality, regardless of where it was, but I didn't experience that in school. I don't know much about how things are today, however, it seems to still exist in society as a whole. I was very lucky to never experience any inequality. If anything, the women in our department were embraced and much appreciated.
What did you do after your dissertation was complete?
I taught for one year: both at Eastman and the River campus. I taught a review course in Music History for incoming graduate students. This was originally as a research Assistant-ship. That was the only formal teaching I ever did. After I finished my PhD, I tutored doctoral students in preparing them for their exams, as a requirement for the doctoral students to start their dissertations.
I wanted to teach college full time, but due to personal and academically political reasons, I did not reach for that kind of job.
From there, where did you continue your career?
I did not. I wanted to stay in Rochester with my mother.
My father passed away as I was just starting my PhD.
My mother lived until I finished my work. I didn't want to leave her alone.
I opted to stay in the Rochester area.
The possibilities for teaching in the area, especially for musicology, were limited. It didn't work out. I then began to teach piano, privately, for many years. I continued that throughout and taught up until around 2001.
What had led you to stop teaching privately?
I had lost my piano: I had a Steinway baby grand piano that my parents had bought for me. After my mother died, there were a lot of financial difficulties.
I lost my piano. When I lost my piano, I stopped teaching from home; I did continue for a while, but I lost my home. I had a car and would drive to the students in the Rochester area, but then I lost my car.
After I had lost my car, my dear friend (who was also the widow of my dissertation adviser) would take me to my students so I could continue giving lessons. She got to a point, as well, where she couldn't take me to teach, so I had to stop teaching because of the transportation difficulties.
I looked around for any job I could get: I worked at Burger King.
I do not mind people knowing this because this is part of the reality of life: I wasn't making enough at Burger King, so I started waitress-ing. I became a server at Friendly's when I was 48 years old. I did that for seven years. For various reasons, I couldn't do that anymore.
Luckily, at that point, I had a boyfriend that helped support me, helped me pay for rent, and then I applied for social services. I have been on social services up until the present. I still get food stamps. My boyfriend passed away three (now five) years ago.
With the stress of my mother passing away, I became an alcoholic. I have been in recovery for about a year (now three). Now, I go to AA, I have a therapist, and hopefully I will get out of that. Talking to people actually helps.
Again, I don't mind people knowing because it is part of the reality of life. I had a lot of dreams. This is why I like talking about this. It is important for people to know that things just happen in life.
As a Musicologist, have there been any particular moments that have stood out?
I met Igor Stravinsky in undergrad just a couple of years before he died. He came to the Eastman School just before he had passed away and it rather intimidated me. I was still rather shy at the time. I remember going up to him and saying "So pleased to meet you, I would like to say something in Russian." I was afraid to say anything. I remember meeting this famous person and I was in awe. That was a very memorable moment.
Another memorable moment was during my Graduate Seminar class. I had done a little bit of research on a particular subject and wanted to hand in a written report. My professor said, "No. Do it aurally." I read it pretty much verbatim, but time after time I gained more courage to the point where I began giving lectures from memory for the duration of the class.
After that, I could give lectures easily. I came out of my shell. I wasn't shy anymore.