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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.