Newski: Die Einfachen with Neue Vocalsolisten

Newski: Die Einfachen with Neue Vocalsolisten

Sergej Newski’s vocal work “Die Einfachen,” commissioned by the Neue Vocalsolisten, received a resounding response at its July premiere in Stuttgart. The piece’s second performance is eagerly awaited on September 19th at the Vienna Biennale Musica. Even if the texts come from the 1920, they retain their explosive power today: Set to music, the letters give vivid testimony to the discovery of – and confrontation with – one’s own homosexuality in early 20th Century Russia. 

In addition to his Venice premiere, two new works debut in September: Jakob Diehl and musica assoluta under the baton of Thorsten Encke present his Stufen der Ideen in Hannover on 05.09. while Incidents for flute, cello, piano & accordion is premiered by Ensemble Klangwerk at Kunstfest Weimar on 11.09.

Die Einfachen (2020/2021)

for five singers, electronics and video
after letters from Russia after 1920, discovered and published by Ira Roldugina

Commissioned by Musik der Jahrhunderte

WP: 27.07.2021, Stuttgart


27.07.2021 (WP)
Neue Vocalsolisten, Ilya Shagalov (video, stage and direction), SOMMER festival neuer musik IN STUTTGART

19.07.2021 (NP)
Neue Vocalsolisten, Ilya Shagalov (video, stage and direction), Biennale Musica, Venice

About the work

In 1920s post-revolutionary Leningrad, “Die Einfachen” (The Simple Ones) was the name assumed by a gay subculture consisting of workers, lower-level employees, and students.  In rediscovered letters to the famous psychiatrist Vladimir Bekhterev, published in 2016 by scientist Ira Roldugina, there unfolds an image of a generation attempting to find a language for, and critically reflect, their newfound corporeal freedom. The documentary opera revives the fortunes of a farmer, a student, and a teacher in “homage to a fascinating generation trying to protect its dignity under the extreme challenges of its time.”
—Text by Musik der Jahrhunderte, published with kind permission by the presenter

World premiere of Die Einfachen, Stuttgart 2021

Composer's note

In 2016, Russian sex researcher Ira Roldugin published an incredible set of correspondence; letters from ordinary people in the 1920s to the famous psychiatrist and neurologist Vladimir Bekhterev (1857-1927), who had delivered a series of lectures on sexuality throughout the USSR earlier that decade. It was a time of incredible opening-up after both the February and October Revolutions, when the repressive anti-homosexual laws of the czarist era were abolished and women received the right to vote. 

Young people, visitors to his lectures, wrote to Bekhterev about their own experiences and the discovery of their own homosexuality. One of the authors was a student named Tatyana, who wrote to him around 1925: "When I was a child between seven and ten, I liked married young women. I loved them more than my mother. I was jealous, but it made me happy when a woman I respected was friends with me. I only played with boys' toys and everybody around me was a boy. I have a lot of masculinity now! Entire bodily gestures, interest in men's work: horse riding, cobbler work, etc. I like to wear what men wear, in agriculture I did men's work. Never in the 23 years of my life have I worn my hair long."

From the beginning, I was fascinated by the style of these letters, by their directness and clarity, but also by the dignity they exuded. In their descriptions of private affairs, they contained none of the aposiopesis typical of subcultures because the authors belonged to no such thing, and did not yet have a vocabulary with which to describe what they were feeling. On the contrary, the letters to which I set music document the emergence of this vocabulary. 

World premiere of Die Einfachen, Stuttgart 2021

There was though already a word which this homosexual circle of students and workers in post-revolutionary Leningrad used to describe themselves: “Die Einfachen” (The Simple Ones). The authors of the letters to Bekhterev that I used for my score were not bohemians or upper-class people, but “simple” people. 

I wanted to build my piece as a parallel narrative: the life stories are sung in German, and simultaneously told by the actors on-screen in Russian. We recorded the videos with the director Ilya Shagalov and some well-known Russian actors in Moscow, and I was amazed at how current some of the quotes from the letters still sound in the context of Russia today. The piece ends, for example, with an excerpt from letter-writer Nika Polyakov, which even 100 years after it was written still sounds like a political manifesto: “No laws, no conventions will convince us that our actions are criminal and abnormal, and we are sure that the time will come in which our right to free coexistence will be recognized.” 

World premiere of Die Einfachen, Stuttgart 2021


Newski has named his work "Die Einfachen" (Russian: Prostye, English: The Simple Ones), after the self-designation of a gay subculture of workers, employees, and students in post-revolutionary Leningrad. Director Ilya Shagalov has set up a triptych of screens on the black stage of the Theaterhaus Stuttgart, on which the faces of Moscow actors appear. Their words are translated into German surtitles before five singers of the Neue Vocalsolisten transfer them into a 45-minute madrigal composition. [...] Countertenor Daniel Gloger lends his voice to Polyakov's memories of his first friend in a halting recitative, repeatedly articulating consonants before soaring into fragmented coloratura that makes for an astonishing search for language. The line of tenor Martin Nagy alternates and intertwines with him, and with a broad range between squeals and spherical canto, evokes the despair of a teacher consumed by unrequited passion. Chromatically modulating and polymetrically interlocked, the voices come together in a kind of chorale that sings of being misunderstood and of the constant fear of one's own feelings, while video animations show wildly proliferating blossoms floating in an empty cosmos.
—FAZ, 30.07.2021

Score of Die Einfachen

Photos: Martin Sigmund