Denis Mickiewicz, Professor Emeritus at Duke University, was born into a Russian family in Latvia. As a musically gifted child of a family with a rich musical culture, he heard music and performed since the earliest days of his childhood. When he was eight, he was playing the concert guitar; he began to study piano at ten. He sang in the children’s choir at the cathedral in Riga.
During the Second World War, Mickiewicz began his long journey west, living first in German-occupied Poland and then, toward the end of the war, reaching Salzburg, Austria. As did many displaced persons after the war, he and his family lived in a camp and made music with Cossacks, Yugoslavs, and Poles. Mickiewicz resumed the study of music in Salzburg, enrolled in the Mozarteum, and graduated from gymnasium. He served as assistant to the choir conductor of the Orthodox Archbishop’s Church in Salzburg. To support himself, he played Viennese music, jazz, and Gypsy music in various bands.
In 1952, Mickiewicz and his family came to the United States. He enrolled the following year in the Yale School of Music. The Yale Russian Chorus, founded in 1953 by Mickiewicz and George Litton, began as a small group of Russian language students. Over time the Chorus developed a broad repertoire of folk, liturgical, and classical music arranged or transcribed by Mickiewicz. In 1958, with members of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, they performed a concert version of Mikhail Glinka’s opera, A Life for the Tsar. By 1962, the Chorus had become internationally recognized in the concert halls of Europe and America. With an expanding repertoire and the artistic power of this magnificent musical tradition, Mickiewicz and the group were lauded at Salle Pleyel in Paris, at Carnegie Hall in New York, Wigmore Hall in London, and at many other formal concerts in Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Spain. When, in 1962, the Chorus defeated sixty singing groups to win first prize at the Radiodiffusion France Festival International de Chant Choral, its international stature was assured. Shortly after, Philips invited Mickiewicz and the Chorus to record the repertoire in Paris.
At the same time, Mickiewicz marked out an original, culturally bold role for the Chorus. The Soviet Union was hostile to much of the Russian cultural past, including liturgical and pre-Revolution songs. To help preserve and revive that culture, Mickiewicz and the Chorus went to the Soviet Union to present their Russian and American repertoire directly to Russian citizens. Singing in squares and on streets, they were hailed as effective cultural ambassadors at a time of serious political tensions.
After earning his BA in Music at Yale, Mickiewicz received his Yale Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literature. Pursuing an academic career in Russian and Comparative Literature, he taught at Connecticut College, Michigan State University, Emory University and, most recently, at Duke University, acting as Chairman of his department at both Emory and Duke. He maintained his musical activities, co-founding the Lansing Opera Company in Michigan, and steadfastly retained his links with the Yale Russian Chorus, returning regularly to lead alumni concerts, including the Carnegie Hall 25th Anniversary concert in 1978 and the 50th Anniversary Concert at Yale in 2003.
While publishing research on modernist poetics, Mickiewicz also returned to composing music. His Duo for Clarinet and Piano was premiered in Atlanta in 1989, and he wrote the choral and incidental music for a production of Euripides’ Hecuba presented at Emory University. His setting of The Lord’s Prayer was premiered and recorded by the Chamber Choir of Washington University in St. Louis in 2000. Most recently, he set to music for baritone and piano the verse of Symbolist poet Vyacheslav Ivanov. It was performed in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2002. His scholarly research on Ivanov has been published in Rome and St. Petersburg.