Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Julian Barnes and the Shostakovich Wars

On the evening of January 26, 1936, Joseph Stalin and several other Soviet leaders went to the Bolshoi Theatre, in Moscow, to see a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.” Shostakovich, only twenty-nine years old, was a rising star among Soviet composers, and his show was a hit; when Stalin came to see it, it was enjoying its eighty-fourth performance at the Bolshoi, after a successful première in Leningrad in 1934, and appearances in several European and American cities. A portrait of the desperate life of the Russian lower-middle class, the opera was sardonic, nervy, and violent, veering constantly between satire and vaudeville and naturalism.

The plot, based on a short story by the nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, tells of a bored and frustrated housewife, Katerina Ismailova, who begins an affair with a clerk, Sergey, when her merchant husband leaves on a business trip. When her overbearing father-in-law discovers her transgression, she murders him; when her husband returns, she murders him, too. Controversially, Shostakovich portrayed Katerina’s murders and sexual liberation as justifiable responses to the awful environment of Tsarist Russia. The music is often more scandalous than the moral it points to: at one point, the orchestra whips itself into a mechanistic, pounding fury to accompany the lovemaking of Katerina and Sergey, before declining over a long trombone glissando, mimicking a post-coital comedown.

Though the opera had pleased audiences, it did not please Stalin. Somewhere during the third act, he and his comrades conspicuously departed the theatre. Two days later, Stalin’s displeasure was made manifest in an unsigned editorial in Pravda, titled “Muddle Instead of Music”—possibly the most chilling document of philistinism in music history. The author of the review begins by lambasting Shostakovich’s opera for its obscenity, both musical and dramatic (“The music croaks and hoots and snorts and pants in order to represent love scenes as naturally as possible”), and suggests that its success abroad came from the fact that “it titillates the depraved tastes of bourgeois audiences with its witching, clamorous, neurasthenic music.”

After detailing Shostakovich’s musical sins, the article proceeds to make political threats. “Left deviationism in opera grows out of the same source as left deviationism in painting, in poetry, in pedagogy, in science,” the critic writes, finally denouncing Shostakovich for “trifling with difficult matters.” If he continued to play this “dangerous game,” the critic concludes—in what can only be imagined as an icy whisper—“it might end very badly.” It was the beginning of a season of terror for Shostakovich, as well as for other artists and composers. His works were no longer performed, and he lived under the threat of arrest, and possibly murder, for nearly a year. Only after a wildly successful performance of his Fifth Symphony, in 1937, did he undergo a partial rehabilitation, eventually resuming his path toward becoming the U.S.S.R.’s favorite musician. Still, he never fully escaped the shadow of persecution, and suffered criticisms and official bans in the following decades.

Julian Barnes’s new novel, “The Noise of Time,” is about Shostakovich, and it begins with the composer enduring the humiliation and misery of his exclusion from musical life, in 1936. “All that he knew was that this was the worst time,” the first part opens. Barnes has Shostakovich repeat it twice more, at the beginnings of the novel’s two other sections, in response to fresh sources of persecution in 1948 and 1960, bringing to mind Edgar from “King Lear”: “The worst is not / So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’ “ The novel’s title comes from the nineteenth-century poet Alexander Blok, who used the phrase to describe history. The Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam chose it for the title of his memoir, published in 1923—Mandelstam, who would indeed suffer Stalin’s worst. For Barnes’s Shostakovich, “the noise of time” is counterposed to “that music which is inside ourselves—the music of our being—which is transformed by some into real music.” Real artists, Barnes has Shostakovich say, protect that private part of themselves against history, but if the music “is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time” it is “transformed into the whisper of history.” So we watch as Shostakovich struggles to live a life devoted to music, with history constantly intervening.

What Shostakovich’s music had to do with history has been one of the most fraught questions in the history of music. He lived through the most terrifying decades of the Soviet Union to become its most celebrated composer. Despite his transgression with “Lady Macbeth,” many of his compositions—such as the Seventh Symphony (“Leningrad”), performed in 1942 in the midst of the devastating siege and broadcast over loudspeakers into no man’s land—served the purposes of official propaganda (though the music itself was more multilayered than its use would suggest). The result of Shostakovich’s confrontation with the apparatus of Stalinism, and of his subsequent reassumption, was that his music has become impossible to interpret outside of historical circumstances. Debates over the actual meaning of his pieces have taken on the quality of titanic political arguments; they have even been dubbed the Shostakovich Wars.

In 1979, a book purporting to be Shostakovich’s memoir, entitled “Testimony,” appeared in the West, depicting a frustrated composer who despised Communism and hid veiled critiques of the Soviet regime in his music. Scholars such as Laurel Fay, Shostakovich’s biographer, eventually discredited the book as a forgery, but not before it had given license to somewhat crude allegorical readings of the music, showing how this or that musical cue clearly represented a parody or critique of some aspect of life under Stalin. The late Ian McDonald, in his book “The New Shostakovich,” became an exemplar of the form, writing about a passage in the Fifth Symphony in which, over a “thrumming rhythm, flute and horn now converse in a major-key transposition of the second subject: two dazed delegates agreeing that the rally had been splendid and the leader marvelous”; elsewhere, writing about the first movement of the Fourth Symphony, he claims that an ascending scale depicts the secret police “audibly climbing the stairs . . . and bursting through the door on a triumphant crescendo.” Shostakovich is known to have derided the Soviet form of this criticism. Speaking before the Union of Soviet Composers in 1933, he complained, “When a critic . . . writes that in such-and-such a symphony Soviet civil servants are represented by the oboe and the clarinet, and Red Army men by the brass section, you want to scream!”

Barnes, who acknowledges “Testimony” as one of his major sources, gives us a mournfully sarcastic, frustrated Shostakovich, at once mocking of his Soviet patrons and stymied by his inability to break with them fully. In a sort of third-person monologue of impressions, vignettes, and diaristic reflections, he comes off as neither heroic nor craven, though he exhibits both traits on occasion. A trip with the Soviet delegation to the United States is a “public success,” attended by huge audiences, during which he feels “nothing but self-disgust and self-contempt” for having to give canned speeches and warmly praise Stalin. He is given to dry aphorisms (“He lit another cigarette. Between art and love, between oppressors and oppressed, there were always cigarettes”), and he reflects with gallows humor on how Hitler’s invasion led to a period of unprecedented security for him (“A disaster to the rescue”). In one anecdote, his plane is diverted by bad weather from Frankfurt, forcing him to go to Stockholm. Swedish musicians enjoy the sudden visit, but then embarrass Shostakovich by asking him to name his favorite Swedish composer. “He was about to cite Svendsen when he remembered that Svendsen was Norwegian.” His humiliations and sense of injury are at once more tense and miserable than any we can imagine, but also, as Barnes handles them, similar to a kind of high-toned grumbling that one associates with artists forced to do things that they feel are beneath them.

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Thursday, 26 May 2016

Sholokhov and the riddle of ‘The Quiet Don’

The Quiet Don was published in four parts between 1928 and 1940. (The earlier sections were formerly better known in English as Quiet Flows The Don, the later ones as The Don Flows Home To The Sea.) It is one of the greatest of twentieth-century Russian novels, and when Mikhail Sholokhov was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965, the Swedish Academy cited its “artistic force and integrity”. But ever since the end of the 1920s there have been rumours that Sholokhov was not the only, or even the main, author. These suspicions have recently received fresh support in the form of an unfinished manuscript by a Russian critic, no longer living, which was published last month in Paris by the YMCA Press under the title Stremya “Tikhovo Dona” (The Current of “The Quiet Don”), with an introductory essay by Alexander Solzhenitsyn which appears here in English for the first time.

From the time when it first began to appear in 1928 The Quiet Don has posed a whole series of riddles which have not been satisfactorily answered even today. The reading public found itself confronted with something unprecedented in the history of literature. A twenty-three-year-old beginner had created a work out of material which went far beyond his own experience of life and his level of education (four years at school). A young member of a grain-requisitioning detachment, who had later been employed as a labourer and then as a clerk in the office of a Krasnaya Presnya housing-block in Moscow, had published a book which could have been written only by someone closely acquainted with many sections of pre-Revolutionary society in the Don region, a hook whose most impressive quality was its deep insight into the way of life and the psychology of the characters it portrayed.

Although in terms of his origins and his personal record he himself was an “outsider”, a non-Cossack, the emotional force of the young author’s novel was directed against the influence of “outsiders” and its destructive effect on the traditional culture of the Don— a message which he was never to repeat in later life or in any public statement however, remaining faithful to this very day to the mentality of those who requisitioned produce from the peasantry by force and served in “special purpose” units. He described vividly and with apparent first-hand knowledge the World War, in which he had been far too young to take part (he was only ten or so at the time), and the Civil War, which was over by the time he was fifteen.

The critics commented at once that here was a novice who wrote as though he had a great deal of literary experience behind him, that he “possesses a rich stock of observation and is not sparing in the way he disposes of those riches” (Zhizn iskusava [The Life of Art], 1928. No 51—et al). The book revealed the kind of literary power which can normally be attained only after many attempts by a practised and gifted author—and yet the finest sections were those which came first. The first volume was begun in 1926 and delivered complete to the editors in 1927; the splendid second volume was finished only a year after that; the third volume was ready within even less than a year of the second, and it was only on account of the “proletarian” censorship that this astonishing output was held up. So what are we to conclude—that we are dealing with an incomparable genius? But neither the level of achievement nor the rate of production has been confirmed or repeated in the subsequent forty-five years of his career!

Too many miracles !—and even when the early volumes first appeared there were widespread rumours that the novel had not In fact been written by the author who had put his name to it, that Sholokhov bad found a complete manuscript (or, according to other version, a diary) belonging to a Cossack officer who had been killed, and had turned it to his own use. In Rostov-on-Don, where I then lived, this was talked of with such assurance among adults that it impressed itself clearly on my mind, although I was only a boy of twelve.

The true story of this book was apparently known to, and understood by, the Don writer Alexander Serafimovich, who was by then well on in years. Because of his passionate enthusiasm for everything to do with the Don, however, he was primarily concerned to see that the way was open for a brilliant novel about the region: any revelations about its having been written by some “White Guard” officer could only have prevented it being printed. And, once he had overcome the opposition of the editors of the magazine Oktyahr, Serifimovich insisted that The Quiet Don should be published, clearing a path for it with a glowing review in Pravda (April 19, 1928).

In a country with a different political system, an investigation might still have bean started. But the possibility of any such development was nipped in the bud by a “fiery” outburst in Pravda (March 29, 1929) from five “proletarian” writers (Serafimovich, Averbach, Kirshon, Fadeyev, Staysky): they declared that those who were spreading doubt and suspicion were “enemies of the proletarian dictatorship” and threatened to “bring them to cowl” — a very decisive step in those days, as we know: And all the rumours were immediately silenced. Soon afterwards Stalin himself, the unchallengeable, described Sholokhov as an “outstanding writer of our time”. There was no arguing with that.

There are in fact people who were alive then and are still living now who are convinced that Sholokhov did not write this book. But, restrained by the general fear of a powerful man and of his capacity for taking revenge, they will never speak their minds. The history of Soviet culture in general can show a fair number of instances of important ideas or literary and scientific works being plagiarized, for the most part from people who had been arrested and perished (by people who had informed on them or been their students), and in virtually every case the true facts remained concealed, while the plagiarists continued to enjoy all their rights unhindered.

Nothing was done to confirm Sholokhov’s authorship or to explain either the speed or scale of his achievement by the accounts of him which appeared in print, whether they were concerned with the way in which he did his creative writing (Serafimovich on this subject: he worked only at night, because in the daytime he was overwhelmed by visitors); or with his method of gathering material—“he often arrives at some Collective farm, and gathers the old men and the young people together. They drink and dance, and tell in-numerable stories about the war and the Revolution . . .” (quoted from [p.7 of the book by I. Lezhnev, Mikhail Sholokhov, Sovetsky pisatel, 1948); or with his handling of historical material, or with his notebooks. And here is another point: no rough drafts or manuscripts of the novel are preserved in any archives, none has ever been produced or shown to anybody (apart from Anatoli Sofronov [Soviet writer and literary official; editor of the popular weekly Ogonyok], who is too biased a witness for his evidence to count). In 1942, when the battlefront came close to the village of Veshenskaya; Sholokhov, as the most important man in the area, could have obtained transport even before the district Party committee did, and evacuated his precious archives. But through some strange indifference, this was not done. And the whole of his archives, we are now told, were lost in the bombardment.

A careful examination of The Quiet Don itself reveals many odd features. Coming from a major literary artist, there are instances of inexplicable slovenliness and forgetfulness: some of the characters simply disappear (the author’s favourite characters, too, the vehicles of his cherished ideas!). There are breaks in personal story-lines; insertions of substantial episodes which have no connexion whatever with the main narrative, and differ in quality; and finally, in a work which displays great literary sensibility, places where passages of the crudest propaganda have been inserted (literature had not yet become accustomed to this in the 1920s).

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Saturday, 21 May 2016

Anna Akhmatova: Grey-eyed king

Inconsolable anguish, I hail your sting!
Yesterday died the grey-eyed king.
The autumn evening was stifling and red,
My husband returned and casually said:
“Back from the hunt, with his body they walked,
They found him lying beside the old oak.
I pity the queen. So young! Passed away!...
In the span of a night, her hair became grey.”
He found his pipe and wandered outside,
And went off to work, like he did every night.
My daughter’s asleep. I’ll bid her to rise,
Only to gaze at her grey-colored eyes.
Outside the window, the poplars unnerved,
Whisper: “Your king is no more on this earth”

The Forgotten Russian: The Genius of Nikolai Leskov

Like fossil fuel, the amount of great Russian literature still underground has to be limited. So here is Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895). Not an unknown writer, but an ignored one. His crude waits in underground caves, reeking of profit. We don't read him because he's the opposite of what we're taught to like. He's a longwinded miniaturist, a man of vague loyalties. He's vague about where he's going. He regales us. His stories pound Chekhovian humanity into a quixotic pulp. He's boring where any competent MFA grad would be interesting. And interesting precisely where all of us are boring.

Leskov was a wounded moderate. Incurring the wrath of the nihilists early, he feinted right. He limped behind Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; he was not a man to keep up a totalizing vision; nor could he, after he reached artistic maturity, put forward a novel of any length. He did everything wrong. He wrote countrified yarns of yawning length. He composed in a style called skaz, which apparently was Russian for narratological lumpiness. To make matters worse, his heroes were square. Think Gogol's "Ukrainian Tales" redone by a Boy Scout who doesn't believe in magic. Leskov's genius lies in the modesty of his narrators, their helplessness before the art of narrative. One character speaks of a storyteller's "complete frankness, which he was obviously quite unable to abandon." "There was no special story," a narrator will say, before falling into a lengthy narrative. One character complains that another "started telling me an enormous story"—as if the size of the story was not a choice of the storyteller.

Subjects that even a kindred 19th-century storyteller like Heinrich von Kleist or Giovanni Verga would burnish for human interest and high moral passion get wonderfully clouded in Leskov's telling. Consider "Singlemind," the story of a cross-country courier who, reading the Bible between towns, becomes a kind of self-taught saint, a stubbornly honest man who improbably rises, becoming a sheriff and finally a decorated nobleman. The whole thing seems like a joke. But not a joke with a point.

Leskov's greatest ambition was to write "stories of righteous men"—not because he was Pollyanna-ish, but because he resisted (and resented) the closure of satire. Insofar as he refused to clarify his politics, or at least was wounded by being labeled (as right-wing), he stood up for the jolliness of muddledom, and equated confusion with innocence.

Subjects that even a kindred 19th-century storyteller like Heinrich von Kleist or Giovanni Verga would burnish for human interest and high moral passion get wonderfully clouded in Leskov's telling. Consider "Singlemind," the story of a cross-country courier who, reading the Bible between towns, becomes a kind of self-taught saint, a stubbornly honest man who improbably rises, becoming a sheriff and finally a decorated nobleman. The whole thing seems like a joke. But not a joke with a point.

Leskov's greatest ambition was to write "stories of righteous men"—not because he was Pollyanna-ish, but because he resisted (and resented) the closure of satire. Insofar as he refused to clarify his politics, or at least was wounded by being labeled (as right-wing), he stood up for the jolliness of muddledom, and equated confusion with innocence.

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The Discovery of Chance - The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen

In the mid-19th-century photographs of Alexander Herzen, he looks appealing: a rumpled Russian nobleman with a straggly beard streaked with gray, his watch chain and waistcoat straining against a full stomach, a look of wistful and gentle melancholy in his eyes.

Tolstoy thought Herzen (1812-70) was one of the finest prose writers of his time, and so did Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. He was also an editor, a political activist and a scathing and ironical polemicist, castigating equally the Russian despots in Petersburg and his fellow socialists in exile in London, Geneva and Paris. In the years between the European-wide revolutions of 1848 and the czar’s brutal suppression of the Polish insurrection of 1863, he was one of the most provocative revolutionary minds of his time. When he was buried at Père Lachaise in Paris in 1870, a mourner exclaimed: “To the Voltaire of the 19th century!” That is not how he has been remembered.

The eclipse of his reputation is a loss, since his greatest works, “From the Other Shore” and “Letters to an Old Comrade,” struggle with an issue of enduring relevance: how to reconcile passionate political faith with unsparing lucidity about history’s cold indifference to human conviction. As someone who lived through the intoxication of the 1848 revolution, only to see his hopes crushed, and who supported the cause of Polish freedom in the uprising of 1863, only to be execrated by Russian friends who turned into anti-Polish xenophobes, he wrote with poignant insight about a perennial theme in politics: how to sustain political hope when your dreams are repeatedly shattered.

While Turgenev sank into misanthropic pessimism when his liberal dreams came to nothing and Dostoyevsky transited from revolutionary agitation to deep-dyed conservatism, Herzen remained true to the revolutionary dreams of his youth, without ever losing what Isaiah Berlin was to call his unsparing sense of reality.

After Herzen’s death, he had the misfortune to be praised by Vladimir Ilych Lenin for his “selfless devotion” in exile to the cause of revolution. Praise from that tyrannous quarter has damaged Herzen’s reputation ever since.

Berlin, who did more than anyone to resurrect Herzen, pointed out how absurd it was to see him as a Communist precursor. Herzen loathed revolutionary violence, and he rejected the argument, first articulated by Karl Marx, that Communism was “the solution of the riddle of history.” He thought this ludicrously hubristic, but Herzen’s reputation has struggled ever since to break free from the iron embrace of the very doctrine he repudiated.

Aileen M. Kelly has devoted her life to the resurrection of Herzen’s reputation, a cause bequeathed to her by Berlin, her mentor and friend. Kelly, now retired, was a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge (we intersected there in the 1980s when I was a research fellow). “The Discovery of Chance” — all 592 pages of it — is her gripping biography of a tragic if courageous life. Kelly chronicles Herzen’s desperate marriage, his guilty infidelities and his grief at the frightful deaths of his children, but also widens her narrative out into a history of the 19th-century Russian intelligentsia and their struggle with a question that engages us to this day: whether Russia’s future is to rejoin the river of European liberty or to follow a separate, Asiatic destiny.

In this debate between Slavophiles and Westernizers, Herzen took a characteristically idiosyncratic position that alienated both camps. He was a convinced Westernizer in his belief in science, knowledge and human freedom, a cluster of convictions that owed a great deal to his contemporary John Stuart Mill. Unlike many Slavophiles, he hated the Russian traditions of despotism and the Russian Orthodox worship of czar and throne. At the same time, like them he was convinced that Russia had to find its own distinctive route into the 20th century. The heart of his socialist faith was a lifelong commitment to the ideal of the Russian peasant commune. He hoped that the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 would lead to the emergence of a network of self-organizing peasant cooperatives. Contemporaries like Ivan Turgenev thought Herzen’s embrace of the peasantry was sentimental foolishness, but in hindsight, Herzen’s instincts were farsighted. He understood that the most urgent task in Russian politics was to find some alternative to capitalist wage labor as the only road into the future. In the event, of course, the road actually taken was catastrophic: forced collectivization of agriculture by the Soviet regime and the ruthless destruction of the Russian peasantry.

Herzen matters today because he thought about the cruel dialectic between hope and history in politics and because he struggled to find Russia its own way into the 20th century. He also matters, Kelly argues, because he was the 19th-century thinker who thought most deeply about the implications of Darwinism for the theories of history that the European intelligentsia inherited from the Enlightenment. Kelly pays attention, as her mentor Berlin did not, to Herzen’s lifelong fascination, begun in his university days in the 1830s, with the science of Darwin’s precursors — Buffon, Cuvier, Lamarck and now forgotten Russian popularizers like M.G. Pavlov. Thanks to his exposure to Darwin’s predecessors, Kelly argues, Herzen was the only Russian socialist who immediately grasped the implications of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” when it appeared in 1859. He realized that evolution overturned the idea of history as a purposive story of progress guided by human intention.

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Friday, 20 May 2016

Tatjana Vassiljeva -Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations

Described as a ‘phenomenon’, Tatjana Vassiljeva is known as a musician possessing an irreproachable technique and irresistible range of sonorities, whose superlative virtuosity is of only minor importance beside the strength of musical personality and ideas, and her ability to communicate them. Tatjana’s innate musical curiosity is reflected by her extensive repertoire which ranges from baroque to contemporary music and includes several works of which she has given the world première.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Aida Garifullina: Casta Diva

Aida Garifullina, Russian opera singer and Honored Artist of the Republic of Tatarstan, was born and grew up in Kazan. Her mother Laylya Ildarovna was choirmaster, and gave first music lessons to Aida. Later, when she studied at the Nuremberg University of Music, she was taught by Siegfried Jerusalem, and then her teacher was Claudia Visca, the professor of the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna.

In January 2013, Aida was invited to the Mariinsky Theatre by Valery Gergiev and made the first appearance there as Susanna in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Then she played Gilda in Rigoletto and Adina in L'Elisir d'Amore. In 2014 she took part in first nights of such operas as War and Peace (Natasha Rostova) and The Golden Cockerel (the Queen of Shemakha). War and Peace performance staged by British director Graham Vick was shown at European cinemas, thus, thousands spectators managed to witness its uniqueness and magnificence, and to notice young soprano’s the talent, according to vast amount of feedback.

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