Saturday 13 March 2021

Sleeping Forever Beneath the Dry Earth (Part 2)

Shostakovich, Kondrashin and Yevtushenko after the premiere of
Shostakovich's 13th Symphony in 1962

Below is the second of five parts of my unfinished graphic novel about Shostakovich in the 1960s. If you've arrived here without reading part 1, click here to begin at the beginning.

Part 2 – 1962

DS is in hospital. IG visits.

IG: Are you in to unexpected visitors?

DS: As ever, I make an exception for you, Isaak Davidovich! Alas, you just missed Irina.

IG: I thought I detected a little more colour in your cheeks. Marriage is treating you well.

DS: I find this one much more amenable to my health than the last, present circumstances excepted.

IG: And how pleasant to have a young woman around.

DS: Come now, she has a remarkable intellect, far beyond her years. Please! How rude of me. Just move those books and do sit.

IG picks up the books and sits.

IG: Ah! Another mere babe – Yevtushenko?

DS: A fine young mind, that one.

IG: Along with... Shakespeare... Tolstoy. He’s in exalted company in this little library.

DS: Not perhaps yet on their level, but then, who is?

IG reading from the Yevtushenko book:

IG: “I am terrified/ I feel as old today/ as all Jewish people”. Light reading?

DS: That’s the text for the Thirteenth Symphony.

IG: A symphony now? It grows!

DS: A symphonic song didn’t seem enough. Listen to this – I think you’ll appreciate it.

DS takes the book and leafs through it.

DS: Where is it? Ah… here.  Let me see… “The clergy maintained that Galileo/ Was a wicked and senseless man./ Galileo was senseless.” Yes?

IG: Go on.

DS: “But, as time demonstrated,/ He who is senseless is much wiser.” Do you see?

IG: I’m not sure I do, but do continue.

DS: Of course. “A fellow scientist of Galileo's age/ Was no less wise than Galileo./ He knew that the earth revolved./ But - he had a family.” I nearly laughed aloud at that! No?

IG: Go on, I’m sure I’ll catch on in a moment.

DS: Really, Isaak! It’s quite plain. Anyway. “And he, stepping into a carriage with his wife,/ Having accomplished his betrayal,/ Considered himself advancing his career,/ Whereas he undermined it,” And here we have it: “For his assertion of our planet/ Galileo faced the risk alone/ And became truly great.”

IG: I see, yes. Though Galileo paid a high price.

DS: Yes, but that is the bargain we strike! One doesn’t achieve anything worthwhile by nodding and grinning. And what have we survived, only to speak when spoken to? How many uncounted millions lie without even a gravestone, while we live?

IG: You have a family. I have a family.

DS: Then we move carefully. We move with conscience. But this is a moment to really say something, and at this precise moment I am feeling particularly, and I might add uncharacteristically, brave!


Scene 2

At DS’s apartment. Evening.

Friends and colleagues have gathered for a private performance by DS of the 13th Symphony.

DS stands at a table, away from the others. He looks pensive and leans on the table.

Maxim Shostakovich: It’s filling up in here… Father, a drink?

DS: Ah? Oh, no, Maxim. Actually, yes. Just a small one.

MS pours DS a small vodka and DS chucks it back.

There is a knock at the door.

DS: That’ll be Yevtushenko. Could you let him in? Then we can get on with it.

DS then goes to greet YY.

DS: Yevgeny Aleksandrovich! Thank you so much for coming.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko: I’m honoured beyond all expression.

DS: The honour is ours. This symphony is as much yours as mine! Let me introduce you.

They move to the assembled guests.

DS: My esteemed colleague Kirill Kondrashin.

YY: I’ve enjoyed your concerts often!

Kiril Kondrashin: And I your fine words.

DS: You’ve met Maxim, and I think Irina too, no? Good. Do come and say hello, Ira!

Irina comes forward hesitantly.

Here is my dear friend Isaak Davidovich, and do you know Aram Khachaturian?

AK shakes YY’s hand.

Aram Khachaturian: I was most moved by Babi Yar. At last the silence is broken. Most brave!

YY: Well, my head’s now on the block.

AK: I think Khrushchev more minded to bark than bite. And you gave as good as you got! I don’t remember ever being as fearless.

KK: Yes, the leader seems to have become quite the discerning art lover – did you hear him say he dislikes our generous host’s music and is more of an Oistrakh man?

DS: He must feel most conflicted when Oistrakh plays my violin concerto!


Irina Shostakovich: What was it Khrushchev said about Yevgeny Aleksandrovich?

AK: The leader was giving some of our most talented young artists a public dressing down. Our young hero here spoke out in favour of artistic integrity and the leader retorts “the grave cures the hunchback”! Go on, what did you say?

YY: I replied “No longer the grave, but life.”

MS: Good! I don’t see why a man should be pushed around.

AK: I’m sure you don’t. You’ll understand though if my generation finds our mouths snapping shut in such circumstances through involuntary reflex. Still, Yevgeny, I am impressed by your fortitude in the face of such public criticism.

YY: I’d rather have it said to my face than read about it in the newspaper later.

DS: Believe me, as a veteran of both, I’d say it’s far preferable to learn about it from the paper after the fact!

AK: Dmitri, there will surely be some official criticism of this new symphony.

DS: I do anticipate much valuable reflection on the musical and thematic deficiencies of the piece, it’s true.

AK: And they’re letting the premiere go ahead?

DS: Yes. I am still awaiting Mravinsky’s conformation nervously, however.

AK: He’ll be nervous too. He’s not used to conducting political hot potatoes. Babi Yar is a fine poem with much truth, but it’s hardly the official history.

DS: It’s high time that the Jewish victims were recognised. What’s the point of notoriety if I can’t address the truth?

AK: He will be worried about the consequences for his career. And I wouldn’t blame him.

DS: Are you saying we should back down?

AK: No... I don’t know. But they can make life a lot harder.

DS: And I just nod and grin?

AK: That’s not...

DS: It’s hard to imagine a Gogol or a... Tolstoy sitting at their desk and thinking “how much truth today? Oh I hope they won’t mind if I tell how Borodino really happened.” We go past Babi Yar on the train every time we go to Kiev, and it’s like the poem says. There’s no stone or plaque. Like nothing happened. You know the Nazis told those people to bring all their belongings, to travel. They arrived at Babi Yar in their best coats and shoes expecting a new life. I can’t imagine their pain. And our own government won’t even recognise them.

AK: Dmitri, believe me, I also look to your bravery in awe. I’m afraid 1948 may have fatally compromised my courage.

DS: No, my friend, it weighs on me too. I only hope that what scraps of courage I can muster have done justice to the words, and to the past. Still, Mravinsky will come through, I’m sure. He’s never let me down yet. And bravery is much easier to find in the company of friends. Now, if you’re ready, I’d like to play through the 13th Symphony. I must apologise in advance for the inevitable deficiencies in the performance. My right hand is still weak and I must warn you all that, despite what you might have heard, my voice will be no match for the men of the philharmonic chorus!  I would like to start by reading Yevgeny Aleksandrovich’s poems. This is Babi Yar: “No monument stands over Babi Yar./ A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone./  I am afraid./ Today, I am as old/ As the entire Jewish race itself…”

After the performance

DS: Yevgeny Aleksandrovich, could I borrow your ear? Just a moment.

DS pours a vodka and drinks it, and then another.

DS: Well?


Scene 3

At the Moscow Philharmonic Hall

Kondrashin sees DS walk past his office.

KK: (calling to the door) Dmitri Dmitrievitch, in here!

DS: Ah! Kirill Petrovich! My apologies – I was caught in a sudden shower.

KK: Let me hang your coat above the heater.

DS: I fear the score caught the rain.

KK: Thank you so much for…

DS: No, thank you! I was quite bereft when I heard from Mravinsky. Now, it ought to be impossible to lose a symphony in a bag…

KK: Believe me – the honour will be mine… bringing another Shostakovich symphony into the world…

(points at some paper in the bag) Is that it?

DS: No, loose paper… Ah. Here. Not too damp. Not yet extinguished, despite the best efforts of someone I had come to rely upon!

KK: Everyone at the Philharmonic was surprised by Mravinsky’s decision. Had he see the score?

DS: Yes, and returned it. Do excuse me; I’ve left wet footprints all over your study!

KK: Please don’t worry. Did he offer any explanation?

DS: Yes. He said one should only conduct ‘pure music’, whatever that is. The musical equivalent of crossword puzzle, I imagine. I have begun to wonder if he was only ever beating time in my 8th Symphony – No, I don’t mean this! I am sorry. I’m somewhat hurt, that is all.

KK: Quite understandable. A birth is rather easier for the presence of an experienced midwife.

DS: You are no second best though, dear friend! Such a fine job with the Fourth. A fine job!

KK: Thank you! Now, Dmitri, I must warn you that Mravinsky’s departure is not the only issue with which we may have to contend. He’s cautious, but he’s well established. A young singer may react similarly, faced with such… pressures.

DS: Is Nechipailo not committed? Is he wavering?

KK: No no, Victor’s still with us, at present. I mean simply that it would be wise to consider some… insurance.

DS: Do you have another soloist in mind?

KK: Merely an understudy, with your permission. A fine young bass, Vitali Gromadsky. A little untested, but with huge potential. He’s just upstairs, if you’d like to meet him.

DS: Yes, of course…

KK: (Calls out of the door) Maria… Could you ask Gromadsky to join us? (To DS) Really – I hope I’m not pushing you into this.

DS: No. Quite sensible.

Gromadsky appears at the door.

KK: Ah, Vitali. Have you met Dmitri Dmitriyevich?

Vitali Gromadsky: No. You don’t look as old as I’d heard!

DS: Well… I…

KK: Please, sit, Vitali. Dmitri has written a symphony, based on words by Yevgeny Yevtushenko…

VG: Goodness, that’s brave!

KK: …Victor Nechipailo is due to sing the bass solo role at the premiere and we’re just concerned that he may have… other commitments. Would you consider learning the part, as understudy?

VG: Oh yes! It sounds very exciting.

DS: It is a very serious role and I hope…

VG: …though which Yevtushenko poems is it? I read one about anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union…

KK: Yes, Babi Yar. That’s the title…

VG: Bit odd, I thought.

DS: And odd how exactly?

VG: Well, there isn’t any anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union!

DS: Oh really! What nonsense! There is, and it is an outrageous thing and we must fight it. We must shout about it from the roof tops!

VG: Goodness… I didn’t mean to…

KK: Thank you, Vitali. I’ll be in touch very soon.

Gromadsky leaves hastily.

KK: I’m so sorry. How inexcusable!

DS: No, it was unforgivable to snap as I did.

KK: Shall I find someone else?

DS: There’s no time.

KK: In any case, I’ll ask him to apologise.

DS: No need. But this is precisely why we must be brave, to shake people out of that sort of complacency. He’s young. Maybe we owe it to young men like Gromadsky to forgive their ignorance.

KK: But not their rudeness…

DS: (waves the point aside) Being brave means thickening one’s skin. But I grieve – for what we had to learn, and what is so easily forgotten. We can’t blame Gromadsky. He wasn’t there, during the war. Though neither was I – one of the lucky ones, more valuable alive than in the act of dying. I hope you too were spared from the worst.

KK: I had musical duties. I saw things, in Moscow… but I didn’t have to do them.

DS: I thought we’d looked into the blackest mirror and seen ourselves staring back. But there it is: “there is no anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.”

KK: (points to the score) This will change that.

DS: Perhaps. But to even try I must put so many others at risk.

KK: Every member of my orchestra is with you. Some are nervous, it’s true. But they trust you.

DS: That helps. It does.

KK: Shall we look over the score?

DS: Yes. Let’s! There are one or two issues of balance with which I would very much appreciate your help.


Scene 4:

The final rehearsal before that evening’s premiere. DS and YY are in the hall, listening to KK and the Moscow Philharmonic rehearse the Symphony.

DS approaches the podium.

DS: Is there still no word from Gromadsky?

KK: I’m afraid not. I’d like to run the finale, though…

Assistant: (from offstage) Maestro, urgent call for you.

KK: This might be him now.

KK leaves the stage and takes the phone from the assistant.

Assistant: It’s the minister – It’s actually him.

KK: Kondrashin speaking.

Georgi Popov: This is Georgi Popov. Tell me, Kirill Petrovich: how is your health?

KK: Very good.

A pause.

GP: Is there anything that might prevent you from conducting tonight?

KK: No, I’m in splendid form!

GP: And you have a bass soloist?

KK: Yes, a fine singer.

GP: How fortunate for you. And after Nechipailo was required elsewhere at such… short notice. Tell me: Do you have any political doubts in relation to Babi Yar?

KK: No. I think it is very timely and relevant.

GP: And in your expert opinion, could the symphony be performed without the first movement?

KK: That is completely out of the question. It would distort the form of the work, and besides, it is widely known that Babi Yar is set in the first movement. Missing it would, I can assure you, produce a quite undesirable reaction.

Another pause.

GP: Very well. Do as you see fit.

GP slams down phone. KK holds his head in one hand.

Assistant: Is he cancelling the concert?

KK: Astonishingly, no. They really know how to tighten the screws, though. Not a word about this to anyone. And for pity’s sake, don’t mention it to Shostakovich.

As KK walks back to the podium, DS calls up to him from the auditorium.

DS: Kirill! He’s here! Gromadsky’s appeared! He says he’s just come to hear the rehearsal. He’s no idea what happened with Nechipailo!

KK: Vitali! You could not have chosen a better moment to appear.

VG: What’s happened? Shostakovich was too excited to tell me! Where’s your soloist?

KK: He has been transferred to the opera, at short notice, by the Ministry of Culture.

VG: But surely he is needed here! Has someone not informed the Ministry of their mistake?

KK: Oh don’t worry. They are quite aware. Now, would you feel able to sing the part? Only one rehearsal, I know.

VG: Well, since I’m here, why not!

DS and YY return to their seats in the auditorium.

YY: That was uncomfortably close. Are you alright, Dmitri?

DS: More than a little shaken. I think I have had my fill of drama. I’m not sure my heart, weak as it is, can really take any more of it. Still, our trials are small in comparison with those of the souls we are remembering.

KK: (From the stage) Dmitri – We are going to run the symphony from the top when Gromadsky is ready. Do you have any comments on what we’ve already done?

DS: (calling across the hall) No, everything is wonderful, quite wonderful!

KK: And the dynamics at the start of the third movement?

DS: Very fine, my friend, very fine.

Later. The end of the rehearsal.

DS: Well it’s out of our hands now. I’m sorry – I’m still perspiring feverishly.

YY: I thought it was just me.  I wonder if this is what it’s like when the children leave home?

DS: Not so different. As ever, one hopes one has done one’s duties correctly. Though I don’t recall the threat of arrest hanging over my early attempts at parenting.

DS struggles to his feet as they leave the auditorium.

YY: Can I offer you my arm?

DS: Thank you, but no.

DS and YY exit to the foyer.

YY: Are you walking home?

DS: Goodness – no. My legs aren’t up to it. And my nerves are frayed. Our part in the drama is over, yet still my hands tremble. What a wretched partisan I would have made! No doubt our forest hideaway would have been given away by the nervous chattering of my own teeth.

YY: I sometimes think we are partisans for humanity! Though there’s food at home, so no need to raid some Kulak’s barn!

DS doesn’t react.

YY: Poor taste, perhaps.

DS: No, it’s a good joke. I just quiver at how little we can do, without their permission.

YY: They let us get this far.

DS: But will they let the Symphony be heard again? Will they even unlock the hall doors tonight? They do hold the keys. Our great protest against inhumanity might play only to a few lighting technicians. I don’t remember it feeling like this when I was 30.

YY: There is risk in what we do. How else did you expect it to feel?

DS: It didn’t tug so forcefully on my remaining life. Oh, but this is silly.

YY: It is?

DS: Yes. I am here, trembling with fright when you are the one who broke the silence. Without your bravery, we wouldn’t be here at all.

YY: Yes, I suppose so. But you’ve transformed it into something else now, something beyond my imagination.

DS: Only so much trilling around your fine words.

YY: No, I won’t hear that. I hesitated when you asked for my thoughts, in your apartment. But only because I wanted to hear it whole before telling you what it meant.

DS: Really? I’m afraid I took your hesitation to mean something else.

YY: There’s feeling in the music that I don’t even know how to express. I can only borrow someone else’s words to find any comparison. I thought of Prince Andrei, peaceful and tender and wounded on the field at Austerlitz. “How is it I did not see this sky before? How happy I am to have discovered it at last!”

DS: “All is vanity, all is delusion. There is nothing but stillness, peace.”

DS lifts his hand to YY’s arm.

DS: Thank you, Yevgeny Aleksandrovich. Thank you.

On to Part 3.

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