Tuesday, 11 May 2010
Prince Andrey greets the Spring
As I left Noelle after what turned out to be our last meeting at the end of February and said goodbye to her husband Chris at the edge of Greenwich Park, I was struck by a gnarled old tree (a Spanish chestnut, I think) looking out over London from the top of the hill*.
I snapped it without any thought for a telling link. But as I walked up the other side of the park yesterday towards the Church of Our Ladye Star of the Sea for Noelle's funeral service, I couldn't help remembering how bitterly cold, if intermittently bright and promising, it had been on that late winter morning, and how green and lush now on a not quite balmy May day.
And then I knew what it all reminded me of: Prince Andrey Bolkonsky in Part Three of Tolstoy's War and Peace twice noting an oak on his estate . Here's what the oak tree tells him on his first visit:
'Spring and love and happiness!' this oak seemed to say. 'Are you not weary of the same stupid, meaningless tale? Always the same old delusion! There is no spring, no sun, no happiness! Look at those strangled, lifeless fir-trees, everlastingly the same; and look at me too, sticking out broken excoriated fingers, from my back and my sides, where they grew. Just as they grew; here I stand, and I have no faith in your hopes and illusions'.
And then again in early June, after his visit to the Rostovs at Otradnoye and his first glimpse of Natasha:
The old oak, quite transfigured, spread out a canopy of dark, sappy green, and seemed to swoon and sway in the rays of the evening sun. There was nothing now to be seen of knotted fingers and scars, of old doubts and sorrows. Through the rough, century-old bark, even where there were no twigs, leaves had sprouted, so juicy, so young that it was hard to believe that aged veteran had borne them.
'Yes, it is the same oak', though Prince Andrey, and all at once he was seized by an irrational, spring-like feeling of joy and renewal. All the best moments of his life of a sudden rose to his memory.
Much of this is cleverly condensed by Prokofiev and his new love Mira Mendelson in the first scene of his operatic War and Peace. Hvorostovsky's Andrey will certainly do to express the sentiments, though as this is a dimly filmed Tokyo performance, the subtitles, I'm afraid, are in Japanese, and the lovely opening theme, drawn from Prokofiev's abandoned incidental music for a stage adaptation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, has its wings clipped.
Well, as Tolstoy and Prokofiev knew only too well, such feelings don't last; joy and sorrow merely alternate. Although Noelle's funeral service, which turned out to my surprise to include a full Catholic eucharist, couldn't have been more elegantly organised - and of course our dear friend had a hand in the arrangements herself - it did prove more emotionally draining than I'd anticipated.
Wonderful to hear recordings of Noelle conducting the choir in which I once sang, the Kalina, and the Goldsmiths Chamber Choir in Russian ecclesiastical music by Arkhangelsky, Chesnokov and Kastalsky (we had the basses and the lingo, GCC a much surer sense of tuning and brighter sopranos). Deeply stirring, too, to hear Chris and son Tom deliver eulogies. Afterwards some of us sat to hear through to the end the Borodin Quartet's performance of the bittersweet slow movement from Borodin's Second String Quartet.
Wish I could have stayed on for the reception, since I'd fondly glimpsed old faces from Goldsmiths and didn't have time to talk - foolishly, perhaps, I was off to teach my Meistersinger class. But Noelle, with her motto of constant activity, would have approved of that. Also I thought I might have been unwise in clinging to an evening arrangement to see Khrzhanovsky's Brodsky fantasia-film A Room and a Half, but that turned out to be exactly the right sort of beatific masterpiece. More on it soon.
Oh, and if anyone who couldn't attend would like me to send them an order of service, I took five extra copies, so do let me know.
*Chris, on seeing this, told me that it was Noelle's favourite tree. Spooky, no?