Thursday, 9 January 2014

St Petersburg 1914



So now I can stick on my CV that I've written a monologue for a famous actor. I've had scripts for two Glyndebourne 'Opera Bites' - a sadly defunct CD series of introductions - read by Fiona Shaw (Bizet's The Pearl Fishers) and Timothy West (Prokofiev's Betrothal in a Monastery), but this one 'for' Jonathan Pryce is slightly different. It seemed like a crazy thing to have to do when Radio 3 approached me to provide a 'musical postcard' from St Petersburg for its series Music on the Brink, about Europe in early 1914. 'Present it like an "I was at a great concert last night" type of thing', I was told, and groaned far too audibly.

Then it came to me. First, why not just snippet from Prokofiev's extensive diary for that year? Not quite the format they wanted. So how about this: write the postcard as from one of SSP's fellow St Petersburg Conservatory student friends, waiting for his climactic participation in the student competition to claim a Schroeder grand piano as prize (he won it playing - in an unprecedented move - his own First Piano Concerto as well as Liszt's transcription of Wagner's Tannhäuser Overture)? That did it: thus I could cover not only SSP's new steps in music but also the ongoing Wagner craze and his first live hearing of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in a Koussevitzky concert. Picture of SSP below is a bit later, from the American period.


You can hear the results this afternoon at some point during In Tune starting at 4.30pm, and thereafter for the next week on the BBC iPlayer, perhaps maybe for all time on this clip added tonight which I've just (23.00) heard (as a matter of personal pique, although I'm assuming Suzy Klein gave a credit in the back announcement, there's none as it stands in the presentation or the broadcast here, which is a bit poor; but what's a script hack compared to a 'star of stage and screen'? UPDATE: my gripe has been answered, the credit added. So I'd wipe the rest of the parenthesis were it not for the sake of the comments making sense).

My mention of a chess game Prokofiev held during the competition with a female rival got cut, but in any case I stopped short of chronicling a simultaneous,  momentous event in his life, his participation in the 1914 St Petersburg International Chess Championships held that April.


I have a fair bit about it in the biography, and there's more in the ever compelling diaries, but until today I didn't know this extraordinary photo existed. That I now do is courtesy of Edward Winter's Chess History website

Spot the composer? I thought I saw him at the back. This partial key from some diligent chess fan made me look again. You'll need to click on the pic to enlarge for the numbers.


1-Alekhine, 2- Janowski, 3-Capablanca, 4-Bernstein, 5-Marshall, 6-Blackburne, 7-Lasker, 8-Tarrasch, 9-Rubinstein, 10-Nimzowitsch, 11-Gunsberg, 12-D.D. Korelev, 13-A.I. Alekhine, 14-J. Taubenhaus, 17-N.A. Znosko-Borovsky, 21-E.I. Talvik, 22-Boris Bashkirov-Verin 23-P.A. Saburov, 24-S.S. Prokofiev, 25-J.O. Sossnitzky, 26-­A.A. Chepurnev, 27-R. Gebhardt, 29-B.E. Maliutin, 31-P.P. Saburev, 33-A. Burn, 35-Vainshtein, 36-P.A. Eftifeev, 37-Lochwitsky, 39-Ed. M. Nabel, 40-P.P. Potemkin, 56-B.Z. Kolenko, 58-Frau Lasker

So that includes not only SSP (24) but also the great contestants whose game was taking place around the time of the picture, Prokofiev's soon-to-be firm friend José Capablanca (3) and Emmanuel Lasker (7), whom the composer compared respectively to Mozart and Bach (see pages 99-100 of my Vol. 1), as well as his feckless chum Boris Bashkirov who wrote poetry under the name of Boris Verin (22). Also in the biog's appendix is the simultaneous chess game victory Prokofiev gained over Capablanca on 16 May.

As for the wider events leading up to the terrible, unanticipated* explosion of August 1914, I've been reading more about them with horror and a heavy heart in between the wit and wisdom of Simon Winder's sequel to his captivating Germania, Danubia.


Oh, the pointlessness not just of the Great War but all those lives lost in the carnage of the Habsburgs' earlier conflicts. What especially makes the heart sink is the shifting Realpolitik which dogs every conflict even today, the principle of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' which afflicted the patchwork of nations and languages making up the ever-shifting Austrian (and Austro-Hungarian) Empire.

Even so, despite all those mid-19th century feckless battles, Winder constantly reiterates, as he did in Germania, how 1900s Vienna didn't especially see itself as the dancer on the abyss it becomes with hindsight. He's fascinated by the social life which leaves none of the traces we use as signifiers - film, music, art, literature.


Winder's most extravagant flights of fancy come in accounts of visits to often melancholy sites around the former empire. Marienbad/Mariánské Lázně gets the 'attractively brittle...pointless fraud' treatment, harmless on the surface and horrible underneath, Winder concluding that section brilliantly: 'This framework for polite, empty circulation, a regulated, closed environment for the right kind of people, now seems to stand for a lost and enviable pre-1914 world, but in practice it has always been toxic and peculiar'.


His paean to the architecture of Budapest Zoo culminates in a delirious ('demented' would be Winder's word, sometimes a bit overused in his second volume) description of the Guinea-Pig Village. Below, the 'faux-Tamerlane' Elephant House, 'possibly the maddest of all Hungarian "Turanian" fantasies about national origins in some vague but grand part of Central Asia, with the unique displacement activity of also granting the nation's elephants a shared Hungarian ancestry'. Winder goes on to tell us how during the brief, unlikely re-alignment with the Ottomans in the First World War the suggestion of a mosque for pachyderms caused offence, so the minaret had to be removed for a bit.


Buy, read, marvel at the lightness with which Winder wears his polymathy. His curiosity is boundless and he's left me with an enormous list of places to see - aforementioned zoo, the perfect Bohemian town of Český Krumlov on the Vltava and Sibiu in Romania right at the top; of literature to read - time to pick up my three-volume Banffy, but also to seek out other Czech and Hungarian novels; of films to see and music to hear (Winder is one up on me in knowing, and making attractive the prospect of listening to, the four Zemlinsky string quartets - shame I couldn't get to any of the concerts in the Hampstead Festival cycle). But to make the full 'follow up' inventory I need to go back to the book and comb through. It's certainly one for the ages.

*A tart commenter takes me to task for the irresponsible use of that word - I reply (see below) that I should have qualified it with the acnowledgment that it was the extent of the explosion, its ramifications, which could not have been anticipated.

35 comments:

Gavin Plumley said...

Great to read that you're the voice behind the voice on this one... but the Great War as an 'unanticipated explosion'? Why the arms race? Why Franz Ferdinand's trepidation at setting foot on Balkan soil at a particularly testy time?

David Damant said...

What an amazing picture of the chess players! What famous names! I always had a soft spot for Alekhine because he used his knights much more than others at his level of play.....Even at the first move. Very appealing to a boy.

As the tsunami of books about 1914 continues to sweep over us, it is useful to bear in mind that most books - nearly all books - are unreliable to an extent which is not obvious when reading them.When dealing with the nuances of relationships the reports of those nuances differ between one author and another. One has to read quite a few to get balance

But one can rely on Michael Howard's description of the characteristics of the ruling elite in Germany - archaic militarism, vaulting ambition and neurotic insecurity. As a result of this - and of course other factors - "The vials of wrath were full" (Virginia Cowles). It is difficult to see any likely action by anyone in 1914 that could have held back the rush of events. And the way the horrid clock of war was being wound up was seen quite a few years earlier though possibly not by the general public(s). I have a document from 1909, when clearly the winding up had already been going for some time - "The trumpet that sounds reveille on the morning of the battle of Armageddon may be sounded at Belgrade" As it was.

Elisabeth F said...

Hallo David, remember our short discussion on "sound of music" on sophie's Blog? so this is amessage to aou and not a comment to this blog but I found no other way to wirte you. Just came across this short statement of Zizek on it: http://www.critical-theory.com/watch-zizek-explain-why-the-sound-of-music-is-fucked/

David said...

As with the 'types' at the time, one's a curt pugilist and the other's a reasoner. Perhaps I should have underlined the degree of 'unanticipated explosion'. But that's way too big a subject best left to rival historians who know more than we do and no doubt I shouldn't even have weighed in on the bigger issues.

Perhaps wisest to stick to the several subjects to hand, not least Winder's relatively little things with big import.

David said...

Good to hear from you, Elisabeth - aren't you the Sophiefriend who held a MaliMali fashion show of sorts in Vienna? I salute you and I put up the comment here because it's not entirely unrelated to the Danubia theme.

But I wonder what you think of the much-respected Zizek, extolled by a Slovenian friend of mine; in spite of which I'd not seen him in action until now.

He's talking total crap, no? As I think the blogger who put up the film acknowledges. First he quotes the ludicrous nitty gritty of the alternative reality Zizek perceives in the film - 'They [Austrians] are presented directly as anti-intellectual, rooted in narrow life work and so on. Now look at how the occupying invading Nazis are represented. They are not mostly soldiers, but managers, bureaucrats, exquisitely dressed, with short mustaches, smoking expensive cigarettes and so on. In other words, almost a caricature of cosmopolitan decadent, corrupted Jews.'And then he points out that many of the creative forces involved in the film were Jews living in America, which rather demolishes the argument. Or does it? What do you think?

Susan Scheid said...

Uh-oh, now the Winder is a book I MUST have, and not only that, but it will likely go to the top of the pile. Must rush to finish my Walser (which is great fun, if slight, but does provide wonderful snapshots of daily life in pre-WW1 Berlin). Your clip, which I've just now listened to, was very cleverly done (I can imagine you groaning at the initial assignment).

David said...

Walser sounds fascinating, Sue - you see how mutual this encouragement to pile up books and CDs is? I'm adding him to the list I have to write in pencil in the back of Danubia. Presumably you read Germania - not sure you recorded your thoughts.

One of Winder's recommendations I HAVE read, and I think I blogged about it some time back, is Gregor von Rezzori's The Snows of Yesteryear. Winder leaves us in no doubt that the terribly trampled over Bukovinan territory was once the headiest ethnic mix of all. The main university in the middle of a Russian/Ukrainian bazaar still sounds like a must to visit.

And thanks for listening - it was endurable at under four minutes. But my toes curled just a bit at what I'd had to do.

David Damant said...

What a splendid "postcard"....you really are clever (did I miss an acknowledgement of your contribution?)But was the phrase " pompous bigwigs", as applied to the members of the Duma, from Prokoviev's diary/letters? If I raise this I hope it is directly relevant and not a "bigger issue"

I fear that one characteristic within strongly anti-democratic regimes is that, frequently, those who disagree give no credibility ( or not enough) to such institutions that emerge in the democratic direction. The Duma in 1914 may have been limited in its method of election but it embodied several elements of representative democracy in its actions and membership ( even the Bolshevists had a few members)and if encouraged was a sensible step to better things. Dismissing the members as pompous bigwigs - that is, turning one's back on the first green suits of democracy, and not cooperating - was unfortunately a reaction in various countries and contributed to later tragedies, not least in that the only anti-regime activists ( if civilised people just walk away from the problem) were the revolutionaries (so poor Russia got Lenin's "dictatorship and terror")

David said...

Do you know I forget now, but if not from Prokofiev it was from an eyewitness account of that evening (I could check but time is pressing). You're right, at least there WAS a duma whereas now it is just a rubber-stamper for Putin's atrocious piling-up of new 'laws' circumscribing every freedom under the sun.

Susan Scheid said...

Indeed I have read Germania, with pleasure, after having been alerted to it by you. I did write a little post on it and other books on the old Prufrock's: here, in the company, among others, of Magris's Danube. I remember making a list of all the author references in Magris's book some time back, but was able to find only a couple--mostly unavailable or out of print, it seemed. I am going to put the Rezzori on my list. I had better learn, though, to read a good bit faster!

newleafsite said...

Dear "script hack" blog friend: I love your musical postcard! Please don't groan at such an assignment! Let them give you more of them: this was so well done, in the best style of old radio programs - an idea which has become so old-fashioned and cast aside that it is new again. I grinned so hard that the grin interfered with my first listening, and I needed to listen twice through. Others have already lauded the accuracy of details and thoroughness of research, leaving me free to exclaim: so charming, and thoroughly enjoyable!

Sorry to develop a habit of commenting on the previous post. It's because of your way of expressing a thought that sticks with one. Last time, you said, almost as an afterthought, "I've planted some bulbs rather late and hope for the best." Snowdrops, the earliest blooms of the year, surprised me this season by sending up their first bud in December, making them the last blooms of the year. And "hope" is the mot juste. I saw the little bud, and a dart of hope pierced. I'm sending prana to your bulbs! -- Elizabeth

David said...

Sue - that exposes my poor memory or inattention; I must flick back. I remember you on Magris, though. I was in Daunt Books this afternoon and found a couple of Walsers, including a family saga with a very Sebaldesque Sebald introduction (ie photos et al). Just snapped it up at half the price from Aphrohead (I want to support 'live' bookshops but the American imports are too expensive that way).

Elizabeth - I'd say you are nonpareil(le) as a blogfriend were Sue not there as equal; I'm poor at accepting compliments so I'll just say thank you.

I have hopes for the bulbs; the rain will have embedded them and then probably we'll get a cold spell and they'll doze for a bit. My Banja Luka tulips in the pot with the weeping mulberry have flourished for the last eight years or more.

Howard Lane said...

David, a great broadcast, notionally fictional but crammed with facts, some of which I already knew if only vaguely, but many new ones, such as Koussevitsky missing the Ballet Russe's Sacre Du Printemps. Poor show for you not being credited. Stravinsky tangentially leads me to the recent John Tavener tributes I have enjoyed, with some really interesting pieces worth further investigation. Stravinsky was a major influence apparently. Best known I suppose for his latter day meditational works, his career explored much greater stylistical variety, musically typecast perhaps not unlike seeing Adams only as a minimalist.

Returning again to Prokofiev and his disc of the week 3rd Piano Concerto - is there a strong echo of Night on Bare Mountain in the first movement's second theme, or is it a coincidence? A blockbusting performance in any case. Followed by a feature on Tippett's piano sonatas, not your favourite I know but bearing comparison with Prokofiev's own "gripping" (Steven Osborne's verdict on Tippett) wrists of steel. And Tippett wasn't a virtuoso like Prokofiev.

Prokofiev beating Capablanca eh? That's an eye-opener. I hadn't heard of Emmanuel Lasker, and wondered if he was connected to Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, in the news recently for her forthcoming Holocaust Day memorial disc with Raphael and Ben.

I won't be adding any books to my current Christmas pile for a bit, which includes an Edward Lear biography (my interest piqued by a Kew Gardens visit to Marianne North's amazing gallery) not even Simon Winder, but probably another echo from 1914, The Trial, as a friend just sent me a link to the Orson Welles flawed but compelling adaptation. Hopefully I will catch up with all of your recommendations one day. "I'd search out every knowledge that I could find,
unravel all the mysteries of mind,
if I only had time" (Peter Hammill, "The Sleepwalkers")

David said...

Ah, Howard, you highlight a blip of the edit past the one where I answered their queries: 'Sergei' meant Prokofiev, not Kousi, which would have been clear if they'd used my 'Seryozha' (I don't think anyone would have called the conductor that by this stage in his career). Thus: 'Seryozha, who hadn’t manage to see the Rite danced by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes when he went to Paris and London last year, was in ecstasies over the Adoration of the Earth'. 'Cos SSP's first visit to the west was in 1912.

I don't know about the PC3 theme being related to the Musorgsky but the opening of the Rite of Spring certainly is (to the 'pipings' at the end once the hordes have vanished). It pops up a lot in very late 19th/early 20th century scores, even if it wasn't played so much. BTW the pianist Barbara Nissman pointed out a fascinating correspondence between the piano glissando into Var. 1 of the central movement and the beginning (in the piano score) of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue - very possible; Gershwin knew and respected SSP.

Tippett I'm warming to and want to go hear Osborne play more of the sonatas. We're embarking on King Priam in the opera class - as far, chronologically speaking, as I care to go in his works.

If you're interested in the Prokofiev-Capablanca game you need to add Vol. 1 to your reading list... I'm afraid I don't know of any connection (likely) between Lasker the chess-player and ALW.

Love the Hammill quotation.

David Damant said...

If you google for Capablanca v Prokoviev 1914 Chessgames ( "A Major Upset") you can go through the game move by move on a chess board on the screen. Rather good

David said...

Well, I suppose that's better than plain old moves in a book. But there they are in the appendix, and I did consult an expert - before I knew you, Grand Master Damant - to make sure they were correct.

Howard, although I couldn't find any explicit reference in Anita Lasker-Wallfisch's Inherit the Truth about her uncle Edward's profession, I think from a photo he must be the same chess champion. As his mother was born in America, he took up residency there in 1914, avoiding all the horrors Anita recounts. Also the inventor of the mechanical breast pump (hence being dubbed 'the chest player'). He died in 1981, well into his 90s.

David Damant said...

If you are still in touch with the expert, could you consult him on a point which strikes me about that game ? It seems to amateur little me that Capablanca was a bit aggressive, maybe taking risks which he would not have taken had he rated his opponent higher - thus I wonder if he rather underestimated Prokoviev and expected to win.

David said...

I suspect your skill in chess is equal to, or greater than, oor Jonny Brown's. But I can ask him, of course.

jonny brown said...

Oor Jay Bee here!
This very exciting, the first time I have posted a comment on a blogg.
I agree with David Damant's theory; and inasmuch as these quips make sense the old Capablanca/Mozart Alekhine/Bach parallel is attractive - here for the fact that Mozart's capacity for whimsy & even perhaps not quite aggression but certainly 'bite', might find an echo in Capablanca's relish for some fun at the expense of (the yes, under-rated) Prokoffief.
Now I seem to have to prove I'm not a robot.
jb

Howard Lane said...

The dangers of googling - I looked for E Lasker and found Emmanuel not Edward! Oh yes Prokofiev Vol 1 is already on the list, and Edward Lear has fallen off I think - a fascinating man but a rather over-dense biog. Now onto Howard Goodall's "The Story of Music".

Regrettably Hammill's opera "Fall of the House of Usher" is unlikely to be produced by the great man himself, now in his 65th year (but showing no signs of retiring, still composing, recording and touring!) although fans might club together to start some sort of crowd funding campaign.

David said...

Oor Jonny - if anyone is not a robot, it is you. Thank you. And here's a puff: should anyone be free and in Auld Reekie on 9 Feb, JB is talking to the Wagner Society of Scotland on Parsifal - of which he knows at least 100 more recordings than I do, including ALL the Knas - ar 7 for 7.30 at the Edinburgh Society for Musicians. I hope to be able to hang around for long enough after Scottish Chamber Orchestra birthday concert to catch it.

Oh, the Lasker tangle, Howard...it was Emanuel at the St P tournament (as I would have realised if I'd looked at my own book). Edward, who claimed to be related, meanwhile was forging his own reputation at the same time. Emmanuel had a tougher time of it in the 1930s - from the Hitlerian frying pan into the Stalinist fire, having gained Soviet citizenship. Luckily he got out of that one too.

David Damant said...

On Alekhine/Bach, can I ask JB to use a blog for the second time to say whether the complex " move brilliantly from here to there now" inventions in Bach (take the Brandenburgs) parallels the use of knights by Alekhine ? (Or maybe I exaggerate Alexhine's use of knights?)

Having come to Lear via the owl and the pussycat I was later astonished by his pictures. "The Pictures of Egypt were Bright on the Wall" Redolent of the period ( whether Egypt or not).Would suggest a catalogue raisone rather than a biography

David said...

Prokofiev's comparisons were Capablanca to Mozart and Lasker, not Alekhine, to Bach, if that makes any difference. Jonny's put another spanner in the works there. Personally my knowledge of the players is so shaky that I've no idea if Alekhine would be Bach-like too.

Lear's watercolours of his travels are often exquisite: the book I wanted was travel diaries + watercolours, but I've never got round to buying it.

David Damant said...

BUT - was this a "simultaneous match" .....that is, Capablanca versus several? That would explain Capablanca's rather too swift plays

David said...

Yes, I believe it was.

Susan Scheid said...

Well, I have to say I love this explosion of "chess talk," even if I can't begin to participate. My brief excursion into chess, through a high school friend who wanted to learn to play and asked me to play along, ended when said friend, in a fury over her position on the board, solved the problem by knocking the board over, sending the pieces scattering. Nothing to do with my prowess, and I don't think I was even "winning" at the time. I had no idea what I was doing then . . . and so it remains.

David said...

You're in good company, Sue - as a mathematical maladroit, I never did grasp the finer nuances. But I love it when superior chess minds like SSP's, Jonny's and Sir David's lift a veil on a world mostly closed to me. And one of my favourite films is a half-hour Russian silent called 'Chess Fever', in which an obsessive sees a chessboard in everything. There are even clips of the 1927 conference, during which Shostakovich apparently took on a friendly private game with Alekhine and was trounced.

David Damant said...

Tonight (January 16th) Shostakovich's Seventh (the Leningrad - stemming from the siege in the forties) will be on BBC Radio 3 at 8 20 ( in a programme starting at 7 30).

It is compelling to reflect that the Russians are so good at chess but not bridge , and the Italians at bridge but not chess.

Susan Scheid said...

Oh, I love this! And of course it’s on the internet, here. I’m wondering is this the original “soundtrack,” and, if so, who wrote it?

David said...

Sorry, Sir D, I was in Glasgow talking about the very first Shostakovich symphony, which was later conducted (excellently, as far as the work allows) by the great Donald Runnicles, at around the same time as Semyon Bychkov conducted the Leningrad. It's a bit of a party piece of his, but I especially wanted to hear Mrs B, aka Marielle Labeque, with her sister Katia in the astounding Martinu Concerto for Two Pianos.

Anyway, we had Lars Vogt doing fascinating, if occasionally mannered, things with Grieg's Piano Concerto. The programme was a little lightweight - there was also a so-so tone poem by Aaron Jay Kernis which I felt Runnicles oversold ever so slightly in his personable intro - but peerlessly done. And the piano sounded so wonderful in Glasgow's City Halls.

Sue - I haven't had time to check but I'd be certain it's not the original score (probably it's the same one as on my import DVD). I have a burning desire to play silent piano in a special screening (which will require a bit more work than another wish, to play the chinese cymbals in the Queen Mab Scherzo from Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette).

David Damant said...

The concert (with Martinu in the same programme as the 7th) is hearable for some days on Radio 3

Susan Scheid said...

Your burning desire is priceless! (Sounds right to me that I'm not hearing the original soundtrack for Chess Fever.) Now, on another topic entirely, I've just discovered and read your article on Richard Strauss in the new issue of BBC Music Magazine. Home run! Of course I love your "blowing to bits" comment on serialism in the very first paragraph. I've posted an alert to it on FB and in my "Great Composers" group, which has been having a little discussion about a Guardian article on Strauss. Let the 150th anniversary fireworks begin!

David said...

Yes, David - and so is the BBCSSO concert which I believe was broadcast from Aberdeen tonight in a repeat of the Glasgow concert (except for the very so-so Kernis piece being replaced by stout and steaky Cockaigne Overture). I might listen to the Martinu but I can't face the Leningrad, however good, for another year at least (and then only live). I do so despair at the hackwork of the finale. But its historical importance is everything.

Glad you enjoyed the Strauss piece, Sue - it just flowed, as such things do when one's fully in possession of, and in love with, the subject. Of course we shall hear a tiresome amount about the chequered relationship with the Nazis over the year, though there's no doubt whatsoever RS despised the 'barbarians', as he called them. Hero, though, he wasn't.

Susan Scheid said...

Do I read correctly that you gave a talk about Shostakovich's First Symphony? That would have been great to hear, particularly now that I've heard V. Jurowski conduct it live, along with selections from New Babylon and Hypothetically Murdered, demonstrating that "high" and "low" art are not always so far apart. (Speaking of silent film music, for Chess Fever, the composer is credited at the end, and not notable--1993, Roger White.)

David said...

Yes, I did, putting it in the context of other teenage masterpieces, indulging myself with a bit of Rachmaninov's Aleko before coming closer to the point with Shostakovich and Prokofiev playing their own early inspirations, and hoping to bookend it with the tune DDS may or may not have written aged nine, the one he uses at the end of the Michelangelo Suite (I fancy what he told Khrennikov may have been a smokescreen for a satirical transformation of the banal finale theme in Beethoven's Fifth).

The performances in the concert were superlatively good, but I still don't think Shostakovich One should fill a second half, and I still reckon the finale doesn't know what to do with itself. Not bad for a 17-19 year old, though.