Monday, 6 November 2017

7 November, 1917 and Prokofiev

Tomorrow will be Revolution Day on BBC Radio 3 - it's the actual anniversary of 'Oktyabr', Russia in those days having a calendar which was 13 days behind the one operating in the west. I've scripted a selection of what I think are very vivid excerpts from Prokofiev's diary for 1917, editing down ruthlessly if regretfully to fit five three-minute sequences which will pop up during the day - don't know when exactly - read by Sam West. I hugely admire Anthony Phillips' three-volume labour of love - not only has he translated everything, but the footnotes are a literary marvel in themselves - but as I was going about excerpting it struck me that he didn't always stick to the pith of Prokofiev's laconic style.

So I translated myself, indebted to his lead, and the work took me in to the thick of February Petrograd, where Prokofiev's curiosity led him around the seemingly random heart of the action around Liteiny and Nevsky Prospekts, Palace Square and the Fontanka Canal during the first Revolution of the year. He spends five pages meticulously detailing the movements of people, soldiers, Cossacks and revolutionaries, chronicling his route so that if you know the centre of St Petersburg well, you can follow it exactly.  For my selection, I started with a picture of his musical and social life in early 1917, leading up to the first of the disturbances. When it came to the full account of the evening upheavals on 27 February, I had to edit down substantially. I thought I'd insert a couple of the passages you won't hear read tomorrow, because they're equally good and vivid. 

Again I found myself on the Field of Mars – only now it was much darker. On the far side of the square, by the Troitsky Bridge, a crowd was shouting ‘Hurrah!’. Firing was audible. I quickly made my way, almost running, across the square. I wasn’t wearing galoshes, and my feet slipped on the icy pavement. At one point I slipped so badly I could hardly keep upright and grabbed at the arm of a passing colonel He quickly turned around to see me. I said, ‘I’m sorry, I seem to have alarmed you’.  The colonel replied, ‘On the contrary, I was alarmed that you might fall’. And he continued: “Why are you running? The bullets will catch you anyway. Look, I’m not hurrying’.

I could have answered him that if one crosses a square in one minute rather than three, then one has three times less chance of being hit by a bullet. But I was not in the mood for debate, and said: ‘Yes, but I’m in a hurry’, bowing and moving on...Having come near to the ‘Mir isskustva’ Exhibition Hall, I thought that it might be easier to go and spend the night at Dobychina’s, since there so much firing on the palace side that it seemed pointless to carry on that way. At first I resolved to slip along the Yekaterinsky Canal; it seemed quiet there and there was no reason to expect a disturbance on that street.  

As soon as I reached the canal, than there appeared on the other side a crowd of soldiers surrounded by workers. They were shouting and singing, and heading towards the Field of Mars. Clearly this was a part of the army that had gone over to the revolutionaries’ side. Making use of the fact that the canal was between us, I quickly made for the Church of the Saviour of the Blood, reasoning that in the case of gunfire breaking out, I would be able to shelter behind its walls. I asked people I met if it was possible to cross Nevsky, and replies varied: some said it was possible if one ran quickly, others said it was frightful. One woman said: ‘Don’t go there. There are folk on the rooftops firing their revolvers at anything they encounter.'  

I didn't give this much credence and pressed on. People appeared out of the darkness like greyish ghosts. I decided that I too must appear like a ghost, and they couldn't possibly fire at every phantom.

Regrettably I also had to skip some vivid details Prokofiev gives of the morning after, only mentioning in passing how he helped to save a plain-clothes policeman from lynching. 

There are plenty of photos and paintings of officers and policemen being arrested - the one above brings it all specifically to life, though the below painting of generals being carted off is vivid reportage too.

So here's the text in question.

On the Fontanka huge fires were burning fiercely. They were destroying the home of a divisional police chief. Out of a third floor window flew green sofas, tablecloths and whole cupboards full of papers. The cupboards created a specially strong impression as they slowly hovered over the window sills before toppling over, wheezing somewhat, and falling to the pavement, straight into the bonfire. The cupboard would break up, the glass doors shattered into pieces and whole swarms of papers rose upwards in the fire and the wind above the entire building. The crowd made a spiteful racket. Cries were heard: ‘bloodsucker! It’s our blood you’ve been sucking!’ I did not sympathise with the mob. The violence depressed me. I wondered whether the policeman’s family had escaped the pogrom. 

In the afternoon mama and I went to look at revolutionary Petrograd, which had taken on a very festive air. At Gostinny Dvor there was another incident involving a policeman: I saw how two students were dragging off a fat old grey-haired man in civilian clothes, accompanied by an infuriated crowd who were crying out ‘A plain-clothes copper!’ People came running from all directions to look, and I thought it would not go well for him. Then someone shouted ‘ no lynch law!’ and now I too started to yell ‘no lynch law!’ Some folk joined me, but others cried out ‘Kill him!’ and pushed their fists into his face. He tried to speak, but it seemed saw nothing in front of him. One of the number of us who had been against lynching cried: “surround him with soldiers!’

But the soldiers couldn’t force their way through the enraged mob. The policeman was on quite a high-level section of pavement, a few steps away from me. With all my strength I pushed backwards and repulsed a few folk from the pavement. The soldiers managed to rush into the clear space and reached the policeman. Thus he was separated from the crowd and was more or less safe. I found Mama and we went on our way. 

In my last sequence, I tried at first to take the pith from the rest of Prokofiev's diary entries for the year, but could only in the end summarise his time in the country outside Petrograd working on the 'Classical' Symphony and the First Violin Concerto without a piano, and his river trip down the Volga and Kama. I did manage to slip in his crucial decision to turn back to sunny Kislovodsk in the Caucasus, where he'd been staying with his mother, when his train met another in slushy Minelniye Vodiye carrying grim reports of the cities to which he was heading. And the final entry for the year is pithy, too.

For documentary realism on the October Revolution, silvered with artistic mastery, you have to watch as much of Eisenstein's October as has been assembled in recent years. I didn't realise what a total masterpiece it is until I saw it at the Barbican the other week with a special live 'performing version' of Edmund Meisel's original score, though there's actually no such thing since what he composed wasn't used in Leningrad or Berlin. 

What Bernd Thewes has done from close examination of the manuscripts for 90-piece orchestra - on this occasion, the LSO - is nevertheless a marvel, and though no composer could ever reflect Eisenstein's montage whizzing, in this case around the gorgeous objects in the Hermitage, where he had free rein in 1928, the blocks of mechanistic sound fitted the film supremely well. Three cheers to Kino Klassika for presentation of this giddying spectacle. Much more about it here on The Arts Desk.

UPDATE (10/11) My producer, Michael Rossi, has sent me a link to the six clips, which you can listen to here. They should be among the highlights by Monday. I heard some splendid things on the day itself. Tom Service's afternoon guests included Marina Frolova-Walker - she's always perfect on interesting chapter and verse - and he played some extraordinary music, including a sequence of shorter avant-garde pieces and the UK broadcast premiere of Mosolov's riotous Symphonic Poem. Katie Derham had a balalaika player and a theremin among the visitors to In Tune, and the Royal Liverpool Phil performance of Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony in the evening was excellent.


David Damant said...

The Russian Orthodox Church has not given up the old calendar, so that the Russian Christmas Day is on 6th January. Quite a bore doing business in Moscow when one's Western colleagues disappeared about 20th December and by the time they came back one's Russian colleagues had in their turn disappeared.

In turning the first revolution ( Kerensky et al) into the Bolshevist revolution Lenin showed amazing judgement.

David said...

The plus of different calendars is that if you share faith events with other Christians, you can celebrate Christmas twice. In Isfahan we were joined at the Anglican Church's celebrations by some very glamorous Armenian ladies, who would be marking their own festivities in January, too.

Amazing judgment indeed from Lenin - but tragic.

Susan Scheid said...

Your TAD review of the screening of October, with live orchestra, makes clear how powerful and fascinating that experience was. The diary excerpts are remarkable, on so many levels, not least Prokofiev's description of his moment of citizen heroism ("With all my strength I pushed backwards and repulsed a few folk from the pavement. The soldiers managed to rush into the clear space and reached the policeman. Thus he was separated from the crowd and was more or less safe. I found Mama and we went on our way") offered in such a way as to seem part and parcel of an ordinary evening stroll.

David said...

Yes - it's interesting; on Friday night I had the great privilege at a big supper organised by friends supper of meeting Murray Bail, author of 'Eucalyptus', a novel I adore, and as an avid reader of composers' writings he's devoured all three volumes of the Prokofiev Diaries in translation. He said it made him end up disliking SSP, and not even (for a while at least) not wanting to read his music. I feel it's a complex picture, and while folk are ready (not Murray) to jump to the conclusion that there's a degree of autism in Prokofiev's behaviour, that 'citizen heroism' contradicts it. As do countless other surprising acts of engagement and kindness. By that point in the February narrative you too are persuaded that these events are part and parcel of the new daily life, but the description of being caught out on the streets during the firing is vividly alarming.

Andrew Morris said...

These were a pleasure to hear today, not least because I'm a massive Samuel West fanboy. Wonderful - thank you!

larrymuffin said...

Thank you for this post David, wonderful as always.

David said...

Glad you caught them, Andrew - I only heard one, in the middle of Tom Service's very good afternoon programme, and I liked how it had been done - the music was well inserted. I gather they should be up on the iPlayer soon. Did you hear Mosolov's Symphonic Poem? Wackissimo. And thanks, Laurent - pleased to see Will has done a bit of Revolution Day cross-referencing.

Susan said...

David: I've now listened to all the Prokofiev Diary excerpts on BBC. They are wonderful. Your commentary, the way they are produced and presented, and the texts themselves (do I understand correctly that the translations are yours? If so, an additional set of bravos to you) offer an uncanny sense of immediacy.

David said...

Thanks, Sue. I think Sam was an excellent choice - one of my first suggestions, but a Russian actor got used and scotches along the way - and Michael chose and inserted the musical examples well, on the excerpts I've heard (still to listen to all). And yes, that was my translation, for reasons explained in the blog piece above.