Vol 1, No 2, 5 July 1999

R O M A N C E   A N D  R E V O L U T I O N:
The St Petersburg Legacy:
A portrait of a city through its poetry and music

Andrew J Horton

Before the October Revolution, the "Acmeist" poets and futurist musicians of St Petersburg frequented a seedy basement known as the Stray Dog Cafe. Long after the cafe's demise, romance and mutual inspiration continued to link their lives and work. As part of the Romance and Revolution season at the Barbican Centre in London, The St Petersburg Legacy - an event which mixed poetry and drama with music - mapped out the personalities and their crossing paths from the pre-Revolutionary days up to the time many see as the death of St Petersburg's cultural scene.

In the West, culture is almost synonymous with entertainment. After all, what is the use of poetry, if it doesn't cheer you up, and what is the point of music, if it doesn't sell. However, in Russia, culture is interpreted differently, with people turning to artists for spiritual guidance and expression of their deepest woes. The artistic history of twentieth-century St Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad/St Petersburg is, therefore, a history of its people and their feelings as much as of the individual artists. It was this story that the St Petersburg Legacy tried to tell.

The protagonists first met in the 1910s at the Stray Dog Cafe in St Petersburg. There, they strove to break away from the nineteenth-century traditions of poetry and welcome "the real, not the calendar, twentieth century". Young poets such as Osip Mandelstam, and Anna Akhmatova recited their poems, mingled with Futurist writers such as Vladimir Mayakovsky and Velemir Khlebnikov and listened to composers such as Arthur Lourie perform their latest avant-garde works.

After a recital of a poem by Mandelstam from the 1920s, the concert at the Barbican backtracked to 1912, to the burgeoning love affair between Akhmatova and Lourie. The latter's interest in poetry at the time is present in his piano piece of that time - Quatre Poemes Op.10, of which two pieces were performed by long-standing exponent of the Russian avant-garde Sarah Rothenberg. The relationship is all the more clear in his settings of Akhmatova's poetry from the same year. Akhmatova's early poetry was dedicated to the often-uncompromising expression of a woman's passion in her search for love, something which would remain unfulfilled in her case.

After the revolution, Lourie became a Commissar for musical education, but his inherently modernist stance rubbed against Lenin's policies; in 1921 he emigrated to Berlin, moving to Paris shortly afterwards, where he became a friends with Igor Stravinsky. In between the two Lourie works, a historic recording of Akhmatova reading her own later poems on themes of exile and emigration showed how much of a lasting impact the departure had on her.

In the 1920s, there was a period of enormous activity in the arts. Whilst the political aims of the October revolution were clear from the beginning, it was not so obvious that it also meant to sweep away bourgeois aesthetics in the arts. Soviet artists were left with a tabula rasa, and the only feeling they had about how to fill the empty space was that it should somehow be done differently than before.

Mayakovsky's play The Bedbug - produced by Vsevolod Meyerhold's avant-garde theatre company in Moscow - was one such work which aimed to be revolutionary in form and content. A satire on the limited degree of free-market economics which Lenin inaugurated as part of his New Economic Policy (NEP), The Bedbug's aim was to richly satirise the vacuousness of Prisypkin, an example of a species the play refers to as bourgeoisius vulgaris.

After a reading of a monologue from the play, a piano trio played a selection of pieces from its suite. The original ensemble reluctantly indulged Mayakovsky's tastes for firemen's bands and relying heavily on the brass, Shostakovich was able to comically evoke the podgy waddling NEP-materialists - an effect which was lost somewhat in the reduction to piano trio.

Nevertheless, the humour of these pieces is instantly apparent. With the clashes of the piano hardly even constituting chords, the whining glissandos on the violin and the beefy rhythms plucked out on the cello in between soaring melodies, the music caricatured the characters in the play as much as did Mayakovsky's words. The infectious humour of the piece was such that the traditional mores of the concert hall broke down, and a relaxed audience felt no shame about clapping energetically in between the movements.

Completed in 1929, The Bedbug was among the last works of Soviet Russia to be saturated in a sincere optimism about the future of the Soviet Union. The second half of the St Petersburg legacy was rather more sombre in tone than the first. As Stalin clamped down, the artistic mood in Russia blackened. Akhmatova almost ceased writing poetry after a semi-official ban on her works, Mayakovsky and the comic film actor Vladimir Fogel committed suicide, Meyerhold vanished without trace - presumably into one of Stalin's work camps - and his wife was murdered by the State. There was no spontaneous applause between movements in this second half of the concert.

Whilst at first the repression silenced, soon it inspired. Akhmatova's son was arrested in the early 1930s and whilst she stood beneath the prison walls with scores of other women shouting up messages for their loved ones, she was recognised by one of the women present. She begged Akhmatova to start writing poetry again to express the suffering of the Russian people under Stalin. As Akhmatova later observed, when she resumed writing poetry, "there could be no return to the previous manner". Whereas her early works were about love and seeking it, her new work 'Requiem' (1935-40) was devoid of any such lightness:

And Russia guiltless, beloved, writhed
Under the crunch of bloodstained boots
Under the wheels of Black Marias

If this work was not already too dark, it was rendered even more so by a historic recording of Akhmatova herself reading from the work. Her firm, hoarse voice was eerily accompanied by the flickering ghostly images of the decaying film which carried the English subtitles. 'Requiem', of course, was not published at the time and only extracts of it appeared in print with official permission before she died in 1966.

That same year, 45 years after they had parted, Lourie died too. He had never forgotten her and continued to set her poems to music, which became increasingly inspired by old Russian tonal forms, such as plainsong, before it petered out during the 1940s and 50s. She had never forgotten him either and he is a constant presence in her poetry, either as a dedicatee or an unnamed character.

As well as Lourie and Mandelstam, the other main person to fill Akhmatova's poetry was her protege Josef Brodsky, who came to public attention with his trial in 1964, which marked the end of the thaw period that followed the de-Stalinisation of Russia. Brodsky, too, was represented at the evening by a historic recording, in English and Russian, of 'May 24, 1980', written as a reflection on his life on his fortieth birthday. Brodsky's voice, like Akhmatova's, gives the poem an unnerving urgency. Speaking in hypnotically rhythmic monotones, he recites the words as if he were some grieving muezzin calling the faithful to a prayer of mourning at dusk.

If Akhmatova's great love was Lourie, then Shostakovich's was his student Galina Ustvolskaya. Probably. Shostakovich is now dead and his memoirs, Testimony, make no reference to her, and Ustvolskaya herself has said little on the matter; what she has said has not always tallied with other people's opinions. What is clear is that for nearly twenty years the two had an intimate friendship, with Shostakovich submitting his scores to his pupil for approval. Then suddenly in 1956, the two parted ways in a bitter and acrimonious split, the details of which are still unclear. Shostakovich unexpectedly married one Margarita Kainova later that year, but Ustvolskaya obviously did not vanish from his mind. A theme from her Clarinet Trio of 1949, having already been quoted by Shostakovich in his 1952 Fifth String Quartet, appeared in his Suite on Verses by Michelangelo. The sparse skeletal tonalities of Shostakovich's later years are also thought to have been inspired by the work of his fo rmer lover.

Disappointingly, the St Petersburg Legacy let the opportunity to play one of these pivotal works in the relationship of these two great composers pass. Instead, Ustvolskaya's introspective Piano Sonata No. 2 was played - the only piece of the evening not to have a connection to another art form and not to be directly inspired by another person.

The final work of the evening, in terms of the performance order, was another work by Shostakovich, this time from his death-laden late period - a far cry from The Bedbug. Six Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva - including the final poem 'For Anna Akhmatova' - is Shostakovich's indirect homage to the great voice of St Petersburg of the twentieth century. Shostakovich never set Akhmatova's poems to music and the two were never even friends. However, they admired each other and Shostakovich's 1973 dedication to the poetess is a reciprocation of Akhmatova's dedication of the poem 'Music' (heard earlier in the evening) to Shostakovich. As well as linking Shostakovich to Akhmatova, Six Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva also links back to Mandelstam, with whom Tsvetayeva once had an affair.

Although Six Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva closed the concert, it did not close the St Petersburg artistic circle. That is commonly thought to have happened in 1972, a year before Shostakovich wrote Six Poems and the year Josef Brodsky was forced into exile. Although Brodsky went on to become a major American poet - as well as being a major Russian one - and won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1987, his departure from what was then Leningrad is symbolically interpreted as being the cultural death of the city. His death in 1996 was the final nail in the coffin, and these days St Petersburg - although a thriving metropolis with plenty of cultural entertainment in the Western model - cannot claim to be the home to inspiring artistic figures of the stature of Shostakovich, Akhmatova or Brodsky.

Andrew J Horton, 5 July 1999

This article is part of a series written to coincide with and to comment on the cultural season St Petersburg: Romance and Revolution at the Barbican Centre in London. Other articles recently published by CER and ENP on this theme include:

The Forgotten Avant-Garde: Soviet Composers Crushed by Stalin

Better to Die a Russian than to Live a Soviet: Sergei and Georgi Vasiliev's Chapayev

Three Ways to Tell the Truth: Cinematic depictions of the Revolution ten years after the fact

More information about the Barbican Centre in London.


Further Reading, Further Listening

Written and performed works listed in the above article can be purchased online from the list below. Also available are spoken word cassettes. Simply click on the link to get more details.

Anna Akhmatova

The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova


Slightly cheaper than the above volume and still contains her most famous works.

Josef Brodsky

A Part of Speech

So Forth : Poems

Joseph Brodsky, Leningrad : Fragments

Brodsky's city depicted through the photographs of Mikhail Lemkhin, with forewards by Susan Sontag and Czeslaw Milosz.

Osip Mandelstam

The Noise of Time : The Prose of Osip Mandelstam (Twentieth-Century Classics)

A Necklace of Bees : Selected Poems

The Complete Critical Prose (Ardis Russian Literature Series)

Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope : A Memoir and Hope Abandoned

Two volumes of moving memoirs from Mandelstam's widow.

Vladimir Mayakovsky

The Bedbug and Selected Poetry

Listen! : Early Poems, 1913-1918 (Pocket Poets Series, No 47)

Mayakovsky : Plays (European Drama Classics)


Spoken Word Cassettes

Fear and the Muse; The Story of Anna Akhmatova

Read by Josef Brodsky

Joseph Brodsky a Maddening Space



Rediscovering the Russian Avant-Garde, Sarah Rothenburg (piano)

Includes the Quatre Poemes by Lourie in a performance by the pianist who devised the St Petersburg legacy concert reviewed above.

Dmitri Shostakovich Six Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva

Ustvolskaya Sonatas and Preludes, Ivan Sokolov (piano)

See also the CER Music Shop for a more complete list of CDs by Russian avant-garde composers.



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