Like the last ray of May

On the music stand of my piano stands open an old book of piano music. Chopin. Preludes and Impromptus says the yellowish title page in Russian. Browse carefully! the pages inside became frail with time and somewhat bleached, but as befits any eternal work, Chopin’s notes are clearly legible. The score the book is open at bears number 20 — Prelude No. 20 in C minor, opus 28.

This book belonged to my grandmother Enna. She used to be a very talented pianist. Born in 1933, she became part of the collateral damage on Stalin’s way to the Soviet paradise. One night unidentified NKVD agents knocked on her family’s door, shot their dog, and took away her mother (her father was already dead by that time.) Десять лет без права переписки — Ten years without the right of correspondence, the formula said. That was a Soviet codename for a headshot it an anonymous dark hazy basement.

The four-year-old girl was adopted by her parents’ colleague, an unmarried lady who would become my great-grandmother Anna. In those years of terror when people were afraid of accidentally putting a tea mug on top of a newspaper with a print of their beloved Leader’s face (five years of strict regime detention), adopting two “people’s enemies’” daughter was an act of unbelievable courage. We all learned that she was not our biological grandmother only after she passed away in 1987 — her foster daughter Enna kept this fact in secret for forty years! And she was reluctant to talk about her past long after the fall of the Berlin wall.

Amidst the famine and the misery of the Soviet “collectivization,” grandmother Enna’s father, a microbiologist, was tasked with fighting the spreading infectious diseases. Anna recollected how trains steamed at full speed with closed windows through the stations emptied of people with lone black ribbons flying high on the poles. Plague. Antibiotics didn’t exist yet, and they wouldn’t have been our method anyway. My real great-grandfather witnessed how the Red Army stopped an epidemic from spreading — with bombs and flamethrowers. He knew that a knock on the door in the middle of the night was just a few days away, and injected himself with a lethal dose of anthrax spores. He worked with dangerous pathogens all the time, and that could have passed as an innocent accident. With the uncomfortable witness dead, he thought, his wife and family would be spared. It was a perfect plan that my great-grandfather executed with cold-blooded determination… except that it didn’t work.

Nothing remains of these two lives beside a pair of old passport photographs. Alexander and Polina Alexeyev. I sincerely don’t know whether this story is completely trustworthy or if some details are the fruit of my grandmother’s imagination. I fear the truth has vanished forever with the Alexeyev couple.

Then there was war and a rushed journey away from the frontlines into the bulk of the bleeding Soviet Union. Many days on the railroad that ended in the remote Almaty (then Alma-Ata) in Kazakhstan where Anna settled with her adopted child. There, deprived more or less of everything, my grandmother Enna studied music and was quite amazingly good at it. As a teenager, she even played for the radio and nothing was more certain in her life than a career in the realm of harmonies and melodies.

One day unidentified NKVD agents knocked again on grandmother Anna’s door in Almaty and invited her to a friendly chat with one of the local bosses. That wasn’t an invitation she could refuse. They wanted to round up the musical ensemble my grandmother Enna was playing in, and needed her foster mother to snitch on the director. Anna refused. They explained that they would retaliate against her daughter. She still refused and, surprisingly, they let her go.

On that day, when grandmother Enna returned from high school, she found her mother ten years older with a visibly ill face. “Pack your suitcase and take the first train to Moscow you can find a ticket for” she commanded. Anna was right in her calculations — the hands of the local NKVD couldn’t reach that far and both women remained unharmed. But that was the end of my grandmother’s pianist career — she did a Ph.D. in chemistry instead and spent her professional life in the analytic lab studying polymers and monomers.

Her piano stood proudly in her living room — perhaps, as a bitter reminder of what she could have been. As a child, I remember writing with a violet chemical pencil in a clumsy kid’s calligraphy the names of the notes, as I understood them, right in the middle of the ivories: до, ре, ми, фасоль (fasol’ — beans)… But I never ever heard her playing.

Her ensemble didn’t fare well, though, despite grandmother Anna’s refusal to cooperate with the authorities. All the members vanished somewhere in Stalin’s lagers; only the violinist re-emerged from Gulag some ten or fifteen years after.

Anna’s brother happened to be a former Stalin’s classmate in the Nizhny Novgorod seminary (and, unlike Koba Jughashvili, he did finish it and was ordained as priest.) This fact wasn’t exactly favorable for life expectancy in the Soviet Union — all former Stalin’s classmates and burglar friends vanished very quickly when he took power. And the Republic needed no priests. Anna’s brother was, of course, arrested but somehow managed to escape through the hole in the toilet and probably lived under a false identity the remainder of his life. Many decades later, Anna met him in the middle of the street in Tomsk where she was attending a scientific conference. They recognized each other, said no words, and each continued on their way… to never see each other again. Those were mad times in a wild country!

They never talked about politics, yet my grandmother Enna remembers vividly that when Stalin died in 1953, her mother only commented “сдох наконец кровавый пёс” (finally dead, the bloody hound.) She was an iron woman, indeed. Unfortunately, I knew grandmother Anna only when she was already lost in the darkness of her senile mind, and I was mindlessly cruel to her as only little children can be. Today, knowing her story, I feel nothing but profound admiration. I have a photograph of her standing behind her microscope dressed in white (she was a veterinary doctor and a microbiologist), with the selfsame determined expression on her face that she must have had when she took the orphaned child to her home. I think it was that silent courage that Mandelstam — another bloody hound’s victim — called “тихая моя свобода” (my quiet freedom.)

Despite her egregious courage and her silent but stubborn disobedience, I don’t think grandmother Anna was a freedom fighter. I actually have no doubt — she was surely scared to death. And, yet, she was prepared to risk her freedom — and potentially her life too — rather than betraying her friends and her daughter. How many such anonymous quiet freedoms were crushed by the wheels of the Soviet train steaming full ahead into the bright future?

Of course, some of them have names — even very illustrious ones. I already mentioned Osip Mandelstam who in his self-destructing act of freedom challenged the Kremlin’s Highlander — that infamous epigram has cost him his life. Another poet that liked to depict himself as a Soviet martyr was Boris Pasternak. His martyrdom is really moving — Pasternak insisted on maintaining his free will and was — so it seems — genuinely surprised when he was denied membership of the highly privileged and well-paid Writers’ Union. Poor fellow — no apartment in Moscow, no suburban dacha, not even an all-included travel to Sochi. He had to reduce himself to manual labor to survive. This makes me wonder: did Pasternak really expect to be on the government’s payroll and remain a poet? One of the Strugatsky brothers’ characters once brilliantly noted in this regard:

Господин президент считает,что купил живописца Р. Квадригу. Это ошибка. Он купил халтурщика Квадригу, а живописец протек между пальцами и умер. Mr. President believes that he owns the painter R. Quadriga. He’s wrong. He owns the hackman Quadriga, while the painter has leaked between his fingers and died.

Almost antithetical to Pasternak was Joseph Brodsky, whose pursuit of freedom was entirely of a different kind. He was a sort of an innocuous sharp-tongued hooligan who dared to show his middle finger to the authorities. As he himself wrote in his “Venetian” poem Лагуна (Laguna):

Скрестим же с левой, вобравшей когти,
правую лапу, согнувши в локте;
жест получим, похожий на
молот в серпе, — и, как черт Солохе,
храбро покажем его эпохе,
принявшей образ дурного сна.
So let us place the left paw, sheathing its claws,
in the crook of the arm of the other one, because
this makes a hammer-and-sickle sign
with which to salute our era and bestow
a mute up-yours-even-unto-the-elbow
upon the nightmares of our time.

Brodsky didn’t hold a particularly high opinion about himself in the capacity of a freedom fighter, and always protested when others tried to portray him as such. In his poem Piazza Mattei he uses the self-disparaging phrase “я пасынок державы дикой с разбитой мордой” (I am the stepson of a wild power with a bruised face) to describe the very expected outcome of his “fight” in rather unequal weight categories. His concept of freedom is captured so amply in the last verses of that poem (They are, as everything Brodsky’s, completely untranslatable, but I still dared pick up the challenge):

сорвись все звезды с небосвода,
исчезни местность,
все ж не оставлена свобода,
чья дочь — словесность.
Она, пока есть в горле влага,
не без приюта.
Скрипи, перо. Черней, бумага.
Лети, минута.
Shall all the stars fall from the heaven,
vanish the landscape,
yet, not abandoned is the freedom
whose child is language.
While there is moisture in the mouth,
she has a shelter.
Scribble, pencil. Fleet, the moment.
Turn black, my paper.

Brodsky certainly belonged to the category of people who simply cannot hold their tongue, even at the expense of ending up with a bruised face — a category that I personally admire. Capable of openly confronting the incumbent lover of his “girlfriend Michelina” with whom he was having an affair during his stay in Rome in 1981. The lover, referred to as “The Count” in Piazza Mattei, was indeed a very high-flying aristocrat of royal blood. Joseph was then an unknown poet, a penniless Russian-Jewish vagabond in exile (still lightyears from his Nobel Prize) — yet, when the fancy Count asked him whether he had already slept with his “Michelina”, Brodsky replied with a disarming Slavonic nonchalance “That’s not your fucking business, your highness.” And even though the Count must have prevailed eventually, and the poet found himself heartbroken and exiled again in a street corner café sipping cioccolata con panna, the satisfaction was probably very well worth it.

Brodsky was introduced to “Michelina” — most likely, Michela Prodan — by Benedetta Craveri. It is these two women who hide behind “Две молодых брюнетки в библиотеке мужа той из них, что прекрасней” (“Two young brunettes in the library of the husband of the fairer”) in Roman Elegies. The fairer one was Benedetta, and who knows if the poet had a secret crush for her. Love stories aside, Craveri, who curated the Italian edition of Brodsky’s poems, played a very important role in the poet’s career. A well-known critic, essayist and editor specializing in French literature, she oversaw the publication of many French writers, among whom the first Italian edition of another martyr poet — André Chénier. I’ll speak about him in a moment.

It must be that the story of my grandmother became inexplicably entangled with Chénier’s last verses and with the notes of Chopin’s C minor prelude. To me, they are all about one thing — freedom.

I previously wrote about Chopin’s preludes, and the E minor prelude in particular. Though this cycle of 24 pieces was completed in 1838 in the lugubrious and suggestive Carthusian cloister on the island of Mallorca where the composer spent an unhappy winter with his mistress Aurore Dupin, it is almost certain that the C minor prelude, number 20 in the opus, was composed months or even years before, in Paris.

The prelude was originally intended to be the shortest of all the 24 — just two four-measure sections with a final chord in the ninth measure. However, following the authoritative advice from the cycle’s dedicatee Camille Pleyel (the famous piano-maker and publisher who commissioned the opus for 2000 francs — something around $30,000 in today’s terms), the composer added a reprise of the last four measures with a very expressive crescendo before the final cadence.

The score of this prelude has been a subject of an unresolved controversy: In his manuscript, Chopin canceled the flat accidental on the E at the beginning of the third measure, suggesting that the last E in the right hand in the same measure should be played as E natural as well. This is how the first edition of the Preludes was published — and also how some of the greatest pianists played it — Arthur Rubinstein, for example, and the pedantic Alfred Cortot. However, in a hand-written copy that belonged to George Sand (Chopin’s lover, who also responded to her real name Aurore Dupin), a flat sign appears next to the controversial last E. Also, in the printed score that belonged to Chopin’s Scottish student Jane Stirling a large pencil “♭” is written in a girly-curly hand. Provided that Jane would never dare to correct Chopin whom she deeply admired and to whom, not so secretly, she was attracted (Stirling even proposed to the already terminally ill composer, only to receive his dry “no” — he was already closer to the grave than the nuptial bed, as Chopin himself admitted to his best friend Wojciech Grzymała.) — anyway, provided that she would never correct Chopin without his consent, I’m certain that the natural E was simply an innocent misprint. This how I prefer to play it anyway.

Written as a funeral march with octaves all the way through in the left hand and three-, four- and five-note chords in the right (so quintessentially Chopinian!), it was the C minor prelude that according to George Sand contained in its thirteen measures the sorrows of a nation (she was probably deeply impressed by the failed November 1830 uprising in Poland.) I, however, more than anything else hear in these chords Andre’ Chénier’s desperate cry for freedom. If someone wanted to erect a monument to Chénier in music, there would be hardly a better match than the notes of Chopin’s prelude.

André Chénier was a curious character and an unusual bird even in the flock of the bizarre birds that the French Revolution generated. Born in Constantinople in 1762 to the French diplomat Louis de Chénier and a Greek lady Élisabeth Santi-Lomaca (nicknamed la belle Grecque for her rare beauty, but also renowned for her sharp wit), André seemed to had received his affection for everything Greek from his mother’s milk. His neoclassical poetic style and the choice to return to the pure ancient rhymes and meters must have been influenced by his origins. “De nouvelles pensées, faisons des vers antiques” (From new thoughts, let us make antique verses) — thus he summed up his thoughts on poetry.

André was homeschooled by his aunt and enjoyed the youthful freedom of which many of those days’ (as well as today’s) young men were deprived. I have no doubt that his upbringing placed freedom among the poet’s most precious values. Partly because of his genuine patriotic feelings, partly seeking a new adventure to change the boring routine of a Parisian bon viveur, Chénier enlisted in 1783 in a French regiment in Strasbourg — only to discover that once the infatuation with the novelty wore off, he actually detested garrison life. To me this is quite understandable — I myself have always firmly believed that the military is the last place to be for those who value freedom above all. Chénier abandoned the sword but continued serving his beloved France with his pen, becoming a political journalist and pouring all his eloquence against tyranny and injustice. He wasn’t a great admirer of Louis XVI, but after the king was arrested and imprisoned, the poet woke up to the painful realization that his idea of a Revolution through moderation, law, and order was a remote utopia. Bitterly disillusioned (and probably not feeling completely safe in France anymore), he fled Paris serving as a secretary to a family friend freshly appointed as Ambassador to Britain.

To me, the first line of Chopin’s prelude is a quintessence of what André’s feelings could be. I can clearly hear his disenchantment, his indignation, his mourning for the fate of his once-great nation.

In England, Chénier could barely stand London and “ces Anglais”; the world he knew was rapidly falling apart in front of his eyes — attractively perilous and irresistibly tempting for the young adventurer. In 1790 Chénier returns to Paris and resumes scorching his ideological rivals with his caustic iambs. But then his party is suddenly uprooted, and he himself barely escapes the following September Massacres (one of the endless sequence of bloodbaths) by staying away from the dangerous capital. After Citoyen Louis Capet loses his head, Chénier retreats to Versailles where he stays well under the radar of the growingly radical revolutionary forces. In 1794 he is arrested by accident, as two agents of the Comité de salut public mistake him for some wanted marquise. The gendarmes didn’t want to keep a citizen without an arrest warrant, but just to be on the safe side, they still committed Chénier to the St. Lazare prison.

It is in this former leper hospital converted during the Revolution into an exclusive political prison — one of the guillotine’s most plentiful pantries — it is in St. Lazare where the last strophe of André Chénier’s life unfolds. There André meets the charming 23-year-old Aimée de Coigny, Duchesse de Fleury, with whom he immediately becomes infatuated and whom he immortalizes in rhyme in his Jeune captive, a poem full of enchantment and despair. This poem certainly contributed to the legend of their tragic love, which is, of course, entirely imaginary. The real Duchesse was likely very very far from the idealized angelic creature of André’s verses, and with the long and illustrious list of her former husbands and lovers wouldn’t shame the finest mesdames of France. She never mentioned the poet in her industrious correspondence; I suspect that she never came to know that her name entered forever into the books of French poetry.

This invented love story is poignantly narrated in Umberto Giordano’s opera Andrea Chénier set to the brilliant Luigi Illica’s libretto.

Chénier’s younger brother Marie-Joseph — by then a prominent political figure — advised André to keep a low profile to, hopefully, be spared, but the poet simply couldn’t hold his tongue. He continues writing venomous pamphlets in St. Lazare, and on July 24th is brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal. Chénier is accused of writing against freedom and in favor of tyranny (yes! can you believe it?!), of conspiracy, and, on top of it — of being an assistant to General Dumouriez (a vile counter-revolutionary traitor, of course). Even though the latter charge was clearly a mistake — it was another Chénier who fought under the disgraced general (the other charges were simply ridiculous) — the infamous public prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville is unimpressed by such minute discrepancies, and the jury pronounces the only punishment that existed in the judiciary lexicon of those turbulent times. Death, of course.

It is then that the poet writes his last surviving verses:

Comme un dernier rayon, comme un dernier zéphyre
Animent la fin d’un beau jour,
Au pied de l’échaufaud j’essaye encor ma lyre.
Peut-être est-ce bientôt mon tour.
Like a last ray of light, like a last summer breeze
Color the end of a beautiful day,
At the foot of the scaffold once more my lyre I seize.
Perhaps I’ll soon be on my way.

He continues with what, I believe, summarizes very well his lifelong strife for freedom:

Ma vie importe à la vertu.
Car l’honnête homme enfin, victime de l’outrage,
Dans les cachots, près du cercueil,
Relève plus altier son front et son langage.
My life is Virtue’s concern.
A decent man, whom outrage has fed,
In prison, awaiting his turn,
Lifts higher his speech and higher his head.

In extremis, the poet didn’t write a fancy poetical account of his personal tragedy, and his last iambs do not possess the polished artistic perfection of his earlier days’ lyrics. Drawn into the maelstrom of those mad times, he simply had neither the time nor the perspective for writing fancy fiction. But his genuine cry of anger, frustration, and vengeance anticipated the Romantic movement by several decades and resounded through generations of writers — from Victor Hugo’s novels to the defiant chants of the poets of the Resistance.

Illica and Giordano used these rhymes almost literally in their most famous aria Come un bel dì di maggio (Like a beautiful day of May). Yet, I believe that the second line of Chopin’s C minor prelude captures Chénier’s mood more accurately and more dramatically.

Only six years apart from the described events, in Rome torn by war and power struggles at the century’s turn, Illica together with a fellow librettist Giuseppe Giacosa and another giant of the Italian verismo — Giacomo Puccini — sets another opera featuring another artistic freedom fighting character, the painter Mario Cavaradossi. I’m talking about Tosca, of course. My favorite Puccini’s opera.

Illica’s Mario also chooses to bet his life on his pursuit of freedom, and things turn very badly for him. Imagine the scene: like Chénier, he has one hour left to live. By trivially bribing a guard, he is allowed to write a farewell letter to his diva lover Floria. Mario has so much to say in these three thousand six hundred seconds — he could express his grief for his war-torn nation, his indignation over the tyranny he happened to be born into. He could shout out his disdain toward the sadist police boss, baron Scarpia, by whose order he is going to die, or exalt Napoleon’s victories and the dawn of freedom overthrowing despots — as he did in the previous act (poor Mario, you haven’t lived to see this radiant dawn transform into a gloomy evening!) In short, he has so much to say about his ideas and ideals, his cause, about historical events so immensely bigger than his own life…

But this is what he writes instead:

E lucevan le stelle,
Ed olezzava la terra
Stridea l’uscio dell’orto
E un passo sfiorava la rena.
Entrava ella fragrante,
Mi cadea fra la braccia.
O dolci baci, o languide carezze,
Mentr’io fremente le belle forme disciogliea dai veli…
Svanì per sempre il sogno mio d’amore.
L’ora è fuggita, e muoio disperato!
E non ho amato mai tanto la vita!
When the stars were shining brightly,
And the earth was scented sweetly.
Softly squeaked the garden gate
And a footstep touched the sand.
Entered she with faint fragrance
And threw herself into my arms.
With sweetest kisses, tenderest caresses,
I freed her trembling figure from her dresses…
My dream of love is now dispelled forever.
The time has fleeted, and I die despairing!
And never did I love my life so dearly!

(I allowed myself some freedom with the text to make the translation sound more musical in English. Before closing the parenthesis: one of my favorite versions of this aria is Franco Corelli’s legendary performance in Teatro Regio di Parma in 1967, in which the 22-second diminuendo on disciogliea dai veli instantly transformed him from just a famous Italian tenor to world’s best stellar singer. Also remarkable is the — almost orgasmic — cry “bravo!” that erupted from the audience after his incredibly long tanto la vita! I really don’t envy the soprano, a certain Virginia Gordoni, who sang with Franco on stage that night! But back to our discourse…)

These are the words that Cavardossi chooses to be his last ones.

When my wife Susy was working on her thesis in political philosophy, I often snooped into her books. There was one little volume that stroke me in particular — a collection of farewell letters written by political prisoners shortly before being executed by the Nazis. These people knew too well that they were going to die in the hands of their most bitter enemies. They had all the reasons and the rights in the world to hate, contempt, despise and be defiant. And yet — their last words were, without exception, words of love.

We all know how the story ends. Before Mario puts his pen down (on stage, of course, the tenor is granted a brief moment to let his voice repose and bathe himself in the resounding applause rewarding this technically and musically challenging aria) — before Mario finishes his letter, Floria rushes in with a paper affording “Floria Tosca and the gentleman accompanying her” a safe pass from Rome. She triumphantly tells her lover how she traded his life for her body, and how when Scarpia approached to claim Tosca’s kiss, she stabbed him right into the heart. Floria also tells Mario that his execution will still have to take place, but it will be a fake killing with blank rounds. The painter is way more practical than his theatrical girlfriend and knows that the dead can rise only on stage. He has no illusions and understands that in a few minutes everything will end; he kisses Floria’s blood-stained hands, hugs her earnestly, and asks simply “parlami ancor come dianzi parlavi — è così dolce il suon della tua voce!” (continue speaking to me as you did before — the sound of your voice is so tender!) The opera is very intense from the first note to the last, but this is the place where — I admit — I usually cry.

The naïve diva assists the mise en scène admiring how radiantly beautiful her Mario appears on the roof of Sant’Angelo’s castle illuminated by the first morning rays, and applauds his very authentic fall when the soldiers empty their rifles into his chest — only to discover a few minutes later that the cruel Scarpia broke his last promise. Kneeling over her lover’s lifeless body, she hears the voices of Scarpia’s men rushing in to seize the woman who killed their boss. In her last act of freedom, Floria quickly runs towards the roof edge and thrusts herself into the void. The sbirri watch helplessly the scarlet tail of the diva’s long silk gown vanish into the darkness.

Illica was a genius poet and his understanding of human souls was probably second only to Stefan Zweig. This is why his verismo sounds so damned authentic. Similarly to Mario Cavaradossi, Illica’s Andrea Chénier is also a very realistic human character, capable of standing amidst the horrors of the Revolution saying to his (fake, I know) beloved

Sorridi e spera! Io son l’amore!
Tutto intorno è sangue e fango?
Io son divino!
Smile and hope, for I am Love!
All around is blood and mud?
But I am from heaven!

The real André Chénier remained a poet until his last breath: already on the dernière charrette on his way to the guillotine, he was reciting verses from Racine’s Andromaque with chilling defiance. But I simply cannot believe that these were his last words. I’m convinced that standing on the scaffold, an instant before delivering his head into the hands of Sanson the hangman (or Monsieur de Paris as he was reverently called), he spoke no words of scorn. And definitely not in iambic pentameter. I am sure that in those last moments, his thoughts were those of love — the love of the woman who would never kiss him again, love of his short life. This is how the last line of Chopin’s prelude sounds to me — with the final chord containing in its six notes all the tragedy, all the passion of Cavaradossi’s poignant cry non ho amato mai tanto la vita!

André Chénier died on July 25th, 1794 on Place de la Barrière Renversée (nowadays Place de Vincennes). He was one of the last victims of the macabre Reign of Terror. He made his last appeal to Robespierre who, remembering very well Chénier’s caustic verses against him, refused with the famous “Même Platon a banni des poètes de sa République” (Even Plato banished the poets from his Republic). Merely three days later, Plato’s admirer followed the banished poet on the scaffold, thus ending one of the darkest chapters in France’s history.

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