A Symphony's Farewell

Anatoly Kudryavitsky

Artwork by Samuel Hickson

Voices past and future live in our heads. But they feel cramped there, uncomfortable. Their restlessness gives rise to a wind whistling in our ears. You can peer inside someone's head through his eyes, and you will see the blackness of the pupils, a blackness you sink into never to resurface, a blackness in which you hear only these voices which no one else can hear. What I am seeing, what I am hearing now—before the concert—is tantamount to nothing.

Is it mine, this silence, or did someone bring it with him? A thick silence, not so much as a cough. Well, I suppose one could cough professionally: inhale the Berlin dampness, then, holding one's breath, take one's seat in the concert hall and triumphantly let rip that throaty eruption to be recorded for posterity, engraved in the gramophone's vinyl. These almost professional coughers only appear in autumn or spring; in summer they disappear into the depths of some soundproof cocoon, maybe a mental one.

A little light shines over each music stand. Hintermayr has done his best. Having invited the electricians, now, most likely, he feels like the Creator in one of Blake's etchings. That's how it's done in America, or so they say, for the orchestra's comfort. And what else goes on in America? Hmm, who knows.

What do you remember about your childhood? Was music important to you then? Why did you take up conducting? Was it by chance? Was your success also mere chance? What do you remember about trains, cars, and steamers? What do you remember about America? Skyscrapers, yellow taxi cabs, ice creams, screams on the streets, wealth, destitution, concert halls, more concert halls, people unable or unwilling to speak English . . . Do you remember all this?

Bruno Walter is somewhere there now, or maybe he is touring "the rest of the world." There are two realities: us, and the rest of the world, and these two are at loggerheads. "We" spread over the country, ant-like, and the country instantly became black-shirted, military, in our wake. One intimate rogue even wrote in the papers, in his own name, that he would never agree to conduct an American orchestra, and out there, in that other reality, they believed him. Actually, of course, "we" kept him for "ourselves"; his passport has long since been confiscated . . . If those in that other reality only knew what an empire really is, not to mention the kind of people who represent it—like that Goebbels for instance, the man with sweaty hands. Well, they can imagine it, I suppose . . .

What first springs to mind when you think of the thirties? Peaked caps? Hatbands? Shards of glass on the streets? Endless protest letters or letters pleading for someone or other, letters that never helped? Shaking hands, then wiping those same hands off on a handkerchief . . . You haven't forgotten all this, have you? Do you associate Germany with Nazism or would you say this is a "marriage of coincidence"?

Yesterday has slipped imperceptibly into today, and now another reality is rejecting not only the collective "we" but also the thoroughly individual "I." And not piecemeal but wholesale. Now we can merely comfort ourselves with recordings, then put our hope in radio waves and music's journey through the air. The true voice is not his master's voice, so, hopefully, it will be heard, since "the rest of the world" is already weary of political hollering. That hollering, by the way, comes from another life, as do those politics, but music, well, music is from this life, and there are already listeners, listeners with whom we can communicate wordlessly about humanness and its preservation, especially if one doesn't feel like talking about Ubuntu. Today, June 21, 1942, is a day dedicated to Brahms's Fourth symphony. His last one.

Would you say that you attained perfection in your art? Do you consider other conductors as rivals? What can you say about your sense of time and space?

Little spots of light burning in the orchestra, valiantly living their own lives. The public does not see them as they push their way through the darkness, but the conductor cannot escape them, although he, in his turn, does not see the public, just senses them behind his back, the back into which all eyes are burning. Something unusual hangs in the air. Is it connected with those little lights, perhaps? Hintermayr has conjured up a Viennese carnival in this Berlin hall. Austrians excel at gimmicks . . . Haydn once pulled a stunt with candles: a candle burned on each musician's stand, until, one by one, the players blew them all out and left. "Farewell Symphony" . . . And to what, one may wonder, was Haydn bidding farewell? To his Kapellmeister's stipend? After this symphony, he wrote another fifty-nine. Brahms, on the other hand, wrote but four, of which this was the last. He couldn't write symphonies after this one. "Farewell . . ."

Do you like Brahms? Do you like German music, even after it became shameful to be German? Do you like your soul which is trapped in the tight cage of your chest? Would you like to set it free? What is freedom?

The first movement. Allegro non troppo. Not too fast. Everything begins by itself. A symphony without an introduction. The violins play in octaves, the violas and cellos accompany them with arpeggios, the woodwinds follow with thirds. You just have to gather it all together, hold it on the tip of your baton . . . But outside, beyond the window, newspaper birds flap in the wind; Berlin is in E minor. Germany is in E minor. And when one country is in the minor key, the whole world is, too; after all, what is there left to rejoice over? Unless, of course, you rejoice over your own neighbour's descent into madness.

List the objects which surrounded you over the last few years. Tables and chairs, chests and cupboards, shirts and tails, music stands and conductors' daises . . . It is all coming back to you now, isn't it? Do you perceive the conductor's baton as a phallic symbol? Why do you move your hand in such a strange way while conducting? Was your fall while skiing a mere accident, as a result of which you were unable to conduct at the Nazi convention? They say you damaged your wrist badly . . .

Sollertinsky said of this symphony: from elegy to tragedy. But where is the elegy here? Drama reveals itself right from the very beginning, tragedy, too. While Germany, on the other hand, introduces herself to squabbles and wars. Thirty-three was the year of the black-shirts, and as early as the following spring a certain envoy was dispatched, white-shirted and clean-shaven, like a little piglet: Doctor Goebbels requests that Jewish music should not be played at concerts—Mahler, Mendelssohn, Hindemith. The white-shirted one came, decreed, and went, and so it was: the concerts were filled with German music: Mahler, Mendelssohn, Hindemith. Later they were banned nonetheless, after which certain musically naive souls inquired as to why he was dismissed. Why this why? Officially, the Music Director General ceased to be the Music Director, and the chill aureole of freedom hovered about his countenance, unseen yet perceived. And illusory, of course. Brahms's fanfares, the fanfare theme before the recapitulation . . .

How did you feel when you heard the fanfares at the Nazi parades? Did your attitude toward Wagner change for the worse after his music became a symbol for the Third Reich? How do you understand Germany's cultural policy of that time? What does culture mean to you?

Mahler and Hindemith are not in the repertoire, neither are there any Jews in the orchestra's ranks. Everyone boasts a high pedigree, pure blood. As concert master Shimon Goldberg said as early as 1934: "Germany must suffer for her future heydays . . ." He could have been talking about himself . . . He interceded for Goldberg, as he did for the whole orchestra: for the flautist Hannah Lieberman, the violinist Vogelssohn, the trumpeter Sachsenstein . . . In vain. Goldberg fled the country, the rest are in the camps, if they are still alive. Many cultural institutions are being trimmed that way. By some miracle an agreement was made with Goebbels and he granted special status to the members of the orchestra, including those who were part Jewish. Those in the main orchestra of the Third Reich were left untouched, but as for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, well, they were subject to cruel cleansing. Of course, the newly freed places were soon filled by other musicians. Someone with the right papers always turns up, but the papers are the only thing right about them . . .

Did you tolerate anti-Semitic remarks? Have you ever had relations with a non-Aryan woman? What type of woman suits you best? What foods do you prefer? Do you derive pleasure from satisfying your physiological needs?

Reprise. Theme in E minor, taken from the chorale Mein Jesu . . . Wait, someone is coughing after all, though not with all their animal-throated might. It is already the coda, tragedy. Violin voices cast asunder, a whirlwind and the beat of the kettle drums. It's over, the end of the first movement. Why has it suddenly grown so dark in the hall?

But there is no time to think of that, it's time for the andante. An ancient ballad, Phrygian harmony. Brahms's most Schubertian music, pizzicato, like the "Unfinished Symphony." And like the German countryside, space, and echoes fading into the sky. Evil always comes from people, and it has a face, but this countryside is remarkably unremarkable and faceless. Eichendorff could only dream that "the sky quietly kissed the earth" while they, these furtive kissers, always blushed under the people's unfriendly gaze . . .

Are you religious? When did you last go to church? Do you speak with God when you conduct Bach's cantatas? What, in your opinion, does God make of Germany today? And past Germany? Will Germany be possible in the future, or will it be some other human conglomerate based on some other idea?

Brahms heard the kettle drums of fate when he wrote his fourth symphony. In Steiermark, in the summer of 1884. He read Sophocles, contemplated his surroundings, and penned the kettle drum part. Was it thunder, or a volley of canon fire? A man-made and indelible part of world order . . . Nature, on her part, contemplates the tragedy of existence from the sidelines; and you, well, you rarely see her but from the sidelines: tours, concert halls, nothing else . . .

Is domestic comfort important to you? What do you consider "home"? Your house, your town, or your country? Why do you dislike conversing with others? What is it you mutter to yourself while you are conducting rehearsals? Why is it that many would say you are incapable of expressing yourself articulately?

There it is: the sun. Blindingly real, brightly clad. The third movement, scherzo. A folk fest, the complete opposite of contemplance. Now they are saying: Kraft durch Freude, strength through joy . . . Brahms would have expressed himself like a peasant on this point, unprintably. Whereas these folk, these simpletons, made a forced celebration for some and a life-negating one for others. That's what happens when Germans forget about contemplance and mein Jesu. Germans should not be forgetful. No nation should be forgetful. Yet they all are . . .

Have you ever suffered from nausea? From indigestion? What does "health" mean to youyour own personal health, and that of the nation? Are all happy nations healthy, and is a healthy nation happy?

How dare he, that swine Schmalfuss? Who gave him permission to don a black jacket with SS lightning instead of a tailcoat? The little bulb is burning, the trumpet glints golden in its light, swanking. And then there are those . . . hatbands. Yes, they found a replacement for Sachsenstein, put this SS chap with "the youth's magic horn" in the orchestra! There's another one, too, the kettle drummer. He's even sporting his SS cap. Who is going mad, me or non-me? And it is so dark in the hall . . . Scherzo resounds in the gloom, the little lamps burn star-like over the music stands . . .

Do you consider the world a three-dimensional space with the addition of a fourthtimeor do you believe in other dimensions? Do you agree with the definition of life's perspective as the art of extrapolating long-abandoned spaces over the plane of memory as it disappears beyond the horizon?

The finale. Passacaglia. Seven paces, the door creaks. Death enters for a celebration of itself. Thirty-two variations on a theme from Bach's cantata, and Death has just as many faces. A circle dance of masks, a vortex of inanimate animas. A person approaches death, but death comes to a country itself, having set the date long ago. And now Death has come to Germany; after all, they haven't taken her name away yet, the country is still called Germany. Death has come now, with the newspaper ink splatters still fresh after the victory at Kharkov. Death rolls in, armadas of tanks rolling over yellow fields. And thus the frightening, hitherto unknown words are born: Stalingrad, Kursk. The circle is closed. The circle dance of ever-spiralling disasters spins on blithely, but the violins are already begging it to stop.

Everything stops. The plaintive strain of the flutes. Ah, how Hannah Liebermann would have played this . . .! But look, she is playing! And Sachsenstein echoes her on the trumpet, while Goldberg and Vogelssohn hold their violins on their knees: a pause for the violins. Where have they come from? Pale faces, little lights, have starred themselves into the hall's gloom. The French horns softly echo the dying melody. An orchestra of ghosts . . .

They say you lived your whole life inside yourself. How was it? Was it an ordinary, quiet life, or something else? Did you often venture out from your invisible casing, and if so, how long was it before you longed to return?

The whirlwind is set a-spin once again. Chaos, horror, starvation, destruction, hopelessness. The walls of the concert hall crumble under the bombs, the wind bursts in, uninvited, and Berlin's autumn rain, seasoned with cemetery spices, patters onto the public through the celestial sieve.

Seven notes affix the seventh seal. Es muss sein, thus shall it be, even if it shall not be thus, and the primordial ashes shall surely rise once more. But as to precisely when and what shall arise from those ashes, well, you'd better ask the ash. But now the symphony is without a conductor, and Germany, too, is without a conductor. But really, who needs the notion of a conductor, and why? If ideas die, they all die together, and not one can be saved . . .

Applause? Yes, applause. Why?

The lights go on. Everything is Aryan clean, white-shirted, black coat-tailed. The uncanny sensation that everything is in order, even if it is far from being in order. If anyone understood anything they would keep mum, be they the silent sphinx or the Great Inquisitor who loves to ask questions while putting a question to him is quite a hopeless matter. The concert master shakes a hand, all but tearing it off . . .

Have you ever dreamt you died? That the world ended, stopped, and that from that moment on everything would be as before, no matter what had happened, or that everything would simply cease to be? Have you ever dreamt you are the last person on the last inhabited planet?

It's not raining outside. There are no bombs either, of course. The evening, soft and warm, sidles up for a kiss. As you make your way through the scent of flowering lindens, you ask yourself the eternal question: Why? Why this? Why that? Why God knows what? Why am I here? Why am I asking myself these questions? And who will ask the questions afterwards?
Did you ever wonder what might have happened if you had been born American, French, or Polish? What would you have done with your life? Would you have become a conductor?

Home. Elizabet, the wife; conversations about the cousin from Dresden, about her little Spitzi, whether to inoculate him or not, dogs are such sensitive creatures, we don't know what to do, poor thing . . . In one ear and out the other, in and out into the expanse beyond ears, where the fluff of conversations settles windlessly in the depths. Why is she worrying about dogs?! Who cares about dogs? People will soon be worse off. Beyond earshot, beyond earshot . . . How can one emigrate to that land beyond earshot? The border is crossed with a password, and that password is "inoculation." The same word that has got stuck and is sticking out from somewhere beyond earshot. Why this? Why that? Why God knows what? Why the past, why the future, and why don't we want to know what that future will be like? We don't even ask after the present because the reply is already pricking us in the back, or below the back. And the answer . . . yes, there it is again: inoculation . . .

Wilhelm Furtwängler lived another twelve years. After the war came the court case, accusations of collaborating with the Nazis, acquittal, concerts, more concerts. He avoided Brahms's Fourth Symphony, though he did include it in the programme on one occasion: a gramophone company convinced him to record it on vinyl. It was 1948, six years had passed since that memorable concert, and he was once again conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. The walls of the hall were folding in on him, opening and closing like a book. Then they metamorphed and became the corridors of his memory, pushing him back into that day when the ancient folds of time parted for a few brief seconds. But a spell only works once, and never again would he attain his 1942 breakthrough.

translated from the Russian by Carol Ermakova