Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt: Can I keep things simple today? Straightforward?
Nope. Not quite the right day for that. Today, I reveled in the deep dive. There’s a time for everything.
Give me a good date and I’ll find a way to turn it into ceremony. I’ve done that for August 8/9 for the past three years. It’s the anniversary of the death of Dmitri Shostakovich, but it’s also the anniversary of the performance of his Seventh Symphony in besieged Leningrad under almost unbelievable conditions. So, we have one event that evokes solemnity and another that evokes something altogether different.
I planned this day to have a chance to focus on these two commemorations. In fact, it was part of the reason why I took this particular week off for vacation (although what started it was an online teaching gig that I have coming up in about an hour–it’s Mountain Time, so it starts at 9 pm).
But things always start late at night on the 8th. Shostakovich passed from this world in the early morning hours of August 9, in Moscow–a number of hours ahead of my time zone. Thus, I usually do the actual honours–which is simply a candle and a toast, after listening to some chosen pieces of his music–at 11 pm my time. And I normally listen to a lot of Shostakovich’s late works on the 9th. This time, however, I decided to push more of them onto the 8th as a kind of vigil, as it were. Driving over to the Museum, I wasn’t feeling particularly solemn, so Symphony no. 1 seemed like the right thing–the one that started it all. Driving out to Brantford to drop off an item? Symphony no. 14, which as much as it is about death, is also an emotional roller coaster, from anger to passion to deep sadness to defiance to numbness. I listened to Quartet no. 13–my favourite–and then the Verses of Captain Lebyakin, Shostakovich’s penultimate work (and one as full of wit and sarcasm as anything he ever composed as a young man.) Then, I took a break for my RPG game. That didn’t go well–I spent the last 45 minutes essentially excluded from play due to some bad dice rolls and bad breaks. It put me in a rather foul mood, and I wondered a bit if I’d be in the right frame of mind to continue. I’d planned to, at around 10:10, to listen first to Quartet no. 8, and then the Viola Sonata (Shostakovich’s final work) leading up to 11 pm.
But then I realized I hadn’t yet read “Gusev”, said to be Shostakovich’s favourite Chekhov story. Irina, his wife, read it to him on August 8. Shostakovich likely knew the story by heart–he had huge swathes of his favourite pieces of literature memorized–but the fact that he asked his wife to read him the story speaks volumes to me–because this is a story about a man who is dying. At first, he does not realize it, but as the story proceeds, he realizes what is happening to him. And then, he is gone.
I pulled out my book–and then knew what I had to do. I read it aloud. I fired up my Zoom account and recorded it, audio only. Now, I’m fairly well practiced in reading aloud–but usually I have a chance to practice. I’ve read the story before, and had some sense of the basic plot and dramatic arc, but I had no idea how long it would take. But it was 9:45, and time was short. So I just went for it.
This, more than anything, gave me precisely what I wanted. It gave me focus. It gave me shivers. It caught in my throat. And it made me realize that Shostakovich absolutely knew what was happening to him. You do not pick that story and ask your wife to read it to you unless you know.
If you would like to listen, here is my recording.
For the rest of the evening, I joined a friend on Discord. I supplied my reading. She supplied a poem of her own composition. I lit my candle. I listened to Quartet no. 8. Furiosa insisted on joining me.
I began dimming the lights, and started the Viola Sonata. 11 pm came just as the final movement began. I drank a toast–Stolichnaya, of course. I extinguished the final light. I sat by candlelight, with my little cat, letting the music say the words. Then, at the end, as the music faded…morendo…I drank a second full draught, and blew out the candle.
Having failed to find a Russian version of the Orthodox Kontakion for the Dead–the Internet was full of English-language versions, particularly the one used for the funeral of Prince Philip–I settled for “Vichnaya Pamyat”–Memory Eternal–as heard in the Chernobyl soundtrack.
I went to bed, having done what was needful.
This morning, I listened to more late works . I started with Symphony no. 15, with its William Tell quotes, quirky nature (at once simultaneously evoking both early and late works), and its ethereal, otherworldly ending. Next was the Suite on Verses by Michelangelo, Shostakovich’s antepenultimate work, taken from a selection of Michelangelo’s poetry reflecting the life of an artist. I chose an orchestrated version, partially because it featured my favourite Shostkovichian bass, Sergei Leiferkus, even though the final piece, “Immortality”, I think works best with just the piano accompaniment–because Shostakovich quotes an absolutely charming piano piece he wrote at age 9. Now here, just a year from his death, it returns. Immortality, indeed. Then (after lunch), Quartet no. 15, the one infused with deep melancholy, the one he joked about playing its first movement so slow “that the flies drop off the walls in boredom.” (It’s not boring.) All of the movements are slow. The entire piece is…I’m not quite sure what. It’s not quite of this universe.
Meanwhile, I worked on the design for the next Shostakovich embroidery piece (it felt like it needed to be done as part of this quasi-liturgy). I’d settled on blackwork as the technique and gathered the design elements–I had found a piece of evenweave linen, put together a line art rendition of a photograph of the composer from the 50s (as this is my tenth piece, I decided to reference the 10th symphony), a six-pointed star (based on learning recently that the name Shostakovich is derived from a name meaning “Six”), and the composer’s signature and DSCH motif in his own hand (referencing the prominent use of the motif in Symphony no 10.). I started sketching on the fabric–but something was telling me it wasn’t right. I made a mistake, then, that could not be fixed, and realized the light table wasn’t getting enough detail through the thicker fabric. I had a sketch that looked just enough off to bother me. And I wasn’t liking the off-white colour. I thought about making a stop at Gitta’s on the way out tomorrow–but then I decided to dig in my stash drawer–and lo, there was a piece of bright white evenweave. I switched over to carbon paper for my tracing, and that was perfect.
And yes, this will be the third piece I’ve done where he’s resting his head on his left hand. I think I like it so much because it’s a natural default for me as well.
An interlude. The chicks are growing tail feathers. They’re also starting to grow their grey feathers. I fully expect that in a few days, they will be gone. Will make sure to get a photo tomorrow.
I had a massage at 2 pm. The RMT was extremely capable in finding all my knots this time, but in a way that I didn’t hurt afterwards (although there were times during the massage itself that I almost couldn’t bear it–but I just could.) My right neck and shoulder area are just a minefield.
I also went into the bookstore and raided the discount section (seems like the thing to do–this was the exact same discount subject that yielded the book that sent me down this whole Shostakovich rabbit hole in late 2017). I have a book now on the NASA mission to Pluto, along with three classic novels (3 for $10!). Two Dostoyevskys, and Middlemarch, which I’ve been swearing I’d read soon for about a year now.
Finally, to act 2. A movement coalesced on the Shostakovich Discord server during the day to livestream Symphony no. 7, the Bernstein CSO version I adore (and had planned on listening to myself), on the voice channel. I’ve seen this symphony performed live. It brought me to tears of absolute joy. But honestly, listening to it remotely with five or six other Shostakovich enthusiasts and furiously typing all of the in-jokes that we all get, along with what can only be described as a group mental orgasm at the finale–that was special in its own way, damned near approaching the experience of hearing it live. I’ve never gotten to go to any of my concerts with anyone else, and even if I was able to have friends present, I don’t think we’d be nudging or texting each other and posting RAT THEME when the invasion theme starts, with rat emojis (and my response of lemon emojis, because someone called it the ‘Lemongrab’ symphony once). That was special. And enormously rewarding, knowing that all around the world there were five or six of us listening to this amazing work at the same time, understanding its significance, making both awful jokes and insightful comments, and sharing it with others who get it. The universe is a big place, but there aren’t that many of us Shostakovich fanfolx, and we know each other’s language.
A+, would recommend.
After this, my online class. Talked ceremonies with a whole pack of people. Worked out nicely.
Packed for tomorrow. I had almost forgotten how. Like, I know I need clothes but wait, I also need a toothbrush and some different earrings and one of those little charging things for the iPad in case the room doesn’t have USB ports.
Travel feels weird.
Was an honour to participate in the online “memorial” with you. 🙂
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