The Symphonic Juncture

A [Symphonist]: "The one who is not afraid to raise the primal force."

- Boris Asafiev (1917)

Moment in History: Anna Akhmatova, 'But You Thought I was Also' (1921)

The artistic [including Musicological] universe of the late 1910s to early 1920s Soviet-Russia was unblushingly typical and yet paradoxically cosmopolitan for a newly ‘liberated’ country who had been presented a million paths forward and no externally mandated glass-ceiling except literal death itself [ although this option was used a path forward by 'revolutionaries' like Lenin and Stalin]. Setting up the scene, Liveri Sacchetti, Russia’s ‘first’ Professor of Music History and Aesthetics (Panteleeva 2019) had died [1916] and following, after having ‘officially’ started his legacy as a Music critic [although not yet a Idealogue] in 1914 (Viljanen 2016), Boris Asafiev [whom I consider to be Sacchetti’s unconscious prodege] became then Russia’s pedagogical leader, schooling her composers, performers, listeners and Institutions alike on how to properly embody and receive this ‘crystallizing’ substance perceived through organized intonations as music. The need for musical reform was so great and yet, because of the blind embrace of Western rationality and compositional effects [neither Glinkian nor Tchaikovsian, but the Glazunovian and Mighty Five type], Russian music was not yet close to ‘бытовая музыка’ [everyday music], but closer to quite literally the exact opposite, ‘music of [the] Intelligentsia’. Asafiev cared not for the Bolshevik movement, but did care deeply about the re-inculcation of Russian culture into the music it was producing, ‘the only that does and should exist for us [he was a composer] is Russian music [...]’ (Frolova-Walker 2012), and this faithful vigour permeated throughout this transitory period, in 1918 providing the fire needed to embark on a [re]articulation of how to ‘listen’ and the construction of new modes of music-education based on the living qualities of music, [re]introducing Russian folk heritage as the authentic arbiter’s of a melodic potency unattainable through calculated measure, ‘pesenost [songfulness]’ further described as ‘the singing origin’ of Russian music.

In 1919, he was appointed as the professor of ‘Russian folk music’ at The Leningrad Institute of Arts History, later becoming the Dean of RITM [renamed OTIM] in 1920 (Auhagen 2017), the same year that he published his ostensibly ‘first academic achievement’, Путеводитель по концертам. However, 1919 was also the year of deep suffering for Artists of every-kind, ballet dancers were rendered malnourished, instrumentalists no longer arrived for performances, singers lended their voices out of fear of death, and stupendous Artistic failures marked this realization, i.e., R.K’s Koschei The Deathless which was thought to perfectly embody a ‘revolutionary opera’ with its ‘soulless’ and ‘revolting’ demeanor, and even [less-than-unknown] A. Davidenko’s unfinished opera The Year 1919, displaying technical flaws and incorrect mass portrayals (Nelson 2000). Making these times a [lot of] bit more sour [to put it lightly] was the founding of Proletkult in 1917 dedicated to creating a Soviet artistic culture and the reformation of the past for a ‘better’ future, “Proletkultism was associated with the idea that under socialism everything should be new - not like the old[...]’ in short stratifying the mindset of Soviet Russia into that which was bad, ‘Bourgeois’ vs. the perceived good, ‘Proletarian’ [going so far as to denounce the past entirely, something even Lenin recognized as diasterious]. Having introduced only a small fragment of Russian cultural society during this time, I want to redirect our focus to Anna Akhmatova, acclaimed [and award-winning] Soviet poet who, in 1919, was living with her second husband Vladimir Shileiko in Sheremetev Palace [nicknamed The Fountain House], although under Soviet control it was partly used as organizational meeting space and later a Museum, although later being moved to The Winter Palace.


Because World's Poetry Archive(2012) published a comprehensive analysis of Akhmatova’s life and many ancillary sources are available, I will only relay biographical information imperative for the contextual understanding of her poem ‘А ты думал - я тоже такая’ as I am most interested in inspiring the cogitation upon this particular literary ‘song’ and its poetic lyricism as understood in an Asafievian fashion utilizing musicality as the linkage between the ‘mute arts’ [poetry] and the ‘intonational arts’ [music]. The poem in question was written in July of 1921, one month before her first husband Nikolay Gumilyov was to be executed on charges of anti-Bolshevism, along with 61 others in a public shooting demonstration, conceivably over a large, pre-dug pit as displayed at the end of Sholokhov’s ‘And Quiet Flows the Don’, another literary giant who has left a large corpus of work and a lasting legacy within Russian history. Her early-middle life, up until 1925 when her 15-year ban was instated on charges of being an ‘internal émigré’ [disassociation with ideological locality without means of geographical escape], a fascinating topic of discussion all on its own accord, started on a positive foot as her first collection ‘Evening’ in 1912, was greeted warmly for its syntactic ‘beauty and craftsmanship...pellucity and taut emotion’ (Reeve 1986), while her second collection ‘Rosary’ solidified her poetic notoriety through impassioned demonstration of the multidimensionality of love’s fickle flame, one reviewer regarding, ‘an intimate diary of a woman in love’ (Rumnog 2008). Her third collection published in 1917, ‘White Flock’, is purported to read more of a premonition to the horrors that awaited her in Soviet Russia, and to no one’s surprise, evidently not hers, those fears did come to pass, and so palpable was the precognitive dismay that the Leningradian Poet Joseph Brodsky sensed its ‘note of controlled terror’.

Thus, when reading the 14-line poem, #276 in Akhmatova’s anthological, three-part work ‘Anno Domini’, the first section published in 1921 while the third section would be published only two years before her involuntary hiatus, one has to imagine themselves in 1920s Soviet Russia, but not only in the particular locality, but further embodying the life of someone who, like Rachmaninoff before and after his departure from Russia in 1917 after witnessing the ‘real’ Russia outside the walls of Ivanovka, his summer estate, is slowly watching as the country there were extremely fond of started to ideologically shift to a monster unrecognizable by its very inhabitants and yet those same inhabitants were aiding in its demise. Her melancholic comportment was apparently so strong that she became the victim of aesthetical attacks and the receiver of names like a “relic of the past” and an “anachronism”, attacks that indeed Rachmaninoff also encountered until his shocking reversal of spirit when, in 1941, he proclaimed his support for the U.S.S.R (Mitchell 2019) and from then on, his image became one unapologetically ‘Russian’, three years later the proposal for a Rachmaninoff museum being prompted, with working beginning in 1946 and its official opening being dated to 1978. With a formal verse design using an alternating end-rhyme schema, Akhmatova tells the story of her self-assured, liberational spirit which remains even at the realization of her [now] past lover’s expectation that she would suffer a mental collapse due to his absence. In a fiery manner which seems to steal and repurpose the rampant Bolshevik dogmatism thoroughly despised, she says, “Be damned. Not a moan, not a look I will not touch the cursed soul,” and finishing with swearing by the ‘angelic garden’ [Eden], the ‘miraculous icon’, even ‘our nights as a fiery child [inflamed moments of embraced passion]’, she tells him [a stand in for Stalin one could perhaps envisage] that she will never return to him. And yet, when offered the chance to leave St. Petersburg before the Reds stormed the city in 1917, she said no. It wouldn’t be until 1942 when she would again be given the opportunity to flee. This time she gave in, but returned only two years later, and it would only be 5 years later before her only son was sent to jail.

'And you Thought, I was also the same' from 'Anno Domini' (1921)


А ты думал - я тоже такая,

Что можно забыть меня,

И что брошусь, моля и рыдая,

Под копыта гнедого коня.


Или стану просить у знахарок

В наговорной воде корешок

И пришлю тебе странный подарок -

Мой заветный душистый платок.


Будь же проклят. Ни стоном, ни взглядом

Окаянной души не коснусь,

Но клянусь тебе ангельским садом,

Чудотворной иконой клянусь,

И ночей наших пламенным чадом -

Я к тебе никогда не вернусь.


- Anna Akhmatova [Anna Andreyevna Gorenko]

7 views0 comments

Don't forget to join before you go!

©2021 John David Vandevert