Boris Wolfson, associate professor of Russian at Amherst College/United States, on our concert “Blumen & Blut”. The text was originally a personal e-mail to a friend, and was generously given to us to publish.
“Blumen & Blut: ein literarisches Wandelkonzert” (Flowers and Blood: a literary traveling concert) was set in the sprawling mansion of a prominent wine-making family, right in the middle of Old Town Esslingen. It took as its inspiration Leo Tolstoy’s controversial, passionate, difficult novella “The Kreutzer Sonata”, which focuses on the story of a man who, in a fit of jealousy, murders his wife whom he suspects of being unfaithful; we learn of this story through his monologue, delivered during a train trip in the early spring to a motley crew of late-19th century Russian social types. Spectators were served some of the family’s wine as they entered, but even as we ascended the stairs the performance began: a young woman sat on the landing, plucking the string of her violin at random intervals, and these dissonant chords served as the musical accompaniment to the pantomimed prologue: in the parlor where people began to gather musicians, in stylized period garb (and hairdos) were posing as (thoughtfully-executed) stereotypes from Russian novels: an emaciated university student snipping flower petals with scissors, a young woman staring out into the window, another young woman literally buried in the book she is reading…
We were then invited into the “Marriage Room” where two young women (also in period dress) — one of them, as it soon turned out, a violist, the other an actress — began a dialogue that continued through most of the afternoon — in a distinctly colloquial tone — that reframed the issues that matter the most to Tolstoy’s novella: the relationship between men and women; marriage; and, ultimately, the meaning (and the possibility) of something we might call “true” or authentic love. They led us into the next room, a large hall with chairs set up around a long table with a toy train, controlled by a remarkable actor who at times took on the personality of the novella’s protagonist (when he looked into the windows of the toy train and pointed out where he and the other characters sit in the narrative that frames the story of his complicated marriage), and at times read out passages from the text as if he were the narrator. The two women stood in the back of the room, next to a table on which they put a samovar, and continued their exchange, interrupted occasionally by (a) the appearance of, and comments from, a puppet fox (or dog?) who seemed to function like an allegory of the dark desires that consume the novella’s characters; (b) the performance of the three movements of Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1, known as the “The Kreutzer Sonata” quartet because it was inspired by Janáček’s reading of Tolstoy’s novella (The musicians were positioned in the alcove, and the viola player, who was carrying on the dialogue with the actress who served as the puppetmaster for the little white fox, would periodically leave the conversation, step into the alcove, take her viola and the music would begin); (c) the comments of the actor who was sitting over by the toy train. There were several striking moments of audience interaction — first, when all young women who were part of the performance asked several men in the audience to zip up their dresses for them (an uncomfortable moment that evoked many of Tolstoy’s points about modesty and innocence) and another time when the viola player / actress delivered roses to several men in the audience (including one member of our party). But the conversation between the two women (or, rather, the woman and the fox puppet) and the comments from the actor reading / enacting moments from Tolstoy’s novella provided both the argument and the emotional texture explored by Janacek in his work.
Then we were invited to come upstairs where, in an otherwise bare room, a piano with the sheet music from Beethoven’s sonata (op. 47) and a samovar were set up front. Two musicians walked in — a male violinist and a female piano player (just as in the novella). The violinist, who comes from Azerbaijan, speaks fluent Russian, and he spoke several famous lines of Tolstoy’s protagonist, from the beginning of the text: (“What is true love?”) and then from the chapter that describes the protagonist’s response to the Beethoven. They then began playing the first movement, but were interrupted just as the largo section was about to transition into the presto — the actor whom we last saw downstairs manipulating the train bursted in and delivered, now in German, the screed against the “corrupting effect” of Beethoven’s music: ““They played Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. Do you know the first presto? Do you?! Ohh! … That sonata is a fearful thing. Precisely that part. And music generally is a fearful thing. What is it? I don’t understand. What is music? What does it do? And why does it do what it does? They say music has an elevating effect on the soul—nonsense, lies! It affects one, affects one fearfully, I’m speaking of myself, but not at all in a soul-elevating way. It affects the soul neither in an elevating nor in an abasing way, but in a provoking way. How shall I put it? Music makes me forget myself, my true situation, it transports me to some other situation not my own; under the influence of music it seems to me that I feel what, in fact, I do not feel, that I understand what I do not understand, that I can do what I cannot do. I explain it by the fact that music works like yawning, like laughter; I’m not sleepy, but I yawn looking at a yawning man, I have no reason to laugh, but I laugh hearing someone else laugh,” etc. And just as his rhetoric became more and more impassioned, the little white fox puppet whom we also met downstairs — an embodiment of the passion that possesses Tolstoy’s protagonist? and us through Beethoven? — appeared on his shoulder. The ending of his monologue let directly back to the Beethoven; the musicians resumed exactly at the spot where he interrupted them and continued with the presto.
The performance of the Janáček quartet was marvelous — nuanced and raw, moody and deliberate, especially when the main theme of the first movement is passed around, as it were, all the instruments. But the performance of the Beethoven was simply overwhelming — not least because the Janáček actually prepared us. (This sequencing was a stroke of genius; it would have been far more conventional to start with the Beethoven and then introduce Janáček as a kind of response to Beethoven by way of Tolstoy; instead, they used the later work, and the dialogue in the downstairs hall, to set up the stakes of the Beethoven sonata as performed live.) And the conceit really worked for some of us, who were overcome with emotion long before the stunning finale. The two young performers were a sight to behold as they worked together, so focused on each other, so careful in their treatment of the music, and so emotionally resonant precisely because their body language was so unsentimental — they simply lived with the music, without exaggerating their investment in it. It was simultaneously earnest (so the sound and the emotion felt very raw somehow) and masterfully shaped, so that the more peaceful interludes served as striking but meaningful contrast to the fast passages that conclude each constituent part of the movement. Tolstoy’s character describes performing this movement in front of polite society (and especially) women “indecent;” for him part of the indecency has to do with the terrifying arousal — emotional and sexual — that he experiences, and though this was not in evidence today, there was also something almost-uncomfortable in the raw emotion of the performance we saw today: somehow it was just too intimate, too scary for polite society.
Direction / Concept:
Sandy Schwermer & Bernadett Kis
Katia Michel // Piano
Osman Eyublu, Hulda Jónsdóttir, Malwina Sosnowski // Violin
Bernadett Kis // Viola
Peter Schmidt // Cello
Schauspieler: Christian Dieterle