Every shadow is caused by light. It may seem ridiculously obvious to point this out, but how easy it is to forget when one is immersed in the shadow! As we approach the darkest day of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least) the sun lies lower on the horizon and the shadows become long and looming. There is a frenetic urgency in the air as people race around the city. The holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah both invite us to contemplate light in the darkness.
When Beethoven wrote the “Spring” sonata for violin and piano in 1801, we know that he was already beginning to experience extreme difficulties from his oncoming deafness. A year later, in 1802 he would write the Heilengestadt Testament. Intended for his brothers to read after his death, in it he confesses his desire for suicide and states that he has been suffering for six years already.
“… it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf. Ah how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection […] therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when I would gladly mingle with you, […] what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life – only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce…” Beethoven, excerpt from the Heilegengstadt Testament
It has become a cliché in many ways to talk about Beethoven’s deafness and his suffering. Maybe we can try to forget all the “ideas” we may have formed about the mythic man and just listen to this radiant sonata knowing that the person who scribbled these notes on a page more than 200 years ago was struggling with these shadows. He himself didn’t call this sonata “the Spring” sonata. The name was given to it by others and it has stayed.
The Prokofiev sonata was written in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. It many ways it speaks of two wars – the horrors of the bombing, the tanks, the graveyard – but also the inner war of a people living under Stalin’s reign. Prokofiev certainly knew this terror. In 1939 Prokofiev’s close friend and professional associate was arrested and shot by Stalin’s secret police and that same friend’s wife was brutally murdered one month later. Only months afterwards, Prokofiev was ‘invited’ to compose Zdravitsa (literally translated ‘Cheers!’, but more often given the English title ‘Hail to Stalin’) to celebrate Joseph Stalin’s 60th birthday. As a composer he was in constant threat of being denounced for writing “formalist” music (and he was). This was the political atmosphere at the time that Prokoviev wrote this sonata. And Russia suffered simultaneously from the war, the siege of Leningrad being one of the longest and most brutal sieges in history lasting 872 days.
The poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) was in Leningrad during the siege. In her poem, Requiem (excerpt below), she witnesses to her people’s suffering under Stalinism.
I have learned how faces fall,
How terror can escape from lowered eyes,
How suffering can etch cruel pages
Of cuneiform-like marks upon the cheeks.
I know how dark or ash-blond strands of hair
Can suddenly turn white. I’ve learned to recognize
The fading smiles upon submissive lips,
The trembling fear inside a hollow laugh.
That’s why I pray not for myself
But all of you who stood there with me
Through fiercest cold and scorching July heat
Under a towering, completely blind red wall.
The hour has come to remember the dead.
I see you, I hear you, I feel you:
The one who resisted the long drag to the open window;
The one who could no longer feel the kick of familiar
soil beneath her feet;
The one who, with a sudden flick of her head, replied,
‘I arrive here as if I’ve come home!’
I’d like to name you all by name, but the list
Has been removed and there is nowhere else to look.
So,I have woven you this wide shroud out of the humble words
I overheard you use. Everywhere, forever and always,
I will never forget one single thing. Even in new grief.
Even if they clamp shut my tormented mouth
Through which one hundred million people scream;
The violin sonata, written between 1938 and 1946, in many ways speaks of all war – outer and inner. There is however, a certain light shimmering behind the shadows. It is the light of a composer who was able to capture his personal struggle, the struggle of a people, and a human struggle with a certain veracity and compassion, evoking the brutality alongside the sublime. The great violinist David Oistrakh who premiered the sonata played the first and third movements of this sonata at Prokofiev’s funeral. In a strange irony of fate, Prokofiev left this world on the same day as Josef Stalin and his death was overshadowed by the leader’s.
The third piece on the program will be heard in its entirety for the first time… so perhaps the most interesting things to say about the piece will come from the audience. The music began as incidental music for a theater adaptation of Camus’ “The Fall” – a story of a celebrated judge known for his honor and integrity. He is plagued by his conscience after an incident on a bridge one night…
With this program we jump over centuries and across cultures… we enter into conversation with this music, wordless conversation. Music is vibration and, perhaps, the music itself speaks better than words, hopefully resonating with the shadows and the light of our own world and time.