Friday, December 06, 2013

A drizzling rain has encrusted the snow with a layer of crunchy ice and transformed the roads into slip-and-slides. The temperatures are hovering at or above freezing: we are experiencing the Northern version of a heat wave; oddly enough, it is actually colder in Northern California than it is here.

It is the sort of weather than makes me want to run outside with my bare tootsies in a ball gown, just as I did once at my friend Natasha's house. She pulled this gigantic, green frilly gown with a low neck out of her walk-in closet and zipped me into it, just days after I had left a long-term relationship, and for some reason, I jumped out her glass patio door and began skittering back and forth, barefoot, across her snow-covered yard. Natasha chortled and ran after me with a camera. Somewhere she has the goofy photos of me. It was one of the happiest moments of electric freedom I've experienced in my entire life.

Vertinsky and Pierrot (Blok and Balaganchik)



"I know the story of a certain resolute ball, which was tossed around from one corner  to the other, until one day it leapt up to heaven!"

(This is my impression of a portion of the inscription on this photograph of Alexander Vertinsky from 1918, in costume as a dark Pierrot.)

I have become obsessed lately with Vertinsky, wondering how it was that he invented himself as an image of compassion and refinement, without becoming cloying and sentimental. How did the young rebel, who was once kicked out of an exclusive school in Kiev, become a cultural icon?

Here is another post of mine about Vertinsky, for the curious.

Although Vertinsky (born in 1889) became an actor in the theater at an early age, he considered literature and poetry to be his natural habitat. He wrote, "I approach my own creativity not as an artist, but from the point of view of a poet; what attracts me is not just performance, but the process of choosing the words that correspond to my own inner motif."

From what I have read, it seems Vertinsky's world-view was nurtured in the home of Sofia Nikolaevna Zelinskaya, where the cream of literary and artistic Kiev gathered, including Mikhail Kuzmin, Vladimir  Elsner, and  Mark Chagal. Vertinsky tried his hand at writing short stories and poems; he wrote theater reviews of Fyodor Chaliapin and other famous characters, and began to make a name for himself in the literary scene of Kiev. At around 1910, Vertinsky moved to Moscow, where he felt the need to carve a niche for himself among the Moscow intelligentsia. He began playing small parts in plays, and he began attempting to perform Alexander Blok's "Balaganchik" (The Puppet).

Don't click here unless you want to be pleasantly surprised.

Blok became and remained one of Vertinsky's favorite poets, throughout his lifetime. Later, reminiscing, he referred to Blok's writing as "the verses that created our world." Her remembered Blok's poetry as  "infecting not just one heart with dreams of a Beautiful Lady." It was not that Vertinsky copied Blok, but some of Blok's poetic images created such an impression on him, that his entire perception of the world at that time became as it were, through Blok's eyes.

In 1914, Vertinsky left for the front to serve as a volunteer as a nurse on a medical train, where he served until 1915 when he was wounded. It was recorded in a book on that train that Vertinsky bound 35,000 wounds during that year. After his return to Moscow, Vertinsky began singing "Songs of Pierrot" in the Theater of Miniatures. In the character of a "black" Pierrot, he performed his own lyrics and often composed his own music.

Vertinsky's version of Pierrot, he claimed, originated on the train where he tended to the wounded and where the medical corps performed small concerts for wounded soldiers. He felt it necessary to hide behind the thick pancake makeup, because of his own lack of confidence while appearing in front of crowded audience. The mask of the sad clown (Pierrot) seemed to be most fitting for the role of a comforter, which Vertinsky had chosen for himself and made his own.

Vertinsky became his own genre, the embodiment of a culture that was soon to be swept from the scene by the Revolution and all sorts of isms. He subsisted as a living time capsule, a source of inspiration for generations. After years of traveling and performing around the world (he adored Paris and New York),  he voluntarily returned to Russia (then the Soviet Union) and was  then forced to play censored concerts in freezing halls. He somehow managed to retain a unique spirit and integrity, although he was fully conscious of the divide between his ideals and his surroundings. He never caved in to mediocrity or cynicism, but instead, it seems to me, managed to retain the same message that he attempted to convey to the soldiers on that train: "...here I am, shy and sensitive, dreaming my unattainable dream, but I am present for you in this moment in this mask, behind which there might lurk some substance for the wounded listener to discover."

Much of this information is derived from sources such as this:

Novy Istorichesky Vestnik, 2001

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Vertinsky: I do not need a woman, I need a muse


There is a song clinging like a drowsy bat to the dingy ceiling of a dungeon, deep within the labyrinthine palace of my memories, a melody that tickles the spine with an icy narcotic chill and the faint echo of honey, as if a recently extinguished bees'-wax taper has haunted me for over 20 years.

More than a melody, it is as if a forbidden message were wafting forward from the beginning of the 20th century, when it was later resurrected and embraced by popular artists in Russia during the 1990's. The song was dedicated to Vera Holodnaya, an elusive figure from the era of silent films, Russia's first real film star, who appeared in numerous films, although only five remain extant.

"during the time of the flowering Symbolism with Blok's cult of the Stranger (translator's note: or Unattainable Bride) while the Tsarist army was suffering defeat during the first world war....schoolgirls copied poems regarding courtesans, pineapples and champagne...against a backdrop of patriotic bacchanalia, while the empire suffered its death throes, the youth of the country was sniffing cocaine....submerged in a world of illusion, where there were no guards, no hangings, nor the specter of unavoidable revolution..."

(A quote from an article by Natalia Chetverikova published by Alef Magazine)

In the center of Moscow, on the Tverskoy, lived the family of Vladimir Holodny: his wife Vera, the dark-haired beauty, her mother, younger sister and two tiny daughters. One day upon the threshold of their apartment appeared a thin, long-necked, haggard soldier, with his legs wrapped in rags, in a stained uniform. He was returning from war, where he served as a male nurse in a field hospital. He brought Vera a letter from the front, from her husband. The soldier's name was Alexander Vertinsky. He was invited into the parlor, and was served tea. Vertinsky began to frequent the place daily. Once, he recited his poetry and songs. The lady of the house gave her honest opinion: these lyrics would not go anywhere. The poet did not hold a grudge--he had been stricken from the first glance with the beauty of Vera Holodnaya (who had already dabbled in ballet) and offered to help her to try out her skill as an actress, introducing her to a director of his acquaintance.

(Aside, sotto voce: According to other sources, Holodnaya had already begun her career as an actress, but this is a much more romantic rendering of events.)

In no time at all, Holodnaya began appearing in film after film. Meanwhile, Vertinsky dedicated a new song to her, and gave her the nickname, Queen of the Screen, and it is under this title that she is known to this day. Vertinsky became a friend of Vera's family, and of his husband, when he returned from the front, and even played with the children. Vera (Holodnaya) made possible Vertinsky's first appearance in the Theater of Minatures, where he exchanged the woolen soldier's uniform for the costume of a sorrowful Pierrot. Fearing the audience, and afraid of his own face, he covered himself with thick grease paint: lead-white cheeks, blush, a scarlet mouth, and in a mysterious, mooning twilight, he coyly performed songs dedicated to Vera Holodnaya. In one single gesture, Vertinsky managed to convey the irony of his position; he confirmed and poeticized human frailty; he knew how to demonstrate empathy. His female fans tossed flowers at him, while he fled out the back door of the theater.


Once, Vertinsky showed Vera a new song dedicated to her, entitled, "Your hands smell of incense," but she waved her arms at him in protest, "What have you done! You should not have! To imagine me lying in a grave--not for anything! This is death, remove this dedication immediately!" Vertinsky was a bit offended: why didn't she understand his poetic allegory? He removed the dedication, but the theme of the song with death-as-a-bride experienced a runaway success, sung with Vertinsky's blissfully blasphemous intonation.

Whether the performer is male or female; the voice of a young Alexander Vertinsky lingers in the lyrics:



BELOW is a link to Vertinsky's "offending" verses. I was experiencing technical difficulties in the process of embedding the videos into this post.




But I  have posted Alyona Sviridova's version above, which exists within me like a dormant virus, activating now and then as if it were an alchemical equation.

Vertinsky singing "Your fingers smell of incense"

Oleg Pogudin's Version

At this point in my rememberings, I ran into a puzzling problem often encountered while attempting to pin down a nearly-forgotten memory: conflicting versions of the text of the song. In some of the versions, the pronoun, "you" is used; in others, "we". Apologies for my atrocious translations. Vertinsky's version is closer to the first one below. Here I am speculating, but perhaps Vertinsky himself, over time, edited the text of the song from "You no longer need anything" to read "We no longer need a thing (or anything)."

Version 1:

Your fingers smell of incense,
And in your lashes sorrow sleeps.
We no longer need a thing,
Are not sorry for anyone.
And when as Spring's messenger
You are brought to the blue region,
The Lord Himself on a white staircase
Will lead you to a bright paradise.

A gray-haired deacon quietly whispers,
Bowing his head again and again
And sweeps with his scant beard
The dust of the ages from the icons.
Your fingers smell of frankincense,
And in your lashes sorrow dreams.
We no longer need a thing,
Are not sorry for anyone.

Ваши пальцы пахнут ладаном,
А в ресницах спит печаль.
Ничего теперь не надо нам,
Никого теперь не жаль.
И когда весенней Вестницей
Вы пойдете в синий край,
Сам Господь по белой лестнице
Поведет Вас в светлый рай.

Тихо шепчет дьякон седенький,
За поклоном бьет поклон
И метет бородкой реденькой
Вековую пыль с икон.
Ваши пальцы пахнут ладаном,
А в ресницах спит печаль.
Ничего теперь не надо нам,
Никого теперь не жаль.

Version 2:

Your fingers smell of incense
In your lashes sleeps sorrow
You no longer need anything
You are no longer sorry for anyone
You no longer need anything
You are no longer sorry for anyone

And when, as a messenger of spring
You'll proceed to the far-off realm,
The Lord Himself will lead you
Along a white stair-case to His bright paradise
The Lord Himself will lead you
Along a white stair-case to His bright paradise

A gray-haired deacon, whispering
Inclines his head and bows
His sparse beard, trembling, sweeps
Centuries of dust from the icons
His sparse beard, trembling, sweeps
Centuries of dust from the icons

Your fingers smell of frankincense
In your lashes sleeps sorrow
You no longer need anything
You are no longer sorry for anyone
You no longer need anything
You are no longer sorry for anyone.....................

Ваши пальцы пахнут ладаном,
На ресницах спит печаль.
Ничего теперь не надо вам,
Никого теперь не жаль.
Ничего теперь не надо вам,
Никого теперь не жаль.
И когда весенней вестницей
Вы пойдете в дальний край,
Сам господь по белой лестнице
Поведет в свой светлый рай.
Сам господь по белой лестнице
Поведет в свой светлый рай.
Тихо шепчет дьякон седенький,
За поклоном бьет поклон,
Все трясет бородкой реденькой
Вековыя пыль с икон…
Все трясет бородкой реденькой
Вековыя пыль с икон…

Yet a third version includes verses with both "you" and "we".

Borish Grebenschikov's version. (1994)
_________________________________________

Were Vertinsky's lyrics indeed prophetic? Vera Holodnaya, according to official records, died of the Spanish flu during 1919. Rumors circulated of a possible poisoning by the French ambassador, who believed she was a Bolshevik spy. She was mourned by thousands and buried in Odessa. The graveyard where she lay was unceremoniously destroyed by Communists. Finally, in 2003, a statue appeared in her honor in an Odessa park.

Not long after Vera's death, her mother and husband passed away, leaving her daughters as orphans. Some say they were taken to Turkey, and that Vertinsky looked for them; other sources indicate they ended up in Bulgaria.

According to the article in Aleph Magazine quoted above, Vertinsky was contacted in a hotel room in Rostov-on-the-Don, where he had been given a concert. When he received the telegram from Odessa: "Vera Holodnaya is dead," he tore out the page of the score of the song and wrote: "To the Queen of  the Screen--Vera Holodnaya."

In November, 1920, in what he was later quoted as describing a "spirit of adventure", Alexander Vertinsky boarded a ship to Constantinople, leaving Russia for Europe, the US and China. He did not return to the Soviet Union until the 1940's; he continued to perform a limited repertoire of songs, but he never felt completely at home there.

Click here for my next post on Vertinsky and Pierrot.

Here is an excellent blog post on Holodnaya (Kholodnaya):

Silence is Platinum

Further reading for the curious, regarding Vertinsky, Holodnaya, Blok et al.....

http://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/music/aleksandr-vertinsky/


http://www.portal-slovo.ru/philology/37189.php?ELEMENT_ID=37189&PAGEN_1=5

http://www.portal-slovo.ru/philology/37189.php?ELEMENT_ID=37189&PAGEN_1=5

http://www.liveinternet.ru/users/3370050/post132130514/

An exclusive YouTube mix of songs performed by Vertinsky himself:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAg_9PsUD7Q&list=RDK6ZfrPW4Wmo
Perhaps Vertinsky's ghost still haunts the apartment on the Tverskoy, where Vertinsky spent his last ten years. His lovely widow, Lydia Vertinskaya, is interviewed in an article here:
http://www.admagazine.ru/inter/visiting-houses/13223_kvartira-aleksandra-vertinskogo-na-tverskoy.php#article

En plein air - in memoriam Andrew Bellon

A dreamless sleep falls from the shimmering leaves. --Sappho fragment, tr. Andrew Bellon I changed, thickened, ...

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