Fifty years ago this October, I briefly visited Moscow en route to the UK. There were signs that the cold war between East and West was slowly defrosting but even so I felt a sense of excitement just to be there: that I was infringing on an alien culture. I was staying at the Hotel Berlin on Red Square and the autumn cold was already seeping through the double glazed windows of my austere room. Outside, in Red Square an endless stream of Muscovites lined up outside the Lenin Mausoleum waiting their turn for a glimpse of their revolutionary hero; another line waited outside the GUM department store to shop; and at the far end of the square, St Basil’s Cathedral was undergoing restoration, though I was still able to enter and marvel at the holy icons adorning the walls of the many private chapels of the former Tsars and other Russian nobility.
The 1965 movie and hence the book of Boris Pasternak’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’ were still very much an influence on me then. For me, it helped to humanise the inhumanity that occurred during and after the Russian revolution; it was ordinary people tested in extraordinary times; it put the individual before the State – a fact that caused the Soviet Government to force Boris Pasternak to reject his Nobel Prize.
‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ is another life-affirming book full of humour and charm that brings together the profound, the political and the personal aspects of Soviet life during and after the revolution. In this case, the novel’s protagonist is Count Alexander Rostov, starting in Russia’s turbulent early 1920s and spanning 30 years. When the Count is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Having never worked a day in his life, he must now live in one room as history is being made outside.
Happily I now read that the book is soon to be made into a television adaption. Kenneth Branagh is to play the Count. I hadn’t imagined what the Count might have looked like, but Kenneth Branagh seems to be ideal.
‘Trip to Italy’, a film and TV series of recent times, featured in its soundtrack a recurring theme comprising a loud, sustained chord that resolved gradually into a slow expansive melody of great aural beauty. It was so perfectly matched to the action, especially the sedate yachting scenes, that I wondered just how the director came to select such a piece of music. Did he have all this music already in his head, or did he visit a library of background music and ask for a suitable piece? Indeed, how does any director, especially for TV documentaries, select the background music?
Evidently other viewers of ‘Trip to Italy’ had also liked the piece which, thanks to Google, was identified as ‘At Sunset’ from ‘Four Last Songs’ by German composer, Richard Strauss, and composed just before his death at 85. Interestingly, the premiere was given posthumously at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 22 May 1950, sung by Flagstad, accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. The performance was made possible due to the magnanimous effort of the then Maharaja of Mysore, Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar Bahudar. Though he could not be present, the music-loving maharaja put up a $4,800 guarantee for the performance, so that the Four Last Songs could be recorded for his large personal collection – then estimated at around 20,000 records – and the recording then shipped to him in Mysore.
Here is a link to hear the actual piece:
I find it interesting to know what projects famous artistic people were working on when they died, and how it intertwined with their lives at the time. Here are some of my favourites:
- A month before his death at 93, film actor, Christopher Lee, had signed up to star with an ensemble cast in the Danish film ‘The 11th’.
- Richard Wagner, the 19th century German composer was planning another opera ‘Die Sieger’ (The Victors). I read somewhere that a teenage Adolf Hitler tried his hand at completing it.
- David Lean, the British film director, was about to begin filming Joseph Conrad’s book ‘Nostromo’ when he died. In 1997 Alastair Reid directed it as a British-Italian television drama miniseries.
- Stieglitz Larsson who wrote the ‘Millennium Trilogy’ died shortly after delivering the manuscripts and so could not witness the book and films subsequent huge popularity.
- In the summer of 1959, Boris Pasternak, Russian poet and author of ‘Doctor Zhivago’ , began work on a drama to be called ‘The Blind Beauty’. It was to be a drama of the 19th century in Russia with its main event the liberation of the serfs. He envisioned the drama as an ambitious trilogy, but unfortunately only lived to complete the first act.
- After he had finished ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ in 1984, Sergio Leone wanted to make a war epic film based on Harrison Salisbury’s book ‘The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad’, about the Eastern Front during World War II. Leone settled on the idea of following an American war photographer, to be played by Robert De Niro, as he found himself trapped in Leningrad for years during the German siege of the city. Leone secured $100m in financing and the cooperation of the Soviet government and had hired regular collaborator Ennio Morricone to compose the score when he suddenly died of a heart attack in 1989 at the age of 60.
- I had been writing about Moreton Bay for 25 years when Rosemary Opala supplied her sketch of what she imagined would be my final words as I disappeared beneath the surface of the bay’s waters….glug..glug…