Sunday, February 07, 2016

'War and Peace' coming to Broadway.


'WarAndPeace' dénouement tonight as the BBC broadcasts the final episode of their new television adaptation of the Tolstoy epic. (Script by Andrew Davies, directed by Tom Harper, wikipedia here)


Meanwhile, the Broadway is preparing a pop opera version to open this Autumn. The New York Times reports that a pop opera 'Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812' is to open this Autumn. 

Hats off, ladies and gentlemen! 

Tchaikovsky's no 35 D Major —



Sunday, January 31, 2016

War and Peace. The music.


As though answering my complaint about the lack of music in the new BBC TV adaptation of 'War and Peace', they've just put up a playlist of contemporary music and music inspired by 'War and Peace' all the way from Beethoven's 'Eroica' number 3 to Prokofiev's opera 'War and Peace' and his cantata 'Alexander Nevsky.'

If one goes that wide, one should certainly embrace the musical numbers from the play, the musical and the film 'The Hussars' Ballad' (1962, wikipeida article)

Here is 'The Hussars' Ballad' with all its glorious music -



And here they trumpet away the Marseillaise in Tchaikovsky's '1812', first in subdued tones at 4 min, then in triumphant let-it-all-hang-out with cannons and fireworks at 13 min with a culmination at 14:20 that includes the tsarist anthem 'God Save the Tsar (King)' -



Tolstoy and Dolokhov.

Fyodor Tolstoy the American.
Photo of C19 o/c portrait by Shakko.

Tolstoy based Dolokhov, a curious secondary character in 'War and Peace", on several real-life men. One of them was Fyodor Tolstoy the American (Толстой-Американец), Leo Tolstoy's cousin-uncle. As a young boy Tolstoy the future writer knew him personally and was very impressed by his personality and the legends that surrounded him.

Fyodor Tolstoy, among other things, killed eleven people at duels and was demoted to the ranks several times but got restored after feats of heroism in Russia's many wars of the time, including the main battle with Napoleon in 1812, the Battle of Borodino. He got the nickname 'Amerikanets' after taking part in a round-the-world sea expedition.

There is a portrait of Fyodor Tolstoy as a young man in Leo Tolstoy's Moscow house, now a museum.

The new TV adaptation of 'War and Peace,' currently running on BBC 1 and cable channels around the world, plays up the characters of Dolokhov and Sonia to the point of overshadowing the main characters, Pierre, Andrei and Natasha.

At first glance, it may seem a fault with the script author Andrew Davies and director Tim Harper. However, a more careful look at the character of Fyodor Dolokhov makes it clear that 'reading up' Dolokhov is a valid choice that may explain a lot in Leo Tolstoy's novel and the reappraise the comparative weight of characters in the book.

In a sense, Dolokhov is as much a Leo Tolstoy as Pierre, into whom the writer and thinker put most of himself, as conventional interpretation tells us. A writer, especially a great one, cannot help splitting his soul and putting bits of it into the characters he creates. Dolokhov is a kind of horcrux of Tolstoy himself. He reflects the character of Tolstoy the man as much as the floppy humanist Pierre. The cold fury, the anger against conventions, the scornful nationalism, the desire to be accepted rivalling only the desire to humiliate the accepting, the grand society, — those are the traits that were driving Leo Tolstoy too, in life and in writing.

The writer, before his marriage, was not alien to excessive drinking, partying with the gypsies and losing and winning, though mostly losing, in card games.

Tolstoy's appearance and peculiar mannerisms bear striking resemblance with that of Dolokhov. Here is how WS Maugham describes Tolstoy:
"He was irritable, brutally contradictory and arrogantly indifferent to other people's feelings. Turgenev has said that he never met anything more disconcerting than Tolstoy's inquisitorial look, which, accompanied by a few biting words, could goad a man to fury."

Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to a duel and friends had difficulty in preventing him from actually fighting while reconciliation took more than ten years. Tolstoy's stare, that unnerved Turgenev so much, is the same as Dolokhov's: "Dolokhov looked at Pierre with clear, mirthful, cruel eyes, and that smile of his which seemed to say, 'Ah! This is what I like!'" (from Garnett's translation.) This is from the scene at the English Club in Moscow when Pierre challenges Dolokhov to a duel.

That same straight, cruel inquisitional look follows Dolokhov in all his appearances in the novel, all the way to the last episode with him, when he orders that no French prisoners should be kept alive. Before that final scene with Dolokhov, he and Denisov, both commanders of small partisan troops that raided Napoleon's army behind the lines, have a fierce argument about the treatment of the prisoners. It appears that Dolokhov, unlike Denisov, was systematically slaughtering them. Denisov is repulsed by that.

But where does Tolstoy, the great humanist, stand in that argument? Curiously, when Pierre meets Prince Andrew on the eve of the Battle of Borodino and listens to his friend's famous monologue on the 'latent patriotism' of the Russians, Prince Andrew says exactly what later Dolokhov says to Denisov, even with greater clarity and ferocity: "One thing I would do if I had the power," he began again, "I would not take prisoners. Why take prisoners? It's chivalry! The French have destroyed my home and are on their way to destroy Moscow, they have outraged and are outraging me every moment. They are my enemies. In my opinion they are all criminals. And so thinks Timokhin and the whole army. They should be executed!" And later, in the same monologue: "Take no prisoners, but kill and be killed!" Pierre looks at Andrew, both frightened and compassionate, but agrees with everything he said.

Horcruxes are from JK Rowling's Harry Potter. They are magical objects where the dark wizard hides parts of his split soul. In Somerset Maugham's essay on Tolstoy in the book 'Great Novelists and Their Novels' (1954) there is a shrewd observation:
"There is a point in the writer's psychology that I have never seen mentioned, though it must be obvious to anyone who has studied the lives of authors. Every creative writer's work is, to some extent at least, a sublimation of instincts, desires, daydreams, call them what you like, which for one cause or another he has repressed, and by giving them literary expression he is freed of the compulsion to give them the further release of action. But it is not a complete satisfaction. He is left with a feeling of inadequacy. That is the ground of the man of letters' glorification of the man of action and the unwilling, envious admiration with which he regards him."

Applying this to Dolokhov, it becomes apparent that the character is part of Tolstoy, the part that the writer couldn't admit in himself or couldn't allow in himself, and so decided to give it to his literary creation.

And yes, JK Rowling took her Antonin Dolohov, a Death Eater, one of the cruellest wizards, from Tolstoy's 'War and Peace.'

Note: Wikipedia has an article on Maugham's book, referring to it as 'Ten Novels and Their Authors' of 1954. My American paper edition of the book is titled 'Great Novelists and Their Novels' with copyright dated 1948. 

In this video Dolokhov and Pierre duel, from Sergey Bondarchuk's cinema version (1965-67) -



The Borodino Battle, 1972 series, Prince Andrei's monologue with 'No quarter!' at 24 min. into the video -



Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Who is Mikhail Ivanovich?

Mishka (RIAN.ru)

BBC's investigative Panorama programme on Monday (25 Jan 2016) looked into allegations of corruption against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Brave or meek, sensationally revealing or we-knew-it-all-along, it left quite a few questons unanswered.

One of them, with which non-Russian friends bombarded me, was about the nickname that is allegedly referring to Putin in coded conversations — 'Mikhail Ivanovich.'

One friend asked, all right, Mikhail Ivanovich, I get it, but what is his surname?
Without thinking, I replied: Toptygin (Топтыгин).

Mikhail Ivanovich Toptygin is one of the many affectionate, or not very affectionate folklore names for the Bear. The bear in Russian imagery is always the biggest of them all; he can be stupid, funny, clumsy, threatening; he can be a secondary character, or the main character, the Big Boss. Russian dictionaries have numerous entries on the bear and his nicknames. And the name, Mikhail-Michael, is quite common. Gorbachev is Mikhail Sergeevich. Kutuzov, the Russian army commander in history and in Tolstoy's 'War and Peace,' was Mikhail Illarionovich.

In 'War and Peace', Pierre, Anatole and Dolokhov get drunk, borrow a bear from the gypsies for fun, and, when a gendarme arrives, they tie them back-to-back and push the two in the river. The Bear appears in Pushkin's 'Eugene Onegin' chasing Tatiana in her dream (see in English here, Chapter 5, XII, Russian text here). Saltykov-Schedrin, the great 19 Century satirist, has a tale of three bears serving as governors of different regions with the rank of Major. One of them, the cleverest, even gets promoted to Colonel. Each of the three have the same name Toptygin: Toptygin I, Toptygin II and Toptygin III. And at least one of them is Mikhail Ivanovich (Ivanovich being the patronymic, or middle name, with the stress on A). Chekhov wrote a one-act comedy sketch 'The Bear' (summary in English and text in Russian) in 1888, in which a burly land-owner challenges a young widow to a duel, after which they fall in love. The play was made into a film by Isidor Annensky in 1938.

The image of Russia as a bear, both in the West and in the East, is so strong that it merited a separate Wikipedia article. President Putin himself described the Bear as the master of the forest in October 2014.

But Mikhail Ivanovich the Bear, is he as strong in the Russian mind as Mikhail Ivanovich the Boss? Yes and no.

On top of Mikhail Ivanovich there is also the cute Mishka, the 1980 Moscow Olympics mascot, and there is also a Mikhail Ivanovich the 'Chef' in the popular 1969 comedy 'The Diamond Arm' by Leonid Gaidai (summary in English on Wikipedia). Thanks to Valery Adzhiev for the reminder! 

In fact, the film is so popular that the actual name of a character in the film, Mikhail Ivanovich the police officer, a Captain later promoted to Major, shifted to the wicked smugglers' ring-leader, the Chef. It must be thanks to the scene, when one of the gangsters disguised as a cab driver, learns that the police are on their trail and rushes off to call the Chef.
'You mean, Mikhail Ivanovich?' asks the main character.
'Yes, yes, him!'

This is how 'Mikhail Ivanovich' travelled from the Bear to the Boss.

'I must call Mikhail Ivanovich' scene from 'The Diamond Arm' -



Vladimir Putin on the Master of the Taiga forest (from RT YouTube channel)  -


Sunday, January 24, 2016

War and Peace.


BBC 2016 series reviewed in New Yorker



Louis Menand in New Yorker compares the BBC 1972 adaptation with the currently running one.


It is a good review, and a very good comparison with the 1972 version. 

It also explains why secondary characters are so prominent, to the detriment of the main ones. He put a finger on Tolstoy's snobbishness bur missed Tolstoy's mysogyny. Didn't fit in his picture, probably. (photo: an oak tree in winter, here in France. In the film, they've chosen to show a tree with a completely rotten inside.)

Here is a quote:
"Does the new series get the novel? Not really. It’s a costume drama, “Downton Abbey” goes to Moscow, one of those “Masterpiece Theatre”-type shows that, despite the toniness and the high-end production values, is basically about the trials and tribulations of getting exceptionally attractive and ridiculously rich people properly paired off. Within the confines of that slightly soapy ambition, the series is credible and, at moments, quite moving. But it’s much more interested in Anatole flirting at the opera than in Pierre eating the potato. It gives Tolstoy’s big existential question—if we are only tiny bits of life being blown around in a great cosmic storm, and have no control over what happens to us, what can it possibly mean to live in the right way?—a pass."

I can't agree more. Some nitpicking on the article. 

"War and Peace" is not the longest novel, Richardson's "Clarissa", for example, is longer in word count in English. 

Serfs were emancipated in Russia in 1861, not in 1862 as mentioned in the article.

The hunt scene was not omitted, it was in Episode 4 just now, and beautifully done.

Re. Chaikovsky's "1812" vs "La Marseillaise", Menand writes: "If we want to hear music on the Fourth of July that is actually about liberty and democracy, we should play “La Marseillaise,” not the “1812 Overture.” (I don’t see this happening, somehow.)" Good point, but "La Marseillaise" is included in 1812. You listen to both, the French national anthem and the Russian version of "God, Save the King." Chaikovsky used La Marseillaise as a theme for the advancing French. Towards the end it's drowned by God Save the King (Tsar) and then come the famous bells chimes, cannonade and the triumphal march.

This last musical quote also explains, partly, why they chose to play it at the height of the Cold War in 1974 (in fact, it was the height of Brezhnev-Nixon's detente): it was hardly ever played in the Soviet Union for the simple reason that this great piece of patriotic umpapah includes the tsarist anthem. Popular in the West, it was a no-no for the ruling communists.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

BBC's new War and Peace: where is the music?

(The Hussars' Ballad)

A hussar hero of 1812, Denis Davydov

I know what I really-really miss in BBC's new TV adaptation of Tolstoy's 'War and Peace', it's the music.

Many greatest scenes in the novel, and in previous screen versions, are accompanied by great musical background: Natasha singing and dancing, armies marching and the great ball with the Emperor. In the first two episodes of the BBC series there is hardly any music, if at all.

BBC's guide to War and Peace and the new TV series has a dedicated page here. Don't get lost in Russian names and complicated narrative.

The lack of music on the one hand, and the obvious 'sexing-up' of Tolstoy in the new adaptation reminded me of a tremendously popular Soviet musical comedy 'The Hussars Ballad' ("Гусарская баллада", Wikipedia article in English here). Eldar Ryazanov's film is based on a play 'A Long Time Ago' ("Давным-давно") by Alexander Gladkov with original score by Tikhon Khrennikov.

The story is a comedy of errors. Shurochka (Alexandra), a young patriotically minded girl runs away from home dressed up as a hussar cornet (second lieutenant, like the young Churchill) and joins the Russian army fighting Napoleon's invasion in 1812. There, she finds her own true love, gets decorated with a medal, meets field-marshal Kutuzov and the hussar hero of the war Denis Davydov (Davyd Vassiliev in the film and Vassily Denisov in Tolstoy's novel). All along she and others sing beautiful songs.

The film and the musical numbers are still very popular and Poruchik (lieutenant) Rzhevsky, the main male character, since the film has started a folk lore life of its own as a hero of numerous bawdy jokes. This is where the 'sexing-up' reference comes in.

Story lines in the film are reminiscent of Tolstoy's many subplots and there really was a woman in 1812 who sneaked in disguise into the Russian cavalry during the war.

The film is available in full on the Mosfilm's YouTube channel here. (no subtitles, but you won't need them). And here is the Song of King Henry IV from the film, the whole Napoleonic invasion of 1812 in 100 seconds (lyrics unrelated to the story).

 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Chekhov with a squint?

Chekhov by Serov 

I never realised Chekhov had a squint.

I've always had a soft spot for people with a squint, especially in women.  'What else did she want, that witch with a very slight squint in one eye?' (from Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita, tr. by Michael Glenny).

But Chekhov! The great playwright and humourist, the master of short story who is always portrayed, in paintings and photographs, hiding behind his trademark pince-nez on!

In this portrait dated 1903 (watercolour, paper), Valentin Serov, a great portraitist (he is famous for the portrait of Shaliapin among others), removes the pince-nez and tucks it inside Chekhov's waistcoat at the bottom of the picture, as though saying, there, he is not a sad narrator of decline, doom and gloom, look, he is a bubbly, fun loving man.

Serov met Chekhov in 1900 and immediately started asking him to sit for a portrait. He even tried to ambush him at home, sending a visiting card saying that he will drop by with some paper and pencils. It didn't happen and Chekhov agreed to sit only months later.

Although the portrait is usually dated as of 1903 Chekhov actually sat for Serov in the Spring of 1901. After a few sittings the writer left for Crimea and never had a chance to pose for the portrait again. Serov considered the work unfinished, a study, but apparently had to give up of ever catching Chekhov again. "Chekhov is elusive," admitted Serov.

In 1904 the writer died.

(source: article by T.Yu.Novoselova, teaching scholar, Chekhov Central Public City Library, Taganrog, Russia)
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