Saturday, April 4
Shadow

Siberia's surprising history of music history today


View of a bridge over the Chebula River. Chumay-Olenskaya street. 1906-1908. Library of Congress.

When Sergei Volkonsky was exiled to Siberia in December 1825, his wife Maria volunteered to him. Her devotion was only surpassed by her strong will when she insisted on taking her clavichord, the unwieldy instrument that sled over 4,000 miles. The instrument was first placed in her husband's prison cell and later played in Maria's music salon in Irkutsk. Somewhat unbelievable that exiles educated there in deepest Siberia created a pulsating bourgeois life (Maria made the construction of a concert hall and the musical education in schools her personal projects) and transformed Irkutsk into the "Paris of Siberia". Like so many instruments, her clavichord would be lost in the tumult of later Russian history.

Maria's story turns the idea of ​​Siberia upside down as a strange wasteland and in this beautifully written book, Sophy Roberts deeply convinces that the region – which covers an eleventh of the world's landmass – eludes any simple categorization because of the flourishing trade here Post and model of Soviet cities as well as the penal colonies of the Tsarist period and the Soviet Gulag took place, with which it is synonymous. This travelogue-with-detective story describes Roberts' search for a piano of rare quality, deep history and incomparable voice for a young Mongolian virtuoso. However, the result is a unique short history of Russia, from Catherine the Great to Putin, how the piano came to speak to the Russian soul.

Each side is characterized by a feeling for the extraordinary, while Roberts explores a country of unimaginable size, beauty and brutality. She hopes "to find a counterpoint in music not only to the brutal history of Siberia, but also to the modern images perpetuated by the anti-Putin media in the West". In fact, the book turns away from current geopolitical chaos in favor of myths, spirits, and enchants that appear reassuringly eternal. Historical figures are more like fictional characters, from the Bloody White Baron, a Kurtz-like Russian warlord from the civil war with a Chinggis Khan complex, to Captain Scott's dog handler, who was born to a convict mother in the Aleksandrovsk penal colony. while the intoxicating beauty of the landscape offers a truly magical backdrop.

But the fact is hardly eliminated in favor of the imagination. Roberts searches for the elusive truth as it deals with the past of certain instruments, negotiates a labyrinth of often non-verifiable oral traditions, and deals with the legacy of regimes that people have deleted from the file – reflecting that “an object can lose its meaning if it has lost the history of its owner, such as a body detached from its soul or a refugee from its homeland. The instrument itself is lost where records exist, such as in the documentation of the Russian State Navy archive about the clavichord that a naval woman had transported by sled and boat from St. Petersburg to the Far Eastern Sea of ​​Okhotsk and back in the 1730s. Where a piano survives, like the Becker grand, found in Yekaterinburg's Church of the Blood at the site of the murder of the Romanovs and supposedly owned by the imperial family itself, no written confirmation can be found.

In the end, a piano with the totemistic power of being absolutely loved by its owner is what Roberts is really looking for, and this is a book about people, not objects. The demand for fine instruments in the earliest days of the October Revolution and the hasty evacuation of Catherine the Great's Zumpe Square piano as the Nazis approached Leningrad make the piano's value as a physical object clear, but Roberts emphasizes how music itself survives in the absence of an instrument. The desperate image of the book of carving the appearance of a piano keyboard into a Gulag bunk remains, as is the blind, arthritic 86-year-old woman who remembers the piano of her childhood when she was sitting in her crumbling Soviet. Era skyscraper in the Far East of Siberia. The scope of is geographically and historically The lost pianos of Siberia is dizzying, but also his ambition to explore human resilience.

The lost pianos of Siberia
Sophy Roberts
Doubleday 448pp £ 18.99

Sophia L. Deboick is a historian of religion and popular culture and a freelance writer.

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