Nikolai Beloborodov house and plaque, Tula

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Nikolai Beloborodov ran a dye business in Tula. His father had been the manager of a rich man’s estate. His mother came from a family that had made its living working in the famous Tula armory factory. None of this gives us a hint as to why we remember Beloborodov today – which is because, in the first half of the 1870s, he invented the first accordion (button box, squeeze box) that was equipped with half-tones.
A paragraph on a very nice Tula-based website tells the story with both brevity and interesting detail:
At the age of 11 he became fascinated with playing the accordion, for which endeavor he independently learned to read music. Possessing extraordinary abilities, he achieved notable success in his mastery of the instrument, but the primitiveness of the harmonies existing at the time severely limited his performing abilities. Therefore, in 1875 (according to other sources, in 1870) he commissioned a fundamentally new instrument from the renowned Tula master Leonty Alexeevich Chulkov.  The novelty of the instrument consisted in the construction of a right-hand keyboard consisting of 23 keys, which included all 12 sounds of the chromatic scale.”
Still, apparently, the difficulties of the new instrument were such that it required further development. Beloborodov, who was now fascinated by new plans and ideas, did not continue work on the new instrument. At first his thoughts were occupied with the idea of putting together the first accordion trio – which he found relatively easy to do, since he took up one of the places, while his daughters Maria (Kuvaldina by marriage) and Sofya Beloborodova took up the other two places. Then he was inspired to create an entire orchestra of accordions. He gathered amateur musicians (for the notion of a “professional” accordionist was ahead of its time) and rehearsed them at his home on Sunday afternoons and evenings. All of them played on the new-fangled chromatic-scale accordions.
Ah, but our hero was not even close to being finished. Presumably somewhat taken aback by the roar of an entire orchestra of identical accordions – no matter how many half-notes they could play – Beloborodov began to realize that a whole array of different accordions was needed. As such, he commissioned the creation of a series of accordions “of different ranges and timbres: piccolo-accordion, prima-accordion, alto-accordion, cello-accordion, bass-accordion, and double bass-accordion” (I’m quoting from the same site). Even I, as I sit here and write 150 years later, can hear the drastic changes taking place in Beloborodov’s living room as he gathers each week with his musician friends. All of a sudden a monotonous wall of sound begins morphing into a nuanced pattern of sounds that begins to sound like sophisticated music.

And yet, and yet… Beloborodov was not done. Now that he had put together such a versatile combination of accordions, he began commissioning works written or adapted specifically for accordion or an accordion orchestra. Thus his orchestra was able to play not only sophisticated versions of folk music, but it could also play popular classical works by Mikhail Glinka, Franz von Suppé, Johann Strauss and others. When this greatly enlarged repertoire was not enough to satisfy Beloborodov, he began writing his own works. His “Fantasia” polka, “The Hunt” quadrille and his Waltz were, therefore, the first works ever written for chromatic scale accordion. If that wasn’t enough, Beloborodov also wrote the first instruction manual for this new instrument.
Once again, that Tula website provides a nice description of the orchestra’s activities:
The orchestra’s first performance took place in the hall of the Tula Assembly of the Nobility in 1897. Further, the collective repeatedly demonstrated its skills not only in Tula, but also in Kaluga, Serpukhov, Aleksin, and Yefremov. Great events in the life of the orchestra were a concert at the Moscow Conservatory, a recording session, and, in the summer of 1893, a performance for Leo Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana, where the orchestra presented the great Russian writer with an honorary address and a membership card at the Tula Society of Music and Dramatic Artists.”
Beloborodov was born February 27, 1828 and he died December 28, 1912. He lived his entire life in Tula. His mother died shortly after he was born; his father wanted his son to be educated, but not too educated. He saw to it that a priest taught Nikolai to read in Old Church Slavonic, but one the pupil began making progress at that, the father stopped his education. He considered that that was enough to get him through life. His father also died when he was relatively young, and the young man set up his dye business in his home. It brought him precious little money and he and his family were often short of necessary funds.
The point here, of course, is the extraordinary nature of Beloborodov’s fascination  with, and dedication to, his chosen – it was never really a profession for him, but rather more an obsession.
The plaque at the top of this post reads: “Nikolai Ivanovich Beloborodov (1828-1912), the inventor of the chromatic scale accordion, and the organizer of the world’s first accordion orchestra, lived in this building.”
This building, located at 16 Lenin Prospekt, was turned into a museum commemorating Beloborodov’s life and work in 1995.

 

 

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Plaque Honoring Alexei Savrasov, Moscow

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Alexei Savrasov (1830-1897) created some of the most haunting paintings ever made of Russian landscapes. He was a founding member of the Wanderers, which, for a time, unified many of the greatest 19th century Russian artists, and he was a famed pedagogue at what was originally known as the College of Painting and Sculpting in Moscow. It is now known as the Russian Academy of Painting, Sculpting and Architecture, and is run by Ilya Glazunov, one of many controversial figures who have pushed their way to the top of the fine arts in Russia in recent decades. That’s a topic for another time, however. Today I’m interested in Savrasov.
Savrasov was born into a merchant family in Moscow and, when he began exhibiting a talent for art as a young man, his father tried to discourage his interest in painting. Fortunately for us, the young man remained true to himself. In 1844, at the age of 14, he entered the school you see here (it looked somewhat different at the time, although my understanding is that it hasn’t changed terribly). It wasn’t long before the young man’s paintings were catching the eye of his elders, even if today you can read that some of his earliest works were “uneven.” But the fact of the matter is that Savrasov’s innate ability to express the soul of nature was obvious to all, even if it was appreciated to lesser or greater degrees depending upon the painting. He graduated from the College in 1854 and two of his paintings, including View of the Surroundings of Oranienbaum, were included in an exhibit at the College. View is a spectacular piece, an entire universe of natural details crammed tastefully and forcefully into a single image. As one might expect of a young artist (he was just 24 at the time), there are lovely touches of optimism and lightness – the sun streaming through young leaves; the sunlight falling on an old, aged rock, illuminating it as if it has enjoyed a rebirth; light, white, fluffy clouds in a blue sky; a carefree sailboat skipping over the waves in the background; an apparently curious individual in the distance following the “events” of the painting; bright colors preparing to burst out in the coming days or weeks… These are all things one can say with certainty about this painting. But when you know the full sum of Savrasov’s work over a lifetime, you also see here the beginnings of what would become a personal style – elements of fear, foreboding, and death.
See in the left foreground the tree cut dead. See, in the upper left-hand corner, the white, fluffy clouds beginning to darken. Note in the right foreground the almost impenetrable black gloom on our side of the lichen-covered rocks. And as for the bits and pieces of red that I suggested above might be a sign of impending flowers in bloom – we can read that another way. In fact, if we know Savrasov’s later work, we see signs of alarm in these bits of red.
Later in his life, time and time again, Savrasov would paint landscapes as if the world were in conflagration, either already in full burning flame, or on the verge of exploding. Consider his paintings Evening or Sunset – they are washed in a bloody red in the not-too-distant background that bodes nothing good. Furthermore, the bloody, fiery red is almost always mixed with a daunting darkness in which details can barely – if at all – be made out. The more I peruse the work of Savrasov, the more I think he was one of the great painters of impending doom.

People are rarely of interest to Savrasov. The vast majority of his pictures either lack people at all, or offer such tiny little figures that their only function appears to be to demonstrate how insignificant an individual is against the fiery, gloaming onslaught of nature. He occasionally painted graves in the wilderness, giving them a prominence that he almost never gave a living human figure. He has a lovely painting of a shipwreck, in which everyone surely is going down in the deep.
He has a painting called Landscape with Rainbow. You see a title like that and you have lovely, lyrical thoughts of happiness. But then you actually look at the painting and you are taken aback. The almost colorless rainbow peters out in mid-picture, wasted and useless. It hangs ominously over a dead and dying bog. There appears to be some bright sunlight way off in the distance, but hovering over this patch of light is a black, black cloud.
Savrasov’s most famous painting – it is even depicted in the background, so to speak, of the memorial plaque that hangs on the wall of the Academy of Painting – is called The Rooks Have Arrived. And, again, we are witness to an eerie, unsettling image that makes us want to look over our shoulder to see what calamity is gaining on us from behind. It is a beautiful painting, like so many of his works are, but it is clearly the beauty of danger, catastrophe and even horror.
You can read all kinds of nonsense about Savrasov. His student, the famed landscape painter Isaak Levitan, did him a great disfavor, in my opinion, but saying, “Lyricism in landscape paintings, and an endless love for his native earth, appeared with Savrasov…” Thanks to Levitan, one can read over and over again about Savrasov’s “love” either for his “native earth,” or for his “motherland.”
Yes, he loved the earth and the land that give rise to his sensibilities, but it was no “lyrical,” sappy love. This was the love of a man who felt pain and fear for the land around him. The Russia that he painted is a dangerous, threatening place. It is dark and ready to explode. It is drowning and dying even as it gives off spectacular flashes of beauty and power.
Another opinion you can read is that Savrasov was the author of two or three great paintings, but that the rest of his work is sloppy and unrealized. Ba-lo-ney! Google his paintings. Look at them long and hard. You can’t help but be moved, I would think. They are too strong, too brave, too powerful to leave one indifferent.
Apparently Savrasov suffered from alcoholism increasingly after 1870 and he ended up dying destitute. I’ve seen a few comments on the net that seem to use that information as proof that he should be considered an artist of lesser significance. I think all that means is that, yes, the darkness we see in his paintings was something he knew intimately. It takes nothing away from him; it only confirms that he “knew his song well.”
The plaque pictured above hangs on the rotunda wall of the building at Myasnitskaya Ulitsa 21, today the Russian Academy of Painting, etc. It was unveiled in 1980, and is the work of sculptor Oleg Kiryukhin.

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Alexis Davidoff home, Los Angeles

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Alexei Davydov, sometimes actor and costume designer in Hollywood from 1928 to 1972, was born in Saratov, Russia, on May 12, 1893. He died in Los Angeles under the name Alexis Davidoff on November 30, 1972. There is precious little information about him on the internet, so let’s put together what we can.
According to US government records, he arrived in the United States in 1921. It appears that he came through New York, although I cannot confirm that for certain. It would also appear that he moved to California almost immediately upon arrival. There is a record of him applying for US citizenship on December 26, 1923, although it’s possible he did not receive a positive response to that application. He applied for citizenship again (or a renewal? – was there such a thing?) on February 14, 1929. He arrived with a wife, Seraphine (Serafima) Davidoff, whom he married at the age of 25, i.e., around 1918. They had a daughter Vera. I do not know what happened to Seraphine, but Davidoff’s wife at his death was the bit actor Frances Mack.
The closest I can come to placing Davidoff in an extended family – and it’s not very close – is when I occasionally find the middle initial of “D.” (The California Death Index, 1940-1997, offers the “D” initial.) That, of course, would be the patronymic in Russian, but it could refer to any number of names, so it really doesn’t help any. The one Russian source of information that I find uncharacteristically fails to provide a patronymic, and clearly just skims information off of Western sources (IMDB being the best of them). A Russian geneology chart for the prominent Davydov family does not include a listing for Alexei/Alexis.
I find Davidoff in the 1940 Census as living in “block No. 6” of N. Alexandria St. in Los Angeles. By 1942 he had moved to the small but neat location that we offer today: 350 N. Westbourne Dr., Los Angeles.
Davidoff appears to have begun his career in Hollywood in 1927, working on a potboiler called Surrender. As IMDB describes it, the story is about a young Jewish woman who “is forced to either give herself to a Russian officer or watch her village burn.” Davidoff was the technical advisor. This film starred the great Russian silent actor Ivan Mozzhukhin (the oft-met French spelling is Mosjoukine), alongside US star Mary Philbin. Universal Pictures hoped Mozzhukhin was going to be their next big star, but it didn’t turn out that way. He never worked in Hollywood again. Davidoff, however, had gotten a foothold in Hollywood and, according to IMDB, he now worked on three more films as a technical advisor on things Russian. These films also had him rubbing shoulders with interesting people. Tempest (1928) was made to a script written on the basis of a story by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, the co-founder of the Moscow Art Theater, and it starred John Barrymore. He advised on another Russian-themed film, The Woman Disputed (1929), a story similar to Surrender, starring Norma Talmadge. His last outing as a technical advisor was for Josef von Sternberg’s Dishonored (1931), starring Marlene Dietrich as an Austrian spy in Russia.
Davidoff made his acting debut in Dishonored, playing an officer, although, as was frequent in his acting career, this performance went uncredited at the time.

IMDB tells us that between 1931 and 1953 Davidoff acted in 16 films, every one of them uncredited. When you read some of the blurbs for these movies, you can’t help but suspect he was happy not to be publicly associated with them. One film, World and the Flesh (1932), was still another of those potboilers about a virginal beauty having to bargain off her chastity to save others. You look at these plot descriptions and you wonder if Hollywood producers and writers of the time understood any other kind of plot. The kinds of roles Davidoff played were more or less of a kind: Traveler in Warsaw (Once Upon a Honeymoon, 1942), Interpreter in King Vidor’s An American Romance (1944), the Headwaiter at a Russian cafe in The Razor’s Edge (1946), three different waiters in three different films – Raw Deal (1948), Larceny (1948), and his last acting job, Half a Hero (1953), starring Red Skelton.
The British Film Institute adds a few acting credits that IMDB omits. They include: 5 Fingers (1952), where he played a Turkish guard, and Beau Geste (1939), where he played a Legionnaire. BFI also adds a technical advisor credit: The Most Dangerous Game (1932). This brings Davidoff’s total acting credits to at least 18, and his advisor’s credits to at least five.
As the acting jobs dried up, Davidoff began getting jobs in the costume departments of many films, sometimes (six, to be exact) as Costume Designer, but more often (21 times) as one of the employees in the wardrobe department – from costumer to wardrobe supervisor. His first job in this capacity was in 1956, and he continued on working regularly until 1964. All of the films were B-grade potboilers or Westerns. The first was a noir thriller called Accused of Murder, and the last was Apache Rifles. Some of the titles are expressive enough to bring up the sensation of an entire era: Duel at Apache Wells (1957), The Last Stagecoach West (1957), Taming Sutton’s Gal (1957), The Wayward Girl (1957), Juvenile Jungle (1958) and so on.
You’ve got to love some of the blurbs for films Davidoff worked on: “High school teacher gets in trouble when he tries to teach a class in sex education” (The Explosive Generation, 1961); “Teenpage punk-hoodlums steal a car and embark on a tragic joyride” (Young and Wild, 1958); “They played a dangerous game of chance with only their lives as the stakes” (An Affair in Reno, 1957), etc.
The MUBI film website offers photos from three films involving Davidoff – Panama Sal (1957) and The Hoodlum Priest (1961), where he designed the costumes, and Larceny (1948), where he performed one of his roles as a waiter.
The penultimate film on which Davidoff worked was Raoul Walsh’s A Distant Trumpet (1964), where he answered for the men’s wardrobe. This film has the rather dubious honor of being included in a book called 77 Movies That Just Missed Awards or Audience Applause.  The book’s title notwithstanding, the author clearly has no love lost for the film. “It’s certainly not a whale of a good story,” writes John Howard Reid. …”the story is so weak and conventional and… its characters are such stereotypes… and are so weakly and flacidly played…,” well, you get the picture.
Finally, I’ll add that Davidoff is buried at Forest Lawn in Hollywood. And with that, I have said everything I can possibly say about this mostly unsung Russian immigrant who helped fuel Hollywood in its heyday.