Category Archives: Memorial Plaques to Musicians

Pyotr Tchaikovsky plaque, Moscow

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This is quite a place, the so-called “house of three composers,” which will be explained in due course. But first, the reason we’re looking at this place today is because Pyotr Tchaikovsky (composer No. 1) was a frequent guest here. At the time of his visits and stays, the building belonged to Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s close friend and benefactor. This would have been in the 1880s. Von Meck discovered Tchaikovsky, if you will, in 1876. A friend gave her the sheet music to a new work by the virtually unknown composer and she fell in love with it. Soon she was playing little else beside Tchaikovsky on her piano. Von Meck was born into a good family but she had high hopes for her future. Her marriage to Karl von Meck started off badly. He didn’t earn much as a civil servant and their growing family (13 children of which 11 survived) meant they needed more. Von Meck pushed her husband, who was a talented engineer, to invest in Russia’s railroads, and that changed their lives drastically. They became fantastically wealthy.  As such, when Karl died as Nadezhda was just entering her 40s, he left her with so much money she literally had no idea what to do with it all. Her own father had instilled in her a love of music and wanted her children to know it and play it. She hired Claude Debussy (composer No. 2) to tutor her daughters. She began to support the young Nikolai Rubenstein (composer No. 3) and other lesser known composers and musicians. Thus began her life as a well-known benefactor in the world of Russian music.
When she resolved to offer Tchaikovsky a stipend of 6,000 rubles a year, she apparently was afraid his pride might make him turn it down. According to one source, although this was less than a drop in the hat to von Meck, it was actually the kind of money that Russian generals received as yearly salaries. Tchaikovsky gratefully accepted the offer and their relationship began to develop. It did not, however, develop in anything that we would call a normal way. When the two entered into their pact, they agreed never to see each other. Von Meck, by all accounts (mostly contemporaneous to her, but also in modern-day sources) was an extremely difficult, imperious woman who breached no dissent and ran her family’s affairs and her children’s lives with an iron hand. But she did most of it from a distance. For instance, she might arrange her children’s marriages, but she would never meet any of their spouses, and would not attend the weddings. She was something of a hermit who could afford (at first at least) to bring a world, if not the whole world, to her wherever she might be. Von Meck continued to pay Tchaikovsky a stipend for 13 years, until 1890, and in that time they, indeed, never formally met. There were, however, at least three accidental meetings.

I don’t usually quote from Wikipedia, because it is such an ubiquitous source, but its description of the von Meck/Tchaikovsky meetings is admirably concise, fact-filled and interesting. So, here it is: The first  meeting…
“...happened on 14/26 August 1879, while Tchaikovsky was staying at the Meck estate at Simaki. He had gone for his daily walk in the forest somewhat earlier than usual, unaware that she was late for her daily drive through that same area with the rest of her family. As a result, they came face to face for a few moments; he tipped his hat politely, she was nonplussed, but no words were spoken. He wrote to her the same evening to apologise for the inadvertent breach of their arrangement. She responded, saying there was nothing to apologise for, and she even invited him to visit her home to see her new paintings, but at a time when she would be away. The previous year, while staying at her villa in Florence, Tchaikovsky had seen her and her entourage pass by every morning;  and they also glimpsed each other once at the opera, but only from a distance. Alexander Poznansky says of this last encounter: ‘It is not clear whether their both being at the theater was wholly accidental or arranged by Mrs. von Meck in order to see him, as seems not unlikely’.”
This, of course, makes Tchaikovsky’s connection to this building at 44/1 Myasnitskaya Street rather odd. (The short side of the building, where the plaque hangs, is on Maly Kharitonyevsky Lane, as the first picture in the second block of photos shows.) That is, this structure belonged to von Meck; Tchaikovsky stayed here with some frequency; yet never were the two here together at the same time. Or, if they were, they were aware of when the other would be coming and going and were careful not to cross each other’s path. I suppose that would be easy enough in a building this size, but it still must be one of the more wonderful quirks in the quirky story of these two individuals.
Throughout the years of 1877 to 1890, the friends exchanged some 1,200 letters. They are generally known as the von Meck/Tchaikovsky love letters, because the two, Tchaikovsky especially, increasingly let down their guards and shared many intimate secrets with each other. Of course, at least as many secrets remained behind seven seals. Von Meck was concerned that the letters might one day fall into the wrong hands – or, even worse, horrors! into the hands of the public – so she asked Tchaikovsky to destroy them. He did what any sane person would do in this situation: He said he had, but, in fact, he did not.
A few more words on this building, which is rich in history. Built in the 18th century, it was owned by a large number of major state figures. One of those families, the Urusovs, is worth noting because their extended family include several individuals of an artistic bent, including the novelist Yevgenia Tur and the playwright Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin in the 19th century, and the actress Eda Urusova in the 20th. In the late 1820s it is said that Alexander Pushkin may have visited this home, although there apparently is no hard proof of that. Franz (or Ferenc, if you are Polish) Liszt stayed here in 1843 when touring Russia.

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Fyodor Chaliapin star, Hollywood

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I can’t bring myself to write “Feodor Chaliapin” as is done on the great singer’s Hollywood star. I know that’s the way his name is usually spelled in the West, but it still irks me. Chaliapin’s whole name is a mess in English. The “proper” simple transliteration is Fyodor Shalyapin. Hardly like what you’re used to seeing. I have to go with the spelling of his last name as “Chaliapin,” because, indeed, that’s what we’re accustomed to. “Shalyapin” seems clumsily hyper-correct even though it’s “merely” correct. Whatever. If you’re really into this topic you’ll find plenty more alternate spellings – “Fiodor,” “Fedor,” “Chaliapine,” and more. It’s an alphabet soup of major proportions. I’m sticking to “Fyodor Chaliapin”; it’s my blog and I can do what I want to, as Lesley Gore almost sang about 50 years ago.
Chaliapin (1873-1938) is one of those names that gives shape to the 20th century. Long before the superstar status of opera singers like Pavarotti, Chaliapin set the mold for the super star opera singer. He was wildly, fantastically popular. In fact, there are those who would say that he – rather like Franz Liszt – was a rock star well before anyone had heard of the blues, let alone rock. Chaliapin was one of those outsized characters, big and prominent in every way. His appetite for everything was enormous. He loved to laugh as much as he loved to eat, sing and make money. He was, as far as I can determine, loved by virtually everyone he came into contact with, except, perhaps, for a few disgruntled husbands. One of my favorite photos is of Chaliapin clowning around with Maxim Gorky. The writer apparently is pretending to poke the singer with a traditional Russian broom made of twigs while Chaliapin plays at being horrified.
I don’t seem to find a solid explanation for this photo. (If you haven’t gone to the link above by now, please do so. You won’t regret it.) Some suggest it was made in Crimea. It may well have been shot in 1905. Some are quite certain that Gorky and Chaliapin are playing around with political notions of the time as the “proletarian” writer Gorky is seeking to “whisk away” the bourgeois Chaliapin with a broom. I am more inclined to follow the suggestion of one commentator that this is even more of a theatrical joke than that. His reasoning, which makes sense, is that Chaliapin looks more like he is opening his mouth wide to make room for the broom to be inserted and to, perhaps, clean out his vocal pipes. Indeed it does not look like a “performance” of the political variant. I’m wondering if this, in fact, isn’t part of some greater amateur theatrical. Look at what appears to be the laughing servant standing between the two. To my eye he is holding a theatrical thunder board. I think it’s all part of a show. An audience member is peering out the window, getting a kick at the goings-on.

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Chaliapin was quite truly a man of the people. He was born into a peasant family near the southern Russian city of Kazan. He began singing in amateur opera performances in Kazan in 1889-1890. After a journey that took him through Ufa, Tiflis (today, Tbilisi in Georgia) and Moscow, he began making a name for himself in St. Petersburg in 1894. Chaliapin was lured back to Moscow in 1896 where he performed in Savva Mamontov’s opera company until 1899, solidifying his status as a major star. Soon to come were the Bolshoi Theater (1899), La Scala (1901) and a tour through the United Stages and Argentina (1907-08). He debuted in film in 1915, memorably performing the title role in Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich the Terrible.
Although it would appear Chaliapin usually did his best to avoid politics, his peasant roots showed during the revolutionary year of 1905, for he often donated his performance fees to workers in need. It made him a champion of the proletariat which worked in his favor in the early Soviet years. He was the first performer to receive the honor of People’s Artist of the Soviet Union in 1918, and was named the artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater in Petrograd that same year. Still, beginning in 1922 the great singer – now a world-famous artist – spent more time abroad than in the Soviet Union. Eventually, in 1927, Soviet authorities took the unusual step of rescinding Chaliapin’s status as a People Artist. This punitive act seems to have been caused by the fact that Chaliapin, again, donated performance fees to needy Russian emigrant children. It caused a ruckus in Moscow, where he was accused of catering to enemies of the Soviet Union.
Chaliapin died of leukemia in Paris in 1938, mourned as one of the great musical performers of his and any other era. It was not, however, until the 1970s and 1980s that his name was taken out of the deep freeze in his own homeland. At the behest of his son, the well-known actor Feodor Chaliapin, Jr., the singer’s remains were moved from France to Leningrad in 1984. His status as a People’s Artist of the Soviet Union was reinstated only in 1991.
Chaliapin is famed for being one of the great bass singers of all time, although he also sang baritone parts and even tenor at times. He was a multitalented individual, showing remarkable abilities in sculpture, painting and drawing.
The Chaliapin star at approximately 6792 Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles was unveiled February 8, 1960. He is enshrined as a recording artist.

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Alexander Vertinsky plaque, Moscow

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Few individuals in the history of Russian culture have lived more dramatic lives than the great singer and songwriter Alexander Vertinsky (1889-1957). It all began before he was born.
Vertinsky was the second child born scandalously in Kiev to Nikolai Vertinsky, a lawyer, and Yevgenia Skolatskaya, the daughter of the head of Kiev’s assembly of nobility. Vertinsky, Sr., was married and nothing he could do would convince his wife to agree to a divorce. The situation – this was the end of the 19th century, after all – was, indeed, dramatic. Alexander’s sister Nadezhda was separated from her brother and given to an aunt in the father’s family. Alexander was turned over to his maternal aunt, a severe woman who hated Alexander’s father, was extremely strict in her dealings with the young boy, and who told him that his sister was dead. His mother died when he was three; his father, who apparently spent much of his last years sitting by his lover’s grave, died when Alexander was five. Not the easiest start in life far a young boy, although this was just a prelude.
The story that follows is packed with details that I could never have collected without the help of a few good websites, Know EverythingPeoples.ru, and Russian Wikipedia. I doff my cap to them all. (Although I should point out that the sources differ on dates occasionally, with some claiming he moved to Moscow and began his film career either in 1912 or 1913. In unclear instances, I tend to side with Wikipedia, rightly or wrongly.)
Vertinsky received a good education, at least at first, studying at the No. 1 Gymnasium for aristocrats. His classmates included the future writers Konstantin Paustovsky and Mikhail Bulgakov. But Vertinsky’s independent nature was not to be tamed. For kicks he began stealing money that pilgrims left as honors on the graves holding the remains of saints at the Kiev-Pechersky monastery. He was caught and kicked out of school, and, when he refused to quit doing it, his aunt kicked him out of her home. His saving grace was a love for theater and music. He tried out his acting chops first and, when that failed, he took up singing. A chance meeting with an old friend of his mother gave him another “in” to high society. She took him under her wing, inviting him to her house where he met such individuals as Marc Chagall, the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, the poet Mikhail Kuzmin,  and the painters Kazimir Malevich and Natan Altman. This, apparently was an environment that began to serve and feed Vertinsky’s talent. His new benefactress helped him get a job as a theater critic and he turned out to be very good at it. He became well-known in Kiev with his notices about performances by Fyodor Chaliapin and others. He also began publishing short stories. When he had saved up enough money by the age of 24, he set out for the bright lights of the big city of Moscow. His primary goal was to make a career in literature, but first he made an astonishing discovery – his sister Nadya was not only still alive, she was an actress in the theater! Alexander began performing and directing, all the while continuing to write stories, poems and short plays, often under the influence of Alexander Blok and the Symbolists. An attempt to enter the Moscow Art Theater school ended in failure when the auditioning master Konstantin Stanislavsky complained that Vertinsky could not properly pronounce the letter “r.” This hardly stopped him. He made his debut in silent film in 1913 and, when World War I began, he volunteered as a medic. There he applied some 35,000 bandages to wounded soldiers before he was wounded slightly himself and sent back to Moscow where he learned that his beloved sister had died of an overdose of cocaine. Nevertheless, Alexander wasted little time getting his career going again, continuing to act in films and making his Moscow debut as a singer in 1915 at the Miniature Theater. A crucial choice was made to dress and make Vertinsky up as Pierrot, and it stuck, becoming his own personal image forever after. His early repertoire was based on the poetry of others, but he also began slipping in a few of his own songs, too. Before long he had become a star in his own right.

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dscn0971Vertinsky’s songs reflected the age in which they were written – one of violence, uncertainty and fear. The usual characters that he wrote about found themselves alone and vulnerable before a hostile world. There was a note of fatalism in Vertinsky’s voice that, together with his unique, personal sound of deep regret and profound understanding, gave his songs enormous emotional impact. It is not surprising (I say as I leap-frog over all kinds of interesting biographical details) that Vertinsky would increasingly feel himself an outcast in Moscow in the years after the Revolution. Even though the rhetoric was not even close to what it would become in the next decade/decade and a half, it was plenty to alienate Vertinsky almost immediately. Here’s a little story worth repeating from Peoples.ru:
Following the Bolshevik Revolution Vertinsky came to the conclusion that he would never get along with the new government. His romance titled ‘What I Must Say,’ written under the impression of the deaths of three hundred cadets in Moscow, aroused the interest of the Cheka [secret police], which summoned the actor to explain his sympathy for enemies of the Revolution. Legend has it that Vertinsky responded to the Chekists indignantly: ‘It’s just a song, and anyway, you cannot forbid me to pity them!’ He received a clear and concise answer: ‘If necessary, we can forbid you to breathe!‘”
Shortly thereafter Vertinsky – who was now a nationally famous singer – set out on a protracted tour through the southern regions of the new Soviet Union, as far from Moscow as he could get. In 1920 he slipped out of the country on the good ship Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, and set foot in the safety of Constantinople. He began performing there with success for the growing emigre population, but, being a restless soul, he kept moving, visiting in coming years Romania, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Libya and Germany. When in Poland he made an attempt to return to the Soviet Union but was refused a visa. He settled in France from 1925 to 1934, where he, once again, became an enormous star. Yes, he was supported by the huge Russian emigre community, but the French, with their love of style, art and literature, took him in as well. He continued writing his beautiful, sad songs of longing, regret and stoicism, creating one of the greatest oeuvre of popular songs in the world.
In 1934 Alexander set sail for New York on the good ship Lafayette. He never felt comfortable in America’s financial capital and set off on tours that took him to Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There was an attempt to get him started in Hollywood as an actor, but his lack of knowledge and deep dislike of the English language were a barrier that could not be breached. There is a tale that Marlene Dietrich, seeing how Vertinsky struggled with English, suggested that he just “get a grip on himself” and learn the language. He couldn’t, however, and ended up turning down the offer to act.
Disillusioned with the States, Vertinsky set sail for China in October 1935. It was a decision that would change his life, and the history of Russian/Soviet performing arts.
He set up base in Shanghai where he continued to perform, and, even, for a short while was the owner of a cabaret. But life was getting more and more difficult, and when he unexpectedly received an invitation from the Soviet consulate in Shanghai to return home, he was intrigued. He even began writing for a Soviet newspaper. Still, the road home was not easy. His final papers from Moscow were delayed, in large part because of the beginning of World War II, and so, when he married his second wife Lidia Tsirgvava in 1942, he was still in Shanghai. Vertinsky was then 53; Tsirgvava, the daughter of a Soviet official in China, was 20. Their first daughter Marianna was born several months later. When Japan invaded China Vertinsky made still another, now desperate, attempt to return home. He wrote Stalin’s right-hand man Vyacheslav Molotov, who immediately made arrangements for Vertinsky and his family to receive traveling papers. They were given an apartment in a prestigious building on Tverskaya Street (occasionally and exaggeratedly called Moscow’s Fifth Avenue or Champs Elysses) in building No. 12. You see that building here, as photographed in the fall of 2016.
Just a few months after arriving here in Moscow in 1943, the couple’s second daughter Anastasia was born. Both Marianna and Anastasia would become successful actors themselves, Anastasia, especially, becoming one of the Soviet Union’s most popular actresses in the 1960s and 1970s.
Vertinsky himself found an uncomfortable mix of success and alienation upon his return to a nation that had nothing to do with the country he left in 1920. He was allowed to act in films and to give concerts, and yet, he was kept on the outside of mainstream Soviet cultural life. His songwriting muse pretty much dried up in this period. One source claims he wrote barely two dozen songs over the last 14 years of his life.
In 1956, the year after Nikita Khrushchev launched his de-Stalinization campaign, Vertinsky wrote to his wife:
Look at this whole story with Stalin. It’s false, base and disingenuous, At the convention Khrushchev said: ‘Let’s stand in honor of the 17 million people who were martyred in the camps.’ How do you like that?! Who, when and how will the ‘mistakes’ made by these scums ever be repaid? How long will they continue to  mock our Motherland? How long?

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Alexander Scriabin house, Moscow

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Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915), the pianist and composer, rented rooms in this house at 11 Bolshoi Nikolopeskovsky Lane, just north of the Arbat, for the last three years of his life. He died on the very day that his rental contract expired. (His landlord was Apollon Grushka, a prominent philologist, a specialist in historical Latin grammar and Roman poetry.) Thanks in large part to the efforts of Scriabin’s common-law widow Tatyana Shlyotser, the building was turned into a museum honoring Scriabin’s memory in 1922 – just as Shlyotser herself died. Today it continues its life as a museum and a cultural center where concerts and other cultural events are often held. The plaque that hangs on the second floor of the building (a rare enough occurrence) is probably one of the oldest in Moscow. It was surely made and first displayed within two or three years of the composer’s death for it uses the pre-revolutionary script, including the so-called hard sign that is added to the end of several of the words. The plaque reads: “Here lived and died Alexander Nikolaevich Scriabin.”
Scriabin’s reputation has gone up and down over time. I doubt that means much; I mention it as a fact. During his life, especially in the later years, Scriabin was hugely famous. More importantly, his influence on other musicians, Russian and otherwise, was significant. As Arnold Schoenberg was developing his form of atonal music in Europe, Scriabin was independently performing similar experiments in Russia. I have never had a close personal connection to his music and so I asked my wife Oksana Mysina, a musician by education, what she might say about him. “He is an elemental storm,” she said. “His music comes crashing at you like a storm at sea. His compositions are for pianists what Paganini’s are for violinists.” Scriabin was and remains an enigmatic figure, a mystic, a symbolist, a Theosophist. A Russian biography site begins with a nice, if somewhat florid, description of the man and musician:
“Scriabin’s works embody ideas of ecstatic aspiration for unknown ‘cosmic’ spheres, as well as the idea of art as a transformative power. His music is characterized by great tension and a range of images from inspired idealism to the expressively heroic. He was a brilliant innovator of musical methods of expression, particularly in the field of harmony. He developed the notion of light music [see below] and was the first to introduce a part for light into musical practice – this in his symphonic poem “Prometheus”…
Alexander was a very suspicious and religious man. His abrupt mood swings frightened his family and friends, as did his views on current events. In addition to his unique music, he was also the first in history to employ and popularize color music. According to doctors, Alexander suffered from schizophrenia…”

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Scriabin’s work with color and light in music is much better known in Russia than in the West. You can find all kinds of writings on the topic in the Russian netsphere (go here, for instance). I did find one source, originally written in Russian, but translated into English, that offers views on some of the complexities of Scriabin’s experiments. This piece, titled “Was Scriabin a Synaesthete?” goes into much detail about topics that are translated variously as “colored hearing”; “color tonal”; “color sound”; “light-music synthesis”; “light-sound synaesthesia” &cetera.
There are geniuses,” the poet Konstantin Balmont wrote, “who are not only brilliant in their artistic achievements, but who are brilliant in their every step, their gait, in every aspect of their personal being. You look at one of these individuals – they are pure spirit, beings of  a complete other kind, from another dimension. Of all the particular people who are no longer entirely human, or who have, at least, gazed deeply and often into the non-human, into whatever is done outside the three dimensions – it was Scriabin who gave me the impression of being the most complete and inexhaustible genius.”
Balmont, incidentally, lived two doors up from the house pictured here. I wrote about it some time ago on this site.
Scriabin himself wrote the following in regards to the “moment of truth” when an individual would awaken to the full potential of the world:

Let’s be born into a whirlwind!
Let’s awaken into the heavens!
Let’s mix feelings in a single wave!
And in the luxurious splendor
Of the final dawn
As we appear to each other
In the naked beauty
Of glittering souls
We shall disappear…
We shall melt…

He was not of this world, either as a man or as a musician,” said Scriabin’s biographer Leonid Sabaneev.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov called Scriabin “a star of the first magnitude.”
Upon hearing one of Scriabin’s piano miniatures, Leo Tolstoy is said to have proclaimed, “Very sincere. Sincerity is valuable. This one piece alone allows us to call him a major artist.

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Emil Gilels plaque, Moscow

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DSCN9201The structure at 25 Tverskaya Street is one of those many in Moscow that has a rich cultural heritage. I have already written about the fact that playwright Nikolai Erdman lived here in the 1950s with his ballerina wife Natalya Chidson. I’ll have occasion to write about others who occupied apartments here, but today we consider Emil Gilels (1916-1985), one of the preeminent pianists of his era.
I, a child of rock and roll, find it ironic, at least, that the first time I ever heard the name “Gilels” was when I was having a conversation with a KGB agent who was following me around Washington, D.C., where I lived in the early 1980s. I’m not quite sure whether the agent befriended me or I befriended him, but the fact of the matter is that we often got together on our lunch breaks to chat about all things – or, at least, many things – Russian culture. It was during one of these chats that my acquaintance mentioned meeting and accompanying Gilels somewhere. The lack of understanding was probably clear on my face and he asked, “You do know who Emil Gilels is, don’t you?” I blithely admitted I did not and my interlocutor eliminated my ignorance on this topic for ever more. “He is the greatest living pianist,” he said. Those words stuck; I never forgot them. When I came to Moscow in the late 1980s and learned that Nikolai Erdman, the topic of my first book (and the reason that the KGB agent had tracked me down in the first place), had lived side-by-side with Gilels, I could not help but be amused. Indeed, the Lord works in wondrous ways.
But that’s a story for another day.
Gilels, like many of the luminaries who lived in this attractive “Stalinist” building, moved in shortly after it was built in 1950. When you look over the plaques on its walls selectively honoring some of its famous inhabitants, you notice that they all began living here in 1950 or 1951. This was because this huge residential building occupying the better part of a long Moscow city block was built to house the elite. Specifically, it was built to provide housing for people who worked at the Bolshoi Theater, although one didn’t necessarily need a direct connection to the Bolshoi to get in. Gilels would be a good example of that. As a famous, touring solo musician, his connection to the Bolshoi would have been tentative, but it would have been enough to put him on the list of people waiting for prestigious apartments when they came available.
In fact, the history of this building is rather complex and quite interesting. Originally, this block was occupied on the north end by a church known as the Church of the Annunciation (erected in the 17th century) and on the south end by an eye hospital that occupied an old private estate  built around 1773. The church, as was often done in the Stalin era, was knocked down in 1929, and construction of a new apartment building was begun alongside the eye hospital. However, Stalin decided in the late 1930s to widen Tverskaya Street and give it a more imperial look. As such, the eye hospital on the lower half of the block was put on rails and moved off of Tverskaya Street, making room for a new building. (Not only was it moved back by about 50 meters, its facade was turned sideways to face what is now the Young Spectator Theater, which now is famously run by Henrietta Yanovskaya and her husband Kama Ginkas.) However, World War II interrupted plans to build the new structure, and construction only got under way in 1949. As indicated above, it was completed a year later. Wisely, the authorities engaged the same architect who had built the first half in the early 1930s to build the new half in 1949. His name was Andrei Burov. He connected the two structures by way of three tall archways somewhat to the left of the middle of the city block. Both sections look virtually alike today.

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One assumes that the building looked much spiffier during Gilels’ tenure here (he lived here until his death in 1985). The facades now are rather grimy and neglected. The runaway capitalism of the 1990s still leaves scars in the way that storefronts do not match the building’s decor or design. The place needs a bit of sanding and paint, but it’s also obvious that even a little work would make the building sparkle. It is a potential jewel standing two blocks north of Pushkin Square.
(At this very moment, the street is completely torn up as current Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, for some reason, decided to undo Stalin’s widening of Tverskaya and is now putting Muscovites through the painful process of having to stand by and watch everything be ripped up as the authorities narrow Tverskaya back down – this time with widened sidewalks and bike lanes.)
But back to Gilels. He began playing piano at the age of five and his first public performance took place in 1929, the year that church was destroyed to make room for the right half of his future home. He performed with success in Odessa in the early 1930s then gained national fame when he won the first All-Union Musician’s Competition in 1933. He graduated from the Odessa Conservatory in 1935 and immediately began winning prestigious competitions in Europe. In 1945, as World War II was ending, he was one of the first Soviet soloists given permission to perform concert series abroad, and in 1950 – the year he moved into the building we see here – he formed a famous trio with Leonid Kogan on violin and Mstislav Rostropovich on cello. He was the first Soviet musician to perform the Salle Playel in Paris in 1954, and the following year became the first Soviet soloist to tour the United States.
Of the famed trio, one Western critic has written: “This group stayed together for most of the 1950s, and broke up largely because Kogan and Rostropovich had very strong political differences and could not continue to get along. What a pity – I’m not sure there has ever been a more spectacular chamber ensemble.”
Russian Wikipedia keeps the list of Gilels’ awards at a neat 22, almost half of them coming from foreign countries. He was, in fact, one of the great musicians of his age, and the 35 years he spent at 25 Tverskaya Street were the time of the flourishing of his talent and fame.

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Dmitry Shostakovich plaque, Voronezh

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Dmitry Shostakovich made two trips to Voronezh, one in 1933, and another in 1957. It’s an interesting spread in time. When Shostakovich performed at the Spartak cinema house on Dec. 20, 1933, with Vissarion Shebalin, he was still probably something of an unknown outside of musical circles. Among the cognoscenti he was already tabbed as one of the potentially great figures of the future. In any case, at that moment he still saw a cloudless sky stretching out before him. His works were being performed with increasing success in the West and throughout the Soviet Union, he was collaborating with such luminaries as Vsevolod Meyerhold and Vladimir Mayakovsky. It was just over two years later, on Jan. 28, 1936, that the famous “Muddle Instead of Music” attack – provoked by Joseph Stalin – hit him in Pravda, one of the Soviet government’s two main mouthpieces. That came as a response to Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which was written in the two years immediately before the composer visited Voronezh, but premiered (in St. Petersburg) just one month after that visit, on January 22, 1934.
By the time of his 1957 Voronezh concert on Oct. 11, Shostakovich was a veteran of the Soviet culture wars. He had been chewed up, wrung out, spat out and fully embraced  by the government apparatus (one of the worst things that could have happened to him). By this time he had, in other words, two contradictory reputations – one as someone who had run afoul of the authorities and had suffered seriously for it, and another as someone that the authorities had taken under their wing and used as propaganda whenever and wherever they saw fit. It was a nasty place for an artist to be and it – to use that horrible word that Pravda threw at him – has “muddled” his reputation ever since.
The hall which hosted the 1957 concert was, and still is, the Officers House, located at 32 Revolution Prospekt. Shostakovich conducted an orchestra that played his compositions, although I have not determined what those works were specifically.
In my searches I did, however, run across another tidbit of interesting information (that may be an overly strong word) that would appear to be connected to Shostakovich’s appearance in Voronezh. A book titled 40 Songs of V[ano] Muradeli, V[enedikt] Pushkov, and D. Shostakovich, published in Moscow in 1957, showed up at an auction in Voronezh a few years ago. One can’t help but wonder if an extra lot of these books was sent to Voronezh in the hopes that it would sell well during the composer’s visit. Thus it was that the relatively rare book showed up in Voronezh, rather than some other city, many decades later. Just enjoying a bit of speculation here…

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The unveiling of the plaque honoring Shostakovich was a major event for the city, as much thanks to Mstislav Rostropovich as to  the memory of Shostakovich. Rostropovich (about whom I have written several times on this blog – click his name to the left) traveled to Voronezh specially to attend the ceremony. On that occasion, Rostropovich told a local newspaper, “I love Voronezh very much, but from this day on I will love it even more. Because this city has risen in my esteem by unveiling a plaque to a genius. And I am very grateful to you for that, for this was my favorite composer and teacher. Shostakovich came to Voronezh twice. He gave a concert in the auditorium of the Spartak cinema house in 1933, and in October 1957 – at the Officers House. It is right here where the memory of Dmitry Dmitrievich has been memorialized.”
Without quoting Rostropovich verbatim, Vesti.ru reported that the great violist recalled the difficult circumstances in which Shostakovich had to live and work, although he added that the harassment of the Soviet state and the official banning of his concerts never broke Shostakovich’s innovative spirit.
Several people who attended the 1957 concert were present to bear witness on that day, Dec. 11, 2006, when the plaque was revealed to the public. One was Tamara Yurova, a professor at the Voronezh Academy of Arts. “There were not many people in attendance,” Yurova is quoted as saying, “probably because the scope of Dmitry Dmitrievich’s gift and the true scope of his personality, the beauty and depth of his works, were then not obvious even to all musicians. However, the atmosphere was marvelous. The people of Voronezh received Shostakovich warmly.” (This quote combines two different versions that are posted on kommuna.ru and on Vesti.ru.)
I direct those interested in minutiae to the official Voronezh city document that set the unveiling of the plaque in motion, the Resolution No. 2117 of the Head of the City Region of the City of Voronezh, dated Dec. 21, 2005, and officially titled: “On the Mounting of a Memorial Plaque Honoring D.D. Shostakovich.” This document, signed by B.M. Skrynnikov, the Head of the City Region, establishes the place where the plaque shall be hung, what shall be written on it (“The great composer Dmitry Dmitrivich Shostakovich [1906-1975] performed here in October 1957”), and who shall pay for it – the Voronezh region NTV television channel.
For the record, this was still before NTV turned into the blood-sucking, lie-mongering pack of snakes that it has since become…

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Birthplace of ‘Moscow Nights,’ Moscow

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How the river moves, yet doesn’t move
All turned silvery by the moon
How a song is heard, yet isn’t heard
In these quiet evening times

“Moves, doesn’t move.” “Heard, isn’t heard.” Sounds like life. Or that old Russian joke my late friend Anatoly Agamirov once told me: “It’s like this – either someone stole a coat or someone’s coat was stolen.” In other words, something happened, we all know that. But what it was – nobody knows.
Rather like the writing of the classic Soviet song “Moscow Nights.” But, see? Right there we’ve bogged down in problems already! The name of the song is ‘Podmoskovnye vechera,” which means “Suburban Moscow Nights” (sort of), or “Nights Outside of Moscow,” or, even more correctly, “Evenings in the Areas Lying outside of Moscow proper…” You get the point. That’s why we call it “Moscow Nights.”
The stories surrounding this little song with such a big impact are filled with such paradoxes and imperfections. One involves the plaque honoring the fact that lyricist Mikhail Matusovsky (1915-1990) lived in the building at 15 Sivtsev-Vrazhek in the Arbat district of Moscow. It says right there on the plaque, “Here was born the song ‘Moscow Nights.’ Author M. Matusovsky.” Well, yes, you see – they are fudging. “The song was ‘born’ here.” So was it written here? According to most sources – no. It would look like the song was actually tossed together in a hurry when Matusovsky was kicking back at the dacha with his friend, the composer Vasily Solovyov-Sedoi (1907-1979) one lazy summer in 1955. According to the legend, neither of them wanted to do it – they were tired and it was hot and the commission was for a rush job. A documentary film about athletes needed a song, like, right now. They had no ideas, they really didn’t care about some documentary film, but – as the story goes – they figured they could use some extra cash, so they agreed to write the song. They pulled it together based on an old melody Solovyov-Sedoi had once discarded, while Matusovsky apparently wrote new words that reflected the languorous summer they were passing so pleasantly.
So there’s that catch – did Matusovsky write the song at his dacha in Komarovo? Or did he write it on Sivtsev-Vrazhek in Moscow? Or was it a case of him having some ideas that he’d tossed together at home that he now pushed into action? – thus the notion that “Moscow Nights” was “born,” rather than “written” at this location in Moscow…

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But that is hardly the last catch involving this song that virtually every single individual who knows anything about Russia knows and, probably, loves. Cliche that it has become, how can your heart not melt when you hear that once-discarded melody and those tossed-together-at-the-last-minute words? The fact of the matter is that it might have happened that nobody would ever have heard it. When the songwriters delivered their product, the producers hated it. They wanted to replace it with another, but there wasn’t time to commission a replacement – they had to deliver their film. Then they asked a popular singer to sing it and he hated it so much that he refused. He reportedly said, “All those ‘moves, doesn’t move, heard, isn’t heard.’ What the hell’s that supposed to mean?!” So, really scrambling at this point, the producers asked Vladimir Troshin (1926-2008), a relatively unknown actor at the Moscow Art Theater, to sing the song. He, like the authors, probably figured, hey – I can use the extra cash, and he sang it.
And BOOM!!! Instant classic. Instant fame. For now and evermore. This song has worked its way so deeply into the grain of the Russian consciousness that the vast majority of people think it is a folk song. It sounds like one, actually. That makes sense. But, in fact, it belongs to two reluctant authors who delivered it to unappreciative producers who had to maneuver past unwilling singers to bring it to us. You can listen to Troshin’s original version on a YouTube video. And, to give you something to follow along with, here is an edited version of the the translated lyrics as provided by blokh on lyricstranslate.com.

In the garden, not a sigh is heard
All is gently stilled ’til dawn
If you only knew what they mean to me,
These peaceful Moscow nights

How the river moves, yet doesn’t move
All turned silvery by the moon
How a song is heard, yet isn’t heard
In these quiet evening times

Darling, why do you stare suspiciously
With your lovely head bent low?
How hard to speak, yet not to speak
Of what weighs heavy on my heart

Ever brighter, now, shines the rising sun,
So darling, please, do be kind –
Keep them in your heart – as I will too:
These Moscow summer nights

Oh, and one more thing: “Moscow Nights” was originally intended to be a song about Leningrad – “leningradskie vechera”… That is why the song in Russian is about the evenings in the “Moscow outskirts” (podmoskovnye) rather than in “Moscow” (moskovskie)… The meter wouldn’t have fit.

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