A story

The Reality of Life

Brush with Death

In January 1921, under the impression of the lingering horror of the civil war, I decided to write an opera. As a model for my project I used a drama of the French writer Francois Coppe, Le Pater, which was set in the time of the Paris Commune. From January to March I worked diligently on the overture. Although it is written in the traditional style (the part progression is partly barmonie and partly contrapuntal), I consider it a successful work even today (opus 15). lt contains many "hovering" passages, some of them pentatonic. Such passages would play a more prominent role in the coming years.

By the beginning of March, the overture was virtually complete. Only eight to twelve concluding measures were needed to finish it. Touched by a beautiful sunset one evening, I put off writing, got up, took a walk in the open air, and postponed the conclusion of the overture until the next morning. My plan was thwarted: that morning I found myself in prison.

The story of my arrest is one of my most lucid memories. lt is connected with a prophetic dream. Three days earlier, I bad dreamt that I was on the mountain overlooking Yalta where my brother Paul lies buried. In that dream, however, the cemetery area was fenced off with barbed wire and served as a camp for those infected by a plague. There I met some of my acquaintances: among them was our good friend Yelenev, the former mayor. I was aware that all these people were infected and therefore would die, and I feared that I myself would become infected if I shook hands with them. But I overcame my fear and greeted each until I saw my brother Michael, from whom I bad heard nothing since his last letter. As Michael approached me, I realized immediately that he was one of the dead. Despite my shock and confusion, I wanted to embrace him and ask how he was getting along on the other side. He gripped my band firmly and he seemed to answer me without uttering a word, communicating through his thoughts: "I'll get you out of here." After several steps, we found ourselves outside the barbed wire. Just when I wanted to embrace Michael in gratitude, his facial features somehow changed, suddenly becoming unfamiliar and even disagreeable.

I awakened quite agitated. Immediately I told the dream to my wife and to my mother. I felt that it was meaningful. However, they both kept trying to reassure me and drive away my depressing thoughts: what could possibly happen to us now, six months after the arrival of the Red Army? Had we not weathered all the dangers of the political change?

Three days later, on a Thursday night, I was arrested together with my wife, who was seven months pregnant. I could not help thinking of that dream, for those very people who had appeared in it as tainted by plague had now been thrown together with us in the GPU basement cell on Vinogradnaya Street. The only difference was that it was not me who feared greeting them as friends. Instead, they avoided speaking to me confidentially. We were detained there until Sunday without any explanation. In order to sleep on the floor, one had to position one's upper body on the legs of one's neighbor. The cell was a medium-sized room, the ceiling of which one could touch with the palm of the hand while standing. It was occupied by ninety-seven people.

On Sunday morning at six o'clock an escort of two hundred soldiers led us away to the pier, where-as they explained-we were to be shot. I remember that march as vividly as if it had just taken place. I can say that life and the world never seemed more precious to me than during those minutes. A mild spring wind chased dense clouds about the sky, and the southern sun, gleaming in blinding brightness, broke out of the clouds only sporadically. The scent of roses and lilacs wafted from the gardens. It was, oddly enough, an invigorating and ecstatic feeling, as if all at once I absorbed all the beauty of existence like a sponge. At the same time, however, there was at my side my pregnant wife, walking with difficulty and suffering all of this in silence-for my sake. I felt unspeakably sorry for her. (At the same time I could not help thinking of my overture, which I had been too lazy to finish and I could have pulled my hair out regretting it.) I thought that, should some miracle keep us alive, I would never leave my wife, who now walked along beside me, nor the child she was carrying. But this good and honest intention was not the only one which I failed to carry out.

It was a while before they managed to place us all in front of the wall near the pier. Fortunately the execution was delayed by the fact that women kept fainting and had to be set upright again. That delay was our salvation, for there suddenly appeared-as in a fairy tale-a mounted messenger, who from far off was waving a white kerchief. As he drew near the crowd, he ordered everyone back to the cellar.

At five o'clock that same evening I was brought before the investigating magistrate. As I entered the room and caught sight of him, I knew right away that I was saved. He had the same face that my brother Michael had assumed at the end of my dream. That strange fact dispelled all of my inhibitions. I was able to speak candidly and confidently with him. He even provided me with appropriate responses to his questions. For example, he asked: "Why did you study in Germany and not in Russia? You were most likely a revolutionary and were not permitted to attend Russian universities, right?"

After this interrogation I was released at seven o'clock in the evening and met my wife, who had also been released, at the prison. We walked-no, we ran-with joy back home. Another surprise awaited us there. A young Jewish brunette, whom we did not know, threw her arms around my neck and, crying and smiling at the same time, kissed me again and again. I was at least as thunderstruck as my mother-in-law and wife. At first I did not realize that she was an actress whom I had given some friendly reviews a year and a half previously when I had worked as a theater critic-not really because I had been so convinced of her talent, but to encourage her, for she was actually of average ability. Now I learned that my reviews had afforded her the happiest moments of her life, since her relatives had been against her becoming an actress. She was now the wife of the influential commissar for nutrition and through him had made it possible for us and those who had been arrested with us to be given a fair trial. Almost everyone was acquitted, but they had unfortunately contracted typhoid fever during their stay in that dank prison basement. Most of them died shortly after their release, among them our old friend Yelenev. My wife and I were the only ones who were not infected.

I completed my overture (opus 15) on the following day. The premier performance came quite unexpectedly in the form of an arrangement for piano and took place in the spring of 1921 on the occasion of the opening of memorial celebrations for the victims of the Paris Commune.

My wife and I continued to record Lithuanian songs and translate them into Russian-this time with even more zeal {opus 13). I applied many of the 135 songs to dramas as musical intermezzos. For example, the choral passages of Fuente ovejuna by Lope de Vega, which I wrote under contract with the theater in Yalta. During the same summer I recorded the dances of the Crimean Tartars. The well-known Tartarfolk dancer Khairi asked me to write down bis melodies, and arrange them for the small symphony orchestra that we bad in Yalta. Khairi sang with confidence and expression. The work fascinated me. In my adaptation the dances took up about a half an hour. Unfortunately, I now have only rough drafts of the music in my possession. One of those melodies is at the end of my published collection of Songs and Dances of Russia 's Border Folk ( opus 20). It took ten sessions to record the melodies. I still remember Khairi's tall figure, his aquiline nose and fiery eyes under bushy brows. I met him again in 1923 at the Soviet Embassy in Berlin. At that time he was appearing as a guest artist throughout Western Europe.

The "House of the Composers" and Teaching Activities in Moscow

Although l was not permitted to leave Yalta because of my previous arrest, I nevertheless sought employment in Moscow that would ensure me the status of "indispensable worker." Bugoslavsky, my severe critic, assisted me with my plan. He was pleased to see me again and on the following Thursday introduced me to my colleagues in Moscow at the "House of the Composers." I played my works for them. The Variations in E-Major {opus 10) were dismissed as "conventional." The piece Night in the Mountains (opus 9), however, met with warm approval and was the deciding factor in my admission to the Association of Russian Composers. Ironically, the same composition, which in its time was not at all appreciated by professors at St. Petersburg, would meet with resounding success five years later in Moscow as an "independent and original" work. The relationship of the Moscow composers to one another was one of comradeship. We met every Thursday in the "House of the Composers." One could always expect an exciting exchange of ideas during teatime. Everyone took a lively interest in the creative activity of his fellows. At any time, either individually or in groups, we were able to acquaint ourselves with our colleagues' new works or works in progress in rooms designated specifically for that purpose. We would meet and play our pieces for one another. There was no room for envy or hypocrisy. Bugoslavsky himself recommended me for a position as instructor of piano and theory (harmony and form) within a department of the Moscow Conservatory called the "Musical Technical School of the Baumann District." There I received my papers identifying me as an "indispensable worker."

I enjoyed teaching at the conservatory. Most of my students were talented and enthusiastic, about a third of them were workers who came at six o'clock in the evenings from the factories to the conservatory, where they received a snack and bot tea. They stayed until ten or ten thirty at night. These hours were devoted to instruction and practice. Early the next morning they would be standing in front of their machines in the factory. Those were indeed students who were happy with their studies.

Farewell to Russia

I soon concentrated on my plans to emigrate. I wrote to my teachers Pauer and Wiehmayer, asking them to assist me in returning to Germany, and received a warm response. Wiehmayer arranged the printing of my Andante con variazioni by a respectable German publisher. My brother Andrew covered the expenses. The proofreading gave me an excuse to apply for my departure.

Max von Pauer did even more to help me. He wrote personally to the commissar for the education of the people, Lunacharsky, and asked him to allow me to complete my musical education in Germany. My chances of receiving an exit visa to Germany increased when Alexandra Kolontay agreed to Iet me Iist her as a reference in my application. While signing my orders, Lunacharsky, a poem of whom I bad set to music as a rhythmodeclamation, bade me smiling: "Now, don't reproach us too much over there."

A clear Russian sun beamed over picturesque forests and marshes, giving them an image entirely different from that which one experiences in Western Europe. Nature in Russia ho\ds its viewer spellbound and puts him into a state of mystical absorption.

It was only when mother and I left the train in Riga that I began to feel exhausted. For months I bad bad to sacrifice my nightly rest in order to be able to complete my projects in composition. We spent the night in Riga, for it was obvious that mother too needed a rest. We stayed one more day in order to Iook up our family doctor from St. Petersburg, Dr. Wiechert. We spoke to him for two hours in a cafe. There he gave us a foretaste of what we could expect to endure as emigrants. Wiechert, who bad been chief of surgery in a !arge St. Petersburg hospital, struggled along only with difficulty in Riga. He bad aged and had lost all of his energy and vitality. He complained about the anti-German sentiment among the nationalistic Latvians. When we asked him why he did not go back to Germany, he responded: "Among one's countrymen, indifference is even greater and competitiveness keener than it is abroad. You are pushed into the background." That sort of resignation shocked me in a man who bad been so full of life and energy.

The next morning we traveled through Lithuania, my first wife's homeland. The view of a land half destroyed, the many deserted fields, pitifully impoverished villages, most of the houses of which were only thatched with straw, depressed me. I decided to write her a final long letter: "Dear Wanda, I don't know what you think of me nowadays. ln any case, I cannot leave Russia without bidding you one last farewell. I wanted to tell you first and foremost that I am deeply distressed by the fact that our relationship caused you so much pain; that I remember all those beautiful proofs of your friendship and I will not remember- rather: I cannot remember any word of yours that might have hurt me in our discussions. I wish you could feel the same way, but I know that I don't deserve it. Be that as it may, I must tell you that I shall always remember our marriage and the time we had together with warm and grateful thoughts." Just at that moment mother was looking over my shoulder and remarked: "I do believe you've gone completely insane." I wrote on: "We are at the moment passing through your poor homeland and one can see from the train window the painful scars left by a devastating war. But the people who board the train here and leave us several stops later Iook healthy and optimistic despite their tattered clothes. I come to realize more and more that your place is not in Russia, but here in this beloved country of yours. I would be happy if I could hear that you live and work again in Kovno, sustained by the affection and recognition of your countrymen. I would appreciate your passing along to your family anything in this letter that you consider worthwhile."

Several years later my sister Mary was told by an acquaintance, who had emigrated from Yalta to Tunis, that that letter made Wanda very happy and that she had shown it to several of our friends. She subsequently moved back to Lithuania with her mother and sister-their father had died in Yalta-and was a respected dentist there for many years. However, since she had always maintained her patriotic and socialist views and frankly vocalized these sentiments, the German SS shot her to death on some trumped-up charge in 1941 or 1942. A cousin of hers, a postwar refugee from Lithuania, told me about her fate. I often think that through my letter I am at least partially responsible for her death.