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22 June 2017

Sounds Of The Revolution

Guest blogger Ilia Rogatchevski looks back at one of the events accompanying our exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths  and considers the role of music in the Revolution.

What is a revolutionary sound? Is it defined by the characteristics of the music alone or does context form an integral part of the music’s revolutionary temperament? On Friday 5 May, an event at the British Library attempted to answer these questions. Late at the Library: Sounds of the Revolution featured performances by Gabriel Prokofiev and The Renegade Orchestra. Organised in collaboration with Dash Arts, Kino Klassika  and Prokofiev’s Nonclassical label,  the event incorporated compositions old and new, including the debut performance of The Renegade Orchestra: Journey One.

Gabriel Prokoviev
Gabriel Prokoviev performing at the event on 5 May (photograph: Samantha Lane)

Composed by Alexander Manotskov, Journey One tells the story of three musicians from post-Soviet states who operate in a liminal musical environment, which draws inspiration from styles as diverse as jazz, classical, folk and electronic. Brought together by Dash Arts’ artistic director, Josephine Burton, for a workshop in Kazbegi, Georgia last year, the musicians worked at combining their disparate experiences into a united sonic strategy. Marina Kryukova (violin, pipes, voice), Shavkat Matyakubov (sato tanbur, kushnai, voice) and Vladimir Volkov (double bass, voice), along with Manotskov on cello, experimented with augmenting traditional forms by deconstructing expectations of music’s temporal nature.

Sounds 2
Performing Journey One (photograph: Samantha Lane)

In between rehearsals, which took place the previous day in the Library, Manotskov elaborated on the concept of musical time by stating that “only through divine, abstract, musical time can time that is accidental, personal, mortal, historical, be conquered”. He went further than simply inverting T.S. Eliot’s quote from the Four Quartets (“Only through time time is conquered”) by adding that the “binary opposition of freedom and not freedom is essential to the musical piece”. Furthermore, in composition it is “important to have something more general, something more elevated than social context”. The verbatim texts that wove in and out of the music, recalling snapshots of lives from the former Soviet Union, are a testament to this idea. These moments provided context, of course, but also something more general too: alternative sonic textures.

Sounds and children
 (photograph: Samantha Lane)

Unlike Manotskov’s Journey One, Prokofiev’s compositions did not betray a sense of nostalgia. Howl, which was originally scored for Maurice Causey’s all-electronic ballet, mirrored, in its contemporaneity, Arseny Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens (‘Simfoniia Gudkov’). Performed in Baku to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, Avraamov’s notorious piece employed the sounds of the city itself – factory sirens, bus horns, cannons et al – in celebration of industry, communism and the future. Prokofiev did not conduct a city, but instead, dueted synthesised sounds from a laptop alongside Lydia Kavina’s theremin.

Avraamov Symphony of Sirens

‘Graphical score’ of Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens. Reproduced in Sergeĭ Rumiantsev, Ars Novyĭ, ili Dela i prikliucheniia bezustalʹnogo kazaka Arseniia Avraamova (Moscow, 2007) YF.2008.a.31612.

Reflecting on the hopes, tragedies and myths of the Russian Revolution, Prokofiev conceded that “there is a kind of desperation, a loneliness, a cry – a howl” apparent in such momentous events. “You reach a breaking point when you revolt,” he continued. “Most people wouldn’t go as far as a revolution, unless they’re pushed so hard. And that’s what happened in the Middle East. That’s what happened in Russia.”

As if to emphasise the ambiguous nature of catastrophic political change, the evening climaxed with a new guided improvisation for Vsevolod Pudovkin’s 1927 silent classic, The End of St. Petersburg. Prokofiev was joined on stage by the Renegade Orchestra, Kavina, Manotskov, Jason Alder (bass clarinet) and Molly Lopresti (percussion).

Pudovkin 1

Scenes from Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg, reproduced in A.M. Maryamov, Narodnyi artist SSSR Vsevolod Pudovkin (Moscow, 1951). 11796.b.43. 

Pudovkin 2

Together, the musicians constructed an alternative vision of the Revolution, one that did not simply celebrate the overthrow of a redundant despot or the provisional government that succeeded him, but focused on the people who suffered not only through the failings of the monarchy, but also the shadowy beginnings of the Soviet regime as well. Peasants and bankers had their own leitmotifs, characterised by Matyakubov’s dutar and Kavina’s theremin respectively, but neither purported to have moral supremacy over the other. The audience, too, collaborated with the musicians, towards the end of the feature, in a collective vocal exercise, oh-ing and ah-ing, like lamentful ghosts of revolutions past, to images of cannons firing on the silver screen.

Sounds overview 2
(Photograph: Samantha Lane)

In summary, it is not the sounds or the context that are revolutionary in of themselves. Rather, it is their combined presentation that leaves its mark on the public consciousness. Performing in the cavernous lobby of the British Library certainly throws up some challenges, especially when most of us are used to experiencing music in a concert hall, but it is precisely this unorthodox arrangement that helps to carry the music forward. On this point, both Manotskov and Prokofiev agree. Music has to evolve, particularly in the formal ways in which it is performed. To quote the former composer: “We should open our eyes and see that nothing is conventional. Everything is new and shocking. This is where we are musically and it’s a great place to be.”

The exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths  is open until 29 August 2017 and is accompanied by a range of events. You can hear more music on 27 June at the free ‘Strains of the Revolution’ performances. Details of all events are on our ‘What’s On’ pages. 

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19 June 2017

Crying wolf: the Bête du Gévaudan

In the current debate about the reintroduction of vanished species into their former habitats, apologists for the wolf often cite the species’ sophisticated social hierarchy and the benefits of predation in restoring the balance of nature in defence of a creature which, they claim, has been unjustly maligned. It is all too easy to forget that at the time when Perrault was writing fairy tales such as  ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Hop o’my Thumb’, the wolf who features so ominously in them was not merely a fanciful threat. French parish registers throughout the 17th and 18th centuries record numerous burials of those who had fallen prey to wolves, with, in many cases, only pitiful fragments left to inter.

Although these deaths were a sadly frequent occurrence which only disappeared with the gradual extermination of wolves in France throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, one outbreak attracted particular notice because of the extent and savagery of the attacks. The culprit was the notorious ‘Bête du Gévaudan’ which terrorized the Margeride Mountains in south-central France between 1764 and 1767. Over a century later, when Robert Louis Stevenson visited the region, he noted in his Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (Boston, 1879; 10109.n.63) that the inhabitants still recalled the terrible events and warned him against camping out because of the danger of wolves.

Bete 12517.bbb.23

The depredations of this mysterious creature have provided material for much speculation and also for some bizarre treatments of the episode, from Élie Berthet’s historical novel La Bête du Gévaudan (Paris, 1869; 12517.bbb.23; cover above) to Christophe Gans’ film Brotherhood of the Wolf (2006), where its ravages are attributed to a sinister religious cult. However, they have also been more systematically examined by historians and zoologists, and particularly by Jean-Marc Moriceau, an authority on French agricultural history (La bête du Gévaudan: 1764-1767, Paris, 2008; YF.2010.a.19761). Initially interested in the impact of the Beast’s activities on the rural economy, he went on to write a study of wolf attacks in France (Histoire du méchant loup: 3000 attaques sur l'homme en France (XVe-XXe siècle), Paris, 2007; YF.2009.a.3501) and to edit the proceedings of a conference devoted to relations between man and wolf (Vivre avec le loup? Trois mille ans de conflit, Paris, [2014];YF.2016.a.8804).

Bete farouche X.319-4064

A contemporary account of the beast, reproduced in  Jacques Delperrié de Bayac, Du sang dans la montagne. Vrais et faux mystères de la Bête du Gévaudan. (Paris,1970). X.319/4064

Contrary to the popular images of starving wolves prowling through snow-clad landscapes, the Beast claimed its first victim, Jeanne Boulet, just short of her 14th birthday, on 30 June 1764. The parish priest of Les Hubacs, recording her burial the following day, attributed her death to  ‘la Bête féroce’, suggesting that it had achieved some notoriety. In fact it had already made at least one previous attack, foiled by the cattle which the intended victim was guarding. Moriceau notes that while flocks of sheep were generally supervised by experienced shepherds with formidable sheepdogs armed with spiked collars, the practice of sending boys and girls to accompany the cattle to pasture rendered them especially vulnerable. In most of the fatal attacks which occurred over the next three years (up to 113, according to one source), the victims were young; of 79 cases cited where the age is recorded, 63 out of 79 were under 20. The spring and summer, when the rural population was engaged in outdoor pursuits in the fields and vineyards, offered special opportunities to a predator lurking at the edge of a forest or lying low in a cornfield.

Bete Figuren du monstre X.319-4064

Another contemporary view of the ‘monster’, reproduced in Du sang dans la montagne.

As the toll increased, even grown men were afraid to venture forth unarmed, leading to appeals for the ban forbidding the peasantry to carry weapons to be lifted. Fears were heightened by reports of the creature’s unusual size, strength and appearance, leading to rumours that it was not a wolf at all but a bear or a hyena escaped from the King of Sardinia’s menagerie. As even expert hunters failed to shoot it, it was claimed that it was no ordinary animal but a werewolf, invulnerable to firearms or to poison (more bizarre suggestions include a wolf/dog hybrid or, according to Pascal Cazottes in La bête du Gévaudan enfin démasquée? (La Motte d’Aigues, 2004; YF.2005.a.9199), a prehistoric Hemicyon.

This led to intervention by Louis XV himself; on hearing of the heroism of young Jacques Portefaix, who successfully defended himself and seven companions when attacked on 12 January 1765, he not only rewarded them financially but decreed that the Crown would send assistance to kill the Beast. This met with mixed success; the royal louvetiers were resented by the local residents on whom they were billeted, especially when their efforts achieved nothing. However, when on 20 September a large wolf was killed by François Antoine, the king's arquebus-bearer and Lieutenant of the Hunt, it seemed that he had exterminated the Beast, especially as several survivors recognized it by scars inflicted during attempts to beat it off. The stuffed specimen was displayed at Versailles, and Antoine fêted as a hero, but by December 1765 renewed attacks confirmed that the story was not yet over.

In May/June 1767 alone eight more victims perished, including a Carmelite nun and several young cowherds. On 17 June the burial of the last, 19-year-old Jeanne Bastide, was recorded by the parish priest of Binière. The following day the young Marquis d’Apcher organized a hunt and set out with a pack of hounds and around 300 huntsmen and beaters, including 12 named marksmen, one of them a farmer called Jean Chastel. At 10.15 on the morning of 19 June the Marquis sighted his quarry followed by its mate, and gave the order to loose the hounds. Chastel fired, and the Beast of the Gévaudan fell dead.

Somewhat anticlimactically, the corpse rapidly decomposed in the hot weather and could not be exhibited, and in contrast to Antoine, Chastel, on arrival at court, received only a modest reward of 72 livres. But he had earned the lasting gratitude of his neighbours for rescuing them from three years of terror, and 250 years later the surrounding area prepares to commemorate the events of June 1767 under the slogan Fête la Bête!’ 


Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities & Social Sciences) Research Services

16 June 2017

Kamenets Tower

I went to see the Kamenets Tower (photos below) while visiting my parents this Easter holidays. The Tower has been a branch of Brest Regional museum since 1960. It was closed when we arrived but it was still an amazing experience to have the medieval historical site almost to ourselves.

Picture 5   Picture 5.1
Kamenets Tower  (Photos by Rimma Lough)

The Kamenets Tower is also known as the White Tower – nothing to do with its colour, the name is taken from the local area. It was built between 1271 and 1289 on the order of Grand Duke Vladimir Vasilkovich of Volhynia  who died in 1289. Vladimir Vasilkovich also established the town of Kobrin in 1287.

Picture 6

Monument to Grand Duke Vladimir Vasilkovich and distant view of St Simeon’s Eastern Orthodox church, built 1914 (Photo by Rimma Lough)

Over the centuries the tower was under constant attack: first in 1378-1379 by the Crusaders. In 1382 the town of Kamenets was captured by Janusz I of Warsaw, and in 1390 briefly by Grand Duke Vytautas of Lithuania.  All of them saw the tower as a strategic fortress for the area.

Picture 1   Picture 1-1
Napoleon Orda’s drawing of the tower. Reproduced in Zʹmitser Vaĭtsiakhovich, Kraina zamkaŭ, alʹbo Belarusʹ na starazhytnym maliunku (Mensk, 1997) YF.2012.a.5328. 

Legends say that there was also a palace that did not survive. In 1500 Kamenets came under attack from the Crimean Khan Meñli I Giray’s  army.

The town of Kamenets  was established around 1276 and situated in the Brest Region. Today it has a population of 8,425. Its coat of arms features the outline of Kamenets tower.

Picture 7

In 1899, the tower was explored and measured by the Russian academician of architecture Vladimir Vasilevich Suslov, who planned a restoration, which did not violate the ancient forms of the tower.

The first restoration of the tower was carried out in 1903-1905 and later work was done in 1968-73 and in 1996-2003. Over the years and centuries the Kamenets tower became very popular with visitors, and I was glad to discover that British Library has a number of books about it.

  Picture 3
Turisticheskie marshruty Kamenetchiny (Brest, 2007) YF.2009.a.24106

Picture 4Legendy srednevekovʹia Belarusi = Legends of Medieval Belarus (Minsk, 2012) YF.2014.a.160

Rimma Lough, SEE Cataloguer Belarusian/Russian/Ukrainian

References/Further reading

A. A. Iarashėvich, Kamianetskaia vezha = Kamianetskaia bashnia = Kamenets tower ((Minsk, 2005) YF.2006.a.8414

M.A. Tkachev, Zamki Belarusi (Minsk: Belarus, 2007). YF.2007.a.35100

Napoleon Orda, Senosios Lietuvos vaizdai =Views of ancient Lithuania  (Vilnius, 1999).LF.31.a.452