With Volodmyr Runchak in Odessa 2001
Volodymyr Runchak-non-concerto 1 + 16
Ukrainian Symphony Orchestra
Hall of Columns, K’yiv 2000
Volodymyr Runchak-Sounds re-sounds
PSS-Violin, Piano, Voice.
Sitting with Volodmyr Runchak, at the head of the ‘November steps’, I witnessed the most wondrous natural phenomenon.
We were drinking coffee with our backs to the neo-classical city, looking out to sea. To our left, the statue of Armand-Emmanuel, Duc de Richelieu, the genius of Odessa, who stared over our shoulders at the Crimea, dressed like a Roman emperor. Odessa, the grand conception of Prince Potemkin, was founded by Osip Ribas, but it was Richelieu, appointed by Alexander 1st, who induced the refugees and exiles from the Russia, the Ottomann Empire, and all over Europe to come and make the city the astonishing cultural melting pot it was to become. (Simon Sebag Montefiore, Prince of Princes-The Life of Potemkin, London: Phonix Press, 2000 495)
Armand Emmanuel was the great-great-great-nephew of the great Cardinal of the same name; he seems, luckily to have inherited none of his ancestor’s Machiavellian traits. The Duc de Richelieu had ridden out the French revolution in the service of the Russian army, serving under the notorious, murderous eccentric Count General Alexander V. Suavorov-Ryminsky He fought at the massacre at Ismail in 1791, where in three days of rapine and murder, 40,000 Turks, men women and children, were killed by Suavrovs troops. (Jason Goodwin, Lords of the Horizons, [London: Vintage, 1999) p.245.)
Richelieu, who initially had been most impressed by the colourful spectacle of the Turkish banners on the garrison walls, was appalled by the ensuing slaughter. Russian soldiers took the clothes from the victims before they killed them so that their plunder silks and satins might not be harmed, and Cossacks road through the rivers of blood running in the streets with their swords dripping in the gore of their mostly defensive victims, macabre in the gowns and periwigs of the dead.
Perhaps this battle was the birthplace of the famously incorruptible Richelieu’s idealism which. This became the cornerstone of the polyglot city which he was to found. It is a legacy which subsequent generations of the city fathers have succeeded in ignoring; a terrible betrayal.
Armand, horrified at the behaviour of his men, managed to save a ten year old Turkish girl from death. She was soaked in the blood of her mother and relations, who had been using their bodies to shield her from the blood berserk Cossacks who were now about to slaughter her. Richelieu and walked off the field of battle holding her hand.
In 1803 he was made Governor of Odessa and in 1805, of all the three provinces of New Russia. In 1817 he reported that “Never, Sire, in any part of the world have there been nations so different in manners, language, customs and dress living in so restricted a space.” (Patricia Herlihy, Odessa A history 1794- 1914, diss., Cambridge, Mass: P.34)
He eventually returned to France, upon the restoration of the monarchy, under Louis XVIII, to serve as Prime Minister, where he instigated electoral reforms in 1817, the so-called Loi Lainé, and reformed the military recruitment and officer promotion. (Jacques Droz, Europe between revolutions, London: Fontana Press, 1967 104-105)
By the time he left, he had populated ‘his’ city, his new ‘Odessos’, with the disaffected and persecuted minorities of the Hapsburg and Ottomann empires. The city preserves this cosmopolitan feeling to this day; Richelieu had effectively built a New York on the Black Sea, pre-empting that cultural melting pot. His creation resulted in an explosion of art, science and music over the next two centuries.
It was a fine day, and there were no clouds in the sky and the sun was warm, or rather that particular ‘Black Sea’ early summer warmth which is always slightly bracing.
All around us was ‘the legacy of the British; the ‘November Steps’ were built by Upton, an engineer on the run from Britain, where he was wanted for forgery.(Anna Reid, Borderland-A journey thtough the history of Ukraine,London: Phoenix, 1997) P.61.) Lodged in the base of Richelieu’s statue, is the shell and pieces of shrapnel from a Royal Navy Cannonball, fired at the city by HMS Tiger during the Crimean War. It was a fine day.
To my surprise, the fog horns were wailing, yet there appeared to be no fog. A large container ship was just passing the harbour mouth, leaving the protection of the long mole which is adorned at the furthest end, by an elegant lighthouse. Suddenly the cargo ship was no longer there. The enormous vessel had loomed unloaded over the other ships in port. Now it had completely vanished. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Standing about 500 yards from the end of the mole was a solid wall of fog, deep enough to engulf the largest vessel. I was irresistibly reminded of Mark Helprin’s wall of fog near New York:
“The cloud, he said, did not remain in the same place. It went around the city ‘like one of them Moibus Belts,’ and oscillated along the ground. Sometimes it disappeared, bringing into view the rest of the country beyond, and sometimes it lifted like a stage curtain, disappearing wholly or partially into heaven. Sometimes it sank into the ground, leaving only silence and a sunny landscape.” (Mark Helprin, “Pearly Soames,” WintersTale, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983) P.35)
This fog bank resembled nothing so much as a dove-grey carpet, rolled out over the sea to the horizon, invisible under the azure sky. I had previously thought of the Black sea as a benign lake, not an ocean, and had not given a thought to the Emperor Justinian’s fit of hysterics in the year 711; he had learnt that his entire army, embarking for Constantinople at the end of a campaign against the Khazan, Tudun, had been swallowed up in the Black Sea, and disappeared without a trace. (John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium London: Penguin, 1988) P.107)
Now I sat there with my coffee, in a trance, agog at this lethal natural wonder. Strangely, Volodmyr and I were sitting there, discussing meaning and illusion, most particularly, a piece called “The Sounds of the Echoes” which he had written five years earlier for the British violinist Madeleine Mitchell.
A violinist appears on stage, which is empty, save for a piano. He does not acknowledge the applause, but goes over to the piano and plays an ‘A’. The audience relaxes, continues talking and shuffling their programmes. Obviously he is tuning, because he plucks at the strings on his violin; strange, now he is singing the ‘A’. Perhaps he is having a lot of trouble with the instrument. The musician puts his violin to one side and starts to play the piano softly, as if he is just improvising, messing around, but certainly not performing. They relax and talk amongst them selves. Obviously the interval is not over yet. Perhaps he will come back in a few minutes, when the performance proper will actually start. They almost don’t notice that now he is playing the violin very softly, spinning gossamer threads of sound from the quietest harmonics of the violin. But he is still singing, the two lines in a strange and ghostly canon; perhaps this is still part of his warming up. Suddenly! There is an explosion of semiquavers! The violinist has leapt off his chair to a music stand at the front of the stage and is playing the violin incredibly loudly, incredibly fast. The audience is shocked; he was playing all along, and they just weren’t listening. Gradually the wildness subsides, the music gets quieter, and the piece begins to finish. The sound of the violin begins to disappear, and the audience, who are anxious not to be fooled, listens intently, watching every bow stroke of the player, and fitting a melody to it. They are not going to be fooled again. The bow moves slower and slower, and the melody ever more delicate. But there is no melody; there has been no music for some minutes. It is a trick; the listeners are hearing something which is only visible, la grande illusion. But now they are not shocked. This melody, the one in their head, is, after all, much more beautiful than any tune they might actually hear. The conjuring trick has shown them something sublime, something that is only theirs.
Volodmyr saluted the fog and the sea respectfully. The Black Sea is no lake, but a witch’s cauldron.