Coffee, Libraries, Losses and Gains.

Posted on December 27th, 2009 by


Coffee, Libraries, Losses and Gains.


 I have found myself the perfect cup of coffee, in the old market quarter of Sarajevo, the Bašaršija. It’s early in the morning, and I am sitting outside at a pavement table, as the sun begins to warm the paving stones. It is going to be a hot day. Already the pigeons are flopping around with drear resignation and some of the stall holders are already asleep in the sun. Not a day for work. Diary Entry-Sarajevo 2002

 All across the Balkans, the naming of coffee is a vexed question, one which can embroil the nervous traveler in political hot water. It is of course, one of the more civilized legacies of the Ottoman empire, however loathe we are to admit it. As Jason Godwin puts it:

 “While the Turkish ambassador was introducing the French to the civilized pleasures of drinking coffee, the French were landing a shipload of false coin in Istabul.” (Jason Goodwin, Lords of the Far Horizons, (London: Vintage, 1999) P.266.)

 Neil Heyde and I found ourselves leaning over a five-bar gate in the Avon countryside, not far from Bath. It was a beautiful early summer afternoon; rain recently past, leaving the air very slightly blue, a kaleidoscope of greens, the landscape glowing, as if lit from within.  A few minutes later, we were going to perform Tippett’s fabulously difficult 4th String Quartet, his ‘T.S.Eliot quartet’. When Merion Bowen and Tippett published their transcription of this Quartet, expanded for full string orchestra, they re-titled the piece, with the line from Eliot ‘Water out of Sunlight’. This line seemed so appropriate for the natural miracle which we were now observing. It was the coda for the quartet, all birdsong and sexy twilight. “Beautiful”, Neil mused, “But think how far we are from a decent cup of coffee.” This became our ‘coffee-snobs’ mantra for traveling in the Uk. The more exquisite the surroundings, the proportional increase in the likelihood that the whole day will be spoilt with a cup of black sludge.

 The rule, however, completely fails in the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, anywhere that the Beys and the Agas held sway. The miraculous elixir that it, honestly speaking, Turkish coffee is, will appear poured ceremoniously from a tiny brass jug on a long handle. As long as the waiter can be convinced that this tourist really does want it without sugar, taste ecstasy will surely follow. The Serbo-Croatian word for a coffee house keeper, kafedžija, is, of course, Turkish. 

 So here I am, getting very comfortable in the April sunshine; Coffee as it should be, served with a glass of spring water, my pen and notebook by my side. My eyes gradually adjust to the morning light. A stark silhouette is blocks the street at its eastern end. I find myself looking at the shell of a building that was at one point the town hall, built by the Turks as a library. This fantastic architectural confection used contain the greatest collection of Serbo-Croatian texts, from the Renaissance onwards, written in  Arabic script , the ‘Aljamiado’ literatury legacy. This collection consisted of countless volumes of literature and poetry of the region, the Schatzkammer of Sarajevo’s cosmopolitan past, legacy of the days when the camel trains stopped, there. Sarajevo lay on the trading route from the free port of Ragusa, or Dubrovnik, to Antalya and beyond. The camels from the East stopped here, as the animals tended to get sick and bad tempered if they went any further north. The shops of the kabasa sold the fruits of the empire’s trading reach, from India to Bohemia.

 The collection of Aljamiado was scarcely catalogued, let alone documented or transcribed. In 1992 Radovan Karadžic firebombed the building. This act of cultural viciousness was later matched, in November 1993, when Bosnian Croat soldiers videoed the destruction of Mostar’s historic bridge by Hercegovinan Croat army units. Even sitting in the centre of the Markale, the Mahal, where every so often there is a red paving stone amongst the grey, mark of another victim of a sniper, it is the Taleban-esque intent of this cultural attack, (which I will not call senseless, as I fully understand the sense of it) and the broken shell of the empty library, that strike fear into me. This attack on Sarajevo’s pluralistic racial heritage was one which Hitler and Rosenberg would have relished. 

The scale of the literary and cultural loss will never be known, as the collections of the Gazi-Husrev-beg library, the Oriental Institute, and the National library were barely catalogued, and the scope of the Bosnian Muslim literature, and the ‘Aljamiado’ works were known only to a handful of scholars, and almost none outside the Balkans. These works are gone, and cannot be revived. (Noel Malcom, Bosnia, A Short History, London: Papermac, 1999 P.101) With them has gone another record of the interwoven cultural past of East and West.

 My friend M—– escaped to Italy after the city was invested in 1992, taking her daughter. From there, she sent her parents food, and watched the war with horror. They live in a Muslim district of the town. They did not need all of the food that she sent them, so they would give it to a little Muslim girl, who would take it to her family. One day a grenade attack nearby killed seven children, including the little girl’s sister. She stopped coming to pick up food from the old people, and avoided them on the street.

  “Tell me, how my parents had changed? What had they become, that they were not before. I don’t understand. It was all very strange, senseless…there were also miracles that matched these senseless things…perhaps the miracles themselves were senseless. My father was sitting in his chair reading, and he leant forward to pick up another book; as he did so,  a stray bullet slammed into the wall next to him, right beside where his head would have been had he been sitting up. I cannot explain that, either.”

 I walked out of the centre of Sarajevo, up the hill to where the Plocz tower stands. Posters offering $5,000,000 for any information that would lead to the capture of Ratko Mladic, Milosevic’s poodle, and Radovan Karadžic flapped in the breeze. The river ran riot, full of the trash that clogs Bosnia. The most pervasive legacy of the years of war in the Balkans is the rubbish that despoils so much of the countryside, pouring down beautiful hillsides, waving from trees like Japanese paper prayers. Mangy dogs sunned themselves on the cobblestones outside a new ‘Alpine-style’ mosque.

 I clambered up onto the ramparts of the Turkish fort, the Vali’s stronghold. From here the garrison commander, the dizdar, would have had a perfect view, in every direction; it is a perfect position to command the Bosna. Huddled over the nearby hill tops are the oldest Ottoman cemeteries,   crammed with graves of mutsellims, beys, jannissaries, and dervishes. Next to these are thousands of tragically recent tombs, with blinding white new marble gravestones, dated 1992 though 1997. Children, teenagers, young adults, a younger generation decimated. These deaths seemed even crueller in the beauty of the morning light, with the city shimmering, a Balkan Florence, the hulk of the library, the Vije?nica, testament to the futility of it all.

 A few days after I returned from that trip to Bosnia, the ‘Metro’, the free newspaper that clutters up the London Underground, carried the following article:

 “NOW THE WAR’S OVER A shepherd spent nearly six years hiding in the mountains of Bosnia because he was convinced that the war was still raging. Illija Panincic, a 52-year old Bosnian Serb, had almost forgotten how to speak when British soldiers found him. He was wearing the same clothes he had on in 1996, when he fled after his brother was executed by Croat police. Mr Panincic lived in an abandoned house, gathering berries and nuts for food. His only neighbour was a brown bear which scratched at his door. British peacekeepers have been taking food and clothing to his hill-top hideaway.” (NOW THE WAR’S OVER,” Metro February 2002)

 The exploring musician quite often finds that they are ‘exhuming’ dead works by living composers. Sometimes the composer had never expected to hear the piece again, sometimes they hoped never to hear the piece again, and sometimes they have completely forgotten it, and moreover, have forgotten who they were when they wrote it. This can become a little awkward, and I have occasionally felt like an accidental ‘resurrection man’, caught with my shovel and a flunkey with a lanthorn, up to my elbows in the mud of a fresh grave.

 In 1907-8, Bela Bartok,  then still a comparatively unknown pianist who composed, fell desperately in love with a very beautiful and very unattainable nineteen year old violinist, Steffi Geyer. She was studying with the great Hungarian violinist Jen? Hubay, at the Budapest Academy, where Bartok was a young professor, Bartok wrote a violin concerto for Geyer, and sent it to her with a billet-doux attached explaining the dedication.

 Presumably the purpose of this work was that the impressionable Geyer would fall in love with the young composer through playing it, and thus aware of the depth of his passion. This was not to be. Despite the exquisite ardour of the first movement of the concerto, she failed to fall in love. Perhaps she realized exactly what it was all about; after all, Bartok was nearly a decade older than her, and a teacher at the Academy where she was studying. His behaviour was, at best unethical, and at worst stalker-like. I suspect that she felt under undue pressure to submit to the rather over-intense composer, so all credit to her that she did not fold.

 The first movement echoes the sound and landscape of Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’; the concerto being the love potion, the philtre to make Bartok’s own Yseut fall in love with him.

 “My Lords, you have heard of the wine they drank which caued them to sufer greatly for so long. But you do not know, I think, the duration of the efficacy of the love-drink, the wine mixed with herbs: Yseut’s mother, who brewed it, made it for three years of love. She made it for Mark and her daughter; another tasted it and suffered because of this. For as long as the three years lasted the potion had such power over Tristan and the queen that each of them could say – ‘I am not weary’ ” (The Romance of Tristan-12th century Tr.Alan S Frederick, (reprint, London: Penguin, 1970), 95-6)

 In one letter to the (rather overwhelmed) young girl, Bartok sent Steffi the yearning theme that he used for the concerto, with a note attached to it -“This is your Leitmotiv”. (Kenneth Chalmers, in Bela Bartok (reprint, London: Phaidon, 1995), P.69)

  Steffi Geyer did not only not play it,’her’ concerto. She locked the piece in a desk drawer. It was only after her death-well over a decade after Bartok’s, that the piece saw the light of day, and was finally performed.

Bartok took Berlioz-esque revenge on his erstwhile soulmate. He separated the first movement from the concerto, where it was originally paired with a jaunty ‘Bunte‘ of virtuoso fireworks and folk-dance interludes (which had been conceived as a picture of ‘the violinist who he admired’, and renamed it-‘Ideal’. (Günter Weiss-Aigner, in The Bartok Companion-‘The Lost Violin Concerto’ Editor Malcolm Gilles, (reprint, London: Faber and Faber, 1993), P.469).

 To this first movement he gave a new pendant.The two pieces formed a new work ‘Two Portraits’ for orchestra. In this form, the solo violin part is confined to the first movement alone. This was premiered by Bartok’s long-term collaborator and sonata partner, Imre Waldebauer. The ‘Two portraits’ are of the same person, presumably Geyer. The new second movement  is  named ‘Grotesque’, a reworking of one of his I. Revenge is a dish, after all, best sampled cold, especially when taken on the ‘indifferent, cool and silent Steffi Geyer.

 In 1994, I accidentally ‘dug up’ a work by the Russian composer Dmitri Smirnov. I had been playing his wonderful homage to Bach and Handel ‘Partita’ (1985) for some time. When Goldsmiths College asked me to play Partita at an evening celebrating ‘Dima’s’ music, I seized the opportunity to learn a new work of his. Looking through my collection of solo violin works, I found-‘Two Fugues’ for solo violin-Dmitri Smirnov (1970)’. I was very intrigued at the prospect of playing such an early piece, written when the composer was younger than I was, so I set to work on these two colourful pieces of counterpoint. I didn’t bother the composer for help, as it was only a few days before the concert, and I thought that it might be more interesting to surprise him. On the night, I was very anxious about playing the piece; it was very new to me.

 fter I played, I was very alarmed to see Smirnov loping towards the stage with a face like thunder. It had gone tolerably well, but seeing this Russian looming in front of me, I was irresistibly minded of David Oistrakh’s first meeting with Serge Prokofiev.

 In 1927, Prokofiev came to Odessa.  The conservatory, where I would later find myself teaching, decided to put a special event to celebrate his birthday. It was decided that  a young, celebrated violinist from the school, David Oistrakh would play for him. Oistrakh was very experienced; he had played Glasounov’s colourful violin concerto under the composer’s baton when he was only fourteen. He prepared Prokopfiev’s 1st Concerto to honour the visiting composer.

 This piece had been written for the Polish Violinist Paul Kochhanski, who was supposed to have played it in Moscow in October 1917. This performance did not happen, the concert was, not surprisingly, overtaken by larger events.

 The Odessa performance was to be given in a small room, with piano accompaniment. I like to think that it happened in the violin teaching room of the Conservatoire where I teach when I visit, but nobody seems sure when I ask. Prokofiev was given the place of honour at the front of the audience, right under the young violinist’s nose. Oistrakh reported that, as he played, the composer’s face got darker and darker, angrier and angrier.  When the performance was over, he did not take part in the applause, but strode up the piano, pushed the accompanist aside, and played the piece through, solo. “That’s how it should go.” Years later, when Oistrakh and Prokofiev were friends and colleagues, the violinist asked the composer about that young violinist in Odessa. “Ah yes,” said Prokofiev (I like to imagine, with venomous glee), “I gave him a good drubbing!!” (Viktor Jusefovich, David Oistrakh-Conversations with Igor Oistrakh, Translated-Nicholas de Pfeiffer London: Cassell, 1977 P163-4)

 I stood there waiting for my ‘drubbing’ from Dmitri. But as he approached the stage, I saw that he had tears in his eyes. He embraced me, and turned the small audience.

“I have never heard this piece.”

 In 1970, Dmitri Smirnov was studying orchestration with the Russian composer Edison Denisov in Moscow. Denisov was considered ideologically unsound by the soviet authorities, and was never allowed to teach composition, but for some reason, it was considered ‘safe’ for him to teach orchestration. Obviously, there was thought to be less risk of his ‘infecting’ his students with ‘formalism’ in teaching orchestration than through ‘pure’ composition teaching. These were dangerous times for thinkers; that year Zhores Medvedev was been sent to a mental hospital for criticizing the soviet regime, and in March, Andrei Sakharov invited internal exile by protesting the lack of intellectual freedom.

 The “Two fugues” were written for a young violinist. Smirnov has never told me her name, incidentally. They were never played. I do not believe that my rather tentative performance had moved him, but rather the sudden reappearance of a musical ghost from the past.

 Smirnov is a composer with deep convictions and beliefs as to the symbolism of music. He ascribes great importance to the choices of notes that a composer makes, and the meaning that is buried within them. Upon the death of the composer Alfred Schnittke, he wrote an in memoriam composed only of the names of the composers that Schnittke loved, and his own name, ‘spelt’ in music. His piece ‘DSCH’, for two violins, another in memoriam, this time to the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, only uses the four notes D(d)-S(e flat)-C(c ), and H (b natural), which write out the beginning of Shostakovich’s name. The older composer used this selfsame group of notes, or motif, as the starting point for a number of his most impassioned ‘autobiographical’ works, including the deeply troubled 8th Quartet. Indeed, whilst he was studying with Edison Denisov, the older composer published his own D-S-C-H work, a wind quintet. (Ian Macdonald, in The New Shostakovich (reprint, London: Fourth Estate, 1990), P.312.) Clearly, any composer who thinks thus, is likely to have a deeply personal identification with the symbolism of every note that they write. A work like ‘Two Fugues’ might would have a comparable impact on a composer like re-reading long forgotten love letter, or even a ‘dear john’ might have on a ‘normal’ person. Nonetheless, I was still relieved that Dmitri did not shout at me. 

 A week after my coffee by the destroyed library in Sarajevo, I was back ‘home’ in the ‘marble halls’ of the new British Library next to the wizard’s castle that is Gilbert Scott’s St Pancras Station. I remember that the day that the new building was opened, at the end of the 1990’s, I wondered into the ‘Rare Books and Music Reading Room’, my eyrie of choice, in complete disbelief. It was incredible that a room like this would be built simply so that I could come to read and write. For years, the ‘Music Reading  Room’ had been shoe horned into a rather cramped back room at the rear of the British Museum. Going there had always been an adventure, and I would always take a detour, sometimes past the Rosetta Stone, or the Cycladic ‘violin’ figurines that Henry Moore had loved so much, or to spend an half hour  of rapture looking at the heroes, gods and goddesses on a red-figured Attic vase. I was saddened as the time for the library to move neared. I did not wish to forgo these small pilgrimage-diversions. This regret lasted right until the moment that I set foot in the new building at Kings Cross. I was confronted by the soaring tower of leather and vellum bound volumes, the ‘King’s Collection’ that rises in the foyer. I walked into the fabulous reading rooms for the first time, feeling like a child at Christmas. I returned there from Sarajevo very grateful, and not a little embarrassed that I had taken this luxury, such freedom, to read, so lightly.