The Concerts
of Hofmann
and Kubelik
Osip Mandelstam

In the season of 1903-04 Petersburg witnessed concerts in the grand manner. I am speaking of the strange, never-to-be-surpassed madness of the concerts of Hofmann and Kubelik in the Nobility Hall during Lent. I can recall no other musical experiences, not even the premiere of Scriabin's Prometheus, that might be compared with these Lenten orgies in the white-columned hall. The concerts would reach a kind of rage, a fury. This was no musical dilettantism: there was something threatening and even dangerous that rose up out of enormous depths, a kind of craving for movement; a mute prehistorical malaise was exuded by the peculiar, the almost flagellant zeal of the halberdiers in Mikhaylovsky Square, and it whetted Petersburg of that day (the year 1905 had not yet struck) like a knife. In dim light of the gas lamps the many entrances of the Nobility Hall were set by a veritable siege. Gendarmes on prancing horses, lending to the atmosphere of the square the mood of a civil disturbance, made clicking noises with their tongues and shouted as they closed ranks to guard the main entry. The sprung carriages with dim lanterns slipped into the glistening circle and arranged themselves in an impressive black gypsy camp. The cabbies dared not deliver their fares right to the door; one paid them while approaching, and then they made off rapidly to escape the wrath of the police. Through the triple chains the Petersburger made his way like a feverish little trout to the marble ice-hole of the vestibule, whence he disappeared into the luminous frosty building, draped with silk and velvet. The orchestra seats and the places behind them were filled in the customary order, but the spacious balconies to which the side entrances gave access were filled in bunches, like baskets, with clusters of humanity. The Nobility Hall inside is wide, stocky, and almost square. The stage itself takes up very nearly haIf the area. The gallery swelters in a July heat. The air is filled with a ceaseless humming like that of cicadas over the steppe.

Who were Hofmann and Kubelik? To begin with, in the consciousness of the Petersburg populace of that time, they had become amalgamated into one image. Like twins, they were identical in height and in the color of their hair. Smaller than the average, almost dwarfish, they had hair blacker than a raven's wing. Each had a very low forehead and very small hands. As I recall them now, they both seem to have been something like leading men in some troupe of Lilliputians. I was taken to the Hôtel d'Europe to pay my respects to Kubelik, although I did not play the violin. He lived like a real prince. Fearing that the boy might play the violin, he waved his little hand in alarm, but was immediately reassured and gave his autograph as he was requested to do.

Now when these two little musical demigods, these two jeunes premiers of the Lilliputian theater, had to make their way across the stage, sagging under the pressure of the crowd, I would be terrified for them. It would begin as with an electric spark, like the first gust of an approaching thunderstorm. The attendants would with difficulty clear a path through the throng, and to the accompaniment of an indescribable roar from all sides of the hot shoving human mass --- neither bowing nor smiling, almost trembling, and with a kind of angry expression on their faces --- they would make their way to the music stand and the piano. To this day that passage strikes me as perilous: I cannot get rid of the thought that the crowd, simply from not knowing what to do, was ready to tear its darlings to pieces. In what followed, these little geniuses, holding sway over the stunned musical mob of maids of honor and girl students, fat art patrons and shock-headed singing coaches, would try with all the means of their art, with all the logic and splendor of their sound, to chain and cool the unbridled Dionysian element. I have never heard from anyone such a pure, primordially clear and transparent sound, in the piano sober as spring water, and producing in the violin a voice of the utmost simplicity, indivisible into its component filaments; and I have never again heard such a virtuoso, such an alpine cold, as in the frugality, sobriety, and formal clarity of these two legalists of the violin and the pianoforte. But what in their performance was clear and sober served only to enrage and incite to new frenzies the crowd that clung to the marble columns, hung in clusters from the gallery, sprouted from the flower beds of the orchestra, and thickened hotly on the stage. Such was the power in the rational and pure playing of these two virtuosi.


On Zagorodny Prospekt, in the courtyard of a huge apartment house, one side of which was a blank wall that could be seen from a great distance and which bore an advertisement for Shustov cognac, about thirty boys dressed in shorts, wool socks, and English blouses played soccer to the accompaniment of horrendous shouting. They all looked as if they had been transported to England or Switzerland and there fitted out in a way that was not Russian or that of a Gymnasium student, but somehow rather Cambridge in style.

I recall a solemn occasion: an unctuous priest in a violet cassock, the excited audience attending the opening day exercises, and suddenly all make way amidst a fluster of whispers: Witte had arrived. It was commonly said of Witte that he had a golden nose, and the children, who blindly believed this, looked at nothing but his nose. The nose, however, was ordinary and appeared fleshy.

What was said then I do not remember; but on Mokhovaya Street in our own amphitheater, with its comfortable deputy's seats à la parliament there took place a rather elaborate ritual, and in the early days of September there would be formal exercises to celebrate the good fortune of our exemplary school. At these meetings, which resembled a juvenile House of Lords, an elderly doctor of hygiene named Virenius would inevitably say a few words. He was a rosy-cheeked old man, like the child on a can of Nestlé's. Every year he gave one and the same talk: on the beneficial effects of swimming. Since all this would take place in the fall, with the next swimming season about ten months away, there was something malapropos about his maneuvers and demonstrations, but this apostle of swimming regularly delivered his sermon every year on the very threshold of winter. Another professor of hygiene was Prince Tarkhanov, an Oriental gentleman with an Assyrian beard, who used to go from desk to desk during the physiology lesson and make the students listen to his heart through his thick vest. One could not be sure whether it was a heart ticking or a gold watch, but the vest was indispensable.

The amphitheater, with its collapsible desks, its capacious aisles dividing it into sections, and its strong overhead light, would be taken by storm on such grand occasions, and all Mokhovaya Street would seethe, inundated by the police and the massed intelligentsia.

This was all at the beginning of the 1900s.

The Tenishev auditorium was most often engaged by that citadel of radicalism the Literary Fund, which held the copyright on the works of Nadson. The Literary Fund was by its nature a commemorative organization: it revered. It had a meticulously worked out annual program, something like a calendar of saints, in accordance with which it celebrated the anniversaries of birth and death of, if I am not mistaken, Nekrasov, Nadson, Pleshcheev, Garshin, Turgenev, Gogol, Pushkin, Apukhtin, Nikitin, and others. These literary requiems were all alike, and in the choice of things to be read little attention was given to the question whether the deceased had actually written it.

It usually began with the aged Pyotr Isaevich Weinberg, a kind of goat in a plaid lap robe, reading one invariable selection: "In front of me the sea, my old friend, unfolded like an endless shroud...."

Then there would appear Samoylov, the actor from the Aleksandrinsky Theater, to read Nikitin's poem "The Master" in a heartrending voice, striking himself on the breast and delivering himself of staggering shouts which subsided into sinister whispering.

Next would follow the conversation of the ladies, delightful in every respect, from Dead Souls. Then Nekrasov's "Grandfather Mazay and the Hares" or "Reflections at the Main Entrance." Vedrinskaya would twitter Fet's poem "I come to you with greetings..." and the conclusion would be the playing of Chopin's Funeral March.

So much for literature. Now the performances of a civic nature. There were first of all the sessions of the juridical Society, led by Maksim Kovalevsky and Petrunkevich, where amidst a low hissing and buzzing they decanted the poison of constitutionalism. Maksim Kovalevsky, carrying all before him by virture of his imposing figure, would preach an Oxfordian legality. While all about him heads were being chopped off, he deliverred an immensely long and erudite speech on the right of perlustration, i.e., the censoring of private correspondence, in the course of which he cited the English example, admitted such a right, then qualified it, and finally curtailed it. The celebrants of these civic services were M. Kovalevsky, Rodichev, Nikolay Fyodorovich Annensky, Batyushkov, and Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky.

It was in the near proximity of such a domestic forum as this that we received our education in the high glass boxes with steam-heated windowsills that were our huge classrooms, seating twenty-five students. And our corridors were not corridors but riding halls with tall ceilings and parqueted floors, the atmosphere of which, crossed by slanting columns of dust-laden sunlight, generally smelled of gas from the physics laboratories. The practical demonstrations consisted of cruel and needless vivisections, the expulsion of all the air from a glass bell in order to observe a poor mouse die of suffocation on its back, the torturing of frogs, the scientific boiling of water, with a description of this process, and the melting of little glass rods on the gas burners.

The heavy, sweetish smell of gas in the laboratories gave one a headache, but the real hell for the majority of the awkward, nervous, and not unduly healthy children was the class of manual crafts. Towards the end of the day, heavy with lessons and sated with conversations and demonstrations, we would gasp with fatigue among the wood shavings and sawdust, unable to saw a board in half. The saw would get bent, the plane would go crooked, the chisel would strike against fingers: nothing came out right. The instructor would busy himself with two or three of the skillful boys, and the others would damn all handicrafts.

At our German lessons we would sing "O Tannenbaum, 0 Tannenbaum!" under the direction of the Fraulein, who also used to bring to class pictures of milky alpine landscapes with dairy cows and little tile-roofed houses.

There was in the school a military, privileged, almost aristocratic undercurrent that was forever threatening to break through: this was composed of the children of certain ruling families who had landed here by some strange parental caprice and now lorded it over the flabby intellectuals. A certain Voevodsky, the son of a court official and a strikingly handsome boy with a classical profile in the style of Nicholas I, proclaimed himself "commander" and compelled everyone to take an oath of fealty to him, kissing the cross and Bible.

Here is a short portrait gallery of my class.

  1. Vanyusha Korsakov. Nicknamed "Porkchop." Flaccid boy from a family with ties to the zemstvo tradition (Petrunkevich, Rodichev). Wore his hair in a bowl cut. A Russian shirt with a silk belt.

  2. Barats. His family intimate with Stasyulevich (Messenger of Europe).A passionate mineralogist, mute as a fish, talked only of quartz and mica.

  3. Leonid Zarubin. Large coal-mining industry in the Don Basin. To begin with, dynamos and batteries; later on, nothing but Wagner.

  4. Przesiecki. Poor Polish gentry. Specialist at spitting.

  5. Slobodzinski. Top student. A person from the second part of Dead Souls, burned by Gogol. Positive type of the Russian intelligent. Moderate mystic. Truth lover. Good mathematician. Well read in Dostoevsky. Later on he ran a radio station.

  6. Nadezhdin. A classless intellectual. Sour odor from the apartment of a minor clerk. Gaiety and insouciance, since there was nothing to lose.

  7. The Krupenskys. Twins. Landed gentry from Bessarabia. Connoisseurs of wine and Jews.

  8. And finally, Boris Sinani. Belonged to the generation that is now active, having ripened for great events and historical work. He had hardly graduated before he died. How he would have shone during the years of the revolution!

There are still today various old ladies and good provincial people who, when they wish to praise someone, say that he is "a luminous personality." And I understand what they mean. There is no other way to speak of our Ostrogorsky except in the language of that period, and the old-fashioned pompousness of that absurd expression no longer strikes one as comical. It was only during the first few years of the century that the coattails of Ostrogorsky could be seen flitting about the corridors of the Tenishev School. He was nearsighted and squinted, his eyes brilliant with mockery --- a great, scrofulous ape in a frock coat, with a beard and hair of golden-red. There was, I am sure, something very Chekhovian about his incredible smile. He did not take root, somehow, in the twentieth century, thogh he wanted to. He loved Blok (and at what an early date!) and published his poems in his journal Education.

He was no administrator --- he just squinted and smiled and was terribly absentminded. It was rare to have a talk with him. He shrugged everything off with a joke, even when there was no call to do so.

"What class do you have now?"


"Geology yourself."

The whole school, with all its humanistic twaddle and nonsense, was held together by his smile. Still, there were some good boys in the Tenishev School. The same flesh and blood as the children in the portraits of Serov. Little ascetics, monks in their children's monastery, where the notebooks, equipment, glass retorts, and German books contained more spirituality and inner harmony than can be found in the grown-up world.

--- From The Noise of Time
©1965 Princeton University Press<

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