Storyglossia Issue 21, July 2007.

The Movement

by Amelia Gray


The end of an


As they played, the quartet at Joseph Stalin's funeral wept for another man. The tyrant lay in state, surrounded by thousands of his closest oppressed, and the greatest string quartet in Russia sat beside his casket and played beautiful music, crying for a dear friend who had died within an hour of Stalin.

The quartet, overbooked, couldn't make it to Prokofiev's funeral. Not many could, as it happened at the same time as The Great State Funeral of Joseph Stalin. It must have been harder to believe that Stalin was actually dead. This is a sign of a great man.

There were few flowers for Prokofiev's funeral, because the flower shops catered to Stalin. All Prokofiev had left in the world was thirty friends and a solo violin. Some of the friends brought flowers from home.


What they provide and how they function (present day)


The university's hall is packed, fifty more people than were at the man's own funeral. They are required to be there for credit as music majors. They try to leave at intermission but the ushers won't give them the programs they'll need as proof. They pull out their cell phones to text message. Madeline takes her place on stage.


One little life


Madeline lives her life with the violin. She has been the concertmaster of small orchestras around the world. With her husband, she once toured China playing duets by Mozart, Bach, and Rolla.


Biographical note


Alessandro Rolla, teacher of Niccolò Paganini; the latter eventually would be known as one of the greatest violin players ever to have lived; cancer of the larynx would take Paganini's ability to speak, but he was heard improvising frantically on the violin on the last night of his life.


The strings no longer gut


On stage, she arranges her cropped hair, touching the frame of her glasses with a practiced hand, and raises the instrument to her neck. The strings resonate like animal gut, in a round, mellow way that any strings will sound when a master draws the bow. Her hair falls over her face as she plays the opening memorized notes of Prokofiev's last masterpiece.




1.    artistic difficulty

2.    distracted audience


Music theory


Playing the violin is reading and writing at once. You're given a piece in all its brilliance and insanity, ink from the same press that printed Lolita. The task is interpretation; it comes from the mind as easily (painfully) as words.


The story is forced


Madeline divorced her husband last summer. These days, she keeps busy by traveling too much and eating dinner at other people's houses. During private lessons, she asks her students to make up a story about the music they play. They look at the page and see the rise and fall of dynamics, the difficult fingerings and bowings, marcato, pizzicato. They say it's about clouds changing into different clouds, or still water in a well, or a boy clutching the back of a trolley car as it rumbles over the hill and off its track and plunges, out of control, into a valley. She nods, bored.


Connections (cont)


3.    representing specific emotion doesn't work in English

4.    representing any emotion doesn't work in any language


General disgust


Artists show their distaste for the oppressive regime by bitching through art. In Prokofiev's case, it was twisted march songs and dissonant chords. He wrote at the physical limit of the instrument, to the upper end of the fingerboard, double trills, sul ponticello, muted to suffocate the solo, an accompanist jerking his head to keep time, a repeating three-bar time signature that can't be counted and must be felt. Because of the high difficulty and low payoff, few bother to learn all four movements of his first sonata for violin.


Particular truth regarding music, life


It's an ugly, ugly piece


Little life (organization)


First movement: faux triumph

Second movement: thinly veiled mockery of Joseph Stalin

Third movement: dissonance (intentional)

Fourth movement: fourth movement.


Focused disgust


The kids in the audience don't like it. You can't blame them, really; they've been raised on the Romantics, the Baroque, the Bachs and Beethovens. Sousa never wrote an ironic note in his life. They don't understand it—they're not old enough to know the first instinct of confusion (irritation) should be avoided to keep an open mind. The violin strikes warring chords against the piano. The close listener spends most of the second movement trying to contextualize.


How to play an ugly piece


1.    Change rhythms

2.    Work backwards

3.    Leave offerings




forced marches bread lines hard winters panicked emigration mistrust genocide finger-pointing corruption occasional springtimes fire unspeakable cruelties historical insignificance wood floors broken bones icepicks dirty snow laughing women serbia the soul arthritis one tiny cold little life


How selfish of us (funerals)


The body (seen) and the person (imagined), the two reconciled into something we call an angel, a glowing light, a cool or warm breeze (depending on climate). The soul, for some reason still concerned with us, happy or appreciative at the attendance, the proper amount of tears and flowers, the quality of the entertainment and food afterwards.


Words rarely used in text messages by nineteen-year-olds


contextualize, tyrant, shudder, motif, wastrel, guttural, partition, baroque, muddy, intent, octave, cruelty




1.    Attempted Explanation

2.    Company of Friends

3.    Sonata for Violin


At one time, Prokofiev had to have been alive


He walked through a public park. He felt snow and saw the three shades of the color grey. He took his glove off and looped his fingers around the links of a chain link fence. His hand warmed the metal and the metal chilled his hand and he thought, if the metal could feel, it would feel warm.

He thought, if the metal could feel

What if the metal could feel

It could feel warm

He thought, I wonder what Joseph Stalin is doing today. Perhaps he is having eggs, and mint tea. He thought his thoughts in Russian, which made things pleasantly guttural. He thought often of music.




Madeline shudders with the final notes of the third movement. Her heavy dress is very Russian, very winter-coat. The fourth movement features runs from the opening, the theme repeated (not uncommon), but Prokofiev keeps pushing the envelope, the runs higher, confounding the lower register. The scale pattern is foreign. The upper notes approach the octave, resolution, but never arrive.

This was the piece played at Prokofiev's funeral.


Connections (cont)


5.  no satisfying ending


The tyrant speaks


Perhaps I was having eggs, and mint tea. I tried to read the papers every morning, to be a lover of language and knowledge, but it was just too tiring. I couldn't control anything outside of Russia which, if you think about it, is quite a large space outside my control. From the point of view of a man of my ambition, it is quite a large space, indeed. It is quite a large space from the point of view of any man. Anyway, I prefer coffee, and not to be recalled as a tyrant.

Copyright©2007 Amelia Gray