Marking Time through Cultural Expressions

This passage has two issues. The first I don’t think I can convey without mucking up the English text with too much unnecessary explanation. The second one I can convey in several different ways, but none seems ideal. The passage is associated with the viewpoint of a man who used to be a Jesuit, then became an Orthodox priest, and is now traveling with a detachment of Partisan soldiers in Slavonia during World War II.

Bilo je to krajem septembra, rujna kako se nekad govorilo u jezuita, i trajalo je ono najljepše miholjsko ljeto, kada se Bog prikaže i onima koji ne vjeruju.

The first problem is the fact of having two different words for September, where English has just one. “It was the end of September, September as the Jesuits once said, and…” won’t do at all. “Rujan” is the Croatian word, one of them, while “septembar” is more Yugoslav, Serbian. But these also have religious connotations, so the Jesuits, being Catholics, would likely use rujan, while the Orthodox would more likely use septembar, and then the Yugoslavs, being communists, would opt for the more international term, which would historically rub the Croats the wrong way until eventually they would go back to rujan, at least officially, post-1991. I don’t see how I can do any of this. I’ve looked for alternative Jesuit terms for the months in English, without any luck. I may have to ask my author if it’s okay to just skip that little phrase, “September [rujan], as the Jesuits once called it.”

But the second one “miholjsko ljeto” has several different translations in English. The first that comes to mind is “Indian summer,” but this strikes me a bit like using a recognizable dialect from one part of the world to render the dialectal speech of a character somewhere else in the world, for instance, a cockney accent for a Czech peasant or an inner city African American idiom for someone who speaks with marked Turkishisms in Sarajevo. This is never a good strategy as it creates conflicting cultural currents in the English text. The specifically North American term “Indian summer” is not quite so obtrusive as that, and it would go by fast, but I know my own question would be, “Do they have ‘Indian summers’ in Slavonia?”

The term that’s being used here is probably best translated as “Michaelmas summer,” which has a lovely exotic ring to it, and it adds a religious connotation a bit later in the line where I suspect I’ll have to lose the reference to the Jesuits, which is a bit of compensation. But who will know what “Michaelmas summer” means?

A third option would be a sort of “translationese” watering down of the expression, in which I write something like “late summer” or “extended summer.” This explains rather than translates and is also just not as effective as artistic prose.

At this point, I’m inclined to put “long Michaelmas summer,” which has the added effect of slowing the cadence. And so the whole thing ends up going something like this:

It was the end of September, and the long, beautiful Michaelmas summer stretched on as God showed himself even to those who did not believe.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7

I’m giving a couple of pre-concert talks for the Indianapolis Symphony, which is performing Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, “Leningrad” on Friday, February 6 (and then again on the 7th in Carmel), under the direction of Krzysztof Urbański. It is such a perfect case of the changing fortunes of a musical work against the backdrop of world events. Here’s a little taste of what I’ll be saying.

I’ve been asked to discuss the context of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, the Leningrad Symphony, and in order to do that I would like to first ask you to imagine a situation, let’s call it a performance scenario.

We are used to being asked to silence our phones and mobile devices at live performances. Some people have very loud ring tones and beeps and dings that can be quite distracting when you’re trying to listen. Imagine a situation where it’s not someone’s phone that’s distracting you but a ring of artillery surrounding the city blasting away from seven miles out, not to mention your own artillery firing back from just down the street. And let’s add to this picture a company of half-starved musicians on the stage, not the usual philharmonic orchestra—because they were evacuated to Siberia months ago, along with their conductor. What was left was the Radio orchestra, not a bad group, but then they’ve been in the city under siege for nearly a year. Half of them have died of disease and starvation. To find more players you’ve had to go out to the troops protecting the city, find former members of regimental bands, jazz bands, anyone who can play. The score was airlifted in on a medical transport in July, and when the conductor saw it, his first response was, “We’ll never play this.” Many of the musicians were too weak to blow their instruments when rehearsals started. Sometimes they would collapse on stage during rehearsal. They would only ever manage to play the entire work once before the performance, at the dress rehearsal. The musicians just didn’t have the strength to get through the whole thing.

We can add more detail. The German forces bombarding the city did not do so indiscriminately. For hours every day, their guns range across the city, looking for crowds, people lining up at bus or tram stops, ticket windows, crossroads, factory gates when the shifts changed, entrances to theaters and musical events, just like the one being planned, the one they’d been ordered to carry out, whatever it took. And so an hour before the concert is due to begin, the city’s defenders begin laying down a ferocious barrage of artillery aimed at the enemy guns, forcing the German soldiers to take shelter. Just before the concert starts, they stop firing and are quiet. No German shells land in the center of the city for the next hour and twenty minutes, just enough for the concert to take place. It was, what Brian Morton in a 2006 book would later claim, “probably the only time in musical history that military operations were coordinated to assist an orchestral concert.”

This is the performance scenario I would like for you to imagine. This was the scenario for the performance of the Leningrad Symphony on August 9, 1942 at the Leningrad Philharmonic. With this picture in our heads, it is no wonder that the Leningrad Symphony should have become one of the most powerful symbols of wartime resistance.


This scenario, however, like the photograph of the soldier buying a ticket to the performance that night, is not the whole story of the work, though it’s a very powerful one. It helps to explain why the symphony immediately became wildly popular and frequently performed all over the world, and there’s much more that can be said about this world-wide reception in the midst of WWII, and I will say more, but this is too simple a representation, too easy a way of making sense of the work’s provenance and lasting importance. It’s not complete.

Thinking of the work as something of a historical document in this manner, a representation of “the siege of Leningrad,” let’s say, makes it into something one-dimensional and maybe not even that artistic. It reminds me of the way Aleksei Karenin, Anna Karenina’s big-eared husband in Tolstoy’s famous book, approaches art. He doesn’t know anything about it and has no feeling for it, so he reads books about it in order to be able to express his opinions. We reduce the music when we categorize its meaning based on the events it supposedly depicted, and supposedly is a good word to remember.

Right, just couldn’t help the Tolstoy reference. These are in my head for the duration, I’m afraid, the fruit of reading and teaching those works so many times. Today I listened to Bernstein’s recording of the 7th with the Chicago Symphony, turning off the heat in the house just to try for a bit more atmosphere. God, what a big, bombastic and yet ambivalent work.