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Stravinsky: End of a Chronicle

We pass Murano, where he admired the floor mosaic of two cockerels carrying a Reynard trussed and slung on a pole; and San Michele, where he will be buried. But Venice is fogwrapped and phantomlike today, and only the nearest and tallest towers—San Francesco della Vigna, the Zanipolo, the Madonna dell’ Orto—stand out in silhouette. We enter the great stone labyrinth beneath the Ponte Sepolcro, and on a wall immediately inside, see one of the thousand affiches:

THE CITY OF VENICE HONORS THE GREAT MUSICIAN IGOR STRAVINSKY, WHO WITH A GESTURE OF EXQUISITE FRIENDSHIP WANTED IN LIFE TO BE BURIED IN THE CITY HE LOVED MORE THAN ANY OTHER.

And he did love it, if not more than, then in part because it reminded him of, St. Petersburg.

Carmen being on the stage at La Fenice tonight, we are obliged to rehearse in the foyer, where Bizet’s most boisterous passions mingle profanely with our Requiem.

April 14. The rehearsal this morning adds the RAI Chorus from Rome, but the singers are sight-reading and we still have no soloists.

This morning, too, a water hearse moves the coffin, accompanied by two Orthodox priests, from the Campo San Tomà to Santi Giovanni e Paolo, pantheon of the doges, where it is placed in the Cappello del Rosario, and where people file around it for the rest of the day. We go to the chapel ourselves before the evening rehearsal, which seems to be more for the benefit of the television cameramen than of the musicians, but which confirms our apprehensions that the church is very reverberant (as well as very cold). The sight of the flower-decked bier disturbs V. even more than in New York, no doubt because she has had that much more time to feel the magnitude of her loss.

April 15. And so the day of burial has come. At 11:30 a motoscafo takes us to, as it is written on old maps, S. Zuan e Polo. The Campo is thronged (500, says the Gazzettino), and the Ponte Cavallo, and boats in the canal (the Rio dei Mendicanti), and windows and roofs of houses, and the great Gothic church itself (3,000, says the Gazzettino), whose front doors are kept open that the people outside may be a part of the ceremony. But the Campo is also crowded with memories, and as we cross it, I see I.S. as he used to come to the Ospedale (Scuola di San Marco) for blood tests, and see him at the Café Cavallo, where he sometimes walked or was rowed in the evening for a grappa; by some coincidence, or premonition, he referred to the Cavallo itself (the Verrochio) in an interview only two months ago.

We enter the basilica through a lateral door and proceed to the left transept, where a row has been reserved for the “Famiglia” (V. at one end, children and grandchildren at the other) facing the rose-covered bier. This rests on a black cloth ornamented with white Maltese crosses, and a huge taper burns at each corner. A young acolyte, in a black vestment patterned with silver flowers, stands at the foot of the coffin, facing the altar and holding a tall processional cross; in a ceremony of more than three hours (here and on the island) he never fidgets, and his bearing is far more commanding than that of the attendant carabinieri. (It is a standing service—kathistos—not a sitting one—kathisma—and when V. sits for a moment from fatigue, the archimandrite glances in her direction with noticeable lack of compassion.)

But the young cross-bearer cannot conceal his incredulity at the antics of the paparazzi, those nonstop camera snappers who seem almost on the verge of infiltrating the archimandrite’s beard. (But without flapping him; not so me, for one of them follows me as I go to the podium, no doubt sensing that a photo of me keeling over may be imminent, since it is 6 AM for me biologically, and since I have slept no more than minutes at a time in days, have conducted only once after I.S.’s illness two years ago, and am wholly unable to detach myself from the event; in fact, only constant thinking of what I.S. would say about every detail of the performance enables me to get through it.)

The obsequies begin with Allessandro Scarlatti’s Requiem Missa Defunctorum, added for bad measure by the chorus: it is featureless, dull, and in no way relates to I.S. The three organ pieces by Andrea Gabrieli, played during the ritual, would have pleased him, however; I remember walking with him from the Madonna dell’ Orto to San Marco, tracing the route of the Lepanto victory procession, for which Andrea Gabrieli composed music. After the Scarlatti, the mayor delivers an address, quoting encomia of Venice by I.S. and Ezra Pound; il miglior fabbro himself is present, and has been in the church since early morning, before the casket was moved from the chapel to the transept.

The Requiem Canticles follow, faltering at first, the staccato accompaniment in the Prelude suffocating in the acoustical wool. The Rex Tremendae wobbles like pasta, and the Libera me sounds more like a mob scene than the background patter (“bisbigliare“) I.S. wanted. Worst of all, the celesta player volunteers to fill in part of one of the pauses in the Postlude, nearly ruining that explicit structure: a chord of Death, followed by silence, the tolling of bells, and again silence, all thrice repeated, then the three final chords of Death alone. (No wonder everything he composed after this was meant both to preserve it as his last work and to prevent it from becoming so too soon.)

At 12:30, the archimandrite, Cheruvim Malissianos, gold cope and black hood (klobook) with veil trailing over the shoulders, parades down the center aisle to a vermilion throne at the entrance to the apse. He is followed by two acolytes, who stand on either side three steps below him, where together they hold the euchologion from which he reads one part of the service, and together or individually sing the antiphonal responses. The archimandrite is a young man with dark eyes, olive skin, black hair and beard, and the allure of a Byzantine Pantocrator. He is a dazzling performer, moreover, both to listen to and to watch. Though his gestures are simple: whether raising his hand; or touching his temples and heart (which is how I.S., too weak to trace the transverse, crossed himself the night before he died); or slowly swinging the thurible around the coffin, with extra and prolonged fumigations in the direction of the head. He is ostentatious, in fact, only in the way he closes his eyes, but this has the effect of hushing the entire congregation and may even recommend it to pray.

And what wonderful music it is, this remnant of Byzantium, bedizened by corruptions from the Syrian, Hebrew, and Arabic orient (though bastardized for want of a Rosetta Stone relating the different systems of notation). And no wonder hymnographers were accorded positions of honor in Byzantine churches. How beautiful, too, are the Greek words: “makarios” and “philanthropos” and “eleos” and “hosias,” etc. The singing is an art of agogics, of the kratema, the parakletike, the apodema; and an art of ornaments, such as the kylisma, and whatever the name for that “break” of emotion in the voice, and the name for the effect of trailing off to the last note, so that whether or not it has actually been sung is uncertain. It is an art, too, that would most have delighted and been best understood by the man who lies dead.

The service, which celebrates the joyous passage from death to eternal life, begins with alleluiatic antiphons: harmonic, syllabic, and tonal in the Russian service; here monodic, melismatic, and plagal—a falling, whole-tone cadence, exquisitely sung by the mellifluous Malissianos. Psalm 118 follows, then the Four Beatitudes of John the Damascene, the Fourth Chapter of the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, and the Song of Exodus. Again the most painful moment comes with the sound of I.S.’s first name, until then, art and ritual having helped to make this celebration of the mystery—not of death, of course, but of life—less personal.

At the end, the archimandrite summons V. to the coffin, to kneel before it and say good-by. Then four gondoliers—black sashes, black armbands, black shirts showing at the neck beneath white blouses—wheel it slowly down the center aisle, V. walking behind, and out into the sunlight and azure, and the Campo banked with flowers. Here it is transferred to the water hearse, a gondola with gold lions of Saint Mark on the sides, and a border of pink and white roses, like those on the bier; the gondoliers use black-tipped oars, and a black drape trails in the water. The archimandrite, seated, and his cross-bearer, standing, ride in the first gondola, V. in the one behind the bier. As the bier passes, the people on the Fondamenta, and in front of San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti, and in windows and doorways, in boats and on bridges—both of them packed to the parapets—bow their heads and cross themselves.

When the cortege sails under the Ponte dei Mendicanti and into the lagoon, the archimandrite rises behind the cross-bearer, his cope and klobook blowing in the breeze. But the faster boats of the TV men and the paparazzi cut in on the procession and confound the protocol. As a result, the heavy hearse-boat is actually the last to reach the island and to be disembarked. (When it has been, the thought occurs to me that I.S., who could not swim and was always nervous in gondolas, would be relieved.) We wait for it before the gateway to the cemetery, which is guarded, in a Gothic pinnacle, by the Archangel Michael, receiver of souls (scales in one hand) and sounder of the last trump (spear in the other), “When the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

But transubstantiation is not a consoling thought at this moment, it occurs to me, as the procession resumes and we enter the old Camaldolensian cloister. The flower displays are borne ahead now, President Saragat’s first, and a large red one from the Soviet Union behind, along with those of many other countries not including the USA. The archimandrite follows, then the bier (again on wheels), and then ourselves with our own bouquets. But the gondolier pallbearers, not yet having found their terra firma legs, are stopped for an awkward minute or two by a small flight of stairs. Moving on we cross a crunchy gravel path, by a wall of kennel-like mausoleums and through a field of small white crosses, each with a photograph of the deceased. The “Rep. Greco,” as it is designated over the portal, is a garden of laurels and cypresses and expired Orthodoxists, bordering the outermost wall of the island. We halt for a moment before a small chapel, at the end of the path, but long enough for me to decipher “Michael Bakunin” from the Cyrillic of the third stone at the left.

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