I have become unbelievably attached to my kindle. I never leave home without it. If I forget my phone, I can live with it. If I forget my kindle, I have to go back. Who’d have thunk it, eh? I was a committed anti-ebook reader just a few short years ago when I found myself in Boston, Mass., with an urge to spend some money and seeing nothing that I either wanted or needed. We were in an electronic store and there were kindles and ereaders aplenty. And I gave in.
When I finally got around to using it for the first time, I was hooked. It’s not simply that I now have extra space in my suitcase when travelling. It’s not just that I don’t have to worry about extra weight in my check-in bags. It’s not even that I can immediately buy the next book in the series I’m reading without having to wait until I find a shop that stocks it. It’s the notes function.
I’m getting more mileage that ever before from the books I’ve been reading. I highlight sentences or whole paragraphs that grab me and email them to myself. I make note of references within the book itself – music that the characters really like, poems they’ve read, or books they swear by. And I go in search.
Given that I’ve made 2017 my year to do more about sharpening my musical literacy, I noted this:
"Radio 3 were playing The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh by Rimsky-Korsakov – good head-clearing music if you’re ever looking for some." (from "In the Morning I'll be Gone (Detective Sean Duffy Book 3)" by Adrian McKinty)
As our Sean is a bit of a lad, I was curious to see what his version of ‘head-clearing music’ was. So I went to YouTube and listened to the opera.
Composed in 1905 by Russian Rimsky-Korsakov, it has still to reach what some critics call ‘internationalisation’.
With its unwieldy title, Wagnerian allusions and less-than-coherent symbolism, The Tale of the Invisible City of Kitezh is one of those epics that often seems on the verge of revealing itself to non-Russian audiences as a masterwork but not quite getting there.
Apparently, it’s based on two Russian legends, that of St Fevronia of Murom and of the city of Kitezh, which became invisible when it was attacked by the Mongols/Tatars. Searching for St Fevronia, I discovered that hers is not her tale alone – she shares it with a chap called Peter, who had a brother Paul (and that could take me places…).
Paul, a Russian prince, was a tad upset at the company his wife was keeping. She was being regularly visited by a snake disguised as a prince and through her own investigations discovered that the only man up to getting rid of the snake was her husband’s brother, Peter. Peter duly does the deed with his magic sword but in the process gets some of the snake’s blood on him. And the blood turns into nasty sores. Medical science can’t help. So enter, Fevronia, the peasant girl who can cure him, but will only do so if he marries her. (A tad cheeky, I thought.) He promises. She heals. He reneges. And instead of marrying her, sends her lots of presents. So the scabs come back. And when she heals him a second time, he knows better than to not marry her.
In the meantime, Paul dies and the bould pair, Peter and Fevronia take over the kingdom. But the natives aren’t happy with a commoner for a princess so they ask her to leave, taking anything she wants. She, of course, chooses her husband, and the city is left without a prince. Mayhem ensues. The locals can’t cope so they ask the pair to come back and everyone is happy. The pair eventually retire to a monastery. Peter and Fevronia know they will die on the same day and ask to be buried together, something the Russian Orthodox tradition wouldn’t allow but when both bodies disappear twice from their original separate coffins, they finally agree.
So back to Kitezh, when in 1237, the Mongols were on a roll through Russia. Set to capture Kitezh, the were a tad surprised that not only did the town have no fortifications, the locals didn’t seem all that bothered about defending it. Instead of fighting, they prayed. Happy days, they thought, and onward they marched. But as they began their attack, hundreds of geysers of water sprung from the ground and the town was slowly swallowed by the new lake. Today, centuries later, if the weather is quiet, it’s apparently possible to hear bells and music from Lake Svetloyar (now on my bucket list). And if you’re really holy, you might see lights and buildings beneath the water of what’s known as the Russian Atlantis.
And then there’s the opera. In Act 1, Fevronia, a peasant girl, meets her prince (not knowing he is a prince) in the woods and they become engaged. In Act 2, the town readies itself for the wedding procession and the locals are none to happy that their prince is going to marry a peasant. The Powers that Be persuade the town drunk, Grishka, to mock the princess. The Tatars approach and Fevronia prays for the city to become invisible while Grishka betrays Russia and leads the invading army to the city. Confusion, betrayal, angst, and grief tinged with a little magic (what I’ve come to regard as the usual operatic cocktail) reigns but eventually love prevails and everyone dies and lives happily ever after in the invisible city.
I enjoyed it. I’d even go to see it live, were it ever to come to Budapest. I have no measure of how good or otherwise it is musically, but I liked it. Am still none the wiser though regarding ‘head-clearing’ music – I can’t say I noticed any difference. But isn’t it amazing where a random line in a random book can take you?