Orthodox America

  Sounds of Music

A story from Holy Russia, alive in the Gulag A newcomer appeared in the barracks-tall, thin, ragged and, like everyone else, utterly exhausted. His skin stretched taut over his face from which there protruded large, black, pensive and sad eyes; they gazed into the distance with perfect aloofness.

     At work he never fulfilled the norm and because of it he received only a partial ration. Little wonder that he grew weaker with each passing day. Returning from work, he slowly ate his ration, sat down on his bunk and, not speaking to anyone, stared through the blurry window of the barracks which framed a dreary picture of the camp macadam.

    At times his face would reflect signs of life and his long fingers, resting on his knees, would begin to move, as though he were playing the piano.

     More than half a year went by since his arrival to the barracks; the rest of the inhabitants had grown accustomed to his silence and estrangement. He spoke little about himself, in fact, nothing at all. Inadvertently, however, his story eventually came out.

    One evening a few prisoners gathered at some neighboring bunks. Fr. Arseny was also present. At first the conversation focused on camp matters, but it imperceptibly shifted to the past; they recalled the theater, music... At this moment the silent prisoner approached. The talk about music intensified; someone asked about its particular influence on the soul, about music's "affiliation.'' Fr. Arseny never participated in debates but here he unexpectedly spoke up and expressed the opinion that works of music marked by a profound inner content have a salutary effect on the human soul; they are able to refine the listener, bringing to bear, as they do, a certain religious influence.

    The silent and always reserved prisoner became animated; his eyes glowed, his voice grew resolute and, calmly, almost authoritatively, he began to speak.

    He spoke with uncommon inspiration and conviction, continuing and elaborating upon the thought expressed by Fr. Arseny concerninig the influence of music on the soul. He spoke as a professional, substantiating his words.

    One of the prisoners standing nearby began to study intently the face of the speaker. suddenly he burst out: "Allow me! Allow me! I know you. You are a pianist!” And he gave the name of the celebrated musician.

    Taken aback, the musician became embarrassed and subdued. "If only you knew," he said, "how much I miss music. If only you knew ! With music I would be able to survive even here,"

    Someone asked foolishly: "Why are you here?" The musician answered with marked seriousness: "Through a friend's denunciation. But really, for the same reason we are all here." Having said this he left them at once and retired to his bunk.

    Following this conversation an expression of loneliness and detachment etched itself more deeply into his face; his eyes wore a vacant look; he responded only to a second or third summons.

    We saw that the man had retreated within himself; he lost contact with others. Under the circumstances of camp life, this was tantamount to a death sentence.

    A month passed and the musician grew altogether wasted; walking to work became for him an arduous task. He fulfilled less and less of the norm, and his ration was de-, creased proportionately. Fr. Arseny tried several times to speak to him or to help him somehow, but all to no avail.

    The musician didn't listen, his answers were irrelevant or he simply walked away.

    Once Fr. Arseny addressed those around him: "The fellow is dying for lack of music. Can't anything be done?" One of the criminals who was very attached to Fr. Arseny spoke up: "In the 'red corner' [1] there's a broken guitar. I'll try with the guys to get it."

    The "special" had a "red corner" which was never subject to inspection.; It contained several dozen books, never loaned out to anyone, and in the cupboard lay a broken guitar. The "red corner" was always locked, but for the record the camp admin probably considered it as an indispensable accessory to the "political re-education" of the zeks. [2]

    No one knew just how the criminals "procured" the guitar from the locked corner and brought it into the barracks. With a cracked body, only five remaining strings and peeling veneer, it was a pathetic sight.

    It was clear to everyone that the guitar's existence in the barracks would be short lived; it would be confiscated in the first search. But its appearance was an event and a diversion.

     A prisoner was found who was able to glue the body and smooth the veneer. For two days the guitar was kept hidden. On the third day, when the glue had dried, after the evening inspection and searches, and when the musician -was at the other end of the barracks, the guitar was placed on his bunk.

     The musician returned and, sitting down on his bunk, brushed against the strings with his hand. They reverberated mournfully. He turned, frightened, seized the guitar and, giving a bewildered look at those around him, set about tuning the instrument. At first the strings twanged discordantly, then they grew taut--and the musician began to play.

      The prisoners were variously occupied about the barracks; some were gambling in cards, elsewhere one could bear the clink of failing dominoes, the curses of a heated argument, groups conversing; some lay silent on their bunks. And suddenly the barracks filled with the sounds of music. It captivated the inmates, the swearing ceased along with the clink of dominoes, playing cards rested immobile on the knees. Something of incalculable magnitude, something very dear--with a hint of sorrow, something intimately related to the heart of each and every prisoner entered the barracks.

     The musical notes carried memories of places called home, of grain covered fields, of wives, mothers, children, the faces of loved women, friends--left behind and lost forever.

     All that was light and good that lived in the human soul was stirred up; it came and stood nearby, while the crudeness and cruelty of camp life departed. The prisoners stood, sat or lay in silence, illumined by the past.

    What the musician played was unimportant. Maybe it was his own composition. But the guitar sang with penetrating voice, it sang a story of the past.

     We listened. The sounds floated, high and delicate. It was ice crystals breaking one against another, it was water singing, murmuring and roaring by turns, then flying against some rocks. It was the dormant heart of the musician beating with life, a heart which, de spite the surrounding circumstances, cast its light abroad, giving life and joy to all.

    The sounds floated, creating harmony out of disharmony; they were in our very midst, although they were conceived far, far away. Gradually, however, the strings were overtaken by melancholy; they sobbed, moaned, in quiet protestation.

    The music detached its listeners from the oppressive present and its accursed reality.

    Suddenly heavy footsteps forced a path through the standing onlookers. A tall, black-haired fellow approached the musician his disfigured face was smeared with tears. He ,was a well-known criminal in the barracks, mean and pitiless.

     "Stop that music, don't salt our wounds. Stop, or I'11 cream you," The criminal took a step towards the musician, his hand upraised. But from the standing group of criminals someone grabbed at the black haired zek and threw him into the corridor between the rows of bunks. Afterwards he could be heard at the far end of the barracks, sobbing.

     The sounds told of suffering, of unbearable grief, loneliness, interrogations, transit journeys, camps. The heart contracted painfully, but gradually the suffering and sorrow disappeared from the music and there entered a calm, peace; it seemed the man had found his way. Through these sounds the musician was telling his story, but we, listening, read in them the story of our own lives.

     The flow of notes halted and for a few moments the musician sat motionless until someone broke the silence: "Sing to us!"

     Raising his head, the musician began to sing in a quiet, slightly hoarse but exceptionally expressive voice. It was an old Russian Song. At once those standing round brightened up and smiled.

     The musician' s voice was not, of course, that of a singer. But it held so much warmth and feeling that it conquered its listeners. After finishing the song he took up a waltz, "On the Plains of Manchuria," choosing a slow tempo. The quiet, familiar music of the waltz delighted them all and drew them together.

     They dispersed in Silence. The musician sat on his bunk, his back erect, his face calm, glowing, carefully holding in his hands the guitar. Large eyes gazed into the darkness and thanked everyone for the gift.

    Some of us sat on bunks near Fr. Arseny. His face was thoughtful, concentrated.

    "He's a believer--of deep faith," pronounced Fr. Arseny. "He explained this to us today through his music."

    The guitar survived another two days in the barracks, and in the course of this time the musician was reborn; he became cheerfur, animated, sociable.

    The criminals nicknamed him "artist" and took him "under the law," which in camp terminology corresponded to their protection.

    The guitar was confiscated during morning inspection, it was discovered in its hiding place, someone had squealed. The musician was given three days in the cooler. His never found happiness and regained strength began to fade.

    One night, about three weeks later, Fr. Arseny felt a tug on his sleeve: "Please, I beg your pardon. It is the middle of the night, I realize, but I must speak with you. I know, you are a priest, I've wanted to come to you for some time, but I've been afraid. But now I feel that my time has come. Thank you for the guitar, I learned indirectly that it was your idea. Hear me through. I'll be brief. Forgive me for having woken you."

    Bending his head towards Fr. Arseny and pouring over him his hot breath, the musician whispered his life story. His rapid speech loosed a torrent of thoughts.

     "Lord, Lord! What a sinner I am," he repeatedly exclaimed. Clearly, all he said had long ago been thought out, suffered through.

     Intermittent tears fell on Fr. Arseny's arm. "Lord, Lord! I am a great sinner. But why did they take from me my music?!"

    Fr. Arseny spent a long time in prayer with the musician.

    Two weeks later, at work, the musician crushed his left hand. Another two weeks passed and a prisoner just released from the camp hospital brought a letter from him. The note read:

    "Do not forget me before the throne of God. Death stands beside me. Pray to God for us ,"


(Written according to the recollections of former camp inmates and the words of Hieromonk Arsenius, 1959; translated from a samizdat manuscript).

[1]This is a corruption of what properly refers to the icon corner of a house; the old Russian word for beautiful, krasnoye, also means red.

[2] Soviet slang abbreviation for camp prisoner.