Valse des Fleurs
Valse des Fleurs
Valse des Fleurs recreates one glittering winter’s day in St Petersburg in its heyday. The Tsar is giving a ball, and in the run up we are given a glimpse of a lost generation of courtiers, servants, guards, officials and dignitaries later condemned to oblivion by the Russian Revolution. Though slim enough to read on the train from Moscow, Valse des Fleurs is the perfect introduction to the Imperial capital of the Tsars. It peoples the magnificent palaces – now turned into museums – with a haunting and evocative power.
‘... contains some of the finest prose written in our day.’ - Kenneth Clarke
‘... the best piece of sustained imaginative prose Sitwell ever composed.’ - Neil Ritchie
Valse des Fleurs: A day in St.Petersburg in 1868
Format: 152pp demi pb
Sacheverell Sitwell (1897-1988) was the youngest of the celebrated three Sitwell siblings (Osbert and Edith) who played such an important role in the literary culture of Britain throughout the 20s and 30s. Sacheverell’s output as a writer, poet, traveller, adventurer and a connoisseur of music and architecture was prodigious with over a hundred works to his name. Neil Ritchie’s bibliography of his writings itself fills a book of 390 pages. He was one of the cultural trail-blazers of twentieth-century taste, driven by an unerring quest for the beautiful, the odd and the macabre. His training as a poet allowed him to fashion a new style for the appreciation of architecture and his most innovative works, such as Southern Baroque Art (1924) The Gothic North (1929) and German Baroque Art (1927), opened up new horizons of understanding.
Extract from Chapter one
THERE WILL BE a ball in the Winter Palace tonight.
We invite any who would see St. Petersburg in its snow and gilt to spend the day with us. And, later, climb the great stair and be lost in an enchanted world which, we are told, should not have been. None the less, there will be the ball to-night. We will see the flowers and uniforms, and hear the mazurka and the waltz. This very day that the snowflakes are falling. And, while they fall, Alexander II is Tsar. It is, at present, a winter morning early in 1868.
We choose that year because we would have it in a time of peace before the Russo-Turkish war, and in the era of the crinoline before Sedan. The Nihilists are not yet busy in the capital. And, for our purposes, we prefer this Tsar to his successor Alexander III, who cared little for ceremony. With Alexander II we touch the Russia of Nicholas I, his father. Much of what we will see has changed but little since the time of that Tsar’s father, the mad Paul I, and has come down unaltered from the reign of Catherine the Great. So we will let it be. It is a January morning in 1868. The writer, or, if you like, the reader, is to be a disembodied guest who sees and is not seen, who goes everywhere. If this is agreed, we will worry no more about the classic unities, the conventions of when, and how, and where, but begin straightway.
Already, the Court runner has come round. A peculiarly dressed individual out of a pantomime or ballet who got down from a carriage, a messenger, a running footman, a skorokhod; as rare a being as a heyduck or an eunuch, only surviving, indeed, at the Russian court, and sent out on the morning of a ball to take the invitations. He has to drive in a carriage because the capital is too big for him to go on foot. It is a first taste of the world of artifice into which we are about to enter; but he came early in the morning and we did not see him. Tonight, the whole corps of skorokhods will be on duty. We leave their strange uniform till then, and are awake and breakfasting in a foreign Embassy, a private palace, or even the Winter Palace itself, any or all of them, as suits our purpose. And the snow is no longer falling. There is the typical pale green northern sky of winter, while below, sledges innumerable are drawn rapidly and noiselessly over the snow.
We will go for our luncheon to a restaurant, for the late morning has slipped by, doing nothing, and smoking long-tipped, yellow cigarettes. To Donon or Cubat: it does not matter which. This is to be a holiday for the writer and, we hope, the reader, too. Cubat, in point of accuracy, is not opened yet. It belongs to the ‘eighties, the period of Alexander III; but Donon and Cubat are the famous restaurants of the capital, and in the food we order the national character will begin. First of all in the zakuska, or hors d’œuvres. Fresh caviar; balik (sturgeon dried in the sun); raw smoked goose; and twenty, thirty forty other things. With these we drink a glass of allasch (kümmel), or of listofka, which is flavoured with the young leaves of the black currant. If feeling rich—and why not in St. Petersburg, in 1868!—we could follow this with sterlet soup from the Volga, which may cost as much as ten shillings a person; but we are content with riabchik, a kind of grouse or partridge, and as tender as its name. To drink with this there could be nothing more delicious, even on a winter day, than malinovoi, or raspberry kvas. And, now, we can begin to wander.
Perhaps the first sensation of Russia came in the Russian train. After passports had been scrutinized at the frontier, and every bit of luggage, every book and letter looked at separately. But into the train, at last. It consists of half a dozen waggons of immense length. An Englishman who came here a couple of years ago, 1866, for the marriage of the Tsarewitch, describes it with enthusiasm.
Entering by the middle you come into a small saloon with a table in the centre surrounded by sofas and divans. From one side of this saloon a passage, broad and high enough for a tall man or a lady in a crinoline to walk along without difficulty, leads into the private compartments. On the roof there is a sleeping saloon, to which you ascend by a winding stairway. Lamps are lit, the curtains drawn, a green baize table is fixed into the centre of the floor, wax candles are fastened at the corners. And presently, the train stops at a brilliantly lit station, with handsome arcades. Snow is falling. But there is half an hour for dinner. On one side is the samovar, in such contrast to the ham sandwich and the English pot of tea! Ducks and geese and venison, huge fishes and plump partridges, galantines, jellies and puddings; soups and joints for those who prefer hot meat to cold; stacks of bottles of French wines; and decanters of native liqueurs. The waiters, like those at Donon’s, are dressed in long red linen coats. There is an icon on the wall. Peasant women offer slippers and embroidered scarves for sale. An old priest, with a white beard, walks up and down holding a gilt plate, on which you throw a kopeck. It is holy Russia. Russia of the starving and the millionaire! That was only yesterday. And it is still strange today.
In St. Petersburg. But the very air has character out of the immense open spaces. In what other town in the world could the fronts of three buildings only, of painted stucco, set end to end, be two-thirds of a mile in length! One building alone, the famous Admiralty, of which we know the spire from the backcloth in Petrouchka, has a main façade four hundred and fifty yards long, while the side wings running down to the Neva are more than two hundred yards in extent. So much for officialdom, or bureaucracy. It has, at least, walls of gay colours and a gilded spire. More than this, the painted stucco is designed specially to look bright against the snow. We will return to that later. Character is more than plaster architecture. It can be built up out of words and cadences.
A Gypsy band is playing and the music, which is Russian with something added of their own, makes a wonderful vehicle in which to wander, a sledge or traineau, we could call it, sometimes slow, and again, furious and headlong, while we think of many things and, in effect, come up to them and see them with our eyes. All the time we hear phrases of the music so that, from now on, we breathe and taste and smell the Russian air. Not forgetting why we came here. In preparation for the fairy tale extra-vagance of where we go tonight. Wealth and luxury beyond belief, such as the world has seldom seen, while the snow falls outside, and in cellars, men who are sunk to the level of brutes and women all in rags, neither men nor women looking any more like human beings, all filthy, drink together at long deal tables, literally black with dirt. These contrasts: and little in between. Nothing that need bother us, for our subject is the two extremes.
Did you hear that? Listen to the shape of it! It must have come out of some low tavern. It has a fiery spirit in it. A drunken song. But not altogether. It is music which is loyal but, in the end, will not forgive. A brutal force which falls in its own way. But, in its own moment, generous and inspired. And they play another tune which is sentimental and nostalgic, speaking of the troika and the birch trees. We see the pale green sky of winter, like that the high gilt needle of the Admiralty pricks into. For it brings us back into the town. For a moment, in imagination, we are in its open spaces in front of the Cathedral of St. Isaac, contemplating its granite monoliths dug out of the swamps of Finland; its pillars of lapis lazuli at the entrance; and the columns of malachite at the altar; but we need not enter. The mere sketch or impression is enough. Holy Russia does not interest us, at this moment.
Instead, we would sooner find ourselves in the Summer Garden, which is full of nursemaids and governesses, and little children dressed à la moujik, a year or two, precisely, after the liberation of the serfs. An Englishman who came to St. Petersburg thirty years earlier, in 1838, was witness of a curious scene which, somehow, connects itself with the sight of these children playing in the Summer Garden. ‘Opposite to the Admiralty, in the open place, large wooden booths had been erected for theatrical and other exhibitions, and in front of the booths were what are called Katchellies, namely, swings and merry-go-rounds. On the three last days there was a carriage promenade in front of the Katchellies; and in the throng a string of twenty coaches-and-six, followed by six outriders, was conspicuous. The carriages were plain and neat, painted green, and all exactly alike, with handsome powerful horses, equipped in heavy German harness, and the coachmen, postillions, footmen, and outriders, dressed in scarlet great coats with capes, cocked hats, leather breeches, and jack boots. These were court equipages, and each carriage contained six young ladies belonging to the public institutions or schools at St. Petersburg under the patronage of the Tsarina, who annually bestows this indulgence upon the pupils.’* This annual custom was abolished when that Empress died, but the proof that it had been is the St. Petersburg we want. We are, immediately, in the reign of Nicholas I. And, indeed, our whole purpose is to see that, and the time of Catherine the Great, from a fixed point in the reign of Alexander II.
Many of these young girls will have come from the Smolny convent, or Institution des Demoiselles Nobles, a beautiful rococo building with a high belfry, by Count Rastrelli, a name with which we must become familiar, for he was architect, originally, both of the Winter Palace and Tsarskoe Selo. But that, also, is a matter that can stand. The picture of those young girls driving in Court carriages past the swings and merry-go-rounds, and of the nurses and governesses, and children dressed as moujiks, is more Russian than the Venetian, Count Rastrelli. How wonderful the popular music will have been! We hear the hurdygurdy and the organ, fanfares on bugles, and the rolling of a drum. That is after Easter, every year. But now, the open place is empty. But not of persons. There is a crowd of people hurrying to and fro, nearly every man in uniform, but most of them officials with a satchel in their hands. Even the poorest may wear a military cap, the relic of their conscript days, which, with their round and bearded heads, their high cheek bones and their hair falling over their faces just like thatch, makes them resemble the waxwork figure of—is it Burke or Hare?—at Madame Tussaud’s. And, of course, there are the droshky, or rather, sledge drivers, in long blue caftans and black, low-crowned hats, bearded like the rest, but more robust, for, at least, they earn a living and do not walk the streets and crowd the cellars.
We may fancy we hear in all this the ghosts of music of the fair. The wheezing organ, the bugle and the drum. But come back to the Summer Garden! There could be no better place in which to resume the capital and get its feeling. It runs beside the Neva. The first scene of Pique Dame, Tchaikowsky’s opera to a play by Pushkin, is laid in the Summer Garden with a chorus of nursemaids and governesses and young men of the capital, who are taking the spring air. And it follows our pattern. In the second act there is a ball.