Listening to the Voice of Anna Akhmatova

After imagining the voice of Osip Mandelstam in Paul Celan’s anguished ferocity, I searched YouTube to find what else might be out there in the documentary record. I’ve never heard of the existence of any recording of Mandelstam’s voice. Its absence is a testament to his times. Sound recording technology had been around for 50 years. We have muffled, almost unlistenable records of Robert Browning and Walt Whitman.  The technology must have existed even in the dire Soviet circumstances of the 1930s, though it likely would have been used as an instrument of terror, not poetic preservation.

What I found, remarkably, were recordings of Anna Akhmatova reading poems late in her life in the 1960s. This may be as close as we can come to hearing Mandelstam’s voice. Indeed, Akhmatova and Nadezhda Mandelstam preserved his verse in their voices and memories for three decades, resurrecting it furtively from inner speech, reciting it aloud to one another in the privacy of their rooms, then preserving it again in memory. Only after a political “thaw” came after Stalin’s death could Mandelstam’s poetry begin to be spoken publically and printed in books.

In the first clip here, Akhmatova recites her poem, The Muse. In the second clip Joseph Brodsky speaks at length about his friendship with Akhmatova in the 1960s. His interview is interspersed with several sound clips of Akhmatova. One of the interludes is back-dropped  by a photo of Brodsky and Akhmatova sitting on a park bench. He had been branded as a “hooligan” even then, and Akhmatova and Nadezhda took him under wing like wise and doting grandmothers. They recognized in him a voice that would carry Osip’s spirit into  the future of Russian poetry.

Listening to Brodsky now, I am enchanted by the rhythm and lightning velocity of his conversational Russian. Snatches of Russian vocabulary and grammar come back to me as I listen, but I cannot begin to translate the nuance of what he is saying. What I hear most vividly is tone. For a poet of his stature, even in conversation, tonality must surely be an event as salient as semantic meaning.

Perhaps a kind Russian speaker who stumbles upon this web page will translate or summarize for me the story Brodsky tells.

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