Alexis Ragougneau ‘Opus 77’

Shostakovitch and his violin Concerto. The themes are universal, timeless: the individual against the steam roller of a totalitarian state, man versus the system, the community.***

Alexis Ragougneau delivers us a nuanced study of Opus 77 and the unrelenting world of the professional musician through the story of the Claessens family, of the father Claessens, one time pianist and then conductor of the Swiss-Romande Orchestra and his two children David and Ariane. As the book opens Claessens is dead, David doesn’t show up and Ariane, a now accomplished Pianist, rather than playing a Requiem, launches into a piano version of Shostakovitch’s Opus 77 described in a few words in the opening quote.

The book, narrated by Ariane then investigates these two enigmas, of the terrible pressure brought on David by his exacting father whose only words to his son seem to have been “again”. how much pressure can a child take? Eventually David leaves home near broken to then be slowly coached back to high level by an old Russian Violinist who seems not to be well known but who has lived through some of the times of Soviet Russia that Shostakovitch himself had lived through, Stalin playing with Shostakovitch’s life as a cat would play with a mouse.

David is then ready, if still fragile to face the competitions that will decide who will have an international career and who will be also-rans. We soon understand that his violin teacher may not be well known today in Belgium or Switzerland but is highly respected by the Russian musicians. As David reaches the finals, there is a draw to match the competitors with the conductors and of course David and Claessens are drawn together, with David performing the Opus 77:

The atmosphere is dusk. That’s exactly what Shostakovitch wanted in his first movement, Nocturne; and how they succeed, father and son, how they manage to render the darkness of night, the movement of shadows, the truths never uttered. A life of rivalry and misunderstanding spread out on the stage, before the television cameras and the two thousand spectators at the “palais des Beaux-Arts”.***

How does the competition end? Well you’ll need to read the book!

In parallel Ariane lives the life of a world famous artist with manager, pressure to perform at the highest level giving her insights into this world.

This really is a very good book.

First Published in French as “Opus 77″ by Viviane Hamy in 2019
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Chostakovitch et son concerto pour violon. Les thèmes sont universels et intemporels: l’individu face au rouleau-compresseur totalitaire, l’homme face au système et à la collectivité.

Ambiance crépusculaire. C’est bien Chostakovitch qui l’a voulu ainsi dans son premier mouvement, Nocturne; et comme ils y réussissent, le père et le fils, comme ils parviennent à restituer la noirceur de la nuit, les jeux d’ombres, les non dits. Toute une vie de rivalité et d’incompréhension étalée là sur scène, devant les caméras de télévision et des deux mille spectateurs du palais des Beaux-Arts.

Alexis Ragougneau ‘A Beggar’s Gospel’

– It’s the Olive garden isn’t it?
– Gethsemane, yes. Jesus’ arrest. Don’t you find the theme particularly appropriate?
Kern prefered not to answer.
– Only the faces are left to finish.
– Of course that’s the most difficult. We always leave the faces till last, proceding layer by layer, from the darkest to the brightest… The true meaning of the Icone only appears when the characters faces are illuminated by the divine truth and their names written above them on the panel in greek or in ancient slav. In short, an enquiery.***

A small group of homeless down and outs take over Notre-Dame just before Christmas, lead by the charismatic Mouss, a north African christian, but who would know from appearances. Amongst his followers is Stavros, a once painter of Icones, decided to finish an Icone begun years earlier as shown in the opening quote. the priest officiating at the time is Father Kern.

Months later the dead body of Mouss is found in the Seine with holes in its hands, feet and side. Claire Kauffmann is the examining magistrate and we quickly return to the events of the previous christmas, the police laying seige, the crowds of both those for and against Mouss and his followers, of the integrist catholics and their relationship with Notre-Dame and its rector, Rieux Le Morlay, of the many groups this sort of event could draw out and polarise.

It takes the combined forces of Claire Kauffmann and Father Kern to get to the bottom of this mystery, who betrayed the group and let in the police? Who was responsible for Mouss’s death? were the two events linked?


First Published in French as “Évangile pour un gueux” by Viviane Hamy in 2016
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

– C’est le jardin des Oliviers, n’est-ce pas?
– Gethsémani, oui. L’arrestation de Jesus. Vous ne trouvez pas le thème particulièrement adapté à notre situation?
Kern préféra ne pas réagir.
– il ne reste plus que les visages à faire
– C’est le plus dificile bien sûr. on termine toujours par les visages, en procédant par couches, du plus sombre au plus clair…. Le véritable sens de l’icône n’apparaît qu’une fois les visages des personages illuminés par la vérité divine et leur nom inscrit sur le panneau, en grec ou en vieux slave. en somme, c’est une enquête.