The Nightingale’s Sonata

An Excerpt

Silver  podstakannik  with enameled portrait of Yuri and Boris Goldovsky. Copyright restricted. All rights reserved.

Silver podstakannik or Russian tea-glass holder, 1915
Family heirloom with an enameled portrait of the author’s uncles, Yuri and Boris Goldovsky.
Photo by Allan Green.

Wolf’s chronicle begins with the description of a priceless family heirloom. I suspect this rich and vivid volume will become a literary heirloom of its own.
— Alexandra Silber, Star of The Shakespeare Theater’s “Camelot”; Author of “White Hot Grief Parade” and “After Anatevka”

Late in my mother’s life, she gave me a gift—a silver podstakannik or Russian tea-glass holder with a beautiful front enameled portrait. Two small boys in pale turn-of-the-century linen suits lean toward each other, their serious dark eyes above full pink cheeks and half smiles. The image of the boys—tender, elegant, and safe—sits on the tranquil enamel surface, capturing a moment of calm not only in their lives but also in the life of Imperial Russia.

Though the image depicts two children, the significance of the object had much to do with my grandmother Lea Luboshutz. The boys in the portrait are her two sons, my uncles Yuri and Boris. Lea had commissioned the podstakannik while still a young violin prodigy. It was to be a gift to my grandfather Onissim, a much older lawyer and patriot who had once been her patron and was now the father of her three children—Irina (my mother) and my two uncles.

The beautiful article was a family heirloom, but while others ascribed much sentimental value to it, I did not. As a child, I saw it every night at the family dinner table when my father took his tea. Though pretty, it seemed nothing special. After my mother died, I had the object appraised, mostly to see whether it might yield clues about my family’s history and especially something about my grandmother. I was astonished to learn that it was quite valuable.

The podstakannik had been made around 1915 by a German-born silversmith, Feodor Rückert, who worked in Moscow, often for the House of Fabergé. That seemed to support a family legend about its provenance, one I had never really believed (my family often told tall tales about the past). It was said that my grandfather had received the gift just a few years before his death—a death that had forced Lea to completely reinvent her life and those of her family members. In family lore, Onissim’s death was somehow mysteriously linked to the Russian Revolution…but beyond that I was not permitted to ask questions.

Having to reinvent herself and her life would have been nothing new to my grandmother. In her first twenty-five years, she had already transformed herself from a poor Yiddish-speaking Jewish girl living in the provinces of Imperial Russia into a cultural icon living a lavish lifestyle in Moscow—a place closed to most Jews. By the time she gave the gift to Onissim, she spoke both perfect Russian and fluent French, traveled internationally, and dined with royalty. She had plenty of her own money—enough to purchase not only the podstakannik but also many more articles of value. She had certainly made the most of her talent and her opportunities. But a couple of years after giving Onissim the gift, she was again reduced to poverty; and a few years after that, she was a political exile living in another country. Once more, she would have to start again.

The podstakannik was linked to a tumultuous historical period. It had traveled from Moscow to Odessa and back again during the Revolution, entrusted to Lea’s mother, Gitel, for safekeeping. Then, after Onissim’s death, Gitel smuggled it out of Russia along with valuable jewelry. The story family members loved to tell was of Gitel sewing the lovely object, together with whatever valuables that could be pawned, to the inside of a feather duvet, thus outwitting suspicious authorities over and over again. Miraculously, the fragile enamel arrived unharmed in the United States after a decade-long journey from Moscow to Odessa, back to Moscow, to Berlin, Paris, and finally to Philadelphia where it remained until my mother’s death.

Beyond these family stories, I knew very little, except for a disquieting fact that I learned in my mother’s final years. Yes, Lea had given the tea-glass holder to Onissim, who had showered her with jewels during their life together. Yes, my grandparents loved each other very much and had three children together. But no, that was not the full story. Lea, the master of reinvention, had recast this story to suit her needs after she left Russia. As I was startled to learn, Lea and Onissim had actually never been married. In fact, Onissim had another “real” wife.

When my mother gave me the gift of the tea-glass holder, she told me that I should find out more about my grandmother and the family’s history and tell their stories. But after she died, much time passed and I had done nothing about it. Indeed, I was close to seventy, a grandparent myself. The people I could ask were long dead. Family papers came to me, and I put them in storage—photographs, letters, diaries, diplomas, official documents, as well as memoirs, both published and unpublished. The family was nothing if not loquacious and, in their time, many of them were famous. Yet, I hadn’t looked at any of it. I told myself I was simply too busy.

Then in the summer of 2012 everything changed. After returning from playing some concerts, I began organizing old CDs to ensure that performances by musician family members would not be lost. These included recordings by various relatives of the older generation and also by my brother Andy, who had died of a brain tumor at an early age. And then, there it was: a recording of my brother’s final performance of César Franck’s sonata for violin and piano from January 1985—the last music he had ever played publicly. I had never listened to the recording—not once, though I had been with him at that last harrowing performance. When I first received the CD about a month after the concert, replaying the event was simply too painful. But why had almost three decades passed without my ever listening to it?

The Franck sonata. For a hundred years, it had been part of Lea and my family’s history. The composition was linked to their greatest triumphs and most heart-wrenching tragedies. It helped them survive political turmoil, anti-Semitic persecution, revolution, emigration. It had helped Lea meet people and forge lifelong partnerships that would serve her aspirations for the family. The sonata had been associated with her happiest times, her love affairs, and economic success. It had marked moments of abject poverty. She had made it a calling card as she and the family moved from country to country. “The Franck” was, for us, what family portraits, traditions, prayers, war medals, or quilts might be for others—it was a talisman, the touchstone of who we were and could be.

The Franck is an unusual piece of music. It is unlike almost every sonata that preceded it in one important respect. Its predecessors are full of tunes and themes—different ones for each movement. But the Franck has a single, central, thematic idea. It occurs in each of the four movements. Over the course of the work, the shape of this central idea is reinvented. Sometimes it is slow, sometimes fast, sometimes bright, at other times dark; sometimes exuberant, at other times like a wisp of smoke.

As I looked at the CD, I stood unmoving. Suddenly things became clear. Reinvention was a common thread, certainly; but reinvention around a core theme: That was at the heart of the sonata, and it was at the center of Lea and the family’s story. The single theme for Lea and the family for over a century had been “live a good life.” It was never stated, never discussed, yet always understood. As in the four movements, this core idea took shape and expression in different ways for specific family members and at various times.

For Lea, living a good life was always thought of in terms of the family—helping herself and them escape poverty and persecution while achieving fame through music. For her father, the idea of a good life had a religious connotation—the word good standing for ethical values and living life for others. For her partner Onissim, a good life was one to be enjoyed by all Russians, one that could only be achieved by embracing the values of César Franck’s adopted homeland in France, even if it took a revolution and considerable personal risk. For my generation, the Franck sonata meant living a life according to a set of seemingly impossible high standards of family accomplishments.

My brother Andy and I and others in our generation owed a huge debt to those who came before us. None of them had an easy life. There had been struggles, disappointments, and tragedies. But it was Lea to whom they had all looked for inspiration and strength. She had worked hard to achieve her dream. But now she and the rest of those earlier generations were gone and I realized that I needed to honor my debt. In addition to the treasure trove of material I already had, there was much more in archives in various countries. There were relatives I had never met. It was time for me to go back in time, recover Lea’s and the family’s stories, and in that way come to the Franck sonata once again.

The Nightingale’s Sonata:
The Musical Odyssey of Lea Luboshutz

by Thomas Wolf

$27.95 U.S. | $36.95 Canada
Hardcover: 366 pages
16 pages of B&W photographs
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Publication date: June 4, 2019
Language: English
ISBN: 978-1-64313-067-5

Available where all fine books are sold.