Revolutionary sentiment sparks Shostakovich’s ‘Gadfly’

On July 31, the debut season of New Hampshire’s Halcyon Music Festival continues with a program including Dmitri Shostakovich’s Three Violin Duos (arranged by Shostakovich’s longtime friend Lev Atomyan). The first duo draws on Shostakovich’s score to the 1955 film version of an unexpected Soviet bestseller: Ethel Lilian Voynich’s 1897 novel “The Gadfly.”

Born Ethel Boole in Ireland in 1864 (George Boole, her father, invented Boolean algebra), Voynich (inset) initially pursued music — during her studies, she got to know Irene and Philip Hale, the latter later one of Boston’s most prominent music critics — but turned her energy to revolution. She learned Russian from Stepniak, a central figure in London’s émigré revolutionary community, in which she became a familiar figure.


Among Stepniak’s associates was Polish-born activist Wilfred Voynich. In 1887, while imprisoned for subversive activity in Warsaw’s Citadel, Voynich had spied a traveling Ethel Boole from a window; finally meeting in London years later, the two eventually married. (Wilfred Voynich’s rare-book business, initially a cover for smuggling anti-Tsarist materials, eventually prospered; among his acquisitions was the cryptic medieval tome now known as the Voynich Manuscript.)

“The Gadfly” tells of Arthur Burton, an Englishman abroad in 19th-century Italy. When Burton’s mentor, Father Romanelli, is revealed to be his actual father as well, Burton, disillusioned, fakes suicide and flees to South America. He returns — in time for the (failed) 1848 Italian uprising against Austria — as the title character, a disfigured dandy and merciless satirist, fomenting revolution with controversial pamphleteering and surreptitious gunrunning. Romanelli, meanwhile, has been made cardinal, setting up a tragic reunion. “They kill me because they are afraid of me,” the Gadfly muses, “and what more can any man desire?”

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First translated into Russian by Zinaida Vengerova (whose sister Isabelle taught piano to a generation of American luminaries: Leonard Bernstein, Lukas Foss, Samuel Barber), the book’s melodramatic thrill and revolutionary bona fides — an international movement, a fiercely anticlerical stance, a hero well-versed in propaganda of the word and deed — made it a hit following the Bolshevik revolution; millions of Russian-language copies were sold.

Voynich knew nothing of that celebrity until 1955, when a curious member of the Soviet UN delegation found the nonagenerian author still living in New York. Voynich thereafter received a steady stream of Soviet visitors: journalists, writers, fans. Dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet brought flowers on her birthday. Soviet officials even sent an uncharacteristically capitalist compliment: a royalty check. She died in 1960.

Matthew Guerrieri

The Halcyon Music Festival presents music of Shostakovich, Mozart, Fauré, and Brahms, July 31 at 7:30 p.m. at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 101 Chapel St., Portsmouth, N.H. ($25 suggested donation). www.halcyonmusic

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at
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