Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Portrait of a King

In Chapter 15 of Portraits with Backgrounds, entitled "Portrait of a King," Russian sculptress Catherine Barjansky movingly recalls Albert I of Belgium. The author and her husband, famed musician Alexandre Barjansky, happened to be in Egypt at the time of the King's tragic death in a climbing accident in 1934. Alexandre Barjansky had been giving a series of concerts in Egypt, and his wife was doing some work for the Egyptian department of the Belgian Museum. Mme. Barjansky writes: 

...(W)e were staying at the same hotel as Jean Capart, director of the Belgian Museum. One morning when my husband and I were breakfasting with Monsieur and Madame Capart, the director was called to the telephone. He went out into the lobby where we heard him utter a loud exclamation. We ran out to him. 

"How terrible!" he exclaimed. "Our King is dead."

We went at once to the embassy, crowded with Belgians in tears. There was no one who did not have great esteem and admiration for this man, so good and noble, so just and intelligent. For me, it was the first genuine grief of my life. I had known him well, had talked with him for many hours. He was a rare human being, completely unselfish, a scholar and a philosopher, simple and shy and good. 

And I remembered how he had told me once: "If I were free to do what I like, I would go to the mountains and remain there. I would rather do that than anything in the world." 

Ceremonies, receptions, official affairs were torture to him. His greatest happiness had been the evenings that he spent alone with the woman whom he referred to not as "the Queen" but as "my wife." They loved to spend their evenings together, dining in the park, sitting on a bench at a rustic garden table, eating cold food from a tray, or in front of the fireplace while she read aloud to him. 

King Albert had the highest admiration for the cleverness, culture, and intelligence of his Queen, but he was very humble about himself...

He bitterly despised both Hitler and Mussolini. On one occasion he told me: "I am constantly amazed by the King of Italy. If such a thing were to happen here in Belgium I would pack my baggage and get out, but I would not permit another man to rule the country in my place." He made this statement quite openly, though his daughter at that time was married to the son of the King of Italy.

Another time, speaking of dictators, he said to me: "I think I have prepared my son to be a king far better than any man could be prepared to be a dictator"... 

It is a curious thing that in Egypt, the land of death, I took part in the mass for the King.

"What am I to do?" the Belgian minister said. "I must have music for the church ceremony."

"I will provide that," my husband offered.

"In the church there is to be an empty coffin. It should bear a royal crown, and how is that to be done?"

"I will do that," I said. "Give me a drawing of the Belgian crown"...

...I made the royal crown of wire... I gilded it, and put inside a piece of red velvet and modeled two scepters of plaster. The crown was then placed on the coffin and two velvet cushions at its foot, while my husband, behind the altar, played and conducted a little orchestra in Bach and Gluck and played the Brabançonne (the Belgian national anthem) with muted strings, while his moving and wonderful sonority was so filled with his grief that those who were praying in the church were touched to tears. It is a strange thing that we two foreigners should both have contributed, far away in Egypt, to the ceremony for the King we esteemed and loved so much. 

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