Saturday, March 22, 2014

Valentin Silvestrov and what the times dictate

by Peter J. Schmelz

Valentin Silvestrov
Among the almost daily shocks and surprises from the Ukraine has been the active engagement of the Ukrainian pianist/composer Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937, Kiev). This represents a distinct turnaround from the historical figure I have been studying recently for a book about polystylism in the late USSR: here I look at Silvestrov’s compositions alongside those of Alfred Schnittke from about 1970 through 1991. During this period Silvestrov withdrew from the Soviet dictates for loud, optimistic music into a “quiet” style of composition. Initially it was founded on his own idiosyncratic ideal of “kitsch”: “elegiac and not ironic,” he said. His “kitsch” subsequently morphed in the early 1980s into his idea of a “post” style, a style that would slowly end, ending but never ending: “It is not the end of music as art, but the end of music, in which it may yet remain for a long time.”<1> I have always taken this statement, from a 1990 interview, to be his artistic credo: “I must write what pleases me and not what others like, or what the times dictate, as is often said. Otherwise, it would be a state of affairs … that cripples the imagination. … I must seek beauty.”<2>

Lately, however, the times have been dictating quite a lot to Silvestrov. He apparently went to the Maidan with some frequency during the protests and has composed a series of pieces in response to each new turn of events. “I went to the Maidan, but what could I do?” HERE we find him wrapped in the Ukrainian flag at a memorial event there; as well as two songs he wrote in response to the events of January 18–19, 2014.

The most moving of his recent compositions are two memorials for the protestor Sergey Nigoyan, reportedly the first killed during the shooting in Kiev on January 22, 2014. HERE we see Nigoyan reciting lines from “Caucasus” (Kavkaz) by Ukraine’s beloved poet Taras Shevchenko while standing on the Maidan.  (This year is the bicentenary of Shevchenko’s birth; Nigoyan was Armenian-Ukrainian.)

HERE are the two songs composed and recorded by Silvestrov immediately after Nigoyan’s murder.  The first sets the very same Shevchenko lines read by Nigoyan.<3> It is written in a style reminiscent of Silvestrov’s Quiet Songs (1973–77) and his associated “kitsch” songs (among them the Simple Songs, 1974–81). But its unsettled opening and more agitated delivery also recall the Four Songs to texts by Osip Mandelstam that Silvestrov composed in 1981 and 1982, when he said, “The prison atmosphere at this time depressed us. Eventually it was as if an electric storm hit me, and I had to write something as a sign of protest.”<4> The second of the recent Maidan songs in memory of Nigoyan sets the burial prayer “Lay in rest with the saints” (“Со святими упокой…”). This song is more reserved, a return to the repose of the Quiet Songs. The DIY intimacy of the recordings dominates their affect: vulnerable yet determined, solitary yet meant to circulate on a global stage.

Judging from some local responses to the songs, Silvestrov has managed to capture the grief and hope of the moment. His setting of the Ukrainian hymn (also from late January) “truly were a gift of minutes of peace and support,” as a journalist recently noted.

In this same interview [LISTEN], Silvestrov expressed outrage over the Crimea situation, declaring, “I think that Putin is simply insane!” His statements reveal the tensions and complexities of the situation—the interlinking of Russia and Ukraine, culturally if not politically. Silvestrov distinguishes between the “political face of Russia,” which is says is “entirely covered in excrement,” and its “authentic face”: “Chaikovsky, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the holy Orthodox Church.” He similarly divides Soviet culture, thereby making an explicit parallel between Putin and Stalin, which he amplifies later in the interview. He compares the situation in Crimea to the following: “You invite an acquaintance to your home as a guest, you put him in one of your bedrooms, and then he throws you out of the apartment.” Most interesting to musicologists perhaps will be his praise of the musical qualities of the Ukrainian hymn and his critical comments about the poor musical tastes of the pro-Russian activists in Crimea and the Anti-Maidan demonstrators: “Low, debased music only disgraces the image of Russia. In order to conquer you must have culture.” But as the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics in Sochi showed, the Russians are well versed in using “Kul’tura” (with a capital K) as a weapon.

Peter Schmelz is Associate Professor and chair of the Music Department at Washington University in St. Louis.

<1>Sil’vestrov and Frumkis, Sil'vestrov and Tat'yana Frumkis, “Sokhranyat' dostoinstvo. . . ,” Sovetskaya muzïka, no. 4 (1990): 16. 
<2>Quoted in Tatyana Frumkis, liner notes to Valentin Silvestrov, Symphony no. 5, Kitsch Music, etc. Musica Non Grata, BMG/Melodiya CD, 74321 49959 2 (1997), 3 (translation amended by me based on the original Russian in Sil’vestrov and Frumkis, “Sokhranyat' dostoinstvo. . . ,” 12).
<3> Silvestrov had previously set texts by Shevchenko in his Cantata for a cappella chorus (1977) as well as in the Quiet Songs (no. 5, “Proshchay, svite, proshchay, zemle!”). 
<4> Quoted in Frumkis, “Eine lange Reise,” liner notes to Stille Lieder, ECM New Series CD, ECM 1898/99, 982 1424 (2004), 14.

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