Valentin Silvestrov, Ukrainian composer now in exile

Reviews 11.03.2022

In 2014, the "revolution of dignity" in Kiev's Maidan Square inspired composer Valentin Silvestrov to create his own vision of the Ukrainian anthem. Now that his country is in the grip of the vilest of aggressions, this apostle of "metaphorical" music, in love with the moment, is multiplying online publications of recordings made at home - an unusual way for a "contemporary composer" to make his voice heard. On 8 March, he had to flee Ukraine with his family.

On Tuesday 8 March 2022, after having reached Lviv the day before, the composer Valentin Silvestrov, accompanied by his daughter and granddaughter, managed to cross the border separating Ukraine from the European Community on foot, leaving the country where he has always lived, and the city of Kiev where he was born almost 85 years ago. Silvestrov was four years old when the Nazis invaded Ukraine, and there is no doubt that what is happening today brings back to his mind images of those barbaric times that he hoped were over. He was the first person I thought of when Vladimir Putin recently invaded Ukraine (we wouldn't dare write: by Russia). And I was struck, in most of the playlists that have followed one another on the Internet since 24 February as a sign of solidarity, by the absence of this figure of his country's intellectual life - Silvestrov has published several books of philosophical reflections - and of this composer whom his friend Arvo Pärt - like Alfred Schnittke before him - considers the greatest of his generation. 

In the autumn of 2013, during the Euromaidan, the protest movement that began on Kiev's Independence Square and led to the February 2014 revolution, also known as the "Revolution of Dignity", Valentin Silvestrov joined the crowd of demonstrators. Listening to the chorus of protesters singing Chtche ne vmerla Oukraïna ( "Ukraine is not dead") inspired his own versions of thispatriotic song composed by Father Mykhaïlo Verbytsky in 1862-63, which became the Ukrainian national anthem for a short time in 1917 and again in 1992. He explained this in October 2014, in the long interview he gave me in Berlin, where he was staying at the time: ' When I heard people singing them, I tried to compose my own hymns, with the same words, for a cappella choir: there are five variants, which are not yet written, I just sang them myself and recorded them, in the heat of the moment. These pieces are completely inspired by these tragic events, they are like a flame from that fire. There are not only hymns, but also a Lacrimosa, an Agnus Dei, in homage to the murdered demonstrators... I was then asked to have these pieces premiered, but I refused: for me, they remain a "protocol", they are not intended to be played in concert. They are about murdered people. I didn't want this music to be applauded..." Like several of his earlier works (including the 1997-99 Requiem for Larisa ), some of the pieces in this cycle also set verses by Taras Shevchenko, the great Ukrainian romantic poet. In 2014, Silvestrov dedicated his Diptych, composed to patriotic verses by the same Shevchenko, to the memory of Sergei Nigoyan, the first dead man of Euromaidan.

Our interview, published in part in the monthly magazine Classica and in the Collège des Bernardins, was a prelude to Valentin Silvestrov's visit to Paris on 14 and 15 January 2015, a few days after the attacks, for a memorable concert organised at the Bernardins with the help of the philosopher Constantin Sigov, director of the European Centre for Research in the Humanities at the University of Kiev, as part of the "Alterminimalisms" cycle that I was programming there. Since then, thanks tothe YouTube channel created by Constantin Sigov around the work of his friend, one can listen to this cycle of choral pieces on the Internet (and even one of these hymns performed by the composer on the piano - see above ):

A composer of silence and the "posthistory" of music, a musician of memory and metaphor, a philosopher-artist, Valentin Silvestrov has a very rich catalogue in all repertoires (including nine symphonies). His career resembles that of many of his colleagues from the former Soviet republics or 'sister' countries of the USSR - the Estonian Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke, of Latvian origin, the Poles Henryck Górecki or Krzysztof Penderecki. He began under the seal of the most radical avant-garde: a member of the "Avant-Garde Kiev" group, Silvestrov was applauded in Darmstadt and even hailed in his time by the merciless Theodor W. Adorno (in a letter of 26 May 1964, the latter spoke of him as an "undeniably talented" composer , adding: "I cannot share the objection of certain purists that his music would be too expressive"). Then, in the early 1970s, came a period of questioning, a silence that led to a radical reinvention of his language. In his case, this was born of his predilection for melody and memory: strengthened by the conviction that all music is "a memory of musical culture", he embarked on a path that "metaphorically" prolonged the heritage of the Romanticism he reveres. The ideal introduction to this path is undoubtedly the masterly MetaMusik, a symphony for piano and orchestra from 1992, in turn spectral, Mahlerian and Ravelian, magnificently recorded by Alexei Lubimov and Dennis Russell Davies on ECM. Or the Kitschmusik (!) for piano from 1977, a piece whose apparent romanticism is regularly subverted by an impromptu modulation, a striking nuance, an unexpected pause (Silvestrov's scores are overloaded with performance indications).

"I understand my own development as a circular process, which could be expressed in the lines of T.S. Eliot: 'In my end is my beginning (...) in my beginning is my end', " he told Tatjana Frumkis in the booklet of the disc devoted to his piano music published by Grand Piano and edited by Elisaveta Blumina, adding that in recent years he has returned to the "naive music" of his early years(Naive Music is the title of a collection of works from 1954 that he revised in 1993). In recent years, this has resulted in numerous cycles of short piano pieces grouped under the generic title of Bagatelles (some of which have been recorded by Hélène Grimaud, among others). All these miniatures exalt what is deepest in him: the quest for the moment, the musical moment: "The most important thing for me has always been to find an absolutely unusual intonation, an exceptional moment - and then, if this moment triggers something in me, I continue to work, this time intentionally. But otherwise I am not able to work in a planned way. Nowadays, a composer can feel as if he or she is up against a wall, that everything has already been done: this is postmodern ideology. And it would be futile to try to cross this wall head-on... But when you work in my field - the field of intonation, of instinct - these kinds of considerations don't come into play. Once you have captured this moment I am talking about, you have a strange feeling that the wall is no longer in front of you, but behind you (smile).

This music of the moment has recently found an unexpected, dizzying extension on the Internet, via Bandcamp: on the composer's page, in fact, for the past year there has been a flourishing of recordings - alongside numerous archival recordings of orchestral or choral pieces - that can be acquired as downloads or in CD-R format, such as these Valses instantanées (Google translates) from 2007: 

These are 'domestic' recordings, covering the last two decades, of Valentin Silvestrov at the piano (and sometimes singing).
These precarious recordings, made at his home in Kiev, using his telephone or a radio cassette, are astonishing testimonies from a contemporary composer: To record himself without make-up or microphone, and above all to have the courage and freedom to publish these testimonies - piano-voice after all, as we say in today's music, or else demos -, despite the parasite sounds (we can hear voices, children playing in the street, breath, and sometimes the noise of a radio cassette), seems to me to be without equivalent in the field of 'written' music.
These recordings are all the more strange and moving because they resonate not only with the immediate news, but also with the preceding quotations, and with those two poles - equally vertiginous - between which Silvestrov's work basically gravitates: the moment and memory. This is pure music of the moment, not improvised but captured on the spot, recorded according to the inspiration of the moment, without retouching or looking back. It is also music of the memory, heir to romanticism although naturally contemporary, to which these unexpected recordings add a depth of field, an additional "memory layer". Through the grace of the recording, the breath, the parasite noises are added to the music as new and at the same time already old sounds (since they are ephemeral). It is as if the moment penetrated the work and materialised in it, the recording giving these moments an eternal presence.
Thus, precisely because of their precarious quality, these recordings seem to me to be works in themselves. They are "records" with a universal grace, which will appeal to fans ofhauntology and other admirers of Leyland Kirby. But also all those whose hearts were moved by the discovery of the timeless pieces, half-Chopin, half-bluesy, by the Ethiopian Tségué-Maryam Guébrou.

Since 24 February, the number of publications on Bandcamp has multiplied - the latest, dated 8 March, is a piano version of his Symphony No. 6. As Constantin Sigov told me on the phone on 8 March in Kiev, where he maintains a very active presence, against all odds(2), so many opportunities to "be heard, to bear witness, to make his voice heard". So many traces of an artist who has now gone into exile. 

Annabelle Oliveira

To be heard on Monday 14 March, A Concert for Ukrainehosted by the Metropolitan Opera of New York, in streaming (at 6 PM local time -12h France)

1. Quoted by Constantin. Sigov, "The Freedom of Ukraine and the Music of Valentin Silvestrov", in The Rule of the Game No. 57, May 2015.
2. I warmly thank Constantin Sigov for this conversation, which has greatly informed this column.


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