Ukraine’s most famous living composer is now a refugee

His “Prayer for Ukraine” was the centerpiece of a Metropolitan Opera benefit concert this month. His Fourth Symphony has been performed in recent weeks by the London Philharmonic Orchestra; his Eighth, by the Lithuanian National Opera; his “Silent Music”, Sunday, in a concert for peace organized by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. His publisher lists dozens of upcoming performances of his works.

As Russia’s war against Ukraine enters its second month, Valentin Silvestrov, Ukraine’s best-known living composer, has become his country’s musical spokesperson. And like millions of Ukrainians, he was turned into a refugee by the conflict: for three days in early March, he and his family traveled by bus from their home in kyiv to Lviv, and from there across Poland to ‘in Berlin, where he is now sheltered.

“We’re more or less fine,” Silvestrov, 84, said in a video call last week. But he added that he remains reeling from the war.

“I don’t know how we lived to see this,” he said.

Silvestrov’s subtle and consoling music took on new meaning for listeners in a war-torn country. “Putin’s bombing of kyiv has killed and destroyed people, homes and music,” his friend Constantin Sigov, a professor and book publisher, said by phone from that city. “But with some kind of incredible hearing, Silvestrov realized how they could be resurrected.”

Born in kyiv in 1937, Silvestrov made a name for himself in the 1960s with avant-garde scores that challenged Soviet aesthetic standards by oscillating between austere modernism and eclectic polystylism. The finely textured contrasts and high-pitched explosions of his Symphony No. 3, “Eschatophony,” caught the attention of Western experimenters; the influential composer and conductor Bruno Maderna conducted it in Darmstadt, a hotbed of contemporary West German music, in 1968.

“From the start, he very clearly showed a very original sequence,” said Ukrainian-American composer Virko Baley, Silvestrov’s longtime friend, from his home in Las Vegas.

Silvestrov resented the restrictions and demands of the Soviet government. After protesting at an official rally in kyiv in 1970, he was expelled from the Ukrainian Union of Composers. He was allowed to join three years later, but the punishment contributed to a change that was already percolating through his songwriting, as he moved from loud scores to soft, intimate ones, like his 24 “Quiet Songs” for vocals. and piano, a tour de force. of peace and solitude. This tone of quiet meditation allowed Silvestrov to largely avoid politics during the remainder of the Soviet period, when he commented on current affairs only very rarely and obliquely; its international stature is gradually growing.

But with the independence of Ukraine in 1991, and especially after the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Maidan protests against Russian influence in 2014, he turned more openly to political and religious subjects. Silvestrov responded to Maidan by composing a series of songs later collected as “Maidan-2014”, for an a cappella choir. (Its 13th movement is the “Prayer for Ukraine” performed at the Met.) The collection also included five new settings of the Ukrainian national anthem.

The original versions of the “Maidan-2014” songs were recorded at home, with Silvestrov singing and playing the piano, and then posted on the internet as the revolution unfolded. The choral versions transform his private anger and grief into a common, solemn and resolute memorial.

The current war, Silvestrov said in the recent interview, is “a continuation of the Maidan. Only the Maidan revolution was only in kyiv, and now all of Ukraine has become the Maidan.

Thus, his sober and thoughtful compositions “became relevant again”, he added – among them the songs of Maidan and his choral composition “In Memoriam”, written between 2019 and 2020.

As threats to kyiv grew in the days after the Russian invasion began on February 24, Silvestrov’s daughter and granddaughter urged him to evacuate, and he reluctantly agreed. (Her grandson stayed on as a volunteer with the war effort.) Their circuitous trip west required last-minute adjustments due to the Russian bombardment of Vinnytsia, involving an overnight stopover in a kindergarten before finally arriving in Lviv.

In the interview, Silvestrov was more relaxed discussing the music, but seemed almost upset with himself for letting the discussion drift away from the war. He spoke passionately in favor of NATO establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

Since his arrival in Berlin, he has not explicitly commented on the war in music, as he did on the Maidan. Yet there are more than traces of the conflict in short piano pieces that Silvestrov says he wrote “spontaneously” after arriving in Germany – both called “Elegy”, one of his favorite genres.

The first is dated March 9, the day after his arrival in Berlin. He said his melody “came up” during his flight from Ukraine, traveling to and across the Polish border, “as we saw endless crowds of refugees, endless cars piled up for miles and this sense of disaster”. He intended his short, simple melody in thirds with a low bass line to be a “sign of Ukraine”, reminiscent of the country’s folk music and the 18th-century choral works of composers like Artemy Vedel.

The second elegy, dated March 16, is part of “Pastoral and Elegy”, composed after several days in Berlin, witnessing events in Ukraine from afar and increasingly discouraged. The elegy here is a chaconne with a characteristic dotted funereal rhythm; he called it a “mourning reaction”.

Sigov said that Silvestrov “melts – refines – the din of the story, its massive verbal and sonic constructs”.

He is, Sigov added, “a true voice of Kyiv who is connected to the whole world and hopes to speak directly with the world.”

Still, the sudden surge in Silvestrov’s global reputation caused him some unease. He said he felt strange, even irritated, “that this misfortune had to happen for them to start playing my music”.

“Does music have no value in itself without any kind of warfare?” he added.

War was already on Silvestrov’s mind when he composed ‘In Memoriam’ three years ago, in response to a request for music for the celebration of May 8, 2020, the commemoration of the end of World War II. , celebrated in Ukraine since 2015 as the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation. Instead of writing an entirely new composition, Silvestrov adapted “Maidan-2014”. He removed typically Ukrainian features, including anthem settings, and added, as a highlight, a setting of John Donne’s lyrics: “Never send to find out who the bell tolls for; it rings for you.

In the interview, Silvestrov spoke fervently about this ignored morality, lamenting the continued timeliness of a composition meant to mark the horrors of decades ago, as another war rages in some of the same lands. , again threatening to engulf Europe.

“It’s very obvious,” he said just before the call ended, “that it’s not a problem of Ukraine and Russia. It is a problem of civilization.

Peter Schmelz is professor of musicology at Arizona State University and author of “Sonic Overload: Alfred Schnittke, Valentin Silvestrov and Polystylism in the Late USSR”

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