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On 21 April, Pixels Ensemble perform Valentyn Silvestrov’s Three Postludes at the Granary. Kate Romano writes about the composer whose beautiful, elusive and shadowy music is conceived as an echo of the past.



The Ukrainian composer Valentyn Silvestrov made an art form out of endings. Not in the way that Beethoven did, victoriously hammering home the finale of the fifth symphony, or in the manner of Mahler, closing his ninth symphony with an existential fade to silence. Silvestrov made the idea of the ending, or the ‘postlude’ as he called it, into a genre itself which he described as ‘a collection of echoes’. His music reveals an astonishingly refined ear and musical sensibility, and a body of work that is amongst the most fragile and exquisite of our time. 


Valentyn Silvestrov was born in 1937 in Kyiv, then part of the Soviet Union. He was part of the first generation of Soviet composers to get to grips with the music of the Western European avant garde and his early music was dissonant; his prickly 3rd symphony written in 1966 throws up noisy collisions and barbed waves of sound from an earthy undergrowth. It was suppressed in his own country and praised in the West, winning the 1967 Koussevitzky Prize.


But Silvestrov's music underwent a dramatic stylistic shift when he pursued the idea of composing as a ‘coda to history’. In the 1970s, endings were in the air: the feared imminence of nuclear war and, in the USSR, terror, oppression and a weariness of the ‘Era of Stagnation’, a phrase coined by Gorbachev to describe the policies of Leonid Brezhnev. Then came the transition from Stagnation to Perestroika in the 1980s, and the anxieties and tensions that accompanied it. Uncertainty, stasis, recurrence, apocalypse and utopia all played a role in shaping Silvestrov’s new musical language of endings and echoes. 


A softly spoken man, whose former professor once described his piano playing as vulnerable and defenceless (‘as if he were trying to protect the instrument’), Silvestrov has made various attempts to articulate his relationship with the postlude. For Silvestrov, the postlude is not simply a nostalgic echo. In the 1990s he said he felt the ‘classics’ (music from the 16th century to the first half of the 20th century) were not behind us, but far ahead. ‘We don’t need to return to them’ he said. ‘Rather, we must overtake them’. In other words, instead of racing forwards for constant innovation, composers must now race backwards and respond to what already exists. In the 1980s, he described his postludes as a collection of echoes; in 2010, they had become the echoes themselves - music composed around a source that is no longer present. ‘His idea,’ says composer Sofia Gubaidulina, ‘is that everything has been written already, and all you have to do is listen to it… agitate a point that starts to vibrate… it was there already, but now we see its full vibration’


The full vibration of the past can be heard keenly in Silvestrov’s monumental Fifth Symphony (1980–82). A ghostly shroud wraps tenderly around Bruckner and Mahler, drawing out half-remembered ideas and fragments. In The Messenger (1996) for piano and strings, Mozart is ‘enveloped in the mist’ (the composer's directions) of an other-worldy sonorous haze. There are whispers of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden in the first quartet; Chopin, Schubert and Schumann underpin his Kitsch-Music for solo piano (‘elegiac, rather than ironic’ he said). 


Silvestrov describes the composer as one who ‘catches the breeze’ of pre-existing music, muting it and filtering it with their own ideas and making it unique. ‘You shouldn't see music as a personal merit of the author’ he says, hinting at what he perceives to be the vastness of an eternally-flowing musical landscape. ‘He somehow rises high’ says musicologist Nina Gerassimova-Persidskaja, reflecting on the epic scope of Silvestrov’s music. 'That’s why he can see more and he acts more slowly… everything is quicker on the ground, but time is different if we go high in the mountains’. Svetlana Savenko speaks about ‘a spatiality [in his music] which is not entirely normal… and a sensation of suspended-ness predominates, of freedom from accustomed gravity’. Silvestrov has referred to two of his orchestral pieces as ‘cosmic pastorals’, suggesting a connection between man, nature and the universe. In a conversation with Tatjana Frumkis, Silvestrov quotes Rilke's 1902 poem Der Lesende (The Reading) where Rilke contrasts and links the tiny domicile of the reading man to the ‘boundless whole of things’, expanding the earth into the cosmos, connecting inner and outer, near and far; ‘the first star is like the last house’. 


The popularity of Silvestrov's music is partly explained by its meditative atmosphere. But what makes his music so compelling is the sense of bittersweet melancholy; beauty with a pinch of avant garde saltiness, never cloying, always ambiguous. Peter Schmelz concludes that one of the hallmarks of Perestroika was a collective remembering and revealing of forgotten or never known crimes of the Soviet past and that Silvestrov’s music has a sense of sadness that rises beyond any political or social cause. ‘It lies’, he says, ‘rooted in the inherent morality of man, but not of music’. In a 2006 interview Silvestrov summarised his utopian vision of a music that lives on after the end of humankind; ‘...if there is not a tinge of grief or sadness shining through, then it is not music. The sadness may be varied - dark or light... The sadness is not because life is difficult, but because music is like beauty slipping away.’ It is a plea for continuity and stability and an attempt to ‘remain in time’ in a world full of endings. 


Discover Valentyn Silvestrov: where to start listening


Kitsch-Music, 1977 (solo piano) (click to watch & listen)

A finely tuned balancing act; the first fuses a half-remembered Schubert Impromptu and a Schumann Scene from Childhood. The second is a paraphrase of a Chopin prelude.  


Symphony number 5, 1980-82 (click to watch & listen)

His symphonic masterpiece; timeless drifting with danger and delights on a monumental scale. Voluptuous beauty, languorous slow-motion atonal rumblings and ecstatic expanded melodies create a transfixing, pulse-slowing power over 45 unbroken and skilfully constructed minutes.


Three Postludes, 1981/82 (soprano, violin, cello, piano) (click for concert details)

Pixels Ensemble, Stapleford Granary, Sunday 21st April, 3:00pm

Three hypnotic movements; the first of which features a bell-like wordless vocalise for soprano, the second (for solo violin) is based around a song-like baroque improvisation and a virtuoso toccata, and the third (for cello and piano) is a heartfelt elegiac miniature. 


‘Post Scriptum’ Sonata for Violin & Piano, 1990-1 (click to listen)

A shadowy, evanescent postscript which calls up the ghost of Mozart and, more generally, Classicism. It opens with an imaginary miniature Mozartean sonata subject, gradually fading and decaying into the beautiful and tragic ruins of a classical sonata.


The Messenger, 1996  (piano & strings) (click to watch & listen)

Dedicated to Silvestrov’s late wife, the musicologist Larissa Bondarkeno who died the year it was written. The title comes from Yakov Druksin’s ‘messenger’, a character who represents a link between this world and the next. Repeated series of ‘third’ intervals sound like eternal question marks within a luminous Mozart haze.


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