Valentin Silvestrov's New Sacrality

Arvo Pärt is a man of few words, at least in public (and even fewer notes). So when I read the following forthright opinion in an interview cited by Alex Ross in the New Yorker in 2002, I sat up and took notice:

“If you were to ask me to name a contemporary composer, the first name that I would voice is the name Silvestrov. Valentyn – is unconditionally the most interesting contemporary composer, even if the majority are given to understand this much later…”.

I have taken a keen interest in the music of Silvestrov ever since my friend Martyn Harry (himself a fine composer and creative thinker) handed me a copy of a recording of the Ukrainian’s Fifth Symphony and Postludium which he had produced for Sony Classical as part of an intriguing series that undeservedly went the way of all flesh not long afterwards. The Fifth Symphony recently seems to be emerging from its status as a relatively obscure ‘cult classic’, gaining increasing international recognition as one of the masterpieces of the late twentieth-century orchestral repertoire. Back in 1999 when I first heard it, its seemingly endless, hypnotically beautiful melodic lines, its massive, sometimes volcanically expressive gestures, sense of all-embracing space and oceanic orchestration all made a great impression on me. However, Pärt’s cryptic remark in praise of Silvestrov – echoing the sentiments of Alfred Schnittke, who deemed him ‘the greatest composer of our generation’ – seemed indicative of much more, impelling me both to hear as much as possible of Silvestrov’s oeuvre and to delve a little into the background of his philosophical concerns.

Many hours of listening lately, I’m beginning to think that Arvo Pärt may well prove as prescient in his opinion of Silvestrov as with many other aesthetic questions where critics at first dismissed the composer of Tabula Rasa as a Holy Fool, only for him to be vindicated by history. Not that Pärt is alone. I was extremely struck by a documentary film portrayal of Silvestrov entitled ‘Dialogues’ by the Estonian director Dorian Supin (screened in France by ARTE in 2008) containing similar remarks by other major names in the field of post-Soviet music. Alexander Knaifel for example goes as far as to comment:

‘I have the feeling that Valya [Valentin] has been sent to this world in order to … This might sound strange … He came to redeem all the corrosion which invaded art and also musical art during the second half of the last century.’

Valentin Silvestrov (photo: Smerus)

This is perhaps a statement that could be applied to Pärt himself as a description of his search for a musical language whose force lies in its purity and simplicity. Indeed, there are numerous points of contact between the two composers and friends (Silvestrov’s recent Dialogues with an Epilogue is dedicated to Pärt), not only in terms of musical style but also their biographical trajectories. Born two years after Pärt in 1937, Silvestrov was an extremely vociferous member of the ‘Kiev avant-garde’ in the 1960s who quickly came to Western attention after he won the Koussevitsky Prize in 1967, attracting the outspoken praise of no less a figure than the seminal philosopher of New Music Theodor Adorno [1]. He however rapidly came into conflict with the Soviet authorities, who considered that he needed educating as to the necessity of writing music for the proletariat. Accused of bourgeois thinking, Silvestrov was expelled from the Soviet Composers’ Union; leaving the public arena rather than conform to the dictates of the Central Committee, he embarked on a seemingly suicidally but artistically fertile ‘private’ path with his vast 110-minute cycle of Silent Songs (1974-77) to classic poetic texts by Pushkin, Lermontov, Keats and Shelley, among others. In what he suggestively refers to as an act of ‘voluntary disarmament’ [2] analoguous to Pärt’s embrace of ‘voluntary poverty’, Silvestrov restricted himself in this cycle [3] to the harmonic vocabulary of the early nineteenth century and a manner of musical delivery at odds with the view of performance as the expression of a personality cult. The singer is directed to perform sotto voce throughout, with the pianist playing in a constant una corda pianissimo; the whole cycle thus hovers in a poetic half-light on the threshold between sound and silence. The result of Silvestrov’s retreat into a relative anonymity is startling, with the listener being jolted by what Paul Griffiths has aptly termed ‘the slow shock of familiarity’, a radical retrieval of collective musical and poetic memory which emerges by means of the composer’s own apparent self-effacement.

Although his output since Silent Songs has been wide-ranging and stylistically varied, Silvestrov has not changed the essential view of music expressed in his expansive cycle of the mid-1970s. The act of writing music requires an internal state of receptivity rather than action. Music is something for which one must wait. Composers, he argues in Supin’s documentary, are not so much creators as channels for a universal resonance:

‘Actually the composer is a sordino in music. There’s a sordino called Beethoven. Another one called Mozart and so on. They are sordini in music that runs like a flow and they filter it with the methods of their minds. The sordino catches this breeze of music and makes it unique. It is not a personal merit of the author. He’s a sordino.’

Silvestrov’s polystylism is coherent with this philosophical stance, as he conceives his work not as ‘new music’, but rather as ‘a response to and an echo of what already exists.’ As with Pärt this can on occasion be music of the distant past (as with Silvestrov’s limpidly contemplative ‘Ikon’ of 1982, which evokes Renaissance viol music), but more habitally Silvestrov chooses to explore historical areas which Pärt purposely leaves aside. Thus there are frequent echoes of Mozart (in the haunting Messenger (1996) which Silvestrov subsequently incorporated into his Requiem for his wife and life-companion Larissa Bondarenko, who died suddenly in 1996), Chopin or Mahler, to whose symphonies Silvestrov’s orchestral writing is most often compared.

If his ‘public’ works such as the Fifth Symphony certainly do at times seem like a conscious contemporary outworking of the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth, it is perhaps Schubert who provides Silvestrov with his strongest precedent for the ‘private’ side of his output. This is emblematized in his heart-rending ‘Wedding Waltz’ based on a piece that Schubert is said to have composed for his friend Leopold Kupelwieser but which he never notated, being passed down orally until a family descendant performed it for Richard Strauss in 1943, who transcribed it for piano.

Schubert as drawn by Leopold Kupelwieser

Three things seem to interest Silvestrov in this miniature masterpiece. The first is the notion of living oral tradition as something that modern music has tended to forget in its obsession with codified notation (which cannot however capture all the really interesting spontaneous phenomena involved in music-making such as the minute fluctuations in tempo and dynamics that typify Silvestrov’s own improvisatory performance style as a pianist, of which you can find a fascinating example here: ).

The second would seem to be the mental image of Schubert playing his newly-composed but unwritten waltz at the ball on the eve of Kupelwieser’s wedding to Johanna Lutz in 1826 as an example of how music does not necessarily need to be seen as somehow divorced from life in order to possess aesthetic legitimacy. In the background here is Silvestrov’s gentle but penetrating critique of the whole modern institutionalization of concert life, as epitomized by his statement (quoted by Pärt to Alex Ross in 2002) that ‘nowadays great music isn’t made in concert palaces. Instead, it is created in lofts, basements, and garages.’ What emanates from Silvestrov’s ‘dialogue’ with Schubert is a nostalgia – perhaps the overriding quality of the Ukrainian master’s music – for a time when music was seemlessly integrated into the fabric of life.

The third factor at work here is of course Schubert’s waltz itself. Silvestrov’s art may be ‘metaphorical’, in that he views his retrievals of past styles as allegories laden with cultural history, yet the music always ‘sounds’ in its own right, never being a mere excuse for philosophical argumentation as is so often the case with ‘conceptual art’ (I have in mind here memories of many contemporary art exhibitions where the message is effectively ‘forget the art, just read the essay …’) is music can be appreciated on a number of levels of depth, by the listener unaware of its sophisticated artistic and philosophical background as much as by musicologists.

Schubert’s ‘Wedding Waltz’ provides Silvestrov with an instance of he terms ‘sublime insignificance’. Here we have melody and harmony in a seemingly pristine state, as yet untouched by formal compositional technique, by the procedures of thematic and contrapuntal manipulation which constitute the essential fabric of the Germanic symphonic tradition. Schubert has often been judged an inadequate composer by the yardstick of this technique, and Schubert’s own desire for lessons with the contrapuntist Simon Sechter [4] is itself evidence of a certain sense of artistic insecurity on his part. Yet Silvestrov seems to be suggesting that the problem is not so much with the composer as with our aesthetic criteria. For it is precisely Schubert’s apparent lack of technique which can be seen as intrinsically linked to his greatest artistic asset – a child-like spontaneity which a more ‘solid’ formal musical education might well have drummed out of him (I already hinted at this line of thought a few weeks ago in an article on Dvorak on this blog: Schubert’s unique individuality arguably stems from being forced to seek personal solutions to problems of musical construction, rather than relying on ‘correct’ textbook methods. What remains intact, unspoilt by the temptations offered to the composer by the possession of an arsenal of musical ‘techniques’, is his extraordinary poetic ability to convey a whole world of emotion in the space of a few bars. This is clearly also Silvestrov’s ideal; he adds nothing superfluous to Schubert’s notes, but rather amplifies their resonance through his diaphanous instrumentation, by means of his trademark ‘blurring’ of the harmony by allowing notes to resonate against one another (as with the pianistic use of the sustaining pedal), and by lingering at key moments, thereby producing a five-minute piece of an ineffable and melancholy beauty where the boundary between Schubert and Silvestrov is almost impossible to identify.

It is difficult to say just how long will it be before the significance of Silvestrov’s work is realized internationally to the degree anticipated by Arvo Pärt. He has some champions of undoubted stature, such as Gidon Kremer and Alexei Lubimov; the ECM and Megadisc labels are to be applauded for their efforts to disseminate Silvestrov’s output, and there are undoubtedly signs of increasing acknowledgement of the stature of the Fifth Symphony, but the same cannot yet be said of other major works such as the captivating 40-minute Dedication for violin and orchestra – a score every bit the equal of Dutilleux’s better-known Violin Concerto L’Arbre des Songes in its evocative power, lyrical élan and masterful orchestration.

This may simply be a matter of publicity, but it has to be admitted that Silvestrov’s musical language is more elusive than Pärt’s; the predominantly slow tempi and elegaic tone are not to all tastes, while Silvestrov’s works are more conditioned than Pärt’s by an ongoing conversation with a European tradition which he himself realizes is at its end. This is unmistakably Old World Music, which perhaps explains why Silvestrov has not to date become a mainstay of North American programming. What is definitely not at an end, however, is Silvestrov’s search for a musical ontology, an answer to the riddle of the existence of music itself; the questions that his work throws up concerning music’s origins and its place in our lives (both on a collective and an individual level) are timeless. On one hand the world has been addressing them since Pythagoras, yet on the other we are no closer to elucidating the mystery and meaning of musical phenomena. Here it is hard to see who in the contemporary music scene is posing these questions today with such acuity as Silvestrov; it is this dimension of his oeuvre that I believe Schnittke, Pärt, Knaifel and Gubaidulina have all grasped and which, once glimpsed, becomes more intriguing with each listening.

‘New Sacrality’

The relative weight accorded to religious music in their outputs might appear to constitute the most obvious point of apparent divergence between Pärt and Silvestrov. It is certainly true that the overtly Christian, theological dimension of the former’s work finds no unambiguous parallel in that of Silvestrov, at least until recently. What we rather have with the latter is what the Russian scholar and singer Svetlana Savenko (who has given first performances of several of Silvestrov’s works) has called a ‘New Sacrality’, a sense of the presence of the transcendent in the everyday, with art being conceived in terms of attunement to a cosmic ‘harmoniousness of the spheres’. In one of the most memorable moments of Dorian Supin’s documentary on Silvestrov, a wide-eyed Sofia Gubaidulina emphasizes the spiritual dimension of his approach:

‘His idea is that everything is there already. It has been composed already. This means in the memory of the Almighty. Everything is written already and all you have to do is to listen to it carefully. Agitate a point that starts to vibrate. It was there already but now we see its full vibration. Then we feel it as music. I love this idea.’

Sofia Gubaidulina, 1981 (photo: Dmitri Smirnov)

Silvestrov’s catalogue offers some tantalizing pointers to the overlap between this vision and Christian tradition. If some critics have labelled his music ‘pantheistic’, it should be remembered that there has historically been a far greater emphasis in Eastern Christianity – with which Ukrainian culture is impregnated – on what one might call a ‘panentheist’ interpenetration of transcendence and immanence than has been the case in the Latin West. As examples one can cite not only his powerful and disturbing Requiem for Larissa (1997-1999) but also his beautiful setting of lines from the Lord’s Prayer (Diptychon (1995)) as well as the piano pieces Sanctus, Benedictus and Hymne 2001 (dedicated to Giya Kancheli and termed by Silvestrov a ‘noble song of praise’ [5]). In recent years this spiritual focus has become far more explicit with Silvestrov’s exploration of the heritage of liturgical melody, resulting in a spate of remarkable and entrancing a cappella choral pieces, a selection of which are compiled on the CD ‘Sacred Works’ (ECM 2117) in arresting performances by the Kiev Chamber Choir [6]. Silvestrov’s description of the genesis of the music in response to the ancient texts of the Orthodox Church [7] is strangely reminiscent of Gubaidulina’s notion of a point that begins to vibrate when set in motion:

“Mykola [Hobdych – the conductor of the Kiev Chamber Choir] brought me masses of music with liturgies by other composers, and in one of them I found the entire texts of the divine liturgy of St. John Chrysostomos. About the general picture I had not yet made up my mind but the first litany I read gave me an initial impulse on the spot. I touched it and the text started to resonate in me.’ [8]

The ease with which Silvestrov composed his 12-movement set of ‘Liturgical Chants’ (writing 40 minutes of music in the space of a mere two weeks) suggests that his reading of St John Chrysostom’s liturgy should not be seen as a sudden ‘turn to the sacred’. Instead it would seem more appropriate to speak of the text in terms of  a catalyst, bringing to consciousness a spirituality that was always latent in his music. Indeed, listening to Silvestrov’s sacred works, there is a sense of a wholly natural continuity with his prior trajectory.  As natural as his words encapsulating why he should have chosen to inhabit the same modest Kiev tower block (so similar to the one in which I lived in Warsaw back in the 1990s) for 40 years, a statement which in its humble juxtaposition of prayer and the contemplation of nature could be taken as a distillation of Silvestrov’s sacrality:

‘From my window I can see Kiev monastery and a piece of sky. That is enough for me. I don’t need anything more’

Cathedral of the Dormition, Kiev (photo: K.J. Labberté)

A stimulating introduction to Silvestrov’s Fifth Symphony featuring comments from the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s music director Vladimir Jurowski together with musicologists David Fanning and Patrick de Clerck can be downloaded as a podcast from the LPO website at


[1] Adorno’s reaction to Silvestrov is worth pondering, not least as it shows the author of the Philosophy of New Music as more far-sighted in the 1960s and aware of the artistic sterility of the post-war avant-garde than many of his critics might think:  ‘My impression of Silvestrov was that he was a very talented man. The objection of some purists that his music is too expressive I could not share, and would find it unfortunate if he now, more or less mechanically, wanted to repeat himself everything what has happened in Western Europe for the last 20 years’ (quoted in Svetlana Savenko, ‘Valentin Silvestrov’s lyrical universe’ in Valeria Tsenova (ed.), Underground music from the former USSR (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1997), 66-83:67).

[2] See David Fanning’s review for the International Record Review reprinted at

[3] It should be noted that by no means all of Silvestrov’s work after Silent Songs use the same harmonic vocabulary: his large works such as the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Dedication and Requiem for Larissa range freely between tonality and atonality, while tributes to the Second Viennese School (Waltzes for Schoenberg, Berg and Webern) feature among his predominantly tonal piano miniatures.

[4] According to Leopold von Sonnleithner, it was Schubert’s encounter with Handel’s oratorios which caused him to remark: “Now for the first time I see what I lack; but I will study hard with Sechter so that I can make good the omission.” He eventually took one lesson with Sechter on November 4, 1828, a mere two weeks before his death.

[5] See Silvestrov’s comments at,228325.html

[6] The Kiev Chamber Choir has also released a second volume of Silvestrov’s recent choral music, including ‘Songs for Vespers’ (2006) and ‘Psalms and Prayers’ (2006); on the ‘Same Tak!’ label, which are yet to be commercialized internationally. Fragments  can be heard at

[7] It is interesting to note that Silvestrov has himself spoken about the ecumenical flavour of his recent choral music (another parallel with Pärt’s frequent references to Eastern and Western tradition), with three sections of his ‘Liturgical chants’ bearing Latin titles (‘Credo’, ‘Gloria’,  ‘Ave Maria’). In a 2007 conference transcribed in the book Дождаться музыки. Лекции-беседы Silvestrov explains that explicitly Orthodox music was forbidden in the Soviet era, whereas Latin music could be performed. It was therefore more natural for him to choose the word ‘Credo’ than the Slavonic equivalent.


ctually the composer is a sordino in music. There’s a sordino called Beethoven. Another one called Mozart and so on. They are sordini in music that runs like a flow and they filter it with the methods of their minds. The sordino catches this breeze of music and makes it unique. It is not a personal merit of the author. He’s a sordino.’

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