Valentin Silvestrov: ‘For our freedom and yours’

I write this post in some haste. Just a few minutes ago Russian president Vladimir Putin publicly acclaimed Sunday’s vote, rejected as illegal by Ukraine and the international community, of the Crimean peninsula’s self-proclaimed referendum in favour of joining the Russian Federation. Since the change of régime in Kiev and flight of former president Viktor Janukovych, Western public opinion has clearly been divided as to how to respond to the crisis and Moscow’s de facto annexation of Crimea. Despite the apparent unity demonstrated at governmental level by the European Union and North America, a number of dissenting voices (including former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder) have not been slow to accuse the West of mis-managing the situation and alienating Russia. Others, particularly in the ‘alternative media’ and blogosphere, have gone further in laying the blame for the current predicament with the US on account of the heavy-handed diplomatic actions of individuals such as Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland during the final phase of the Maidan Square protests that led to the ousting of Janukovych, seen as a Western-sponsored coup led by Nazi militias.

This blog is obviously not the place to undertake a political analysis of the crisis, but it is difficult not to be surprised at some basic misunderstandings of the situation that have transpired in the statements even of experienced commentators such as American ex-budget director David Stockman (on who are currently arguing that the crisis is of no relevance to the US, that the West is simply meddling in others’ business and that Crimea is in any case historically Russian. The latter is of course true, it being well-known that the peninsula was only transferred from Russia to the Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Krushchev. Two elementary facts however appears to be insufficiently understood by those who see the present crisis primarily as the result of Western arrogance: i) the international condemnation of Sunday’s referendum is based principally on its contravention of the Ukrainian constitution which does not allow such votes for secession without consultation of the country as a whole. Not to recognize its validity is not merely a hypocritical refusal of the principle of self-determination on the part of the international community ii) it is surely beyond dispute that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations as a signatory to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which the Ukraine’s territorial integrity was guaranteed, in return for which the Ukraine agreed to relinquish its nuclear arsenal. That this last point is crucially important in terms of the present power dynamics between Kiev and Moscow ought to be self-evident.

This having been said, a number of questions do arise in the present dramatic situation whose complexity defies a simplistic reading. Is it possible that the international community (admittedly provoked by the current Russian leadership) has allowed itself to become trapped within a false dichotomy of East-West confrontation when what is needed is a more holistic approach? Is fast-tracking the Ukraine’s process of affiliation with the EU not playing into the hands of the hawks in Moscow? Why should the belligerent foreign policy of the current Russian authorities be crudely equated with the attitude of the Russian people as if there were no internal differences of opinion within Russia itself (despite undeniable public support for Putin a sizeable anti-war march was held in the Moscow on March 15)? And does it logically follow that being in solidarity with the new government in Kiev necessarily means being perceived as ‘anti-Russian’, with no possible third way?

Silvestrov Duh i litera

In this respect, a thought-provoking document that transcends this ‘either-or’ logic has just been released by a group of Ukrainian intellectuals, first among them being the Ukraine’s most prominent living composer Valentin Silvestrov (1937-), a hero of this blog (in honour of whose 75th birthday in 2012 I wrote my choral cycle Spiritus divinae lucis gloriae). This ‘letter of the Ukrainian intelligentsia to their Russian friends’, the original of which can be found over at the website of publishers Duh i litera , is worth quoting in full:

‘To participants of the congress of the intelligentsia “against war, against Russian self-isolation, against the restoration of totalitarianism .”

Dear friends,

Today our people a common danger hangs over our nations. The current government of the Russian Federation, in its mad quest to revive a semblence of the Soviet Union and to halt democratic processes in Eastern Europe , has placed our countries on the brink of a large-scale geopolitical catastrophe. In the interests of their authoritarian rule they violate your and our right to a dignified life, destroying pan-European and global security mechanisms one after another .

Today is required the defense not only of the integrity of the Ukrainian state, but also the honour and reputation of Russian culture. Therefore, rejecting Putin’s version of Russia, we, Ukrainians, consistently defend and support another Russia. The Russia of the fighters for freedom of conscience – the Russia of Chaadayev[1] and Vladimir Soloviev[2] , Akhmatova and Pasternak , Sakharov and Grigorenko[3], Natalia Gorbanevskaya[4] and Anna Politkovskaya. The Russia that you represent to us .

We understand that today is particularly difficult for you . Yet surely your voice will be heard – both in Russia itself and in the Ukraine, and in the world. The civil society of the civilized world can and must be stronger than the Kremlin propaganda machine. The truth about the new democratic Ukraine must be connected with the truth about a genuine, democratic Russia. Together we and you are called to spread one and the other.

The brotherhood of the peoples of Europe grew and acquired strength in the common struggle for freedom. “For our freedom and yours “, cried Herzen and his Polish friends. This call sounded in Spain in the 1930s and in Red Square  on August 25, 1968[5]. Today’s resistance to the Russian occupation of the Crimea – is also a fight for “our freedom and yours .” In this resistance we are united .

The voice of truth shall be heard!

We thank you for your initiative and solidarity,

[1] Russian writer and philosopher (1794-1856).

[2] Philosopher-theologian (1853-1900), “pioneer and example of dialogue between Eastern and Western Christians” (Pope John Paul II), regarded by Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar as second only to Thomas Aquinas as a systematic thinker. Soloviev spent the last years of his life in dialogue with Catholicism over his ideas for bringing Russian Orthodoxy back into communion with Rome. Author of the remarkable Story of the Antichrist, his final work.

[3] Petro Grigorenko (1907-1987). Former Red Army General who became a dissident in the 1960s, campaigning for the rights of Crimean Tatars. Confined to Soviet mental institutions. Stripped of Soviet citizenship in 1977 while visiting the US, subsequently barred from entering the Soviet Union. Became a worshipper at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Manhattan during the last decade of his life.

[4] Poetess and dissident (1936-2013). Natalia Gorbanevskaya was among the eight women and men who on August 25, 1968 unfurled a banner in Red Square with the words ‘For our freedome and yours’ in protest at the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Subsequently punished in psychiatric wards  by being force-fed anti-psychotic medication haloperidol in the ensuing years before emigrating to Paris in 1975. Author of the book Red Square at Noon.

[5] See n.4.

(Translation and notes mine)

This plea in favour both of guaranteeing the security of the Ukraine and of honouring the best traditions of Russian culture surely has to count as one of the sanest declarations of recent weeks. It also demonstrates that, while the existence of problematic extreme-right elements within the forces that overthrew Janukovych needs to be acknowledged, Moscow’s stereotypical portrayal of Maidan as the work of nationalist fanatics and neo-Nazis is a gross over-simplification for propaganda purposes. That the more extreme Western critics of EU and American policy should have bought into this analysis simply shows their naiveté with regard to the Kremlin’s information strategy.

That Valentin Silvestrov should be a prominent signatory of this appeal to the Russian intelligensia should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his catalogue. While he like many other Ukrainian intellectuals appeared among the Maidan protestors, Silvestrov can hardly be construed  as being a Russophobe of any sort. Russian poetry by Pushkin, Lermontov, Blok, Jessenin, Mandelstam and others has inspired many of his most significant works such as his 24 Silent Songs (1974-1977) and Stufen (1982 – in my opinion one of the greatest of all twentieth-century song-cycles for voice and piano). Like Arvo Pärt – a great admirer of his work -, he has written choral music setting texts both in Latin and in Church Slavonic, embodying the dual identity of the Ukraine as shaped both by Catholicism and Orthodoxy; similarly to his Estonian colleague, he is a composer who does not attempt to choose between East and West, but embraces both.

Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov

Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov

Silvestrov has now written three short diptychs connected in Maidan Square in Kiev, all intended for a cappella choir, the tone becoming increasingly sombre with the unfolding of the epochal events in the Ukrainian capital. Sketch versions of the three sets sung and played at the piano by the composer himself in his inimitable style can be heard on the website of Duh i litera; together they constitute a moving but sobering chronicle of history in the making.

The first, written at the turn of the year, consists of a ‘Hymn’, a variant on the Ukrainian anthem sung by the crowds in Maidan Square featuring an evocation of the ringing of the alarm bell of St Michael’s monastery , together with a ‘Christmas Psalm’.

If these two pieces are relatively optimistic in tone, the second couple of settings is distinctly darker, composed in memory of Sergei Nihoyan, a young ethnic Armenian worker from the eastern Ukrainian village of Bereznovativka born in 1993, who was one of the first fatal victims of the Euromaidan protests during gunfire clashes on January 22

Sergei Nihoyan (1993-2014)

Sergei Nihoyan (1993-2014)

It is not hard to see why Nihoyan’s tragic death should have moved the composer; the young protestor had come to public attention for having recited the poetry of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), whose bicentenary is being celebrated this year and whose work had been put to music by Silvestrov on multiple occasions in the past. In response to the killing of Nihoyan, Silvestrov set the lines of Shevchenko declaimed by the victim – ‘i vam slava, sini goury…’ (‘Glory to you, blue mountains’), together with the prayer ‘s sviatimi upokoi (‘Peace with the saints’)

The latest diptych, a ‘Hymn’ and ‘Lord’s Prayer’, was penned in response to the large-scale violence of February 18-20: Silvestrov’s voice and piano simulation of this poignant work is accompanied by an unsigned commentary which sounds a note of hope even in what are turning out to be increasingly dramatic circumstances:

Эти звуки оплакивания воплощают неизгладимую скорбную атмосферу тех дней, и, в то же время, из них – «путем зерна» – рождается тихое ожидание Пасхи.

These sounds of grief embody the unforgettably mournful atmosphere of those days, yet at the same time a quiet anticipation of Easter arises from them “like a seed”


As I write it has to be said that this ‘anticipation of Easter’ seems distinctly faint at the moment in the light of hard geo-political reality, while the shadow of a rapidly approaching Good Friday looms ominously over the Ukraine. The Ministry of Defence in Kiev has now authorized the use of firepower by its troops in the Crimea in reaction to the killing  of a soldier by masked gunmen in Symferopol. The intellectuals’ congress “against war, against Russian self-isolation, against the restoration of totalitarianism ” is scheduled for tomorrow, March 19. Whether anyone is listening is another matter.

P.S. I would like to conclude with a personal offer. As a token gesture in honour of Valentin Silvestrov I have made a handful of recordings of some of his piano works which can be heard on my YouTube channel . If any church or other institution would like to use this uniquely meditative music as the basis for an ecumenical musical vigil in favour of peace and reconciliation, or if other musicians appreciate of Silvestrov’s work would like to collaborate in such an endeavour, please contact me. As soon as possible.

Valentin Silvestrov (1937 -) Two Epitaphs

Valentin Silvestrov Nostalghia (2001)

Valentin Silvestrov Melodie (2001)

Valentin Silvestrov Hymne (2001)

Valentin Silvestrov Intermezzo

Valentin Silvestrov “Benedictus” (Night)

Valentin Silvestrov “Sanctus” (Morning)

Valentin Silvestrov Two Dialogues with Postscript I. “Wedding Waltz” (1826-2002) Fr. Schubert…V.Silvestrov


Guardians of beauty (2) – Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev


Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk

Our last post took us to Rome and the part played by composer and SDG advisory board member in the launch of the ‘Year of Faith’ celebrated on October 11th in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the Synod on the New Evangelisation.  If James MacMillan is arguably the best-known Catholic musician in the English-speaking world, it may come as a surprise to learn that he is not the only composer of sacred music to be playing an active role in the proceedings in Rome at the moment. One of the most striking features of the Synod is its ecumenical focus; I have already commented on the typically thought-provoking speech offered to the Synod by Archbishop Rowan Williams last week. This week it was the turn of the Eastern Orthodox Church, with an address being given by the Moscow Patriarchate’s head of the department for External Church Relations (read: ‘foreign minister’), Metropolitan Hilarion [Alfeyev] of Volokolamsk. Who at the age of 46 is not only one of the youngest churchmen involved in top-level ecumenical dialogue, but is also a prolific composer.

I would like to emphasize that we are not merely talking about ‘occasional’ works here, even if, given his heavy ecclesial responsibilities, much of Metropolitan Hilarion’s writing apparently happens in airport lounges during his displomatic trips. His catalogue contains a number of major compositions which are gaining increasing international exposure, including a two-hour St Matthew Passion (recorded by Vladimir Fedosseyev), a 75-minute Christmas Oratorio (premièred at the National Shrine in Washington DC) as well as a Divine Liturgy and All-Night Vigil. All these were written in recent years; having received his early training at the Moscow Gnesin School and Conservatory while still contemplating a musical career, Hilarion Alfeyev subsequently abandoned composition when he took monastic vows at the age of 20, only returning to composition in 2006.[1]  Next month the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will give the first performance of his latest choral symphony, Song of Ascent .

Metropolitan Hilarion is also a highly articulate and at times provocative speaker about music and its relation to faith, as you can judge by reading the text of a stimulating lecture he gave at the Catholic University of America in 2011. Although his own work is steeped in his own Orthodox liturgical tradition, pride of place in his musical thinking nonetheless goes to J.S. Bach not only as a compositional ‘colossus’ but also as the ultimate ecumenical composer:

Bach is a universal Christian phenomenon. His music transcends confessional boundaries; it is ecumenical in the original sense of the word, for it belongs to the world as a whole and to each citizen separately. We may call Bach an ‘orthodox’ composer in the original, literal sense of the Greek word ortho-doxos for throughout his life he learnt how to glorify God rightly. Invariably he adorned his musical manuscripts with the words Soli Deo Gloria (‘Glory to the One God’) or Jesu, juva (‘Help, O Jesus’). These expressions were for him not merely verbal formulae but a confession of faith that ran through all of his compositions. For Bach, music was worship of God. He was truly ‘catholic,’ again in the original understanding of the Greek word katholikos, meaning ‘universal,’ or ‘all-embracing,’ for he perceived the Church as a universal organism, as a common doxology directed towards God. Furthermore, he believed his music to be but a single voice in the cosmic choir that praises God’s glory. And of course, throughout his life Bach remained a true son of his native Lutheran Church. Albeit, as Albert Schweitzer noted, Bach’s true religion was not even orthodox Lutheranism but mysticism. His music is deeply mystical because it is based on an experience of prayer and ministry to God which transcends confessional boundaries and is the heritage of all humanity.

As is perhaps to be expected given his own philosophical and theological training in a tradition known for its trenchant critique of many aspects of Western society, Metropolitan Hilarion’s narrative of art-music after Bach is somewhat negative. Despite his love of the Germanic symphonic repertoire and the achievements of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, he like many Eastern Orthodox views the development of Western culture in terms of increasing individualism and secularization, leading to the evacuation of the sacred in the twentieth century[2]:

During the epochs of Impressionism and the Avant-garde, interest in anything to do with religion seems to have faded altogether. Avant-garde composers renounced the final elements that linked music to faith – the elements of harmony and of beauty as fundamental for musical creativity. Cacophony and disharmony became the constructive fabric with which musical works were built.

With John Cage’s 4:33 we reach the dénouement of this narrative:

The appearance of this work in 1952 bore witness to the fact that the musical Avant-garde had completely exhausted itself – as if it had nothing more to say. Cage’s silence has little in common with the spiritual silence that burgeons from the depths of religious experience: his was simply a soundlessness which testified to the complete spiritual collapse of the musical Avant-garde.

One may of course agree or disagree with this interpretation of the significance of John Cage. The fact that his influence can be detected in ‘spiritual minimalist’ works such as the large-scale Organ and Silence of Tom Johnson (1939 – ) or Valentin Silvestrov’s Hymn 2001 suggests that there may be more common ground between Cage and ‘spiritual silence’ than one might at first suspect. However, Metropolitan Hilarion’s reading of history is certainly not wanting for clarity. Intriguingly, the major exception to his predominantly jaundiced take on modern music is a composer who wrote no overtly ‘sacred music’ whatsoever:

It is my personal view that, in the history of twentieth-century music, there is only one composer who, in terms of talent and depth of inspired searching, comes close to Bach, and that is Shostakovich.

Bach’s music is dedicated to God and permeated by an ecclesiastical spirit. Shostakovich, on the other hand, lived at a different time and in a country where God and the Church were never spoken about openly. Yet at the same time all of his creative work reveals him to have been a believer. While he did not write church music and apparently did not attend Church services, his music nonetheless confirms that he felt deeply the disastrous nature of human existence without God and that he experienced profoundly the tragedy of modern society – a godless society – which had renounced its roots. This yearning for the Absolute, this longing for God, this thirst for truth prevails in all of his works – in his symphonies, quartets, preludes and fugues.

Shostakovich was someone who could not be broken by repression or condemnation by the powers that be. He always served the Truth. I believe that, like Dostoevsky, he was a great spiritual and moral example, whose voice, like that of a prophet, cried out in the wilderness. This voice, however, evoked and continues to evoke a response in the hearts of millions of people.

This retrospective ‘baptism’ of Shostakovich is certainly a bold move on Metropolitan Hilarion’s part, given that his statement that ‘all of his creative work reveals him to have been a believer’ is the last thing that most readers would say on reading the composer’s statements (albeit allowing for a little ‘editorial help’ from Solomon Volkov) in Testimony. However, it is undeniably striking that Shostakovich has haunted many composers of explicitly Christian works – myself included -, of whom Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina and James MacMillan are perhaps the most obvious examples. Indeed, it might not be going too far to say that they have related to a certain intuited spiritual potential in Shostakovich’s music in much the same way as Messiaen related to Debussy’s Pelléas, or Bruckner and Franck to Wagner.


On the subject of contemporary music, Hilarion Alfeyev- who himself writes in an unashamedly tonal/modal idiom, but in a manner which should not simply be dismissed as derivative – is nothing if not outspoken. As one might predict, he feels an affinity with the work of Arvo Pärt, John Taverner and Henryk Górecki (echoes of whose Symphony n.3 can be heard in Hilarion’s St Matthew Passion). Less expected, however, is his advocacy of Karl Jenkins’ Requiem as a ‘real masterpiece of contemporary music’,[3] or his enthusiasm for Andrew Lloyd Webber:

There are compositions in popular music imbued with high spiritual content and are written skillfully (for instance, the famous rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar). No doubt, this composition is not in keeping with church criteria, but the author did not purport to present the canonical image of Christ. He achieved his objective outstandingly well by telling the story of Christ’s Passion in a language understandable to the youth and through the medium of contemporary music. I appreciate this music more emphatically than I do the works of many avant-garde composers, since the latter sometimes eschew melody, harmony, and inner content.

Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk is clearly a man of strong musical as well as theological convictions. Somewhat reminiscent in his directness of the great Russian Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), a prime contributor to the work of the World Council of Churches in its early years, his constructive engagement with ecumenism cannot be taken as implying any kind of easy-going relativism. Archbishop Hilarion rather operates from the premise that genuine dialogue also needs to make space for robust exchange (or even confrontation) if it is to be meaningful.[4] His views on theology and aesthetics may not be to all tastes, but one thing seems certain – given that he is still only in his mid-40s, this is a name of which we are likely to hear much more in the future, both as a churchman and composer. Watch this space.


Pdf scores of some of Metropolitan Hilarion’s works can be downloaded at . An interview in which he talks about his recent meeting with Pope Benedict XVI can be heard on-line at

For video of a Russian TV broadcast of his St Matthew Passion, see



[2] Metropolitan Hilarion’s musical historiography is not dissimilar to those of his composition teacher, the cult figure Vladimir Martynov (1946-), as can be seen from an interview with one of Martynov’s chief advocates in the West, conductor Vladimir Jurowski (who brought Martynov’s controversially polystilistic Dante opera Vita Nuova to London in 2009):


[4] While this approach to Church diplomacy on the part of the Moscow Patriarchate may seem abrasive to some, it cannot be denied that it has yielded genuine fruit on terrain where the avoidance of painful historical issues is impossible, most notably in the form of a recent joint declaration by the Moscow Patriarch and the President of Polish Catholic Bishops which has been hailed as a breakthrough document in terms of reconciliation between the two nations. An English translation of this declaration can be found at

Silvestrov at 75

It may be an event which has largely passed under the Contemporary Music radar, but today is the 75th birthday of the great Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, whose work has been featured in a number of articles on this blog. Silvestrov may not be as well-known a name as other composers of his generation from the former Soviet Union such as Sofia Gubaidulina (1931-) and Arvo Pärt (1935-), but he is the author of a huge and unique body of music, including works such as the Fifth Symphony (1980-82), the cycle of 24 Silent Songs (1974-77), the violin symphony Dedication (1990-91) or Requiem for Larissa (1997-99) which can be said to have become cult classics.


Silvestrov’s dream-like and sometimes frighteningly intimate, private world may not be to all tastes. Certainly listeners who are searching for easy gratification or facile effect will find little here. To those of us, however, who have fallen under its spell there are few composers active today whose music is as consistently mesmeric or emotionally rich. Not merely on account of the notes, which often have a studied anonymity to them, especially on the many occasions on which Silvestrov deliberately restricts himself to a pre-1900 harmonic vocabulary, but also and even perhaps primarily because of what lies between the notes. That which eludes rationalizing analysis, which can only be sensed intuitively. Silvestrov is arguably unparalleled in his attention to the mysterious, indefinable boundary between sound and silence, to minute fluctuations in mood and pulse whose painstaking notation makes his scores far denser than one might suspect on a first hearing. Although he playfully describes his series of limpid Bagatelles as ‘pet animals’ in comparison to the ‘tigers’ of his larger, more philosophical works, to perform even the simplest piano piece of Silvestrov with the requested attention to detail – subtle shading of tone, almost imperceptible shifts in tempo, pedalling as a quasi-autonomous musical parameter – can at times feel like an impossibly demanding task. One that has something of the feel of a metaphysical exercise (Silvestrov’s output for piano includes works with overtly sacred titles such as Sanctus, Benedictus or Hymn 2001 as well as the haunting, quasi-Mozartian The Messenger which doubles as the Agnus Dei of the Requiem). A contemplative attitude is a pre-requisite on the part of the player, who finds herself not so much performing a ‘piece of music’ as meditating on the nature of Music in a supra-personal sense; the composer regards himself not as a creator bringing something into being but rather as the channel through which a pre-existing universal Music flows. Each new work merely continues where other composers of the past (Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, Tchaikovsky …) have left off,  offering one more expression of ‘the song of the world about itself’.[1]

In recent years, Silvestrov’s catalogue has been unexpectedly expanded by a remarkable series of choral works on liturgical texts written for the Kiev Chamber Choir under their director Mykola Hobdych. A first group of these were released by ECM in 2009 on the critically acclaimed CD Sacred Choral Works , including the unearthly Litany and a Diptych which can also be found on a Latvian Radio Choir recording for the GB label of Gavin Bryars, who described it is ‘the most beautiful music I had ever heard’ when he came across the piece without knowing the identity of its author in 2003. In conjunction with Silvestrov’s 75th birthday year, ECM will next month be releasing a second album of Silvestrov’s works for choir dating from 2006-2008 which may not become 2012 ‘s best-selling release but will certainly be on my wishlist.


Although the ECM New Series recordings of Valentin Silvestrov’s music (together with Gidon Kremer’s compelling performance of Dedication with the Munich Philharmonic on TELDEC) probably constitute the best introduction to his catalogue, there is also a fair amount of stimulating live concert footage available on the internet. Silvestrov’s inimitable quasi-improvisatory piano playing can for example be heard at , while he can be seen rehearsing his recent String Quartet n.3 with the Kronos Quartet at . His contribution to Schott Music’s multi-composer ‘Petrushka Project’ can be heard online at,20856.html For serious devotees, a dense but richly rewarding book of interviews  ‘To Wait for Music’ (in Russian), accompanied by a DVD-ROM with most of Silvestrov’s works and unique home-recorded piano sketches can be ordered from the Ukrainian publishers Duh i Litera


Top ten of 2011

Da stand das Meer‘s Top Ten of new sacred music heard (though not necessarily composed) in 2011, listed alphabetically:

  • Eriks Esenvalds (1977-) Passion and Resurrection (Hyperion recording with Stephen Layton, Carolyn Sampson, Polyphony, Britten Sinfonia)
  • Vladimir Godar (1956-) Mater (ECM recording with Iva Bittova, Milos Valent, Marek Stryncl, Solamente Naturali, Bratislava Conservatory Choir, Dusan Bill)
  • Galina Grigorjeva (1962-) Molitva for saxophone and organ (live recording with Virgo Veldi, Ulla Krigul)
  • Sofia Gubaidulina (1931-) In tempus praesens (Deutsche Grammophon recording with Anne-Sophie Mutter, Valery Gergiev, London Symphony Orchestra)
  • Betty Olivero (1954-) Neharo’t, Neharo’t (ECM recording with Alexander Liebreich Kim Kashkashian, An Raskin, Philipp Jungk, Lea Avraham, Ilana Elia, Münchener Kammerorchester)
  • Roxanna Panufnik (1968-) Tallinn Mass ‘Dance of Life’ (Estonian Radio broadcast with Mihhail Gerts, Patricia Rozario, Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and chorus)
  • Arvo Pärt (1935-) Adam’s Lament (live performance with Olari Elts, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris
  • Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-) Mass (live performance with Michael Gläser/Netherlands Radio Choir)
  • Terje Rypdal (1947-) Lux Aeterna (ECM recording with Kjell Seim, Palle Mikkelborg, Iver Kleive, Åshild Stubø Gundersen, Bergen Chamber Ensemble)
  • Valentin Silvestrov (1937-) Sacred choral works (ECM recording/DVD-ROM with book To Wait for Music (Duh i Litera)) with Mykola Hobdych, Kiev Chamber Choir)


Resounding success?

Last week SDG put a link on Facebook to a very stimulating article entitled ‘Classical Music hits a High Note’ which claims (against much conventional received opinion) that, far from being in its death throes, classical music is currently on a surprising upcurve. The evidence? 33 million views for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra finale, a 13% jump in classical CD sales in 2011 compared to 2010 and the burgeoning production of new recordings by orchestras with their own in-house labels.

What is going on here? Does this mean brighter times are ahead for classical music which is now, the author of the article claims, ‘in tune with the masses’? I am always somewhat wary of simplistic analyses, but these figures certainly deserve investigation, even if it should be said that any enthusiasm at a 13% increase in sales compared to 2010 needs to be tempered by a recognition that the portion of the musical market represented by classical sales remains marginal.

MacMillan-St-John-Passion-cover-300x295The recent proliferation of self-produced orchestral recordings, such as those released in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s highly successful ‘Resound’ or the London Symphony Orchestra’s ‘LSO Live’ series, is one interesting trend that merits consideration. Does it mean that orchestral music is now flourishing in a new way, as the article seems to suggest, entering an era in which the shots are no longer called by major record labels, in which recordings can be channeled directly by the performers to an audience empowered with ‘a sense of ownership and belonging’?

Here I think there are grounds both for optimism and caution with regard to such democratizing talk. On one hand, there is definitely a positive aspect to the loosening of the exclusive hold of the majors over the recording of orchestral repertoire (a consequence of the technological advances of the last decade which mean that the equipment required to produce professional-quality audio is now basically accessible to anyone with a laptop, a few software tools and a little know-how) and the by-passing of layers of middle management.  On the other hand, it is perhaps stretching things somewhat to see the creation of record labels by prestigious symphony orchestras as a genuine democratization of musical production: it is important to recognize that we are after all still talking about powerful corporate organizations with multi-million dollar budgets which can hardly be compared to podcasters with USB microphones operating out of their basements.

Even if audio production tools themselves now cost next to nothing, creating music in the professional orchestral and operatic world remains a hugely expensive business by the very virtue of the scale of the human forces and price of the instruments involved in performance. These expenses, linked to the spiralling costs associated with classical music’s love affair with the glamour of star performers, of course mean that in-house labels on their own are not going to stave off the orchestral bankruptcies and threats of closure about which there have been incessant reports on both sides of the Atlantic over the last few years. Assuming that it is desirable for symphony concerts to be affordable to a general public rather than restricted to an elite, the reality is that the future of orchestral music remains dependant on large-scale philanthropy or state subsidies (the latter being the condition of possibility of the laudable commitment to recording less well-known early twentieth-century music by the BBC Philharmonic, one of the orchestras mentioned in the article). To the extent that public and private sector giving are clearly both under intense pressure in the current economic climate, any talk of a new dawn for orchestral culture requires substantial qualification.

Nonetheless, the broader point that the article seems to be making about the positive potential for both producers and listeners of innovation in the area of recording still stands. World-famous orchestras are not the only ensembles to have established their own labels, a strategy which has been used to positive effect by choirs, chamber groups and festivals (such as the pioneering Louth Contemporary Music Society in Ireland) determined not to allow their artistic vision to be constrained by limited budgets.


Equally, if saying that classical music is now ‘in tune with the masses’ may be something of an exaggeration, it is indisputable that it is now available to a greater number of listeners than ever before, especially if the discussion is expanded to include those whose primary interface with music is via digital media. Here it should be remembered – especially by performing musicians and orchestral management who are used to thinking of their audience in terms of those physically present in a concert hall – that this group dwarfs concert-goers in numerical terms. Through recordings, high-quality classical music now reaches many people who have never attended a professional orchestral concert in their lives (a large proportion of the 33 million YouTube viewers, I would suspect). These include those living outside striking range of the large urban centres in which orchestral music is almost exclusively performed, those for whom concert-going is prohibitively expensive, those intimidated or repulsed by the socio-economic connotations of attending a classical concert, the hospitalized and other shut-ins (a significant if little talked-about group of listeners to whom we need to pay more heed, as I have observed elsewhere on this blog)… Perhaps the entry of these diverse and sizeable populations into the orbit of classical music is an area in which we can speak of a genuine democratization and empowerment that is very much in process.

Cries and whispers

Where I feel that the article requires some complementary discussion is in the exclusivity of its focus on the rôle of large, visible institutions in shaping classical music’s future. Important though they may be, music is after all not merely about ‘hitting the high notes’ of public success demonstrated by tangible statistics such as CD sales and box-office takings.  One of the greatest benefits offered to classical music by affordable recorded media has surely been the lease of life brought by recordings to music focused on the invisible, for which the element of ‘spectacle’ in live performance is more of a distraction from musical communication rather than anything else. The game-changing contribution of ECM to classical music over the last three decades is a remarkable testimony to what might be termed the ‘comeback of the private’. Labels such as Manfred Eicher’s have brought to light much music of great intrinsic value which is simply not primarily destined for the limelight of the concert stage or opera house, but which can come into its own in a recorded environment in which the intimacy of a Schubert Impromptu or a Silvestrov Bagatelle is not going to be lost in an over-sized auditorium or shouted out by the sound and fury of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Values such as subtlety of phrasing, delicacy of touch, nuance of instrumental colour and attention to the space between the notes can now be appreciated as perhaps never before – values all the more vital to genuine music-making for being so counter-cultural.


I am not at all arguing here – in contrast to the position taken by, for example, Louis Andriessen as an angry young radical back in the 1970s – that the future for classical music lies in dismantling symphony halls and other centralized musical institutions. Though enormously costly, the corporate ritual of an orchestral concert remains a powerful event, one which can still have a meaningful place in public life in the same way as a stadium gig by U2 or an open-air Mass during the World Youth Days (without going into the rights and wrongs of the case, the current fracas caused by the Proms concert protest against the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is proof that some people at least feel that the symphonic concert is something worth caring about). For all the ambivalence of the dynamics of the music ‘industry’, I do not consider it sentimental to believe that the symphony orchestra is more than a cultural white elephant draining precious resources that would be better used elsewhere. Like any large corporate entity, it retains potential as a force for good in terms of enhancing social cohesion around values of genuine beauty and the realisation of a common project that is more than the sum of its parts (even if it needs to be acknowledged that all such corporate entities have the negative potential of degenerating into de-humanizing systems which can and have frequently been harnassed to darker, totalitarian agendas, as the appropriation of the symphonic tradition by both the Third Reich and the Soviet Union makes all too plain).

There is however surely an important truth in the remark I have quoted elsewhere made by Valentin Silvestrov and cited by Arvo Pärt – both composers whose most important artistic statements are frequently uttered in whispers rather than shouted in public – that ‘nowadays great music isn’t made in concert palaces. Instead, it is created in lofts, basements, and garages.’ Here, my intuition tells me that the advent of recording technology has, like so many human achievements, proved a double-edged sword. On one hand it has undoubtedly played a negative role in generating the omnipresent noise and bluster that characterizes late modernity in an urban Western context. On the other, it has more positively also enabled an increasing number of us to hear that bluster’s whispered opposite, a still small voice that might otherwise have been drowned out in our era of sensory overload.

Whether we can recover the interior silence necessary to pay attention to the message of that voice is another matter.

Close to the edge

‘It seems that when the church engages at the fringes, it almost always brings life to the center. This says a whole lot about God and gospel, and the church will do well to heed it.’ (Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 30)

The South African-Australian writer Alan Hirsch is a provocative thinker whose work on the mission of the contemporary Church in a post-Christendom context has provided me with much food for thought over the last few months. One of his main theses, as expressed by the quote above, is that the Church needs to return from its status as a pillar of the Western social and political establishment since Constantine to the radical engagement of its early centuries as an illegal movement working at the margins of society (pointing to the example of the unprecedented growth of the Church in China in the teeth of Maoist persecution as a template for Christianity today). The context for Hirsch’s remark quoted above concerning the relationship of the fringes and the centre is primarily socio-economic, but I see an intriguing parallel with what I have been observing for a while now on a geographical level in Europe, an area in which Hirsch has – perhaps a little sweepingly – argued elsewhere that there are no credible signs of Christian witness. On the pages of this blog I have tried to contend on a number of occasions that there are in fact such signs in the area of music, of which one seems to be the emergence of spiritually vital artistic initiatives at the Western and Eastern extremities of the European cultural space. This it seems to me is where signals of a renewal of sacred music currently seem to be the strongest in this continent, signals which just maybe serve as a barometer of a more general spiritual re-awakening. There is an uncanny commonality, it seems to me, between the new sacred art presently emerging from the Western edge of Europe (Britain and Ireland), and from the former Eastern bloc, one which will, given time, ‘bring life to the center’ (to adopt Hirsch’s phrase). It is maybe not surprising that the periphery is often the best place to look for creative innovation, as this is where centralizing bureaucracy – the principal instrument of forces wishing to maintain the status quo – are least capable of surveillance and stifling genuine innovation by the imposition of conformity. I could cite many musical examples in support of this intuition, but let me restrict myself to two recent ones. The first was the discovery of the work of the Slovak composer Vladimir Godar (1956 -) in the form of his haunting and powerful Mater, recorded by ECM in 2005. It made me wonder how much creativity from Central and Eastern Europe’s smaller nations may be going unnoticed at an international level for the lack of exposure in the West, and what the impact may be once figures such as Godar come to broader attention.  The second was a radio broadcast of Roxanna Panufnik’s new large-scale Tallinn Mass, a British-Estonian collaboration whose near-hypnotic conclusion (compellingly performed by Indian-British soprano Patricia Rozario and local Estonian forces) struck me as some of the strongest contemporary choral music I have heard for a long time.

What counts as the ‘fringes’ of Europe is of course a matter of personal opinion, but the question of whether it is to the continent’s apparent backwaters rather than to Europe’s major cultural hubs that we should be looking for signs of renewal did cross my mind this week as I travelled to Sarospatak in Eastern Hungary, a stone’s throw from borders with Rumania, Slovakia and the Ukraine. Technically this is still Mitteleuropa, but the four-hour train ride eastwards from Budapest definitely gave me the feeling of heading out towards some kind of cultural rim. For several years now, the historic Reformed Collegium in Sarospatak has been the scene of the Crescendo Institute, a pioneering venture in combining high-level music-making and Christian spirituality which has become the region’s largest summer musical academy, drawing participants from a wide range of countries from the US to Vietnam and China. Last year my Hermosura de Dios orchestral song-cycle on words of Saint Teresa of Avila was given its first performance at the Institute (twinned with the Zemplen Festival) by the leading Hungarian mezzo-soprano Andrea Melath. The orchestra conducted by fellow Soli Deo Gloria board member Delta David Gier featured both highly talented students coming from everywhere between Lisbon and Moscow as well as members of the Prague Philharmonia, Dallas Symphony and Cleveland Orchestras. This year, as well as making a couple of spoken presentations on music and faith to the students, I had further proof of the talent on view in Sarospatak when acting as one of the judges of the Institute’s Concerto competition, having the privilege of hearing young Eastern European violinists and flutists every bit as accomplished as the leaders and soloists of many a Western European orchestra.

One particularly interesting event at the Institute was an enthralling lecture on the occasion of the bicentenary of the birth of Franz Liszt in 1811 by the Dutch musicologist Marcel Zwitser, dealing with the intriguing question of the apparent contradiction between Liszt as the 19th century’s foremost rock star and Liszt the musical Franciscan, the composer of almost frighteningly stripped-down scores such as the Via Crucis, whose harmony not only seems to anticipate the Grenzwelt of late Reger, early Bartok or Scriabin, but even the ‘spiritual minimalism’ of the late 20th and 21st centuries. What is remarkable – though clearly not to all tastes – in the late Liszt is that he seems to be the first composer (with the notable exception of Schubert in his bleakest songs such as Der Leiermann or Der Doppelgänger, which Liszt significantly transcribed for solo piano) to have grasped that what is left out of a composition can in fact be just as if not more important than the actual notes on the page. Whether in his overtly religious works of his late period or in the existential wanderings of pieces such as Nuages Gris and the Funeral Gondolas, it is clear that Liszt’s primary interest is in the empty and frequently desolate space between the notes. In opening himself up to this space, Liszt effects an astonishing philosophical reversal from the virtuosity of his early compositions. He no longer dominates the musical material through technique but rather allows the silence to speak for itself – a stance which constitutes the very essence of spiritual minimalism. It is in the embrace of this concept that Liszt is a true radical: there is a remarkable coherence between his ‘Franciscan’ ideal of renunciation and the ‘voluntary poverty’ of an Arvo Pärt, embodied in the decision not to use all technical means at the composer’s disposal, but rather to seek artistic truth through an act of what Valentin Silvestrov has referred to as musical ‘disarmament’ [разоружение].[1] In the case of the Via Crucis the correspondence between the extreme frugality of musical means and the subject-matter of the self-emptying of God could not be clearer: what we have here is the equivalent of musical ‘kenotic’ theology, an exploration of the Godforsakenness of the Cross as disturbingly modern in its own way as the expressionism of Jürgen Moltmann’s Crucified God or Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Mysterium Paschale a century later.

This quality in Liszt of the struggle of faith with the apparent absence of God was recently pointed out by Pope Benedict XVI (one of von Balthasar’s collaborators) after a concert of Liszt’s music performed in the Vatican by the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra under Zoltan Kocsis, featuring Liszt’s extended and rarely-heard setting of Psalm 13. Dating from 1855, this 25-minute work is not written in the extreme idiom of the Via Crucis, yet there is a distinct similarity on the level of textual content:

‘This piece dates back to the years in which Liszt stayed in Tivoli and Rome; it was a period when the composer lived his faith intensely, so much so that he almost exclusively wrote sacred music. Let us remember that he took minor orders. The piece which we have heard gives us an idea of the quality and depth of this faith. It is a Psalm in which the praying person is in a difficult situation, the enemy surrounds and besieges him, God seems absent and seems to have forgotten him. And his anguished prayer rises in the face of this situation of abandonment: “How long, O Lord”, the Psalmist repeats four times. The tenor and the choir repeat “Herr, wie lange?”, in an almost incessant way. It is the cry of man and of humanity that feels the weight of evil that is in the world. Liszt’s music conveys to us this sense of heaviness and distress. But God does not abandon. The Psalmist knows this, Liszt does too; as a man of faith, he knows. From the anguish, a cry full of faith leading to joy is born: “My heart shall rejoice in thy salvation. I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me”. Here Liszt’s music transforms itself: the tenor, choir and orchestra raise an anthem full of confidence in God, who never betrays, never forgets, never leaves us by ourselves.'[2]

Pope Benedict’s appeal to Liszt as a composer steeped in prayer is certainly historically grounded, but how does it sit with the near-universal cliché of Liszt as an inveterate womanizer (with his virtuoso piano recitals as domineering acts of seduction), the ‘ultimate Romantic’ in his dealings with the opposite sex? A discussion of the truth of such a view is beyond the scope of this post (and my musicological competence), but what is absolutely undeniable is the passionate eroticism of much of Liszt’s piano music, not excluding works with explicitly religious subject-matter such as the composer’s own favourite piece (and mine), Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. Listening to the work being played eloquently during Marcel Zwitser’s lecture by the highly gifted young Russian pianist Polina Kulikova, I was struck by the proximity of the Bénédiction‘s ecstatic nature mysticism to the harmonic progressions of the Liebestod of Tristan und Isolde (the object of another of Liszt’s transcriptions for solo piano). While Liszt’s Catholicism and the longing for a pantheistic absorption into the Weltall expressed by Wagner are in many respects very different, the fact that the music is so similar gives pause for thought. A powerfully erotic spirituality seems to characterize both these instances, but one which in my opinion is (contrary to the view of many of Liszt’s critics) not reducible to a will to sexual domination. The shared element found both in the Bénédiction and the Liebestod is rather a passionate longing for the ultimate communion, the dissolution of the subject-object dialectic, a desire that has been a mark of mystical thought in many religious traditions (the Song of Songs being a prime example). Already in the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses Liszt seems to want to transcend the self, whether in the ecstasy of Romantic love or in the rapt contemplation of Creation. For Liszt, eros and agape are definitely not polar opposites, but rather two sides of the same coin. If in his late works this urge towards self-transcendence takes a radically pared-down form, this should perhaps not be viewed as such a suprise, being simply a new expression of an intense desire  for self-surrender which had already been present in his earlier music. In this respect Liszt’s spiritual evolution is maybe not so much a reversal as a purification of a basic attitude which remains consistent throughout his life.

'Four Ages of Liszt', Etude magazine, 1913

One composer to have grasped this aspect of Liszt was Olivier Messiaen (whose ‘ecstatic’ use of the key of F sharp major in works such as Le Banquet céleste and Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus is clearly Lisztian), whose work is marked by a very similar juxtaposition of the sacred and the unashamedly erotic. In his book of conversations with Antoine Goléa (1961), Messiaen responded to critics of his own patently sexual pieces such as Cinq Rechants bycomplaining that the notion of Romantic love in the popular imagination is a pitifully debased and misunderstood caricature of a noble spiritual ideal. For Messiaen, the placing of human and divine love in essential contradiction to one another is a fundamental mistake. Great lovers are as rare as great saints in Messiaen’s view, presumably because they share the same quest for self-abandonment (in this context it is interesting to note that, like his Hungarian predecessor, Messiaen found himself irresistibly drawn to Francis as the epitome of human sainthood) in the other. Against the reduction of notions of the erotic to the exploits of Don Giovanni, Messiaen remarked, with typical Gallic vigour:

“I prefer the attitude of Liszt, answering the importunate question of what he thought of Mme d’Agoult: “What do I think of her? But I would throw myself out of the window for her!'[3]

Franz Liszt, am Flügel phantasierend, 1840 (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin). Liszt is depicted between George Sand and Marie d’Agoult (reclining against the piano)


[1] Valentin Silvestrov, To Wait for the Music: conversational lectures (Kiev: Duh i Litera, 2010), 263 ff.


[3]  ‘Je préfère l’attitude de Liszt, répondant à un fâcheux qui lui demandait ce qu’il pensait de Mme d’Agoult : « Ce que j’en pense ? Mais je me jetterais pour elle par la fenêtre ! »’ Antoine Goléa, Rencontres avec Olivier Messiaen (Paris: Julliard, 1961), 42.




Jacques Ellul and the Empire of Nonsense – alternative visions?

Towards the end of Jacques Ellul’s challenging diagnosis of modern art’s (and society’s) technical captivity entitled The Empire of Non-Sense, Ellul makes a profound plea for the renewal of culture in the eloquent, if polemical style that makes him such a captivating writer:

‘First of all it must be acknowledged that art for a century now has been on a completely false path, has subjected itself to the powers, only witnesses to the defeat of man. Then it must be acknowledged that art will not recover its vocation, value and truth by a scientific route. But this sense and these values cannot of course come from the outside, cannot be proposed by an intellectual, a philosopher, a moralist; it is the artist who must once more become the creator, not only of forms and combinations, but really the creator, with and for the group or society, of what will henceforth be accepted as sense and values. And all this, not via an ineffective intellectual or moralizing discourse , but rather through a profound re-discovery informing the whole work, capable of being heard and accepted. Failed attempts – Böll, West, Chagall, Dali, Bunuel, Bergman, Fellini, Saint-John Perse, Neruda, failed attempts. Who can take the boat all the way out to sea?’ [1]

Clearly Ellul (whose list of unsuccessful but courageous explorers interestingly fails to mention any musicians) is talking about a genuine aesthetic revival in accord with a re-conceptualization of the rôle of art in Western society, not simply the importing of ‘values’ into art whose internal workings remain imprisoned within the parameters dictated by what he defines as the Système Technique, the all-pervasive idolization of technology for its own sake. Attempts to import meaning can only lead to superficial propaganda, the ‘tacking on’ of a message external to the art itself (I would suggest that many of the problems affecting specifically Christian cultural expressions are related to the failure to understand this problem). What is needed is a radical break with our pathological but intoxicating love affair with technical means.

In this post I would like to point to three artists born within five years of each other who do not feature on Ellul’s list of those brave enough to attempt the return to content, but who in my opinion grasp the essence of his call to resist the temptation to reduce art to technique. In some respects they form a triangle – two composers: Arvo Pärt (1935-) and Valentin Silvestrov (1937-), and a film director with whom they are frequently linked in discussions of their work, Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986).

Andrei Tarkovsky – last of the Mohicans?

When reading Ellul’s Empire, I was immediately reminded of passages from Andrei Tarkovsky’s remarkable reflections on the cinema and art more generally entitled Sculpting in Time in which the great Russian director of Andrei Roublev, Stalker and The Sacrifice bemoans the lack of spirituality in modern artistic production. Like the French philosopher, Tarkovsky is deeply suspicious of belief in ‘progress’, of materialism in both its Western consumerist and Marxist dialectical variants, seeing modern technological contrivances as symbols of ‘human error.'[2] In a particularly striking chapter entitled ‘Cinema’s destined role’, Tarkovsky identifies the underlying emptiness beneath avant-garde theoretical justifications of artistic ‘research’:

‘There is nothing more absurd than the term of ‘research’ applied to a work of art. In reality it merely veils an impotence, an inner void, a lack of true creative sense, and a pathetic, worthless vanity.’ [3]

The use of the word ‘research’ in this context, claims Tarkovsky (following Paul Valéry), implies that modern art has abandoned its true vocation – the search for aesthetic plenitude, the quest for the ideal. Avant-garde rhetoric of ‘experimentation’ is a mere smokescreen masking the abdication of artistic responsibility for the generation of convincing art-works. The consequence of this abdication is that the greater part of modern art has no depth or mystery. What is left is an emphasis on facile effect as artists content themselves with the superficial rewards of this world, unwilling to sacrifice immediate gratification of the ego for the pursuit of higher goals:

‘What passes for the art of our times is often only the promotion of oneself. It is an error to believe that method can pass for being the sense and goal of art. Yet the majority of contemporary artists give themselves over, with a frenetic exhibitionism, to the demonstration of their methods.

The problem raised by the avant-garde is also that of the 20th century, an epoch when art has progressively distanced itself from spirituality. The situation is particularly disastrous in the plastic arts, which are entirely empty of any spirituality. It is habitual to admit that this state of things is only the reflection of a de-spiritualized society. At the level of a simple acknowledgement of a tragic situation, this is exact. But if one also admits that art is called to transcend this insufficiency, then this acknowledgement must be heard as a spiritual call, as with Dostoevsky, for example, who with the force of his genius was the first to express the sickness of the coming century.’ [4]

In contrast, Tarkovsky conceives the artist’s calling in terms of a self-effacing (or kenotic, to use theological language) response to the call of duty that looks for more than instantaneous recognition. The beauty of the act of artistic creation, as Tarkovsky states in the final pages of Sculpting in Time written just before his death in 1986, lies in its lack of utility value, being ‘absurd and gratuitous’ [5] and therefore an expression of the image of the Creator within us.[6] To express this idea of a self-emptying which has nothing to do with the flight from individual responsibility, Tarkovsky borrows an image cherished by Ingmar Bergman (one of Tarkovsky’s main influences and a figure on Ellul’s list of heroic failures):

‘The arrogance of our contemporaries is astonishing if we compare it to the modesty of the builders of Chartres Cathedrals, whose names still remain unknown to us. An artist should be recognized by his disinterested manner of accomplishing his duty. But that is something we all forgot a long time ago.’ [7]

Naturally such artistic self-sacrifice can only come in the name of a belief in human community and in transcendent values. Tarkovsky is talking about art in terms of the desire for ek-stasis, a being outside oneself in the humble, contemplative presence of a higher reality. His work is shot through with the conviction, expressed in overtly Christian terms but also open to the influence of Oriental philosophy,[8] that this reality transcends that which is immediately visible. A recurring figure in his films is that of the idealist, ‘the weak man’ confined to the margins of society, in conflict with a world of materialist pragmatism:

‘I have always loved those who do not manage to adapt themselves pragmatically to reality. There have never been any heroes in my films, but characters whose strength is their spiritual conviction and who take responsibility for others on themselves. Such characters are like children with the gravity of adults, endowed with an irrealistic and disinterested attitude from the point of view of common sense.’ [9]

A prime example is the title character of Stalker, who believes that it is his calling to lead people through the ‘Zone’ (to all appearances an unprepossessing patch of grass, water and a few buildings in a desolate landscape which some have seem as eerily foreshadowing Chernobyl [10]) to a Room in which one’s deepest desires are fulfilled. A seemingly half-crazed prophet excluded from society’s mainstream, described by Tarkovsky as ‘the last of the Mohicans, a relic of a passing age, an idealist’ [11], the Stalker defends ‘weakness as the only true value and hope in life’ [12], fiercely opposing his spiritual voice to a world suffering from ‘an omnipresent pragmatism akin to a malignant tumour’.[13] He finds himself in a philosophical and existential dialogue with two characters, the Writer and the Professor, whom he selflessly accompanies to the Room, who represent the ‘realist principle so manifest in contemporary life’. In the end the Stalker, in whom only his wife maintains a child-like faith, breaks down when his rationalizing companions (of whom the Professor symbolizes modern science in all its Ellulian ambiguity [14]) refuse to believe in his vision.

1+1=1 : Tarkovsky and Arvo Pärt

In Tarkovsky’s subsequent film Nostalghia, set and shot in Italy, a similar rôle is played by the mad visionary Domenico, who finally immolates himself in Rome, in an attempt to sacrifice himself in place of a world rushing headlong towards its ruin. Scorned by society as a dangerous idiot for having locked up his family out of a belief in the end of the world, he nonetheless exerts a strange attraction on the film’s central character, the poet Gortchakov (in whom Tarkovsky saw himself) as strangely embodying an attitude dear to the Russian intelligensia at its best: ‘a moral conscience, always dissatisfied, compassionate towards the poor, and which fervently searches for faith, the ideal and the good’ [15].

Domenico is a former mathematician; when Gortchakov visits him, he sees the formula ‘1 + 1 = 1’ scrawled on the wall, which Domenico illustrates by pouring two drops of olive oil into the palm of his hand, saying “One drop plus one drop makes a larger drop, not two” [16]. This seems to constitute Domenico’s philosophical credo, one that suggests, in its opposition to conventional logic, that the world is not a mere aggregate of isolated atoms, but constitutes a profound unity that reconciles the One and the Many.

Intriguingly, this formula (which some commentators have related to the anti-rationalist protest in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground against the ‘stone wall’ of mathematical logic represented by ‘2+2=4′[17]) is also the one used by Arvo Pärt to encapsulate the tintinnabuli style that he discovered in 1975-6 after several years of searching for a cohesive language following his abandonment of a strict adherence to avant-garde atonality at the end of the 1960s. The essence of Pärt’s style is a two-part texture in which a melodic voice (symbolizing the realm of subjective experience, ‘the daily egoistic life of sin and suffering’) is always accompanied, or enfolded by, a second voice drawn from the notes of the minor triad (symbolizing the ‘objective realm of forgiveness’). What emerges is however not two polarized voices but a larger unity. Here is where Pärt brings in Domenico’s paradoxical, non-dualist equation:

“This can be likened to the eternal dualisms of body and spirit, earth and heaven; but the two voices are in reality one voice, a twofold single entity. This can be neatly and enigmatically represented by the following equation:1 + 1 = 1” [18]

I have no evidence that Pärt took this directly from Tarkovsky, but it seems more than likely given that the composer and ECM producer Manfred Eicher dedicated the CD Arbos (1987) to the memory of the film director.[19] More important than the factual question of the degree of contact that Pärt and Tarkovsky may or may not have had is the undeniable spiritual commonality between the two.

As I have written elsewhere, the turning-point in Arvo Pärt’s trajectory came in 1968 with his rejection of the idea of artistic ‘progress’ as a philosophically invalid transposition of a scientific concept. Being ‘contemporary’ has nothing to do with superficial innovation:

‘Many art objects of the past appear to be more contemporary than our present art. How do we explain it ? […] I think the modernity of Bach’s music will not vanish in another two hundred years, and perhaps never will […] the secret to its contemporaneity resides in the question : How thoroughly has the author-composer perceived, not his own present, but the totality of life, its joys, worries and mysteries ?’ [20]

In Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky expresses the same sentiment, refusing the importation of technological criteria into the evaluation of art:

‘This notion of the avant-garde in art is absurd. I can understand what it means in the field of sport, for example. But to apply it to art is to accept the notion of progress there. Of course I recognize  technological progress, the desire to make machines which are ever more powerful and precise. But progress in art? … That would be equivalent to asking me whether Thomas Mann is better than Shakespeare.’

‘Would it not be absurd to say that Dante’s Divine Comedy is obsolete? And yet films which a few years ago were events suddenly become clumsy, impotent, almost academic. Why? The main reason, it seems to me, is the inability of the director to identify his work with a creative act, an act which would have been a vitally important moral undertaking, and without which no work of art can exist. In reality it is the deliberate desire to be expressive and modern which dates. One does not become what one is not.’ [21]

Crucial to both Tarkovsky and Pärt is the concept of self-emptying. Just , as the notion of the sacrifice of oneself is central to Tarkovsky’s films, so Pärt’s critical turn to a radically simple language in the 1970s represents an act of self-denial, the embrace of ‘voluntary poverty’. The technological dimension of this becomes clear when it is remembered that Pärt had in the 1960s been working as a radio engineer (which is how he had gained access to the scores of the Western avant-garde at a time when official Soviet ideology frowned upon such contact) – the development of Pärt’s tintinnabuli style is bound up with a deliberate renunciation of surface technical solutions to deeper artistic problems. Pärt describes this in terms that parallel the logic of The Empire of Non-sense almost to the letter; like Ellul, he grasped in the 1970s that technology is not merely a value-free tool, but has an autonomous dynamic of its own that is capable of ensnaring those who use it. Just as he sought to pare music down to absolute essentials, so he sensed the need to do the same in terms of his approach to technical equipment:

‘When I worked at the radio I manipulated sophisticated, efficient instruments such as loudspeakers and tape recorders, but suddenly I felt the necessity of distancing myself from such luxury, because I had the feeling that it would have trapped me and forced me to proceed in a different direction. Subsequently, when I had to work with equipment, I chose the simplest, a very primitive recorder which could only offer me what was essential, the absolute minimum. High and low frequencies or noise reduction were of no importance to me: I only wanted a musical line that could convey soul, such as existed in the songs of distant times, just as is still the case in folklore: an absolute monody, a bare voice from which everything originates.’ [22]

Waiting for Music – Valentin Silvestrov

A similar lack of concern for everything but the essential can be found in a remarkable book entitled To Wait for Music, the transcript of a series of ‘conversational lectures’ given by the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov (described by both Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Pärt as one of the most important composers of his generation). While it will probably take me several months to get through the fascinating but densely philosophical text given my modest level of literary Russian, what has immediately grabbed me is the accompanying DVD featuring more or less all Silvestrov’s works in mp3 format (a huge 300 plus movements of music!). Some of the most fascinating material is provided in the form of a multitude of small-scale piano pieces, works in sketch form and songs, recorded in decidedly low-tech fashion by Silvestrov at home on his scarcely-in-tune piano (with even less concern for noise reduction than with Pärt, as if to say that allowing the sounds of life into the art-work is actually integral to Silvestrov’s concept of music). This is not of course to say that Silvestrov’s oeuvre has not benefited immensely from polished performances and high-quality recordings such as the Sony Classical release of the Fifth Symphony under David Robertson or the Teldec disc of Dedication with Gidon Kremer, which allow the full radiant beauty of his orchestration to be heard. But such recordings only build on an existing musical foundation, never functioning as a substitute for it.

Silvestrov’s music for voice and piano is one area where his communicative power is at its greatest (the cycles Silent Songs and Steps should surely be ranked among the greatest twentieth-century works in the genre) and requires no glamorous presentation or packaging. One of the most moving of these pieces – and one which I have found myself playing almost obsessively on a loop during recent weeks – is an otherwise unrecorded five-minute setting of Anna Akhmatova’s poem Third and Last entitled Chaconne for voice and piano (2007), in which Silvestrov takes as his departure-point Bach’s immortal Chaconne for solo violin, mentioned in the second line of the text. What is remarkable is the manner in which Silvestrov himself sings the piece in his hesitant, rasping yet unforgettably expressive voice, conveying a world of emotional brokenness that a professional singer would find hard to evoke.[23] The espressive power is not to be found in what singing technique considers important (breath control, beauty of tone, steadiness of pitch), but – in a complete inversion of values – in their opposites, in the fragile vulnerability of the moment when the voice breaks, when technique is no longer able to maintain the illusion of mastery. This seems consistent with Silvestrov’s suspicion of modern concert life as little more than a game of appearances. His point seems to be this: music does not merely belong to the slickly-marketed star of the concert hall appearing on the cover of The Gramophone, a projection of the pathological craving for success and power which is at the root of Ellul’s technical Empire. It is also the language of those such as Akhmatova whom power has silenced, the victims, the grieving; not merely the public expression of adulthood in its confident prime, but also that of the more private worlds of childhood, infirmity and old age. [24]

In the opening pages of Waiting for Music, Silvestrov explains that he had consistently refused the suggestion that he set down his copious thoughts on musical aesthetics in writing until he recently read through a certain unnamed text-book on contemporary music. What he found most disturbing was that the book concentrated exclusively on questions of method, thereby evading deeper issues of the artistic process. Like both Ellul and Tarkovsky (to whom Silvestrov is frequently compared, not least on account of his treatment of time [25]), Silvestrov sees this as typical of a shift in the twentieth century exemplified in the ‘musical heresy’ of ‘methodocentrism’. Here he points to the many avant-garde composers who rose to international prominence on account of their methods of sound manipulation rather than the ability of their works to communicate with the listener. Of course, Silvestrov admits, it is possible to talk of method in relation to the work of Bach or Beethoven, but the truly great music of the past is irreducible to mere matters of compositional technique, since comprehension of its substance requires that we be impregnated with the spiritual state of its authors.[26] Perennial works of art can never be methodocentric.

This critique should not be understood as conservative reaction; Silvestrov has always conceived of himself in ‘avant-garde’ terms, not only in the early period of his powerful atonal works such as Eschatophonie (1966, of which the masterly performance in Darmstadt under Bruno Maderna that enthused Adorno is included on the DVD accompanying To Wait for Music), but also in his unequivocally tonal compositions of the mid-1970s onwards. What is needed for the renewal of music is not the replacement of one compositional method by another, but the reassertion of the primacy of substance over method in general. This requires a different understanding of the meaning of the term ‘novelty’ from the one accepted by the modernist paradigm; Silvestrov pleads for a ‘personalist’ approach subordinating matters of idiom to the question of depth, judging music on its capacity to inspire repeated listening, with the listener discovering new dimensions of artistic personality each time.

In an age of disposability (which Silvestrov associates with the technology-driven phenomenon of information overload), this is indeed a radically counter-cultural stance. However, it is clear that this ‘personalism’ is not a Romantic cult of the ego, since it has to be placed within the context of Silvestrov’s search for a ‘weak’ or ‘metaphorical’ style in which he does not so much express himself via music as allows the world to ‘sing itself’ through him. What we have with Silvestrov is something very similar to Pärt’s quest for the reconciliation of the subjective and the objective within a larger unity (1+1=1): on one level Silvestrov’s music is frequently unashamedly emotional, yet that emotion speaks to us precisely because it is not individualistic. What is most deeply and truly personal is also what is most ‘anonymous’ – and here Silvestrov seems driven by the same yearning for anonymity as Messiaen, Tarkovsky and Bergman – and thereby universal.

The End of Empire?

Does the artistic, and specifically musical, situation look more hopeful in 2011 than in 1980 when Ellul penned his Empire of Non-Sense? On one level, it is obvious that the monopoly of High Modernism has been broken within contemporary ‘classical’ music, and that tonally-centred composition has returned to favour in many quarters on both sides of the Atlantic. However, I would question whether this is in itself as significant as is sometimes claimed if Silvestrov’s thesis is accepted, namely that art is not primarily concerned with style. A superficial return to tonality at the technical level, ignoring fundamental philosophical issues of music and simply dismissing the legitimate questions posed by the avant-garde does not necessarily generate artistic depth, if the basic premise that artistic problems can be solved by substituting one method for another remains unquestioned. If I have focussed here on the contributions of three artists of a certain generation from the ex-Soviet Union, all ‘children with the gravity of adults’, to use Tarkovsky’s phrase, it is because they are figures who like Ellul seem to me to have tackled such problems at the core rather than simply addressing external symptoms. The output of Tarkovsky, Pärt and Silvestrov – all technical masters who nonetheless share Ellul’s critique of the technological mindset – seems to be calling us to a deeper, more demanding engagement with art in the search for the pearl of great price that is meaning, not success or immediate effect. This call is demanding because of its ascetic dimension, the denial of our false selves obsessed with knowledge as power and control that is indispensable if we are to find our true selves. For the Empire of Nonsense can only be deconstructed by the renunciation of all empire-building.

Andrei Tarkovsky's grave, Ste Geneviève des Bois nr. Paris

‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.’ (Psalm 51:17)



[1] Jacques Ellul, L’Empire du non-sens (Paris: PUF, 1980) 285-286. Translation mine.
[2]  John Gianvito (ed.), Andrei Tarkovsky: interviews (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2006), 173.
[3] Andrei Tarkovsky, Le temps scellé (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2004), 114. All page references are to the French edition. Translation mine.
[4] Ibid., 115. Tarkovsky is sometimes accused of hypocrisy in his critique of method, given the intensely technical nature of his cinematographic procedures, but it seems obvious that what he is criticizing is not so much technique when properly employed, but its substition for content.
[5] Ibid., 282.
[6] Among Tarkovski’s diaries (collected as Martyrolog), the entry for April 14, 1986 contains the words: ‘Everything humanity has ever invented is selfish except works of art. Perhaps the meaning of human existence lies in creating works of art, in creative act, purposeless and unselfish one. It’s possible us being created in God’s image manifests itself through this act’ (reproduced online at
[7] Le temps scellé, 223. Compare this with Ingmar Bergman’s famous statement in the 1954 essay ‘The Making of Film’, where the reconstruction of Chartres Cathedral comes to emblematize art’s function as providing a focus of social cohesion as individuals find meaning in devoting themselves to a project which is larger than any of them in isolation:

“There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lighting and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuilt the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed – master builders, artists, labores, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built  the cathedral of Chartres.”

“Thus if I am asked what I would like the general purpose of my films to be, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain. I want to make a dragon’s head, an angel, a devil – or perhaps a saint – out of stone. It doesn not matter which; it is the sense of satisfaction that counts. regardless of whether I believe or not; whether I am a Christian or not, I would play my part in the collective building of a cathedral.”

This is closely echoed in very similar statements by Olivier Messiaen, who in later life regretted that he was not working at a time when musicians were anonymous as they had been at the time of the rise of Gregorian chant:

‘As a religious musician, what makes me most jealous is the anonymity of medieval Christian composers. They wrote the whole of Gregorian chant. There can be found admirable melodies and rhythms, nobody knows by whom! This collective work of craftsmanship is the antithesis of the arrogance of twentieth-century composers’ (Saint François d’Assise: libretto, analyse, commentaire, documentation (Paris: Editions Premières Loges, 1992), 11. Translation mine).

[8] ‘The East was closer to the truth than the West. But western civilization flooded the East with its material pretentions. Compare oriental and western music. The West calls out: “Here I am! Look at me! Listen to how I suffer, how I love! How unhappy I am, how happy I am! I! Me! My! Mine!’ As for the East, it says nothing about itself, being completely open to God, Nature and Time’ (Le temps scellé, 281).
[9] Ibid., 240.
[10] According to one of Stalker‘s protagonists, actor Anatoli Solonitsyn, the ‘Zone’ appeared because of a breakdown in bunker four of the power plant where the film’s action occurs. In 1986 it was the explosion of the fourth energy sector at Chernobyl which led to a 30-kilometre exclusion zone being enforced around the site. Whatever one may think of the ‘prophetic’ element in the film,  Stalker and Chernobyl are undeniably and tragically linked in terms of the consequences of industrial pollution: the shooting of Stalker at a half-functioning hydroelectric station near Tallinn in Estonia, near to a chemical plant pouring poisonous liquid into the river Piliteh, is thought to have caused the deaths of Tarkovsky, his wife Larissa and Solonitsyn from cancer several years later.
[11] Interview Intervista a Tarkovskij with Luisa Capo in “Scena”, 1980 (3) supplement “Achab” No. 4, 119–127 [Pol. trans. Marian Jurewicz]. Reproduced online at
[12] Le temps scellé, 240.
[13] Intervista a Tarkovskij with Luisa Capo in “Scena”.
[14] The Professor is anxious to destroy the Room out of fear of the consequences of the possibility of human wishes being granted. Tarkovsky comments that ‘he behaves towards the Zone the way he in fact should behave towards his knowledge. Science, technology and their development are even more dangerous than the Room itself’ (ibid.).
[15] Le temps scellé, 242.
[16] See Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie, The films of Andrei Tarkovsky: a Visual Fugue (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994), 286.
[17] See Johnson and Petrie, The films of Andrei Tarkovsky, 257. In Notes from Underground, the Underground Man protests vehemently against the ‘stone wall’ of positivism:

‘Merciful Heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four? Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength.’

‘Mathematical certainty is after all something insufferable. Twice two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence. Twice two makes four is a pert coxcomb who stands with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting. I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too’ (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, The Double and other stories (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003), 242, 261).

[18] Arbos is not the only ECM homage to Tarkovsky; the saxophonist Jan Garbarek also dedicated his All those born with wings (ECM 1324) to the Russian director, while more recently within the ECM stable the French pianist François Couturier has formed a Tarkovsky Quartet with musicians including Anja Lechner, a prominent exponent of the works of Silvestrov.
[19] Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 96. In an important extended conversation with Enzo Restagno, Pärt explains that this concept is different from that of the Renaissance polyphonists, for whom lines are essentially separate (see Enzo Restagno (ed.), Arvo Pärt allo specchio: Conversazioni, saggi e testimonianze (Milan: Saggiatore, 2004), 49-50).
[20] Enzo Restagno (ed.), Arvo Pärt allo specchio, 45-46.
[21] Quoted in Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt, 65. Translation emended.
Andrei Tarkovsky, Le temps scellé, 115, 118.
[23] Akhmatova’s poem relates to her tragic meetings with the Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin (at the time the First Secretary of the British Embassy in Moscow) in Leningrad in November 1945 and January 1946 which incurred the wrath of Stalin and led to the poetess’s subsequent Communist Party denunciation at the hands of Andrei Zhdanov.
[24] In his concern for miniatures and his belief that music is ‘child’s play’ Silvestrov in some ways resembles György Kurtag.
[25] This comparison is for example made by conductor Vladimir Jurowski in a London Philharmonic Orchestra podcast introduction to Silvestrov’s Fifth Symphony (1980-82) which can be heard here. Jurowski views its hypnotic slowness as similar to the atmosphere of Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker, although one might have thought that pride of place in this respect would have gone to Nostalghia (the title of one of Silvestrov’s myriad solo piano works).
[26] Valentin Silvestrov, To Wait for Music: conversational lectures (Kiev: Duh i Litera, 2010), 2-3.

The Professor is anxious to destroy the Room out of fear of the consequences of the possibility of human wishes being granted. Tarkovsky comments that ‘he behaves towards the Zone the way he in fact should behave towards his knowledge. Science, technology and their development are even more dangerous than the Room itself’ (Intervista a Tarkovskij in “Scena”).