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23 February, 2015  ▪  Philippe de Lara

Valentyn Sylvestrov: Composer of Freedom

Ukraine changed my life twice. The first time was when I discovered this country, its noble people, its tragedies, and its struggle for freedom that offers a model for all of Europe. The second time was when I discovered the music of Valentyn Sylvestrov.

A genius, the renaissance of contemporary music, endless beauty, richness of form and feeling. I hesitate, reading back this fulsome language that comes to mind, when trying to convey how these works influence the listener. Yet the right to use such descriptives comes from the many renowned modern-day composers who have echoed similar thoughts and who see in Sylvestrov “a guide on a clearly marked path” (Sofia Gubaidulina, Russia) and an important composer’s composer (Arvo Pärt, Estonian), as well as the interpreters of Sylvestrov’s music, first among whom is Mykola Hobdych, choir director and founder of the Kyiv choir, whose talent seems to form a single whole with Sylvestrov’s choral works.

I’ll start with the experience of Sylvestrov’s works, something that many musicians have described, including Russian cellist Ivan Monighetti, in a similar manner: Sylvestrov’s music changes the way we experience other composers. Anyone of my readers can try this little experiment. Listen to a well-known work that you truly love, but first, listen to Sylvestrov. The well-known piece will have changed, become more alive, more mobile, its majestic, familiar structures disappear, giving way to the sequence of events and the ordering of the elements. The formal unity, both mystical and artistic, that moves us in the works of great composers such as Bach or Beethoven, suddenly allows us to escape into unexpected streams. Motifs and figures take on a new freedom, the work opens itself up as if to allow the melody to take over.

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I tried this experiment with Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. The idea of combining it with Sylvestrov’s music first occurred to me during a conversation with my friend Kostiantyn Sihov, who introduced me to this composer. What I mean is that many of Sylvestrov’s works give the impression that, long before the first note, they are already coming from afar. I had the same impression from the introductory theme of the first part of this symphony by Brahms as well. In time, I found out that Sylvestrov himself insists on this kind of quality in his own music: on reminiscence, echoes, returns, “wie aus de Ferne”—as though from a distance—, like the eponymous piece by Schumann. And later, when I listened to the Brahms symphony again, other qualities became apparent. All the musical discourse in Brahms had metamorphosed for me. Unnoticed motifs emerged, a sense of freedom, of creating directly in the now above and beyond the structure, a natural freshness beneath the burden of whimsical memories of sorrow that are so characteristic of this classic German composer. Metamorphosis is not the right word, really, because Brahms’s Fourth Symphony remains what it is. It’s rather that I became more sensitive to new dimensions in the work, to the new beauties and temporalities that were added to the ones I was already familiar with.

The measure of echoes and revived perceptions of works from the past are at the heart of Sylvestrov’s creative work. To some extent in both sense of these words, because he often inserts citations and fragments that are more or less recognizable in his works: Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in his own Fifth and Sixth; Mozart in his serenade, “Der Bote” (“Poslanets/The Emissary,” 1996), which is dedicated to his wife Larisa; Schubert and Wagner in “Two dialogs and one epilogue for piano and strings;” Bach in “Dedication to J.S. Bach.”

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Valentyn Sylvestrov’s melodies, even when just short motifs, are wonderfully expressive, similar to Czech composer Leos Janacek, and they are immediately distinguishable, as though the composer himself discovered new, already known intervals—which is patently absurd! Yet these melodies are easy enough to recognize also because of the way in which they are introduced, their arrival, their emergence: not in quietude or at the beginning, in preludes to future developments, but at the heart of the music. They are surrounded and signaled by previous tonalities and subsequent ones, they sound like a surprise, like instant inventions, as though it is pointless that they lead further on into a familiar musical discourse.

Sylvestrov’s music is very carefully written, with many precise instructions for how to play, sometimes more abundant than even Pärt’s notes in his compositions for movies—and no less important. This is not improvised music, even if it has the inherent freedom, the unfathomable quality that jazz players call the “blue note.” No, Sylvestrov’s music is not improvisation, but it creates an impression that it was written just now, completely saturated with the colors of his rich imagination.

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Like Shostakovich before him, it seems that Sylvestrov composes in one fell swoop, without interruptions. His melody is defined by the work, so to speak, it might arise from some generating cell or a shape separated from its background, to stand above it, unconnected to a specific musical grammar, be it variations or tones, serial, or any other type of development. The paradox here lies in the fact that these ruptures of notes establish the musical discourse and the integrity of it all, something not often grasped in modern music, which we can understand by reading the program, but cannot hear directly. Sylvestrov, by contrast, has used the remaining tools to once again uncover the secret of classical style—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven—, which consists of giving complex forms that we experience in the music present and accessible, even when we are not able to analyze them. Consider the wealth of voices that is combined simultaneously in the fugato fragment from Mozart’s 40th Symphony, where feeling is born from being supersaturated with this complex polyphony, and at the same time accompanying it and finding ourselves surrounded by it.

Sylvestrov’s music is also Ukrainian. This is obvious, but why? It establishes that combination of celebratory grandeur and gentleness that is characteristic of this people. A Ukrainian by birth and from Kyiv, the composer was shaped in the struggle of musicians in the soviet era against assembly-line production and academicism. As a Ukrainian, he took part in the revolution on the Maidan. He is a Ukrainian in his works, which inspired the Revolution of Dignity. But he’s not a politician.

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Like all true artists born under totalitarianism, he found his voice and raised it against conformity, partisanship and the use of art as a mere instrument. Yet he is no activist. Having defended his creative freedom, Sylvestrov talks with much humor and even some condescension about the ridiculous nature of official music, the campaigns against “bourgeois formalism” and that form of acknowledgement, which is really satisfying a need, that totalitarianism offered composers and poets as it oversaw and humiliated them. Sylvestrov is hardly the only free master of the soviet era but perhaps he most brilliantly reflects the fate of those communist and post-communist generations—Shostakovich, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Penderecki, Gorecki, Tubin, and Pärt—who fought with all the means at their disposal and greedily took possession of the innovations of western music, but never shut themselves up in mandatory avand-gardeness. Moreover, this artistic freedom energized itself with the experience of totalitarian oppression, knowing well its heavy cost.

Last, but not least, Sylvestrov is Ukrainian in the combination of his music with language. Amazingly, this is something that can be felt even without knowing Ukrainian because of the musicality of the language itself. Every language has its tie to music, its own voice, but some fit it more easily than others. Ukrainian has a fundamental and natural quality of “Italiannness” and a completely natural link between speech and song. Melodies, including Sylvestrov’s choral works, sound like Schubert’s in German and Bartok’s in Hungarian.

Valentyn Sylvestrov has never been part of any “school.” Having learned their most distinguishing forms of expression, he never allowed himself to become their prisoner. He is also sharply critical of post-modernism and avant-gardism. Had the concept of post-modernism not been devalued by excessive use and corruption, if it were still possible to make use of it, I’d call Sylvestrov the first post-modern, or possibly meta-modern, composer. In other words, an artist for whom the fact of being in a “post” modern world is not a formal pose, not a cynical or purely cerebral way of speaking inside the box about the current world and feeling its utterly crushed nature in the face of the multifarious works of the past. Post-modernism depreciated itself with the fraudulence, the lazy collages and the sound bites that it tended to in order to make an interesting impression. On the contrary, the voice that I call meta-modernism in Sylvestrov is the serious experience of our aesthetic consciousness recognizing art’s relationship to the  history and the wealth of the past, and to tomorrow. And this stands in direct opposition to frivolous games with our cultural heritage.


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