Edison Denisov

1929 1996

Edison Denisov

Composer

Biography

The Russian composer Edison Denisov is one of the most important of the figures in the Russian avant-garde movement. A disciple and intellectual heir to Shostakovich, he formed a unique synthesis of Russian music with that of his European contemporaries such asDebussy, Stravinsky and Webern, along with a unique appreciation for the natural beauty of mathematics.

Denisov was born in Siberia was named after the American inventor of the lightbulb, Thomas Edison, by his father, an electrician. Inspired by his father, who tragically died when Denisov was only 11, he entered Tomsk University where he studied physics and mathematics, while simultaneously studying piano and composition at the Tomsk Music School. Unable to choose between a career in music or engineering, he sent several of his scores to the iconic composer Dmitri Shostakovich and was surprised with a very enthusiastic response. On Shostakovich’s recommendation Denisov moved to Moscow to study with Vissarion Shebalin at the Moscow Conservatory. He graduated in 1956 and was appointed to the faculty three years later.

The 1980s was the most prolific period for Denisov, and many of his most famous pieces date from this decade. His operaL'écume des jours premiered in 1986 in Paris and featured musical references to the Catholic Church andDuke Ellington <>. Other notable works include the chamber opera Quatre jeunes filles, the balletThe Confession and his non-religiously themed Requiem. By this time his style had consolidated to use a more varied and mature range of compositional techniques heavily influenced by his background in mathematics. In fact, Denisov at this point revered mathematical perfection even more highly than aesthetic beauty, stating “Beauty is a principal factor in my work. This means not only beautiful sound, which, naturally, has nothing to do with outward prettiness, but beauty here means beautiful ideas as understood by mathematicians, or byBach and Webern.”

Like many intellectuals, Denisov had lifelong struggles with conformity within the Soviet Union. Although he was appointed a professor at the Moscow Conservatory in 1959 his views on composition were seen as subversive and Western-influenced, and as such he was relegated to teaching analysis, counterpoint and orchestration. He was not allowed to teach composition until after the fall of the Soviet Union. Similarly, the Soviet regime had little tolerance for performances of his compositions, and he was generally blacklisted from having his piece played, hence the frequent premiers of his pieces in France and other places throughout Europe.

Even with Denisov’s impressive potential, it would take him several years to make an impact on the larger contemporary music scene. The early 1960s for him were in some ways a private continuation of his studies, and a search for his personal style. Denisov spent a great deal of time dissecting the scores of his heroes such as Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók and the Second Viennese School, as well as his European contemporaries, including Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Witold Lutosklawski.

Denisov’s first breakthrough piece was the vocal chamber work Le soleil des Incas, premiered in Leningrad in 1964. The piece, which started to display characteristics of the avant-garde, was met with animosity by the Soviet authorities but was enthusiastically greeted throughout Europe and America in the subsequent years. Soon after he premiered his String Trio, another milestone piece which caused an uproar in the Soviet Union as the result of it being a French commission.

In spite of the institutional opposition to his ideas, or perhaps because of it, Denisov established himself as the leading late-Soviet-era beacon for the avant-garde and other non-mainstream ideas. From his post at the Moscow Conservatory Denisov began to make contact with many of the prominent European composers including Boulez, Stockhausen and Maderna. It was through them that he and many of his Russian counterparts were exposed to much of the contemporary music of the day, often meeting at his home and making use of his private library of scores and musical texts. Similarly, it was Denisov that exposed his European colleagues to basically ever late-Soviet-era composer of note, includingAlfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina. As one of the few intellectuals brave enough to stand up to the Soviet Union, fearless of the potential consequences, he became somewhat of a hero to many.

Denisov had many stylistic contributions beyond his focus on mathematics in music. He was a frequent user of graphic notation scores and experimented with electronic music. His pieces are almost uniformly noted for their lyrical gift, and Denisov himself declared “The most important element of my music is its lyricism.” One practice Denisov is credited with founding is have a short mini-lecture before a performance in which he would introduce and explain a piece and answer any questions. He was known for his ability to explain even extremely complicated musical and mathematical concepts in a simple and elegant manner. To him, these lectures were vital in bridging the gap between composer, performers and audience, and are characteristic of his open and welcoming spirit.

Although Denisov lived to see the end of the Soviet Union by a few years, but was plagued by ill health caused by a car accident and then the onset of cancer, and spent much of the 1990s in France and Germany, completing many of the great unfinished works in the classical repertoire includingDebussy’s Rodrigue etChimène and Franz Schubert’s Lazarus. Over his lifetime he was an incredibly prolific and diverse composer, boasting a catalogue consisting of a ballet, several symphonies, cantatas, oratories, 20 concerti, three operas, several film scores, and choral and vocal music. In Russia in particular he is remembered as much as a patron and outspoken defender of a whole movement as for his innovative and distinctive compositions.

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