Valentin Silvestrov

Born 1937

Valentin Silvestrov



Silvestrov is a Ukrainian composer known for his creation of metamusic. He has written for all classical genres and strongly believes ‘Music is still song, even if one cannot literally sing it: it is not a philosophy, not a world-view. It is, above all, a chant, a song the world sings about itself, it is the musical testimony to life’.

Silvestrov was born in 1937, during a dark period of political turmoil, more specifically, the year of Stalin’s Great Purge (also known as the Great Terror).

He studied music from the age of 15, first privately and then at an evening school, from which he graduated with a gold medal in 1955. He initially trained to become a civil engineer at the Kiev Institute of Construction Engineering. After three years, he decided to pursue music instead at the Kiev Conservatory where he studied with Lyatoshyns’ky and Revustsky.

At the Kiev Conservatory, Silvestrov became fascinated by the avant-garde, a genre frowned upon by the Soviet Union. His music was highly criticized and for a time he was not allowed to perform outside his country and his works were rarely performed in his own city. After a stylistic change in the 1970s, Silvestrov’s music was introduced gradually to the West.

His earliest works are concerned with the contrasts between extremes. A preoccupation with tonality versus atonality can be heard in his striking Piano Quintet (1961), while the contrasts in his Third Symphony "Eskhatofoniya" (1966) explore strict notation and improvisation, representing “cultural” and “mysterious” sounds, respectively.

In the 1970s Silvestrov’s avant-garde fancies were abandoned in favour of his unique metaphorical music (metamusic). The extreme atonality took backstage to a softer harmonic language, reminiscent of the late romantic composers at times, especially Gustav Mahler.

The Drama (1971) for piano trio would be Silvestrov’s breakthrough piece; it was ‘virtually a clinical study of an artistic crisis’ according to his biographer. It was after this work that Silestrov really focused on this new style, which he still uses. The metamusic can be described as both metaphorical and allegorical in style, as he uses past styles without the intention of resurrecting them.

The Symphony No. 5 (1982) is a prime example of this new style. The symphony is comprised of nine slow movements, lasting a total of 45 minutes. Though on the surface many of the floating melodies sound kitsch or recycled, upon deeper inspection a complexity can be uncovered, in both technical and emotional aspects. Silvestrov, according to Malcolm McDonald, is able to convey a ‘Russian sense of lamentation…he seems to compose, not the lament itself, but the lingering memory of it, the mood of sadness that is leaves behind’.

This nostalgic quality present in Silvestrov’s music, described as ‘saudade’ by the Brazilians, is exemplified inNostalghia (2001) for solo piano. This work contains an ‘almost intoxicating mix of emotions suffused with longing, loss and memory’. The techniques required in this composition are thoroughly described in the score. The pedal technique used is particularly interesting. Silvestrov insists that the performer depress the sustaining pedal just two-thirds of the way in certain places in addition to specifying which notes of the harmony should be held onto, in order to disguise the pedal changes. The music is reminiscent of Brian Eno’sMusic for Airports in its use of melody fragments, silence and incomplete scales.

Silvestrov stated in an interview in 1990, ‘I must write what pleases me and not what others like, or what the times dictate’, though he has been very active in providing musical responses to the political chaos in Ukraine in recent years. In 2014, Silvestrov went to the Maidan during the protests, about which he said, ‘I went to the Maidan, but what could I do?’

It seems that he has chosen to express himself through his compositions, as he wrote two songs in response to the January 18-19 events. According to Silvestrov, ‘The prison atmosphere at this time depressed us. Eventually it was as if an electric storm hit me, and I had to write something as a sign of protest’.

After the deadly shooting of protestor Sergey Nigoyan in Kiev on 22 January 2014 Silvestrov composed two memorials, one of which uses the Shevchenko text that Nigoyan has read. The style of his famousQuiet Songs (1973-7) is employed for this work, though it is much more agitated. The second work uses the burial prayer, ‘Lay in rest with the saints’. Silvestrov’s protest compositions have been praised as they have captured the people’s grief. He also set the Ukrainian hymn was described by a journalist as ‘a gift of minutes of peace and support’. Silvestrov has also been recorded exclaiming, ‘I think that Putin is simply insane’. Despite his anger and ability to express himself fully, his music has a ‘soft character…characterized by a gentle anger’.

Silvestrov’s output includes nearly 100 works for piano, vocal, choral, chamber music and orchestral genres. His earliest works were the 1950s piano pieces includingNaïve Music (1954), Musica lontana (1956) and the Nocturne (1957), all of which he revised in the 1990s and 2000s. He has also composed a number of impressive piano  sonatas (1972, 1975, 1979), in addition to earlier works such as theSonatina (1865) and the Classical Sonata (1963).

Silvestrov’s choral output is quite limited, with just four works, Cantata (1977) for mixed chorus and then nearly 20 years laterDiptych (1995) and Elegy (1996), both for mixed chorus and theRequiem for Larissa (1997-9) for mixed chorus and orchestra. His choral works make prominent use of the texts of Taras Shevchenko.

Of his chamber music, there are many works for just two instruments and three string quartets. The quartets include the earlyQuartetto piccolo (1961), the String Quartet No. 1 (1974) and the String Quartet No. 2 (1988). He has written a sonata for cello and piano (1982) and for violin and piano (Post Scriptum, 1990-1).

Silvestrov has written nearly 20 vocal works, many in his old style. After a break of nearly 20 years he began composing vocal works again, primarily for soprano and piano.

As of 2003, Silvestrov has written seven symphonies among his approximately two dozen orchestral works. Of his symphonies the fourth and fifth are the most popular.

Recent recordings of Silvestrov’s works have been released by the Latvian Radio Choir, Latvian Symphony Orchestra and violinist Renate Eggebrecht.

Valentin Silvestrov currently resides in Kiev, Ukraine.