Symphony No. 5

Valentin Silvestrov

Symphony No. 5

About this work

Adagissimo -- "extremely slow" -- is a tempo found in the coda to Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 9. It comes after nearly 90 minutes with this piece, in which an orchestra transmogrifies into a being; it beats and pulses, breathes, begins to operate on its own self-renewing intelligence; it develops facial casts, psychological defenses, a memory, and even nostalgia for itself. The final Adagio injects a quickening decay into the body and after a kind symphonic angina, the music's corpse begins to disintegrate. In front of the shocked ear, which responds as if losing a friend, life literally ebbs and harmony thins, solo instruments hang denuded in air, lines either disappear or slowly petrify. This moment is hard to depict Silvestrov's Symphony No. 5 without it. These five adagissimo minutes are perhaps the soft foundation stone for Silvestrov's entire oeuvre. When he speaks of an "epilogue music," a "postlude music," or "end-of-music," it's tempting to imagine that Silvestrov's life project has a specific seed: he longs, with an unreal and anguished dedication, to expand the coda of Mahler's Ninth into a whole condition, a woldview. He wishes to amplify and envelope that unbearable proximity of a life and a death; of intimate warmth and horrific chill; of an interminable decline and immanent closure; of finality's flat-line transforming into a cosmic trail. While the impulse has been with Silvestrov from the early '70s, nothing captures this vision like his Fifth: five minutes amplify into 50 and a coda to a giant symphony becomes its own giant symphony. As always with Silvestrov, no material is quoted -- no Mahler, no Schubert, or Brahms is intercepted -- instead, Silvestrov painstakingly forges his own acutely generic nineteenth century flotsam, which wafts by like an atmosphere devoid of any objects. There is simply an unending train of spectral, looping line in which ever-falling melodic and harmonic gestures dwell in Mahlerian farewell land; their sighs defy geometry, constantly descending without darkening, expiring in mid-phrase, and then continuing. Detained in this sealed world of "extremely slow," it's possible to feel an onset of claustrophobia, a kind of suffocation-by-tempo, if not by the poker-faced kitsch that unceasingly unfolds. But here is where Silvestrov breaks with his precedent: where Mahler composed out of a visible darkness, Silvestrov cultivates an unreal illumination. Behind an almost unconvincing patina of cloned cliché of sweetness rotted by commerce and by its own un-specificity, astounding detail, and intention shine out. Every pause and acceleration, every spontaneous growth and dwindling, is measured and set with scientific precision. It is as if the banal air that surrounded every moment was in fact the product of millions of tensed and unseen minds, or some universal and overtaxed intelligence. "Attention is the natural prayer of the soul," wrote Paul Celan, and Silvestrov sympathizes. As his symphony expands Mahler's coda, and so expands the incipience of a grand musical death, so it also executes a devotional act through sheer concentration. Adagissimo becomes a consciousness alarm, a magnet for mindfulness; death is made bright, enlightened.

Done