Ukraine's most famous living composer is now a refugee
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Ukraine's most famous living composer is now a refugee
As Russia’s war against Ukraine intensified, Valentin Silvestrov, 84, fled to Germany and has become a musical spokesman for his country.

by Peter Schmelz

NEW YORK, NY.- His “Prayer for Ukraine” was a centerpiece of a Metropolitan Opera benefit concert this month. His Fourth Symphony was played in recent weeks by the London Philharmonic Orchestra; his Eighth, by the Lithuanian National Opera; his “Silent Music,” on Sunday, in a concert for peace organized by the Berlin Philharmonic. His publisher lists dozens of coming performances of his works.

As Russia’s war against Ukraine enters its second month, Valentin Silvestrov, Ukraine’s best-known living composer, has become a musical spokesperson for his country. And like millions of Ukrainians, he has been turned into a refugee by the conflict: Over three days in early March, he and his family made their way by bus from their home in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, to Lviv, and from there across Poland to Berlin, where he is sheltering.

“We’re more or less OK,” Silvestrov, 84, said in a video call last week. But he added that he remains in shock about the war.

“I don’t know how we lived to see this,” he said.

Silvestrov’s subtle, consoling music has taken on new significance for listeners in a war-torn country. “Putin’s bombardments of Kyiv have killed and destroyed people, houses and music,” his friend Constantin Sigov, a professor and book publisher, said by phone from that city. “But with some kind of unbelievable sense of hearing, Silvestrov has realized how they might be resurrected.”

Born in Kyiv in 1937, Silvestrov made his name in the 1960s with avant-garde scores that challenged Soviet aesthetic norms by hovering between austere modernism and eclectic polystylism. The finely textured contrasts and sharp outbursts of his Symphony No. 3, “Eschatophony,” attracted attention from Western experimentalists; influential composer and conductor Bruno Maderna led it at Darmstadt, a West German contemporary music hotbed, in 1968.

“Right from the beginning, he very clearly showed a very original streak,” Ukrainian American composer Virko Baley, Silvestrov’s longtime friend, said from his home in Las Vegas.

Silvestrov chafed at the Soviet government’s restrictions and demands. After protesting during an official gathering in Kyiv in 1970, he was expelled from the Ukrainian Union of Composers. He was allowed to rejoin three years later, but the punishment contributed to a change already percolating in his writing, as he shifted from noisy scores to soft, intimate ones, like his 24 “Quiet Songs” for voice and piano, a tour de force of stillness and solitude. This tone of quiet meditativeness allowed Silvestrov largely to avoid politics during the rest of the Soviet period, when he commented on current affairs only very rarely and obliquely; his international stature gradually grew.

But with the independence of Ukraine in 1991, and especially after the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Maidan protests against Russian influence in 2014, he turned more openly to political and religious subjects. Silvestrov responded to Maidan by composing a series of songs later collected as “Maidan-2014,” for a cappella chorus. (Its 13th movement is the “Prayer for Ukraine” performed at the Met.) The collection also included five new settings of the Ukrainian national anthem.

The original versions of the “Maidan-2014” songs were recorded at home, with Silvestrov singing and playing piano, then released on the internet as the revolution unfolded. The choral versions transform his private anger and grief into a communal memorial, solemn and resolute.

The current war, Silvestrov said in the recent interview, is “a continuation of the Maidan. Only the Maidan revolution was only in Kyiv, and now all Ukraine has become the Maidan.”

Thus his sober, reflective compositions “have again become relevant,” he added — among them the Maidan songs and his choral composition “In Memoriam,” written between 2019 and 2020.

As the threats to Kyiv grew in the days after the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, Silvestrov’s daughter and granddaughter urged him to evacuate, and he reluctantly agreed. (His grandson stayed behind as a volunteer with the war effort.) Their circuitous journey westward required last-minute adjustments because of the Russian bombing of Vinnytsia, entailing an overnight stop at a nursery school before they finally arrived in Lviv.

In the interview, Silvestrov was more relaxed discussing music but seemed almost upset with himself for allowing the discussion to drift from the war. He spoke passionately in favor of NATO establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

Since his arrival in Berlin, he has not explicitly commented on the war in music, as he did about the Maidan. Yet more than traces of the conflict exist in short piano pieces that Silvestrov said he “spontaneously” wrote after arriving in Germany — both called “Elegy,” a favorite genre of his.

The first is dated March 9, the day after he reached Berlin. He said that its melody “arose” during his escape from Ukraine, traveling toward and across the Polish border, “as we saw endless crowds of refugees, endless cars piled up for kilometers on end, and this feeling of disaster.” He intended its brief, simple melody in thirds with a low bass line to be a “sign of Ukraine,” recalling the country’s folk music and 18th-century choral works by composers like Artemy Vedel.

The second elegy, dated March 16, is part of “Pastorale and Elegy,” composed after he had been in Berlin for several days, witnessing from afar the events in Ukraine and growing increasingly despondent. The elegy here is a chaconne with a characteristic dotted funereal rhythm; he called it a “reaction of mourning.”

Sigov said that Silvestrov “melts down — refines — the din of history, its massive verbal and sonic constructions.”

He is, Sigov added, “a true voice of Kyiv that is connected with the whole world and hopes to speak directly with the world.”

Yet Silvestrov’s sudden soaring global reputation has caused him some unease. He said he feels strange, even irritated, “that this misfortune needed to happen for them to begin playing my music.”

“Does music not have any value in and of itself without any kind of war?” he added.

War had already been on Silvestrov’s mind when he composed “In Memoriam” three years ago, in response to a request for music for the 2020 celebration of May 8, the commemoration of the end of World War II, celebrated in Ukraine since 2015 as the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation. Instead of writing an entirely new composition, Silvestrov adapted “Maidan-2014.” He removed the distinctly Ukrainian features, including the anthem settings, and added, as a culmination, a setting of John Donne’s words: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

In the interview, Silvestrov spoke fervently about this unheeded moral, lamenting the continued timeliness of a composition meant to mark the horrors of decades ago, as another war rages over some of the same lands, threatening again to engulf Europe.

“It’s very obvious,” he said just before the call ended, “that this is not a problem of Ukraine and Russia. It is a problem of civilization.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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