“It is strange,” writes Sonya Bilocerkowycz in On Our Way Home from the Revolution, “how the match of one fruit seller in Tunisia lit the whole Arab Spring. I wonder what would have happened if the local authorities in Sidi Bouzid had just picked a different day to bother him.… Now it’s after the revolution, and I wonder about fate until I fall asleep. In these moments I am like a child again, holding bugs and marbles up to the light for a closer look.”
I reread Bilocerkowycz’s collection of essays—centered on her time as a Ukrainian-American in her family’s homeland during the 2014 revolution—in March, and was struck by this paragraph, which distills the unified randomness of history into a few sparse sentences capturing its effects both political and personal. In February, I texted a Ukrainian friend of mine to let him know I was thinking of him. In that exchange, I mentioned I was Syrian-American and still had family there. “Then you probably know how we are feeling now,” he replied. History doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and if it doesn’t repeat itself then at least we can say it rhymes.
In 2014, at the culmination of Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution (which began in late November 2013 with protests against the then-government opting for closer ties to Russia versus the European Union, and ended in February 2014 just days after Russia invaded Crimea), I imagine that Valentin Silvestrov was experiencing a similar sense of synchronicity as he watched the Revolution of Dignity play out, both on television and on the streets of his native Kyiv.
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“This situation shows that civilization is created with tiny pieces of a larger chain, and when you disturb one link, and it is broken, then everything collapses,” he told VAN a few weeks ago, referring to Russia’s renewed terrorism (he prefers this word to aggression) in Ukraine. But he could have just as easily applied this insight to 2014. Indeed, he did. He describes his “Maidan 2014” as “a spontaneous response to the events I saw every day” during the Euromaidan. Every day, he sat at his piano, played, sang, and recorded the process. The resulting set of four choral cycles is a cabinet of synchronicities. Each begins with a setting of the Ukrainian National Anthem, with variations taken from the sound made by the alarm bells of Kyiv’s St. Michael’s Cathedral, which rang out at the beginning of Maidan for the second time in history (the first was during the Mongol siege of Kyiv in 1240). The church forms the studio for this recording.
In the early hours of December 11, 2013, 25-year-old Theological Academy student Ivan Sydor began to sound the bells as a call for Ukrainians to go to the Maidan and assist protesters who were being cleared out of the square by government troops. He rang them continuously for four hours, with other seminarians assisting him as the evening progressed. The bells are the first thing you hear, tenor voices echoed in turn by baritones and basses, in Silvestrov’s first setting of the National Anthem. (If the first four notes echo the opening of the composer’s 2004 “Requiem for Larissa,” that’s just another bit of synchronicity repeating.) These tones ring throughout the text of the anthem, annotating its calls for fate to smile once more upon Ukrainians and for their enemies to “vanish like dew in the sun.”
Silvestrov weaves the anthem—reimagined as everything from battle hymn to benediction—in and out of a text that also works in parts of the requiem mass, works by the romantic poet Taras Shevchenko, and (prophetically, all politics considered), a Belarusian folk song. For a composer who eschewed nationalism—particularly during the heyday of the Soviet Union—this mix seems counterintuitive. But Silvestrov doesn’t blindly slap these reference points together like an amalgamation of hashtags; he holds each one up to the light for a closer look. They’re revealed to be points of connection, and therefore also points of contemplation; stations of a religiously-agnostic cross. Shevchenko’s romanticism is stripped down, but no less expressive—the steely edge of the men’s chorus when they sing the poet’s line about mountains “in ageless ice encased” is not lush, but that’s not what it needs to be. Are we even singing about mountains here? Perhaps not. A keening Lacrimosa that follows the second National Anthem comes forth in gulps and gasps, visceral and immediate. Configurations of chorus members step out from the crowd in certain songs and lines before being reabsorbed—individual voices forming collective action.
Silvestrov hints at closure with a fifth iteration of the National Anthem that comes at the end of the fourth cycle. It’s the most hopeful of his settings, if not optimistic, at least generous. It’s then, however, that he picks up the Belarusian lullaby:
Sleep, my little son, my little dove.
My little boy will sleep and
I will rock his cradle.
Oh, wind, are you buzzing,
not letting the baby sleep?
It’s an unsettling ending. It reminded me of Tchaikovsky’s ending to “Mazeppa”—the story of a Ukrainian military and civic leader and ally of Peter the Great who loses everything in one day as he attempts to accumulate and consolidate power. On the battlefield, he abandons his young wife (who also happens to be his goddaughter), afraid that her madness will slow down his escape. The cacophony of the battle scene resolves in a lullaby that the addled Mariya sings to a dead soldier, cradling him as if he were her sleeping baby and not a corpse.
I imagine Tchaikovsky’s intentions were similar to Silvestrov’s in this instance. “Sometimes it appears to me that my musical language has only thirds and fifths, like some primary living phonemes that reflect the simple things in life, combined with a sense of the world’s beauty and human feelings,” the composer says in the “Maidan” liner notes. “After all, the louder the mortars and cannons roar, the softer the music becomes.” To him, the ending on a lullaby is no accident. Duplicating the sound of war is beyond his interest or ability. “Instead, I want to show how fragile our civilization is. I try, with my music, to safeguard and preserve a day of peace. Today, it seems to me, this ought to be art’s primary aim.” ¶
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