Valentyn Silvestrov is a Ukrainian-born composer who has lived long enough to write nine symphonies and have his music be censored by both Soviet apparatchiks and Putin’s police. He lived in Kyiv for 84 years until this March, when he left the country due to Russia’s invasion. 

Silvestrov now lives in exile in Berlin, but he traveled to Norway last week to perform and take part in Oslo’s Ultima Festival. Two programs featured his work: one, with the Oslo Philharmonic performing his Seventh Symphony; another, titled “Ukrainian Rhapsodies,” with a cappella group Nordic Voices and the Gryphon Trio playing a collection of chamber works.

Silvestrov has powerful and expressive hands. He communicates as much with them as he does with his words. In rehearsals, he uses them to show musicians the precise shape and feel of his music. At the piano (where he performed an impromptu variation on the Ukrainian Anthem at the end of the chamber concert) his supple fingerwork was also expressive. After playing the final notes, he held his hands above the keys as if willing the sostenuto to ring out until the exact moment he wished.

I spoke with Silvestrov before these concerts about his music, his country, and his disgust for Vladimir Putin and the war against Ukraine.

VAN: Tonight, in the program titled “Ukrainian Rhapsodies,” two of your pieces—“Prayer for Ukraine” and “Farewell, O World, Farewell O Earth”—are premiering in new arrangements by Bohdana Frolyak which you worked on together here in Oslo. Can you tell me about that process?

Valentyn Silvestrov: These are good arrangements. I have made some edits, but it was her arrangement. Other arrangements are not bad, however they lack that spasmodic modern accent, that recitative, or spoken musical language.

“Farewell O World, Farewell O Earth” started as one of your “Silent Songs,” and then was worked into one of your “Requiems.” It is based on a 19th-century poem by Taras Shevchenko. One of the things that makes this piece so special is how it captures the simple, romantic essence of the poem, yet also manages to sound and feel modern. How do you create this difficult effect?

Apart from musical language there is a meta-musical language, such as ritenuto, accelerando, tempi—this is the language that actualizes as a modern language. If you don’t do this, then you risk sounding folksy. But if you use [a meta-musical language] your work transforms into a modern piece. We speak the language of our ancestors, but we articulate differently than they used to.

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How does it feel to be performing here in Oslo, far from your home in Ukraine?

Usually, when I travel from Ukraine, everything is normal; however, the current situation is abnormal.  Now we are refugees from those bombs and missiles.

And the world has to understand—perhaps not the world—I think the world does understand it; but those Presidents and Ministers in Europe and the U.S. have to understand: If the neighbor downstairs attacks another neighbor and destroys furniture and kills residents—why did he attack? [Let’s say] it seemed to him that two neighbors have similar cats of the same breed, but one of them decides the other neighbor is not feeding the cat properly and he has to attack that neighbor to teach how to look after the cat, so he attacks and kills that cat and destroys all the furniture. So, what do you call it? You call it villainy. Plain villainy.

This situation is so clear—even a child can understand that this is spitefulness, pettiness and there is no excuse for it. He attacked one person, giving the excuse that he doesn’t feed the cat properly. This is just villainy. But when this villainy happens at the top, you call it “geopolitics.” But this has to be called villainy too. Because geopolitics is about preserving your land and your citizens, not attacking someone’s home. This is not geopolitics.

[The interpreter tries to veer the conversation back to music, but Silvestrov’s hands make it clear he is going to finish his thought.]

No, this is important. The terminology should be right. Pascal said correct terminology is vital. This is not geopolitics, this is spitefulness. Why do these presidents call it geopolitics? What kind of geopolitics is that? When we watch TV, we hear all the time about Russian aggression, and I am saying that this terminology is not correct. For example: if terrorists captured someone, would you call it aggression by the terrorists? You would simply call it terrorism—and here the situation is the same. The way I was talking just now? That is aggression. (I’m overheated.) Aggression is when the dog barks but doesn’t bite. When the dog bites, it’s not an aggression anymore—and that’s why the terminology is not correct. We should not call Russia an aggressor. It was an aggressor when they were threatening us with bombs—that was aggression. And now it’s just plain terrorism. People are using the wrong terminology. You should not call a country an aggressor when it commits terrorism. Europeans live with this terminology, and this is not correct. 

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You speak very passionately about politics, but the music I just watched you rehearsing for tonight—as well as the “Elegies” you have written since leaving the Ukraine this year—have been of a very different quality. They are quiet, meditative—peaceful even. How do you explain this contrast of tone?

When I speak about politics, I am an aggressor—but I am not a terrorist. This Kremlin’s cockroach is a terrorist and nothing else—a typical terrorist. There is no aggression anymore—the aggression was before. In 2013 he was an aggressor, he has been a terrorist since 2014. This scoundrel, this cockroach disturbed the world’s silence. Civilization was heading to a certain unity, a central point when we have fought enough, and we started to appreciate human life. And this music that is quiet and cautious, it communicated to the world: cherish this quiet, cherish this peace. But it’s been broken, and now we value it more. 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. 

And now they not only removed one little piece, but they broke it. And it was broken with tanks. Ukraine was civilized, there was prosperity—why did he do this? He disturbed the silence of life—and music is connected to this.

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Also being performed tonight in Oslo is your Seventh Symphony. It is epic but also contains stillness. You spoke about how you approach music with language, how is your method different with symphonic works?

There is the same contrast here. When there is music, the form doesn’t matter. Five minutes or 40 minutes doesn’t really matter, that’s not the key. There is a good example of this: Bach. For Bach, whether it’s three minutes or 40 minutes, it’s the same—if the music is good, it doesn’t matter. This Symphony tonight is only 20 minutes—it’s connected with Schubert. I called it, with a sense of humor, my “Finished-Unfinished Symphony.” It’s a symphony that doesn’t fulfill all the parameters, that has only signals of a symphony—like echos, like a distillation. So, a grand form that is like a short form.


You’ve been quoted as saying, “Composing music in our time is the galvanization of a corpse.” Was this true in the 1970s when you said this? Is it true now?

It was a critical reply to some of the forms of composition that happened at that time—for example those “neo” styles—but this is not my credo. It relates to composers who create by inertia. The composer has been taught to compose and therefore he can inertly compose. However, it’s like poetry. Yes, you can teach someone to write, but to be a poet, that has to be one’s destiny. And the composer is the same, it’s his fate—but only if he studies as well can that happen.

Anything else you would like to say? 

I would like this villainy to end, this spitefulness that this cockroach started; because he kills the music when he tries to kill a civilization. Every life that is destroyed due to his will, every child’s or woman’s or man’s life is music. It is the music of life that is being killed right now. The music is nested in these people that are dying. I was not killed [but] those who were might have had better music than I do. They are being killed defiantly and deliberately while we are playing in the orchestra. Our collective society, without the individual person, is nothing—and without people, our music is trash, like a house without people living inside it. Without people there is no Bach, no Leonardo, no Mozart or Beethoven. It’s all just rubbish without humans. The Bible calls the murder of a person, the murder of God. When you kill a human, you are killing God.

Translated from Ukrainian by Roman Borys and Samantha Lavrova in person, plus Oksana Sliubyk and Maria DeCasper remotely.

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James C. Taylor is a longtime correspondent for Opera Magazine and a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, New Jersey Star-Ledger, and other publications. He also edits and produces...

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