Malcolm McDonald, one of the doyens of classical music criticism, summed up Valentin Silvestrov best when he wrote: ‘(the) Russian sense of lamentation… reaches in Silvestrov a new expressive stage: he seems to compose, not the lament itself, but the lingering memory of it, the mood of sadness that it leaves behind.’
Silvestrov’s music uses tonal and modal techniques and is considered post-modern, or neo-classical in style. As he says himself ‘I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists.’ Often compared to Mahler, his quiet style was thought of as meta or supra music, although the composer prefers the term kitsch, ‘elegiac… it isn’t ironic.’
The Ukrainian pianist and composer was born in Kiev on 30 September 1937. He came to music relatively late, starting private tuition when he was fifteen, and going on to study at Kiev Evening School, and Kiev Conservatory.
He soon established himself as part of the city’s avant-garde, his performances considered as ‘melodies of instances’, which did not sit well with the socialist realist strictures of Soviet Union classical music. Disillusioned by criticism from the establishment , Silvestrov withdrew from public performance and began composing pieces of more intimate nature for piano and violin, such as Quiet Music in 1977. These were, he said, ‘on the boundary between their appearance and disappearance.’
When Silvestrov’s music was performed in the West, he was unable to attend due to the travel restrictions of the Soviet regime. However, his work was championed by aficionados of contemporary Ukrainian music, such as American pianist and composer Virko Barley in particular. As the Cold War ended and Silvestrov’s music began to be performed more widely, something he said of his work took on a new prescience. ‘It is not the end of music as art, but the end of music, in which it may yet remain for a long time.’
Silvestrov continues to write aged 78, much of his work can be found on ECM records, and he supposedly visited the Maidan regularly during the upheaval in his native country and has reportedly composed music in response. Critics consider his Symphony No5 to be his masterwork. His string quartets, piano sonatas, and symphonies certainly continue to softly resonate with the slow, deep, and monumental spinning of Earth itself, and our inevitable decline upon it.