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New perspectives on the musical languages of Elena Firsova and Dmitri Smirnov are offered in a pair of introductory articles by Gerard McBurney, highlighting how the composers were profoundly influenced by Osip Mandelstam and William Blake respectively.

Elena Firsova and Dmitri Smirnov formed an extraordinary composing couple that spent almost half a century of creative life together as wife and husband, first in Moscow and then from 1991 in the UK after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In a pair of new introductory articles, composer and musicologist Gerard McBurney explores their music, their shared mentoring by older figures including Schnittke, Denisov and Gubaidulina, and their individual paths forward with distinct poetic influences for Firsova from persecuted poet Osip Mandlestam and for Smirnov from poet and artist William Blake.

As Gerard McBurney notes: “this remarkable pair were not simply married to one another but ceaselessly writing and thinking and feeling music in a dialogue that, as they both noted, was sometimes self-aware but more often instinctive and unconscious. There can have been very few examples in history of two composers, in some ways similar but often very different, who so tightly interwove their contrasted creative lives in such a remarkable way.”

“When Smirnov died in 2020, at the start of the Covid Pandemic, he left behind not only a prolific musical legacy (200 opus numbers), but poetry, artworks in various media, a multi-year sequence of diaries unquestionably among the most important chronicles of later Soviet music, a substantial and detailed account of the life and work of his friend the Romanian Webern-pupil Philip Herschkowitz, and a translation into Russian of almost the entire poetic output of William Blake, now sumptuously published.

“Unquestionably, Smirnov’s passionately intense relationship to Blake was critical to his music and to his wider achievement… Many were Smirnov’s compositions inspired by Blake, including his First Symphony - The Seasons (1980) - two operas - Tiriel (1985) and Thel (1986) - and a rich harvest of other vocal and instrumental pieces. But the Russian composer also took something wider from the eccentric old English mystic: the underlying idea of an integrated and interconnected artistic world – one might call it a virtual world – in which piece after piece would spring from everything written before and lead into everything written after.”

> Read the full article on Smirnov

“By her own account, the critical influence at the beginning of Firsova’s formation as an artist was her father. Her parents were both physicists, he an internationally distinguished thinker in the field of atomic theory. An only child, she grew up among adults who were all scientists and who, as she puts it, “always talked carefully and clearly. None of them wasted words.” …After her father, the next most important influence on Firsova’s creative life came also from outside music: from her youthful encounter with the great Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam. His work, she declares, remains to this day central to her composing. “When I read Mandelstam, I feel I am reading what I would have written, had I been a poet.”

“In her word-setting, Firsova is always intensely responsive to the sound of a poet’s language, and to its rhythm and phrasing, which – like wind through a leaf-canopy – gently pushes her towards particular musical details and shapes the overall rise and fall of her melodic writing… following her beloved Mandelstam, she steadfastly continues, as she has done all her life, to seek that same enigmatic simplicity and ‘beautiful clarity’ of approach which mattered so much to him.”

> Read the full article on Firsova

The coming year brings performances of Firsova’s recent Piano Concerto with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (19-21 October) and its UK premiere with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (22 February 2024), featuring soloists Yefim Bronfman and Simon Trpceski respectively. Her new Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra is unveiled in Linz on 19 September with a further performance in Darmstadt in November, both featuring the sonic.art Saxophone Quartet.

Photos by Dmitri Smirnov and Elena Firsova

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