The Story of a Work
(It seems like yesterday, Part 3)
Edison Vasilyevich Denisov, one of the most important Russian composers of the second half of the 20th century, has for many years held a course for instrumentation and score reading at the Moscow Conservatory, in fact, as the secondary function of a senior teacher. As a result of his enthusiasm for avant-garde tendencies of the West in his own work, he was not “entrusted” with his own composition class (the troika, famous in some circles, Schnittke, Gubaldulina, Denisov, had no official recognition).. However, many students of composition attended Denisov’s class, in order to get to know his work and curious to listen to the critical comments and wishes of the secret authority.
In the summer of 1973 Vladislav Solotaryov asked Denisov to listen to his third Sonata. Denisov gladly agreed and invited both of us home. He lived in the composers’ house on the corner of Student Street and Kutusovsky Prospect. The landlord, of average build and with a winning smile, was very friendly, and I understood that he knew Solotaryov quite well. In the course of our conversation I noticed that his judgments were brief precise and categorical and generally tolerated no opposition. He spoke in a low voice, sometimes quickly then slowly again and thoughtfully. He sat with Vladik on the sofa, and I sat in an arm-chair a little further away. Throughout the performance of the Sonata Denisov studied the score carefully. Then he began to give his impressions and opinions. I was impressed with the professional precision with which he analysed the whole work page by page. I remember that he liked the first movement, the second rather less (he liked itssonority), he was highly appreciative of the third movement (fugato), and on the finale he said:
“Vladik, after such wonderful music in the third movement how can you write such rubbish?”
He clearly disliked the eclecticism in the Sonata (12-tone music, tonality). However, his closing summary was unexpectedly positive.
Do you know what? You will not change anything. The sonata is perfectly formed and is good to listen to. As far as errors in your works are concerned, I recommend on the advice of Dimitri Dimitriyevich Shostakovich that you correct them in later works. I would advise you to act accordingly.
I listened with great satisfaction to flattering words of sincere admiration from the mouth of the master with regard to the possibilities for the Bayan.
When we parted, he gave me his telephone number and spoke the words which in the next 20 years would be the theme of our contact:
“Give me a ring! In any event, I will write a solo work for you!”
As a result we saw each other quite often at concerts in the Composers’ Union or in the Conservatory. I made a point of attending his premieres. Likewise he attended concerts, in which I played works by Gubaidulina. Every year I dared to dial his telephone number three or four times. It must be said that on the telephone he knew how to generate the atmosphere of an intimate conversation, by conveying the feeling that he had been already expecting our conversation. The conversation usually lasted quite a while, 15 – 20 minutes. Edison Vasilyevich told me where in the world and by whom his works were being performed, and complained of lack of time.
He sometimes steered the conversation towards his contacts with international artists: a certain very famous flautist or a trumpeter is asking for a work. “The saxophone is a very interesting instrument: I would like to compose something for it.” Another time: “The guitar is a difficult instrument, but it would be interesting to write for it.” He always finished by saying: I will write something for you without fall.”
Early in 1976 I played the premiere of “Ispaniada” in a concert in memory of Vladislav Solotaryov, I had the impression that some places (cadenzas in the second half of the piece) dragged on, that many chords with pauses as well, in my opinion, destroyed the form. Therefore I should have asked Solotaryov for advice, but oh dear! … I prepared an abridged version, but at the premiere I felt obliged to play the composer’s original version. When the question of publication arose, I was not bold enough to publish my version, but decided to consult another composer. Denisov was the obvious choice. He immediately invited me to his class at the Conservatory. I played both versions. Edison Vasilyevich banished my doubts instantly, saying: “You are quite right. There are some unnecessarily long passages. Shorten them where you have indicated.”
Denisov was a great authority among foreign musicians. He maintained particularly close creative contacts with French colleagues. The French Ministry of Culture repeatedly commissioned specific works, in particular, the opera “Foam of the Days” (by Boris Vian – note by Herbert Scheibenreif).
In the academic year 1980/81 the young talented accordionist, Max Bonnay, came into my class for the practical course at the National Gnessin Institute for Music Education.
I hit on the idea of commissioning a piece from Edison Vasilyevich through the French Ministry of Culture, especially as Max already had such contacts. I came with him to Denisov’s class at the Conservatory. I only introduced them to each other, when Edison Vasilyevich conversed without any problem and with unmistakable delight in the French language, of which he had a good command. Then he dissuaded us from the idea of commissioning a piece, because he did not want to abuse his good relationship with the Ministry, and said: “Friedrich, I will write for you without a commission, thus repaying an old debt.”
On 1 April 1987 a humorous concert was organised in the concert hall of the Gnessin Institute. Well-known instrumentalists and composers were having fun on the stage,
I remember the organist, O. Yanchenko, emptying with one pull a bottle of vodka on the stage with someone and guzzling cabbage from a plate. Then one of them for some reason climbed up a ladder (that was the “Opus” of Dimitry Smirnov, a pupil of Denisov, who later with his wife, E. Smirnova, also a composer, emigrated to England). Denisov wrote a Fantasia specially for this concert on themes of Soviet songs from the 1930’s, “The steamer sails past the port”, for the Bayan and an ensemble of percussion instruments under the direction of Mark Pekarski. In this piece there was a piano, and a group of sappers came on, performing various pyramid-like gymnastic formations to music on stage, which were in fashion at the time. This work lasted ten minutes and was written tonally throughout with subtle humour and sophisticated composition technique. The performance was a total success, and after the concert Edison Vasilyevich repeated several times, as though to justify himself: “Friedrich, that is not what I have promised you. I will write a solo piece for you without fall.”
The years passed by. Further brief meetings and telephone conversations did not move the matter forward. Then suddenly in the summer of 1994 I opened the newspaper “Isvestia”, to which I had subscribed for many years, and read the notice that Edison Denisov had had an accident, while driving his own car on the Minsk Road, 7 Kubiniki District, travelling from the summer house for composers in Russia to a rehearsal of the symphony orchestra, which was preparing works by the composer for a concert tour to Japan. My first feeling was shock: Edison Vasilyevich in mortal danger. The newspaper did its utmost in this situation… Over several editions I read of the developments. On one occasion I read that Denisov’s condition had stabilised, but one could not talk of a real improvement. Some of the composer’s French friends arranged to transfer Denisov to a military hospital near Paris and organised a special flight for him. Some time later I read in “Isvestia” an article by the French correspondent that Denisov’s health was slowly improving and that he was now ready to start working on a small work for chamber orchestra. Then I had an idea.
I rang Max Bonnay in Paris:
– Max, do you know that Denisov has had an accident?
– No, I didn’t know.
– Please find out urgently the military hospital where he is undergoing treatment; get in touch with him about the commission of the work for Bayan; and contact the French Ministry of Culture in this matter.
Bonnay did everything he could to put this idea into action. For my part, I wrote a letter to Denisov via Max. I feel it is necessary to publish in full Edison Vasilyevich’s reply (with only minor notes) and other letters to me, because they are of great interest for the inheritance of correspondence of a unique personality.
First Letter Paris, 4 March 1995
I was delighted to receive your letter from Spain. I began a little composing again in November, and now I can work almost as before. I really wanted to write a work for the Bayan in January/February, but then put off this idea for a silly, strange reason – I ran out of music paper and, while I was waiting for a friend to buy me some,
- Lyubimov (Director of the well-known Taganka Theatre) earnestly demanded some music for “Medea”. I resolved to devote 11/2 months entirely to this work, time which I never had. I was writing music for ten days maximum (sometimes only five days), and then I started writing a work for 16 brass instruments (for Frankfurt). This was a commission from long ago (1990), and the scheduled premiere had already been cancelled three times. I am still in hospital for the time being, but will be dischargedin a week’s time. I will have to go back three times a week for a check-up. We now have a flat in Paris. (I don’t know how long we shall stay here, but I cannot yet think of returning to Moscow, because the doctors will not discharge me at the moment.) After 20 March I will be at home again for good.
I have already abandoned my crutches and now walk with a stick. My foot still hurts (especially at night), and I am limping badly. But the doctors give me to understand that I am getting better. At present they are not ruling out the possibility of two further operations (knee and upper thigh), but I would like to avoid that. I have had four operations already, and that is already too much… The weather in Paris is bad – at the moment there is sleat. There is very little sunshine, and most of the time it is cold. In January I finished a rather long concerto for flute and harp, and now I am very busy, writing this work for brass. I had never worked with such an line-up of instruments (two small trumpets, two trumpets, two wing horns, four French horns, three trombones, Dudonium and two tubas). As all my latest music is quiet and tender, I must change the aesthetic style.
Max offered some basic knowledge on the Bayan, but that was not enough. It is a pity that Katya (Denisov’s wife – note by F Lips) left her notes behind in Moscow – they were excellent.* As I shall be writing a piece for Bayan at some point, they are very important to me.
Your perpetual “debtor”
Naturally I immediately sent to the address given my summary of possibilities for the Bayan, which Denisov had requested.
* Many years ago I wrote down on two sheets of paper (double-sided) the possibilities of the Bayan, in which I listed the basic facts and composers with whom one must collaborate, and passed them on for inspection.
In September 1995 I received a second letter from him, from which it appeared that the work had already been written.
Second Letter La Napoule, 27 April 1995
In July (and on 11 August) I was in Moscow, where I tried to ring you, but was unable to get through to you. At last I have discharged my long-standing duty and written a piece for you. I must tell you at once that this was a very interesting experience for me. The piece is not fast and is polyphonic throughout. Its title is “From Dusk to Light”. lt lasts 10 – 12 minutes, I think. I have left a copy for you with my son, Mitya, who has also been unable to contact you by telephone.
I met Max Bonnay in Paris: we worked together for about an hour and a half. He said there was no need to change anything: it was so easy to perform. lt is of course very important for me to know your views. I signed a contract for publication with the highly respected French publisher, “Leduc”, where the work is to be published. On the question of the premiere, please talk to Max himself.*
I was with Katya and the girls for a month near Yekaterinburg, with Katya’s parents in the village of Cherdanzevo. It was very hot in the Urals in the summer. On 11 August I returned to Paris, and on 14 August we went to the seaside for three weeks. We were invited to the chateau at La Napoule, which stands by the sea 6 km from Cannes. lt is very beautiful there, but also unbearably hot. I had some urgent work to do: I had to finish the opera “Lazarus” by Franz Schubert (performance on 21 January 1996). It is always more difficult to work on unfamiliar music than on one’s own. The living conditions are excellent here: we have two large single rooms (with bath and toilet of course), and food is almost “free” (FF 125 per day for four people). I do not feel very well – this accident has really shaken me up. I am not sure whether Katya did the right thing by dragging me out of the grave. I am not used to feeling ill.
lt was very moving to see you at the concert in the Tschaikovsky Hall.** You played everything very well, apart from the Schubert (this has to be practised in the general rehearsal). I now have the urge – I believe that is normal – to write something else for the Bayan. It is a good instrument and has hardly been researched at all. I therefore wish to write a sonata for saxophone and Bayan. Only I have first to be clear of my endless musical “obligations” and find time for it.
Yours ever, Denisov
* On the question of the premiere of the work, I soon agreed with Max: I suggested two premieres at the Moscow International Festival for Bayan and Bayanists in December 1996, which we each performed in the concert.
** I sat with my wife just by the aisle in the stalls in the Tschaikovsky Hall and, when Denisov came on the stage to bow after the premiere of his work, he noticed me as he returned to his place and in view of everybody in the hall came up to me and embraced me. I was of course very moved.
Soon after that I received the manuscript. In my heart I felt quiet triumph and joy: at last after so many years of waiting! And pride in the Bayan: if we have in the package music by high-ranking composers, then we become, in fact, a real part of the whole culture of musical scholarship.
Denisov’s handwriting is small, regular, but clear. lt is hard to read, not so much because of the contemporary music, but rather because of the rhythms! … Each bar has its difficulties of rhythm. Some bars -had to be literally deciphered: like a millipede; what does the 27th foot do, if the 18th has just been raised? I often remembered that Denisov, before he went to the Conservatory, graduated from the Applied Mathematics Faculty of Tomsk State University. His way of thinking revealed itself in his musical creativity. The slow development of the piece is based on the nuances of piano and pianissimo. When I played it later in concerts, for some reason I always wanted to create the picture of a still shining light. (The idea that his music radiates light is not only my impression. After his death musicologists expressed this thought several times in publications.) Furthermore, in the word association “Edison Denisov” the letter “s” appears in the middle of both words – and also at the beginning of the word “svyet” (“tight” in Russian – note by H Scheibenreif).
In his work Denisov uses monograms out of the notes E, D, E flat – EDISON DENISOV. The work for Bayan “From Dusk to Light” is likewise built on these second steps. As I became more familiar with the work, I discovered what I felt to be rhythmical inaccuracies in the writing of the manuscript. I wrote immediately to Edison Vasilyevich about this and suggested some corrections. I concluded from his reply that he agreed with some, but not with others.
Third Letter Paris, 26 November 1995
Yesterday I received your letter and am delighted that you like the piece. When I had finished it, I somehow felt I would like to write something else for the Bayan. I hope that this time it will go quicker. I will definitely write the Sonata for Saxophone and Bayan. You can play it with Alyosha Volkov. He is currently the best saxophonist in Russia. You must know him, because he was at the Gnessin Institute,
I have fond memories of your visit to my home with Vladislav Solotaryov. It is a pity that his life ended so early and tragically: he was very talented and a good man. It was not really necessary for him to study with Khrennikov.
With regard to the premiere of my piece, please make your own decision. lf you play in “Autumn” (“Moscow Autumn” Festival – note by Friedrich Lips), I shall be happy.
After publication by “Leduc” (work has already begun on it), it can be published in Russia, without asking anyone’s permission. In other countries it is only possible in agreement with “Leduc”. In principle, this is because I have given “Leduc” the (copy)rights for all countries except Russia. (This is one of the points in my contract with this publisher.)
Thank you for the registration: I think that is very important for publication. I shall forward it to “Leduc”. Thank you also for pointing out some errors, particularly in places where there are difficulties with rhythm. But some corrections were wrong, for example: (differences of opinion on rhythmical difficulties continue with examples of notes – note by Friedrich Lips)
All these clashing rhythms are not “mathematical” in nature, but underline the freedom and independence of polyphonic lines. To a certain extent this is like an “improvisation”. Unfortunately, I must now go to hospital twice a week for treatment. For this reason I cannot go away for the time being (I would like to come to Moscow in November). On 29 February I have a small concert in the Rachmaninov Hall. I want to come to Moscow, say 22 February – 2 March and will of course be happy to meet you
Thank you once again for the registration and all your comments.
PS All your other corrections are right; only in bar 16 (left hand) it must be: 5:6.
(The Quintole covers three-quarters and contains 5 units instead of 6.) ED
At the end of February Edison Vasilyevich flew to Moscow, where we met in his flat, in which he received me once with Solotaryovs music. This time it rang with Denisov’s music.
“Friedrich, I am very satisfied with your ideas. There has been hardly any comment. You play differently from Max, but that is good. There should be different interpretations.”
We talked about various matters. At the end of the conversation he suddenly said, almost incidentally, that he felt unwell. “The doctors found something wrong in my stomach. I don’t know whether Katya has done the right thing in fetching me back from the hereafter again.”
We agreed with Denisov that he should definitely be in Moscow in December, in order to be present at both premieres at the Festival for “Bayan and Bayanists”.
Fourth Letter Paris, 2 April 1996
Thank you for your nice letter. I was very happy to see you in Moscow and to work with you. I am becoming more and more fascinated by the accordion (as though I am coming alive), and I hope to write some more works for this difficult, but very interesting instrument. It all depends on time – at the moment I have made far too many promises …. Thank you for planning the world premiere of my piece. How long does it take? I would be very interested to know. What you suggested to me in Moscow (registration, tempi, character) suits me fine. I have already made twocorrections for Leduc. The edition is lovely. I think the score will be published in the summer. (I will send you ten copies straight away.) It is OK to publish this piece in Moscow, as my contract excludes Russian territory. However, that is excluded for other publications (in the West). This applies to all works of all composers.
Max has so far not rung me or got in touch otherwise. lf he is going to play at the festival in December, I think that will be interesting (two different interpretations).
.Somehow I would like to write a Toccata for Bayan. I don’t know why. I have taken on too much work for the time being: I have only just finished the big score of the Second Symphony (premiere in Dresden 1/2 June 1996); now I have to write two more works urgently for Germany: one piece for 26 instruments for Dresden (premiere 1/2 October 1996) and a major concerto for flute; and clarinet with orchestra for Essen (premiere 23 October 1996). After that there is a big assignment in the electronic studio in Cologne (work for soprano, ensemble and tape on poetry by Paul Ülan – 20 minutes), and all that, without taking account of master classes in Edinburgh (20-28 April) and Paris (1-10 November), or work on two international juries (I shall be President of one jury).
I want to return to Russia, but I am tied to the hospital for the time being: I am writing this letter now in the hospital. I have to go back there every fortnight (for 3-4 days, sometimes more). That disrupts my whole life: I have no possibility of working as I used to (sometimes I am not back to normal for 10 days after my treatment). Neither can I travel normally (I have to discuss every journey at length with my doctors). I am now coming to Moscow in the second half of May (about 18 May). You can get the date of my arrival from my son, Mitya,
Yours ever, Denisov
As planned, two world premieres of the work for Bayan “From Dusk to Light” by Edison Denisov took place in December 1996 as part of the international Festival for “Bayan and Bayanists” only one day apart: in my recital and in Max Bonnay’s concert. However, about two weeks before the start of the festival news came from Paris of the composer’s death. News of the demise of our great contemporary was broadcast on all television channels and newspapers. He was buried in a cemetery in Paris.
The years pass by. Time turns inexorably the pages of life. Some of them are full of interest. I am very proud that one of these pages is devoted to the creative, and for me memorable, contact with one of the most important masters of tie second half of the 20th century – the composer, Edison Vasilyevich Denisov.
The German translation of this article came from Dr Herbert Scheibenreif and is authorised by Friedrich Lips.