Denisov, one of the most
influential Russian composers of his generation, was born on 6 April
1929 in Tomsk, Siberia. His father was an engineer and his mother a
doctor. He studied mathematics, before moving, encouraged by
Shostakovich, to the Moscow Conservatory in 1951. After graduation in
1959 he began
to teach analysis and orchestration, but, despite repeated requests, it
was 30 years before he was officially allowed to teach composition.
Unofficially he quickly gathered younger students around himself,
introducing them to new pieces from Russia and abroad. This work was to
have vital influence on the history of modern Soviet music.
Denisov’s boundless curiosity about what was happening outside the closed world of Soviet music was first awoken in the late 1950s. He soon discovered what were to remain his principle fascinations: French music, the Second Viennese School, and the postwar avant-garde of Boulez and Stockhausen. In 1964 he wrote The Sun of the Incas, a chamber cantata which stridently announced the appearance of a modernist on the conservative Soviet scene.
After several notable essays in a post-Webernian idiom, including 3 pieces for piano 4 hands (1967) and the brilliant String Trio (1969), in 1970 Denisov wrote Peinture for orchestra, in which he at last felt he had found his own language. Soon he was embarked on a substantial series of concertos for virtuoso performers, including a lyrical Flute Concerto (1975) for Aurèle Nicolet, a more robust Violin Concerto (1977) for Gidon Kremer, and a colourful Concerto for Flute and Oboe (1979) for Nicolet and Heinz Holliger. A more melancholy side to Denisov’s nature can be found in Tod ist ein langer Schlaf (1982), for cello and strings, and the Requiem (1980), which Denisov himself considered one of his most successful achievements.
Fascination with French culture led him to the writings of Boris Vian on whom he based the cantata La Vie en Rouge (1973) and the lavish and Duke-Ellington-haunted opera L’Ecume des Jours (1981). In response, the French took him to their hearts, giving the opera its 1986 premiere at the Opéra-Comique, commissioning the massive Symphony No.1 (1987) and, in Denisov’s troubled last years of illness, supporting expensive medical treatment and giving him and his young family a second home in Paris.
For all his absorption in modern Western music, Denisov was deeply loyal to his Russian roots. This is especially reflected in his several song-cycles for voice and piano, including Your Sweet Face (1980, after Pushkin) and On the Snowy Bonfire (1981, after Blok), in which he revived in his own terms the 19th century song-traditions of Glinka and Mussorgsky.
In 1992, fired by newly awoken religious feelings, Denisov wrote The Story of the Life and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ, an hour-long oratorio for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Thereafter, despite painful ill-health, he continued composing prolifically, completing a Symphony No.2 only months before his death in Paris in 1996.
Edison Denisov is published by Boosey & Hawkes.
-- Reprinted by kind permission of Gerard McBurney/Boosey & Hawkes
-- Throughout this webpage, names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on this website. BD
Born: April 6, 1929 - Tomsk, Siberia, Russia
Died: November 24, 1996 - Paris, France
Edison (Vasil'yevich [Vasilievich]) Denisov was a remarkable, innovative Russian composer and patriarch of the Russian musical avant-garde. He was named after Thomas Alva Edison by his father, an electrical Engineer. He studied mathematics at the University of Moscow, graduating in 1951, before deciding to spend his life composing. This decision was enthusiastically supported by Dmitri Shostakovich, who gave him instructions in composition. From 1951 to 1956 Denisov studied at the Moscow Conservatory - composition with Vissarion Shebalin, orchestration with Nikolai Rakov, analysis with Viktor Zuckerman and piano with Vladimir Belov. In 1959 he was appointed to the faculty of the Conservatory.
Edison Denisov was among Soviet-era composers, who in the late 1950's, early 1960's, were irresistibly drawn to and derived inspiration from contemporary European music: late Debussy and Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern and Pierre Boulez, Béla Bartók and Luigi Nono. As he mastered new composition techniques and new forms of expression, Denisov perceived the evolution of music as the evolution of a language. His innovative works paved the way for a new fusion of Russian and European traditions. An astute explorer of tonal possibilities, Denisov wrote instrumental works of an empirical genre. The titles of his pieces reveal a lyric character of subtle nuances, often marked by impressionistic colours.
Like his avant-garde colleagues, among them Alfred Schnitke, Sofia Gubaidulina, Arvo Pjart, Tigran Mansurian, Boris Tischenko and Valentin Silvestrov, all labelled dissident composers in the former USSR, Edison Denisov couldn't hope to hear his music performed on stage during Soviet times. The thought that avant-garde composers opposed depersonalized academism in music and still worse, the fact that they sought to establish direct contact with their European colleagues frightened the former Soviet cultural ideologists. It was next to impossible for a Soviet composer to have his work premiered abroad or to be commissioned by foreign performers to write a new piece. Denisov reversed the situation.
The European premiere of Edison Denisov's Sun of the Inkas cantata to lyrics by the Chilean poetess Gabriela Mistral (1964) was a tremendous success. He wrote articles for foreign newspapers and magazines about new trends in Soviet music and used his personal contacts in the West to hand over the scores of pieces composed by his Soviet colleagues to European musicians. On the other hand, he received plenty of scores and recordings of contemporary music by European and American composers and held his unique music library open to all his friends, contributing to the noble cause of enlightenment. For more than 30 years Denisov "enlightened" students at Moscow's Conservatory but it was not until very late that he was allowed to teach composition.
Edison Denisov's enlightening activity was directed to the future but also to historical roots. He pulled from oblivion the musical avant-garde of the 1920's represented by Alexander Mosolov, Nikolai Roslavts and Vladimir Deshevov, revived the Contemporary Music Association founded back in those times, and helped organize the Moscow Ensemble of Contemporary Music in 1990. In short, he created conditions for alternative music. In the early 1990's, backed by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, he introduced the practice of mini-lectures preceding a concert, which was also very important. He explained to the audience the essence of a piece to be performed and briefly answered questions, if there were any. He possessed a rare gift to explain complicated things in simple and understandable terms and very laconically.
Edison Denisov's heritage is extremely diverse: a ballet based on Alfred de Musset's Confession of a Child of the Century, symphonies, cantatas, oratorios, including a requiem entitled The Story of Life and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ, some 20 instrumental concertos, chamber ensembles, choral and vocal music. He wrote three operas, one of which, The Foam of Days based on Boris Vian's novel, earned him honorary membership of the French Order of Literature and Art. In the 1990's, by that time a universally recognized composer, he toured half the globe, giving master-classes and sitting on the jury panels of prestigious composers' competitions. His music was performed by best Russian and foreign musicians: conductors Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Alexander Lazarev and Daniel Barenboim, the famous "Ensemble Intercontemporain", violist Yuri Bashmet, cellist Ivan Monigetti, oboist Heinz Holliger, percussionist Mark Pekarsky, to name but a few.
The Independent, Wednesday, 27 November 1996
The distinguished Russian composer Edison Denisov was among the first of a talented generation of Soviet-educated musicians (including Sophia Gubaidulina and Alfred Schnittke) with the courage openly to emulate the modernist strivings of contemporaries in Western Europe and, more importantly, to determine that the long years of physical isolation imposed by the Communist regime would be used to positive advantage in the development of a remarkably self-sufficient musical identity.
Denisov was born and brought up in Tomsk in Siberia; but his wartime childhood came to an abrupt end when he was forced to assume unchildlike domestic responsibilities, for an ailing grandmother and two younger sisters, following the death of his father in 1940, when Edison (his father was an electrical engineer) was 11. It was, he said later, a good training for life. And, since life as a free-thinking composer under the Soviet regime meant curbing the emotions and developing an outwardly expressionless mien, this early promotion to the restraints of the grown-up world evidently stood him in good stead for the next 40 years or more.
It was only when the state at last began to relax its stranglehold on the private lives of its citizens in the late 1980s that Denisov learnt to adopt a public persona that was not only a reflection of the private happiness of his own second marriage in 1987 but was in some measure symptomatic of a more widespread relief that the need for dissimulation - for balancing a refusal to compromise with the appearance of keeping in line - was finally at an end.
His musical gifts emerged relatively late. Raised in a family where artistic concerns held no particular sway (his mother was a doctor), he confessed himself completely uninterested in music of any kind until a chance encounter with a neighbour's mandolin-playing marked the onset of what was to become a lifelong enchantment. By then 15, Denisov moved quickly. After initial tinkerings with both mandolin and guitar, he began more seriously to study the piano and to develop a passion for Russian opera; he was soon spending all his pocket money on vocal scores, from which he would sit and play for hours on end.
Although he read Mathematics at university in Tomsk he was at the same time taking lessons in harmony and counterpoint. He must also have been trying his hand at composition since, with one year at university still to go, he parcelled up his entire oeuvre and sent it to Shostakovich - who not only answered his unknown correspondent but gave him every encouragement to proceed.
Denisov needed no further urging. Graduating from university, he began all over again as a student of Vissarion Chebaline at the Moscow Conservatory - an institution he was afterwards to serve first as teacher of analysis and counterpoint, then of orchestration, a subject of which he latterly became professor. This was a title always denied him by the Soviet administration; it must have pleased him to think that his Russian colleagues may at last have awarded the professorship in recognition of his long years of work as a thoroughly professional composer.
It was a number of European performances of his chamber cantata Le Soleil des Incas in the mid-1960s (including one at the Brighton Festival) that first brought his name to the attention of a musical public for whom the notion of Soviet avant-garde music then seemed as remote a prospect as music from the moon. Instantly acclaimed as an important new voice on the contemporary scene, Denisov even then showed a stylistic poise that was soon to develop into an increasingly personal amalgam of 20th-century influences and techniques.
Twenty years on, his characteristically loose-limbed counterpoints had begun to absorb elements of jazz (ragtime and blues) to dramatic and often moving effect; first introduced in the chamber cantata La Vie en rouge (1974), this stylistic mix was to expand its expressive potential to the full in the Boris Vian opera L'Ecume des jours (premiered in Paris in 1986), and other works of the 1980s.
Music composed during these intensely productive years included a second opera, Quatre filles (after Picasso), a highly original Requiem, a Symphony (commissioned to mark the 20th anniversary of the Orchestre de Paris), La Confession (a ballet based on a short story by Alfred de Musset), seven works for solo instrument(s) and orchestra, and a whole host of smaller pieces; more recently, Sur la nappe d'un etang glace (composed during a year spent at IRCAM in Paris, 1990-91) was followed by Histoire de la vie et de la de mort de Notre Seigneur Jesus Christ - whose title seems at the very least to suggest a deepening awareness of the spiritual.
Denisov nevertheless resisted the temptation to cast his stylistic net too wide or too often; he rarely quoted directly (the Schubert song heard at the end of his 1978 violin concerto is a notable exception), and his borrowings from mannerisms of the past were mostly restricted to those he could also claim as his own - like the lingua franca of 20th-century popular music. If, with some of the slighter pieces in his large output, he occasionally seemed in danger of becoming a victim of his own success - of allowing the language he had forged to dictate or even to become the music itself - he elsewhere revealed an astonishing capacity for imaginative renewal of the possibilities comprised by so distinctive yet intentionally limited a vocabulary.
More than that of either of his charismatic compatriots in the post-Shostakovich Denisov-Gubaidulina-Schnittke triumvirate, it is the influence of Denisov (as it happens, the only one of the three to have stayed in Russia following the collapse of Communism) which can most clearly be heard in the work of succeeding generations. While some of these younger composers were once his pupils, many more were unofficial almost-pupils; among those who will remember him as their irreplaceable mentor are many from the furthermost reaches of the old Soviet Union - postgraduate students whose first introductions to colleagues in Moscow and beyond were effected by Denisov as part of an ongoing plan for the 1990s: to draw them early into the world community of composers from which he himself had for so long been geographically excluded.
But his concerns were not only with the young. Appointed president of the Moscow Association for Contemporary Music in 1990, Denisov immediately set himself to act as behind-the-scenes animator and co-ordinator of a long-term project to rehabilitate those Russian composers whose music was made to disappear during the years of Stalinist rule. Enlisting the help of a group of trusted composers from among his own one-time students, he proposed a programme to research and edit (in many cases to orchestrate, even to finish), then to perform, record, and eventually to publish all the music of a forgotten generation. Already well under way (in conjunction with the French publishers Le Chant du Monde), this ambitious undertaking will eventually stand as a memorial not only to the composers whose works it has brought belatedly to life, but also to the dedicated entrepreneurial skills of Denisov himself.
Edison Denisov, composer: born Tomsk, Siberia 6 April 1929; married Galina Grigorieva (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1987 Ekaterina Kubrovskaya (two daughters); died Paris 23 November 1996.
This interview was recorded in Chicago on May 16,
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB in 1994 and again in
1999. A copy of the audio tape was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University. This
transcription was made and posted on this
website in 2011.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.