Composer  Edison  Denisov
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Edison Vasil’evich 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 in1996.

Edison Denisov is published by Boosey & Hawkes.

  --  Reprinted by kind permission of Gerard McBurney/Boosey & Hawkes  

In May of 1991, The Chicago Symphony was presenting the American premiere of the Symphony for Large Orchestra by Denisov, under the direction of Daniel Barenboim, to whom the work is dedicated.  Completed in 1987, Barenboim had given the first performance and recorded the work with the Orchestre de Paris. Incidentally, after we had finished our conversation, the composer commented to me that here in America, he preferred the title of the work be printed in programs as I've shown it above in this paragraph, and not Symphonie pour grand orchestre
as copied from the Leduc score.

As usual, I asked my guest to say his name so that I would get it right when I said it on the radio, and he replied, "eh-dee-SOHN de-NEE-sof." 

My thanks to Laurel Fay for providing the translations during this interview.  She rendered my questions
into Russian for Mr. Denisov — a task that was sometimes quite elusive — and gave his responses naturally and completely.

We had only a few minutes in his very busy schedule, so here is what transpired that afternoon . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  How does the performance you heard here in Chicago compare with the performance and recording from Paris?

Edison Denisov:  I think that it may have been the best performance yet, even though the concertmaster told me that they weren't very happy with it, and tomorrow it will be better.

BD:  Is that always the case
— can works always get better?

ED:  Since Barenboim is such a wonderful conductor and the orchestra is so marvelous, maybe it's possible to be better.

BD:  Is there an ideal performance above which it cannot get?


ED:  It's very difficult to say because, for instance, Rozhdestvensky, who has conducted this work twice in Moscow treats the work completely differently.  That's completely normal.  Rozhdestvensky has a different approach to the work, and every musician will have a different approach.

BD:  Do you write in this leeway for interpretation, or is that something that you just expect out of each interpreter?

ED:  I do think that a composer should participate in the first performance of a work.  He should work with the conductor and help to shape it.  He doesn't change things in the score, but he does adapt things.  He learns a lot from the process of working with a conductor on the premiere.  Here, I didn't really need to work with Barenboim because he'd already done it in Paris.  The only thing was that here I felt I was able to help with was the balance.

BD:  But once the composer gets it the way he wants it, is there then not room for someone else's ideas in it?

denisovED:  One of the wonderful things about music is, in fact, that one can always find a new interpretation.  Just to take, for instance, a Mozart sonata.  There are lots of different interpretations; you can argue about them and some you will like better than others, but many of them will be convincing.  For instance, I've heard a recording of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations marvelously.  András Schiff plays them in quite a different way, but I find it equally convincing.  For me those are the two best performers of the Goldberg Variations, but they are completely different interpretations.

BD:  Do you think there will come a time when there will be such wild divergence of opinion about your own music?

ED:  If it gets played.  [Chuckles]

BD:  How do we get it played more?

ED:  Most often, and especially when it's abroad in the West, it is at the initiative of the performer.  For different composers there are countries in which they get played more, and some countries when they're played less.  For me, countries where my music is played the most are France and Germany.

BD:  Are you having a renaissance now in the United States?

ED:  It's hard to say "renaissance," because it's the first time I have been here.  [Laughter all around]  When a person comes to a country, he meets people, he gets to know them, gets to know musicians, and then the possibility is that they might play him.

BD:  Have you basically been pleased so far with your trip here?

ED:  Basically, yes, so far I am pleased with this trip.  I like the atmosphere; I feel very comfortable here, and although I haven't seen very much, I really feel like it's not my first trip here.  It is like I have been here before.  Americans seem to be very open, just like Russians.  I find it very comfortable because they're very open and heartfelt.

BD:  Can you compare and contrast the audiences in Russia with Western Europe, in Paris or Germany?

ED:  The public everywhere is great, but it does strike me that the public in Moscow, in Russia, is a little bit more open to new music than elsewhere.

BD:  Really?  Why?

ED:  I don't really know the answer.  It may be, first of all, that they have fewer concerts, so there's less competition.  Or it may be that people there simply need more to hear what contemporary artists are saying.  I don't like it when you have a "special" public for contemporary music.  I like it best when you have a normal public, a public that comes for traditional music.  I have had some premieres in Paris
at the IRCAM, at the Centre Pompidouand they've gone very well, but the public is a special public.  It's this public that comes to Boulez concerts.  Next February I will have another premiere there in Paris, and it is a concert of contemporary music.  It will be the piece that I have just finished writing, and despite the fact that it's an all-contemporary concert, I am very happy because my piece will be performed together with composers I really admire, especially Elliott Carter's Double Concerto.  [See my Interview with Elliott Carter.]

BD:  Do you have any advice for the public
perhaps a general public rather than a specific publicthat comes to hear your music?

ED:  My music is not easy to approach; it has a great inner tension and concentration.  There's some music that is very easy to come to and appreciate on a first hearing.  Mine doesn't really fall into that category.  Any advice I could give would be that you should listen to it more than once.

denisovBD:  You indicate that your music is perhaps more difficult than some.  Is that by design, or is that just the way it has to be written?

:  Basically there are different kinds of composers, and they write in different ways.  For instance, if you take Vivaldi and listen to a concerto of this wonderful composer, on the first hearing you will take away a great deal.  On the second hearing, you won't take away anything new.  If you compare him with Bach, for instance, Bach is more complicated.  It's better to listen to Bach a couple of times.  Then if you compare them to a composer like Webern, you need listen to him very many times to be able to take away all the beauty.

BD:  Is this, perhaps, what contributes to the greatness of music
the depth that there is contained in it?

ED:  No, it's just a different type of writing.  Take, for instance, the example of Mozart, a composer I love deeply.  I have listened to The Magic Flute probably more than 40 times, and every time I listen to it I hear something new in it.  I like best of all the music that doesn't expend itself
that doesn't run outand that you can listen to many, many times and always take away something new.  By comparison, think of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, which you can read in youth, you can read in middle age, you can read in old age, and you will always get something very different and new.  Whereas if you read de Maupassant's Bel Ami, the first time it's a wonderful book, but if you read it a second or third time you won't really take away much that's new.  Also compare the Russian novelist Turgenev with Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.  When you read Turgenev the first time, you will take away all the information you need to know.  It doesn't mean that one is better than the other, it just means it's a different type of approach, a different type of meaning.

BD:  Is the music that you write for everyone?

ED:  Yes.  I am, in principle, against elitism.  I think my music is for everyone.  I am against elitism, in contrast to my colleague, for instance, Sofia Gubaidulina, who thinks that in principle, music should be elite.  [See my Interview with Sofia Gubaidulina.]

BD:  In your music, or in any music, is there a balance between artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

ED:  It's very hard to write a piece of music that would have both qualities.  I'm not opposed to diverting music, nor against entertaining music at all.  For instance, my Sonata for Flute and Guitar I consider pure entertainment.  I have written some music that I consider pure entertainment, but they are a little less important than other works.  This is because there are fewer of those works inside me.  There are some composers who really don't put anything of themselves into their pieces.  Varèse, Roussel and Xenakis are composers whom I admire, but I don't hear anything personal coming from inside them in that music.  It's very objective music.  [See my Interview with Iannis Xenakis.]  We get closer in the music of Schubert, for instance, because all of Schubert is like a page out of his life; you can hear it as a page out of his diary.  Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony is also a work that is straight out of his life, and many of the symphonies of Shostakovich are like that.

BD:  Do the pages that you write come out of your life?

denisovED:  Basically, yes.  There are some works that are very, very close because they seem to be straight out of the insides.  The opera The Foam of Days, the ballet Confession, the Requiem.  They're a little bit closer to me than other works because they are so personal.  A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for two pianos called Dots and Lines [for two pianos, eight hands], and in that work there's nothing personal at all.  But there are very few of those works.

BD:  Are there any works that are perhaps too close to you?

ED:  Yes, and probably the one that's that close is the opera The Foam of Days.  When I choose a subject or poetry to set, I select those that are the ones that I might have written myself if I were a poet.

BD:  We've somewhat danced around this, so let me ask it straight out.  What is the purpose of music?

ED:  I think that music can give people a great deal.  Large scale compositions always have some kind of message.  Music, in principle, is an art form that is very deeply spiritual.  The art of music is much deeper and more mysterious, and penetrates into mysteries of existence much more and with greater depth and accuracy and directness than the art of words.  It is not accidental that music is connected with the church, both Catholic and Russian Orthodox.  Music, like mathematics, deals in a realm that approaches mystery, and beyond which begins what we call "God."

BD:  And this is coming from someone who was working in a state where they deny the existence of God!

ED:  Well, they don't, anymore.  Officially they said there was no God, but that doesn't mean anything.  The Russian people have always been deeply religious.  Russians are very deeply religious, and it would've been impossible to erase that.  I consider that one of the greatest evils wrought upon us by the Soviet government.  So in my Requiem, I used two theses, or antitheses.  First, poetry of Francisco Tanzer to the effect that in our time there are ten confessions that have been forgotten, and I juxtaposed that to selections from the Psalms from the Bible.  When you look at the television in the United States, you can see immediately that the Ten Commandments have been forgotten.  You can see that there's a cult of murder on television, and it's true in Russia, too, and in Paris.  But it's very obvious on television here that they're propagating a cult of murder.

BD:  How does your music try to counteract this?

ED:  Music should bring light to people.  Music can have a good effect on people.  It can bring salvation to people; it can act on the soul.  I am not against commercial music, but much of contemporary rock or pop music is, in fact, deleterious.  It has a bad effect on the souls of young people.  If you go back to The Beatles, that was real music.  That was great; or Pink Floyd.  But if you look at what's on television, commercial music, that's nothing.  It's like rotten drugs; it's an anti-spiritual direction.  If you take real music
and you name any composer you want... Bach, Glinka, Schubert, or Brahmsit always acted positively.

denisovBD:  What advice do you have for young composers coming along?

ED:  A young composer should know his technique; he should have his technique down solid, but he shouldn't make a cult of it.  For instance, I admire some of the students of Boulez, but I heard, not long ago, a concert conducted by Boulez where some of the student compositions were performed.  There was one piece which was 30 minutes long, and there was no music there; all that was there was technique.

BD:  One last question.  Is composing fun?  [Note: After rendering my question to the composer, the translator quietly said to me,
"The word 'fun' is an impossible word to translate; they don't have the word 'fun' in Russian."]

ED:  It's a form of existence.  I couldn't exist without composing; I couldn't survive, couldn't get along.  If I go without writing music for a long time I feel sick. 
Unfortunately I don't get the opportunity to work without interruptions, so I always have to work in spurts.

BD:  Thank you for coming to Chicago.

ED:  I thank Chicago for the very warm welcome I have been given, and for the very serious and open attitude to my music that I have found here.

Edison Denisov (Composer)

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 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.

Susan Bradshaw

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.

© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on May 16, 1991.  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.