Robert Matthew-Walker. A rare type of Russian artist (Vyacheslav Artyomov and his music)

The music of Vyacheslav Artyomov has been comparatively slow to travel outside of his native Russia, where he is regarded as one of the most important composers of his generation – for some, he is the most important Russian composer since Shostakovich.

Perhaps  one reason for the lack of international appreciation of his work is Artyomov’s inherent artistic character: he is that rare Russian artist, exemplified earlier in 20th century music by Scriabin: a spiritual mystic, one who abjures both modern-day fashion and the courting of easy popularity and who also exhibits a number of interdependent facets. Yet his music is neither mystery-mongering for its own sake, nor the ivory-tower isolationism and irrelevance of the self-centred. His art is based first upon deeply religious foundations – shown openly in Artyomov’s fine Requiem (the first setting of the Latin text of the Missa pro Defunctis by a Russian composer) and other pieces; secondly, it is inspired by the eternally recreative life-giving forces of nature, attempting to achieve musical transcendence of his experience and perception of these forces.

One of the main reasons for Artyomov’s impact within Russia is his return to musical roots: so important yet so widely ignored, the essential folk-modality of his harmonic base is allied to direct human aspirations which strike a responsive emotional chord in the listener. Nor is this emotion one of ill-tempered anger, the blustering angst of the contemporary desperate artist: Artyomov’s music speaks in restrained tones, often meditatively deliberate, yet with an enthralling intensity which is remarkable and often utterly unique.

Vyacheslav Artyomov was born in Moscow in June 1940. His father was a musician, but his parents wanted him to study science. In 1958, however, Artyomov decided that above all he wanted to become a composer and he began to study composition with Alexander Pirumov, ten years his senior and himself a pupil of Kabalevsky. In the exciting early 1960s Artyomov entered the Moscow Conservatoire where his professor in composition was Nikolai Sidelnikov. It was from Sidelnikov that Artyomov’s fascination with folk-music became highly developed: not in the more obvious thematic sense, but in the deeper ethnomusicological aspects of the cellular nature of much Eastern European and Eurasian folk-themes and in their modal fundamentals. Quite apart from anything else, the inherent rhythmic nature of this wide-regioned folk-music also proved a great stimulus, as did the treatment of such basic ideas as had been demonstrated in earlier 20th-century Russian masterpieces – Stravinsky’s Les Noces, for example, being an early influence on Artyomov, albeit a passing one.

Artyomov graduated from the Moscow Conservatoire in 1968. His student and post-student compositions show a growing concentration upon non-traditional ensembles (which he has not pursued exclusively, however) and this very important aspect of his work coalesced in his becoming a co-founder of the folk-instrumental improvisation group Astreya in 1975. Here was on the one hand a return to roots with a vengeance, and on the other the side-stepping, with a single creative bound, of traditional art-music-making allied to the most modern musical creative processes.

With such a background, it should be very clear that Artyomov has been disinterested in pursuing what might be termed a traditional career as a composer: he has quite fearlessly gone his own way, and yet this lonely furrow could not have been ploughed at a more opportune time for an artist within the USSR.

What cannot be emphasized too strongly is the nobility and sincerity of genuine spirituality which informs so much of Artyomov’s art. He has spoken of his desire to find in music “the expression of the profundity of existence, of the deepest and innermost events”. What is undoubtedly true is that music cannot express anything other than itself – the heart of his musical ethos can perhaps be found in his further statement, “I believe in the transfiguration of the created world through music”. In the first quotation, we are appraised of where, in the modern phrase, he is coming from, and the second begs three questions: the depth and sensitivity of his perception of that world; his technical ability to transfigure it through music, and the belief that a “created world” has to have had a creator. It is because of this second aspect that the immediate emotional appeal to modern audiences of Artyomov’s music is simply explained: it is instinctive. The recent impact of Artyomov’s works, specifically in the West, is not due to his instrumental colour (which can be strikingly original) nor to a folk-based musical ethnicity but to the emotional directness of his art.

Artyomov reveals other influences: 19th-century Romanticism and the non-Romantic large-scale structures of Schubert and Bruckner. Such a combination of influences, allied to Artyomov’s natural gifts, has created an individual musical manner which is contemporary and undoubtedly Russian.

When Artyomov terms a work “symphony”, as he has done on six occasions, the term means pretty much what Artyomov wants it to mean, always to one side of the West-European symphonic tradition, and often expressing metaphysical aspirations, in much the same way as Scriabin’s larger orchestral works – which were themselves sometimes later retitled symphonies.

The result of Artyomov’s search for his musical self is best shown in a symphonic tetralogy, written between 1978 and 1993, with the singular generic title Symphony of the Way. This comprises the four large-scale symphonies Way to Olympus, On the Threshold of a Bright World (premiиred by the National Symphony of Washington D.C. under Mstislav Rostropovich in September, 1990), Gentle Emanation (also premiиred  by Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra at Washington’s Kennedy Center in January, 1992) and The Morning Star Arises premiиred by the London Symphony Orchestra under Mstislav Rostropovich at the Barbican Hall in July, 1993. The two other Artyomov symphonies are A Symphony of Elegies of 1977 and a Symphony for Violin and Orchestra In Memoriam.

Lamentations was composed in 1986, and exists in two versions: the first is for mixed choir, large percussion group, piano  and full string orchestra; the second omits the chorus, rescoring their music for organ and retaining the rest of the instrumentation although aspects of the orchestration are different. The work, in both versions, derives from material which Artyomov was to incorporate in his massive Requiem of 1985-88 and is in fact an original version of three episodes from that work. Lamentations travels from a mystical, melodically chromatic opening to a deep if not wholly reposeful end, and structurally it is in three parts. The first begins with a descending violin line, initially unaccompanied, which flowers more fully as aspects of it are taken up by lower strings, gently punctuated. This idea dominates the whole of this first section even through a gradual expansion of texture momentarily submerges it. A new idea, slower and more diatonic at first, dominated by a gradually rising five-note germ, ushers in a calmer mood. It is now joined to the lament, as if it had been going on before the work began.

The influence of this “prequel” idea extends to when single notes are detached, to hang, luminous in shimmering orchestration, as gently-flickering stars, static in time and space. The third section begins with a new string tone: divided violas and cellos, warmer in cushioned aspect, and at first more overtly lyrical than before until the fragmentary nature of the preceding material, its falling, sobbing semitones, drops over the layered texture to end the composition in a tender mood of almost tangible emotional spirituality.

Gurian Hymn immediately declares its Eastern Orthodox roots: this was also composed in 1986 and is based upon an archaic Georgian Easter Hymn, The Resurrection of Christ, whose ethnomusical stamp is reminiscent of the ecstatic character of the late work of Aram Khachaturian – the Concerto-Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra of 1968 and the three solo String Sonatas (1974-77) – and the First Piano Concerto, Khaldis (The Bringing of Light) of Alan Hovhaness, in that they share an Eastern-Georgian-Armenian emotional state of deep, almost immobile ecstasy, a world of hypnotic pointillistic polyphony layered upon harmony pedal points.

In this work, the textural aspects assume great importance: the Gurian Easter hymn is stated throughout by cellos in three parts, above which three solo violins weave a tapestry of iridescent light. The remaining strings and percussion form the constantly-shifting landscape against which the religio-dramaturgical score unfolds.

The Christian backgrounds to Lamentations and Gurian Hymn are replaced in the profound Symphony of Elegies by the extended musical equivalent of eastern meditation. This is the first of (to date) six symphonies by Artyomov, the last four of which are the symphonic tetralogy under the generic title Symphony of the Way, the last three of which have been premiиred by Rostropovich in Washington D.C. and in London. Artyomov’s Symphony of Elegies was composed in 1977 and is scored for two solo violins, six percussionists and a string orchestra of sixteen.

The Symphony was written for the most part during a stay in the high mountains of Armenia; the fact that Armenia was the first country to embrace Christianity may not be without some significance with regard to Artyomov’s approach to this work, which apparently arose spontaneously, cutting across another composition which the composer had planned to write on the trip. In fact, the Symphony may be said to mark a highly significant development in the composer’s career: as Artyomov himself said: “After composing the Symphony of Elegies I became less interested in my immediate musical environment. Its spirit did not satisfy me. And I saw my aims more clearly than ever.”

Artyomov’s Symphony is prefaced by a quotation from D.T. Suzuki: “All these are but moments in our innermost life, which revives and touches Eternity.”

Rebirth and spiritual regeneration are the constants of the symphony. It begins as a vast, immobile expanse of matter, from the edges of which emanate occasional flickering movements, as tiny organisms on the surface of an infinitely bigger, slow-moving orb whose monstrously slow trajectory carries all on its inexorable path. This is like a force of nature, a barren landscape of shades of one dark colour, lightened only by the occasional flicker of irradiation. The first Elegy leaves our perception gradually, as a solo violin edges away, moving into deep space.

The second Elegy takes us further: the shades, the sources of light, are more colouristic and textural, reaching the uttermost regions with an extraordinary feeling of immense height and grandeur as a steady implacable gaze of Pythian other-worldliness confronts us. A distant gong-stroke almost comes as a human entity into this landscape; once more, the suspended animation passes by in unruffled motion.

All is immensely still: in the third Elegy, the percussion is more to the fore as the spatial locomotion drifts into the sun, whose macarian strength illuminates the virtually immobile journey and causes life to flicker intermittently, magnifying and germinating as this extraordinary sound-world, a unique phantasmagoria of fascinating imagery, moves to a new plane. Gradually, slow pulse by slow pulse, we are made aware of a powerful force of rebirth. Over enormous time-spans the music reaches a vivid climax and then fades to remove each tingling, vibrant thread of life, leaving underneath the fundamental existentialism which has supported the Elegies we have witnessed.

In this work, one must abandon most preconceptions regarding Western symphonism. It is an astounding creation, occupying a unique place for its composer and for Russian music in the last quarter of the 20th century. When one considers that Artyomov’s Symphony of Elegies was written during the Brezhnev era in Russia, the composer’s determined individuality appears all the more astonishing. Artyomov is undoubtedly a successor to Scriabin: a mystical world, certainly, but one founded upon natural, basic principles, which at its most compelling illuminates aspects of human existence in a way not approached by any other composer.

Tristia I (Sad Reflections) for trumpet, piano, vibraphone, organ and 46-part string orchestra dates from 1983. Like most of Artyomov’s music of this period it is a multi-sectioned, single-movement structure, and the use of solo trumpet and the two keyboard instruments suggests dramaturgical personification which is worthy of study. It may be seen as a return to concerto grosso, as in Tristia, but it can also appear as latter-day sinfonia concertante style, as in In Memoriam.

Tristia is one of Artyomov’s slow-motion studies. The sustained opening rise of a layering string fabric, the piano dramatically juxtaposing new ideas, is impressive. If the piano seems to destabilise, the trumpet does the opposite. With constantly-shifting and fascinatingly-scored backgrounds the music progresses until the coda is announced over measured treads, by organ and trumpet, in which the now consolatory piano joins.

The symphony for violin and orchestra In Memoriam began as Artyomov’s postgraduate Violin Concerto of 1968. Although it opens with the solo violin stating – melodically rather than intervallically – the material on which the symphony is to be based, and from the gradual entry of the orchestra until the end of the composition the solo violin is rarely silent, such is the nature of the substantial 1984 revision that the work could hardly be termed concerto-like. The tonality of the symphony, also, is alluded to in the violin’s opening line: A minor, which is finally reached (following a growing insistence on a tiny phrase based on the dominant of that key, F—D sharp—E) after an outburst of the tremendous and superbly-sustained stretch of emotionally searing music.

The Symphony Way to Olympus was composed over six years, from 1978-1984. Structurally, it can be heard to comprise four sections, prefaced by a short introduction: Statement, Counterstatement, Development and Coda. Such a structure is rather straightforward and the attentive listener should have no difficulty in following the music’s progress; yet over and above any formal considerations, it is the emotional impact of the work which strikes home forcibly. The implication of a “rising journey” contained within the symphony’s title achieves almost tangible realisation in this work, with a masterly and original use of ostinati, kinetic rhythmic regroupings, the structural uses of texture and march-like imagery – all of these factors, and more, are combined here to produce a work of astonishing imaginative power and impact.

Totem dates from 1976. It is scored for six percussion players, and begins with soft rattles which encompass a wide stereophonic spectrum. Here is a real beginning, from basic, first principles: the pulse is slow, improvisatory, and from it emerges a texture notable for chromatic timpani glissandi, sudden drum beats and magical, aerial sounds. There is a pause and the second main section of the work gets underway, beginning as a steady quiet drum beat over which other patterns, at first simple, then more complicated, are layered as the texture builds to a gradual climax, at the emotional summit of which a vibraphone intones the Dies irae over the faster pulse. This image fades, and the music gradually begins to disintegrate as first one, then another, stratum of percussion sound vacates the texture, leaving intermittently pattering castanet and bell to be our last perceptions as the texture fades until a sudden gesture dismisses us.

Artyomov’s  A Sonata of Meditations for four percussion players was composed in 1978, and is in four movements: Morning Meditation, Afternoon Meditation, Evening Meditation and Midnight Meditation. It is on a large scale and inhabits, as its title clearly suggests, more meditative and spiritual regions of Artyomov’s art. The composer has stated that the work is meant to convey “...a generalised image of man... his simple and at the same time complex nature is revealed and man is freed from everything which is superficial and vulgarly social.”

The first movement, Morning Meditation, depicts the image of the just-awakened sleeper, as a fusion of soft half-lights and parts of dreams, sweetly-ringing, dreamily half-conscious premonitions, distant visions of eschatological matter. The sounds of bells and of gongs, of tintinnabulous gruppetti gradually coalescing into free-flowing keyboard lines, punctuated by suspended cymbals, dominate this meditation, a provocative incunabula which ends on receding cymbal and gong gestures.

Afternoon Meditation is one of great contrast from the quasi-improvisatory opening movement: here, all is clearly-organized ritual and drama, drums very much to the fore, but removed from practicalities in the sense that it is a magical incantation, an orison to an unsanctified ordinance, a rite for all seasons. The speed of this movement clearly indicates daytime: such vital activity could not take place at any other hour, the virtual absence of tonality compensated for by the movement’s vivid kaleidoscopic energy, making this the sonata’s scherzo, before a sudden, moderately-descending buzz brings it to a close.

In Evening Meditation, we encounter a mood of quiet contemplation, a process of fluid texture, of slowly rhythmic counterpoint inhabiting a state of mind which is calm, relaxed and yet powerful, alert and freely-ranging, gradually drawing within upon itself, “...its inner trajectories acquiring the status of an image of everyday life.” The creation of such a nostrum from these far-flung beginnings is a curiously fascinating process, for, manifestly, sleep has not yet overtaken the animus.

In the finale, the midnight meditation, the texture changes yet again to be both mysterious and light-headed in expression, a whimsical conclusion which in mood is not unlike Haydn, ever lighter yet combined with a cleansing asceticism which is ultimately brushed to one side as the phantasmagoria of midnight reveal a nocturnal life of eternal, strange fascination, which eventually disappears quite suddenly.

One of the more interesting aspects of A Sonata of Meditations is that supra-structurally, it reflects the positions of the sun in its daily traversal over the earth’s surface: the first movement is faintly oriental in flavour; the second movement inhabits aspects of traditional African rhythms; the polyphony of the third movement is a “western” feature and the finale reflects the mystery of the far north.

Incantations, for soprano voice and four percussion players, was composed during the period 1979-81. It is a remarkable study in multiple strata: those of time, of texture, and of vocal sounds which are layered, as if building blocks, placed one upon the other in a highly imaginative other-worldly region of void space. In terms of time, the work progresses as multiples of a basic pulse, but not so clearly defined as if twos, or threes, or fours: but the constant use of binary numbers in rhythmic pulsations, expressed through layered patterns of percussive sound. In terms of texture, this arises from the layers, to which is added, in a remarkable manner by the non-vocal use of human sound – roulades of the tongue on the roof of the mouth, clicks of the tongue, kissing noises, and a vocal melismatic line fashioned from arcane, barely human singing, including the use of quarter-tones, heavy glissandos, syllables of half-remembered semi-consciousness – all of which gradually come to dominate the process entirely, seeming to invoke a sensation of the savage state in pre-history.

This texture is invaded by bells; the soprano edges clearly towards language, dramatically answered at one point by a fragmented man’s voice: the tension heightens in an extended passage, the man’s voice – still fragmented – coming nearer, the whole fabric not so far removed from Les Noces as the bells sound again, the encroaching life as if to envelop the female voice. A climax is now reached: fearful incantational cries from the soprano, answered by clashing bells and cymbals, underpinned by heavy drums lead to a gradual collapse, with men’s voices now seeming to support her as she gently falls to the ground.

Ave atque vale was composed in 1989 and is a study for one solo percussionist. In this work, Artyomov is concerned with the gradual coming together of disparate percussion sounds: widely-separated drum beats and high rim-shots gradually bring the work into life, the raising of the curtain upon the scene revealing a variety of sound-texture which is gradually brought together into one richly-woven fabric of considerable power. Then another path is chosen, beginning from the opening points: but the journey is short for this farewell coda, as it ends with a deeply resonating gong-sound, above which flicker tiny scraps of material, barely within our perception.

©  Robert Matthew-Walker. 1993