Valeriya Lyubetskaya. Artyomov: Return to eternal values

For almost 20 years the musical authorities of the Soviet Union impeded the performance of works by Vyacheslav Artyomov in every possible way, especially after 1979 when his compositions started to be performed at the major European festivals such as Paris, Cologne, Venice and Warsaw. At that time the directorate of the Union of Soviet Composers was the institution which ultimately controlled the musical sector in the Soviet Union. It was a kind of musical politburo which terrorised the musical scene of the country. It dictated the general musical taste and made sure that only those composers were performed and praised who were politically opportune. Much later, after the triumphal premiere of Artyomov’s Requiem in 1988, the founder of the directorate, Tikhon Khrennikov, who had lead it incessantly for over 30 years, admitted that it was a circle of self-important botchers who devoted all their time and energy into distributing state funds and awards amongst themselves.

The more successful Artyomov became, inside and outside the Soviet Union, the more aggressive the Soviet musical apparatus reacted: his works were banned from the concert programmes, his name wasn’t mentioned anywhere and naturally he didn’t get any money for his works, for the Board of the Cultural Ministry, the chief client and sponsor of serious music, was completely dependent on the Union of Soviet Composers. Nevertheless, in spite of the relentless opposition of the musical bureaucracy, Artyomov managed to organise and realise some concerts with his own works in Moscow during the 1980s. These concerts with such brilliant musicians as Oleg Krysa, Liana Isakadze, Dmitri Alekseyev and Saulius Sondetskis amongst others gradually became more and more successful. At the same time Artyomov also managed to make wonderful recordings with the aforementioned artists as well as other excellent musicians such as Dmitri Kitayenko, Timur Mynbayev and Tatiana Grindenko. The premiere of Artyomov’s Requiem, which he has dedicated to the “martyrs of long-suffering Russia”, was a landmark in his career. This brilliant Latin mass, which had taken him four years to complete, was first performed on 25 November 1988 with the Lithuanian Choir from Kaunas and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Dmitri Kitayenko in the Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow. The recording of the Requiem, which had been produced at the same time, was sold out immediately. The Requiem itself was the first work of this musical genre to be broadcast on the All-Union Radio (“for religious reasons” neither Verdi’s nor Mozart’s Requiem had ever been played on Soviet radio before). Later, though, this genre became irreplaceable, for days of mourning are a frequent phenomenon in contemporary Russia. In the 1980s Artyomov’s works started to be performed in the United States. In 1988, on the way to a premiere in Las Vegas, Artyomov met Mstislav Rostropovich in Washington. After Rostropovich had heard Artyomov’s symphony Way to Olympus, he asked him to compose a new symphony which was to be performed by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. The eventual result was the symphony On the Threshold of a Bright World. Its premiere took place in September 1990. The symphony was very successful with the audience and the critics. So Artyomov received another commission by Rostropovich and composed two more symphonies, Gentle Emanation and The Morning Star Arises. Both works were first conducted by Rostropovich, Gentle Emanation in Washington in January 1992 and The Morning Star Arises in London in July 1993. All these works, the Way to Olympus included, were compiled into a tetralogy called Symphony of the Way. Here are some press reviews: “The first part of the tetralogy, the Way to Olympus, is stunning” (The Washington Times, September 20, 1990); “Vyacheslav Artyomov”s On the Threshold of a Bright World is a work of genius... This is unsettling music, profoundly moving and extraordinarily beautiful... ” (The Washington Times, September 24, 1990); “While the final chords were still hovering in the air, there were shouts of approval and a standing ovation” (The Washington Post, September 22, 1990); “What we are witnessing is music that dares simply to exist, shining like the sun, allowing us to bask in its warmth. Mr. Artyomov”s profound religious convictions make him a rarity among Russian composers and place him in the select company of Olivier Messiaen and the early Krzysztof Penderecki in the international music scene” (The Washington Times, January 26, 1992).

Since then Artyomov has become the most famous composer living in Russia. More than a dozen movies have been made about him and his music. His music is performed at festivals in Russia, Europe and the United States. However, what Mikhail Tarakanov, professor at the Moscow Conservatory, wrote about Artyomov’s works  is still true: “Artyomov, this master of music who had been unrecognised for decades, proved that not being recognised in Soviet Russia testified to one”s noble sentiments, profound feelings and deep emotions. At the same time the failure to appreciate his genius shows clearly the spiritual indifference, the atrophy of religious and moral sentiments and the dreadful moral decline in a society which was governed by an atheist system for many years. In this sense one could say that Artyomov was ahead of his time in many ways. ”

Artyomov sees himself as heir to the great Romantic traditions. Apart from this, his compositions are inspired by the Russian spiritual trends which developed in the early 20th century, but were brutally stopped by the terrible events in 1917. Doubtlessly Artyomov’s pessimistic outlook on life as well as the heroic stylistic elements of his works are a result of his own personal fate. What is really surprising is something else: Artyomov’s music is full of passionate and illuminating love which one usually cannot find in artists who live in a dictatorial regime and in an atmosphere of hostility and hatred.

Artyomov believes in the transfiguration of the created world through music. He trusts in the ideal of the morally enlightened being and maintains that a universal and harmonious way of life exists which is deeply rooted in the religious nature of the human soul. He seeks to transform every aspect of human life into an authentic musical experience of universal significance.

Lamentations (1985) is the orchestral version of the three most tragic episodes of the Requiem. They were the first parts of the Requiem to be written, thus determining the spirit of the future work. They are the most “choral” episodes, with moving, elegiac lamento intonations and complex, almost cluster-like chords which are linked by a strong affinity to each other and intermingle melodically.

Originally, lamentations were an important way of spiritual purification. They are a form of spiritual ecstasy which tries to transcend the mortality of human existence by ascending into the divine world. Despair begets faith. 

Gurian Hymn (1986). Like a cantus firmus, an authentic West Georgian Easter song, the Gurian “Christ is risen”, keeps returning in the deepest voices. This song literally constitutes the foundation of the piece, thus presenting religious traditions as the true basis of conscious existence. The melodic voices of small bells, vibraphone and bells create a different, quasi-divine background. These two musical spheres constitute the spiritual environment in which the hero moves – a trio of solo-violins. This trio symbolises the angst-ridden internal world of the single individual, its sufferings, its hopes and its despair as well as its elevation. The hero is confronted with the faceless mass of the string orchestra which gradually appears and tries to suppress him completely. For a brief moment it seems as if the popular masses seize hold over him, oppress his personality and destroy him. But freed from their spell the soul once again remains alone with its contemplative grief. It finds comfort and consolation in its faith, impregnated with a premonition of its own immortality.

Tristia I (1983). The slow development of the piece and its outwardly simple structure are a subtle way of revesting a powerful temperament. The fragile life of the single individual, symbolised by a nostalgic dialogue between solo piano and trumpet, pulsates over the background of life which ends painfully. Truly religious dismay creeps up from the terrible feeling of time passing. It emerges from the slow moving layers of the strings and the underlying deep sounds of the organ. Ultimately this piece is a sad poem about life which slowly descends into eternal sleep.

Way to Olympus (1984) is the first part of the monumental tetralogy Symphony of the Way. Consisting of four independent symphonies, this cycle outlines the four different stages on the road to moral perfection which the hero has to undergo.

His burning desire to ascend towards heaven is expressed by passages of lively rhythms, powerful dynamic outbursts and the incessant movement of a magnitude of colourful layers. The impossibility to reach these divine heights is symbolised by contrasting tragic climaxes which threaten to destroy him. Strength and power are contrasted with tenderness and highmindedness. The ringing of the commemorative bell indicates the hero’s lack of understanding. Nevertheless, the finale is brightened by the hero’s resolution to fight eternally for his ideal, thereby confirming the heroic aspect of artistic creation.

©  Valeriya Lyubetskaya. 1997

Translated by A. Hofmann.