The Individual Voice: an Introduction to Firsova’s music
by Gerard McBurney
It is the delicacy and confessional intimacy of Elena Firsova’s musical voice that immediately strike the listener: her lifelong habit of beginning and ending quietly, creating the gentlest possible arcs of unfolding melodic lines, and scoring them in ways precisely designed to emphasise their humanity, loneliness and fragility.
Often in her music, one is reminded of the rise and fall of human breathing.
One should not exaggerate, of course. There are loud, even savage moments in some of her pieces. But rarely do these come at the beginning or at the end. Nearly always they emerge as outbursts of anguish on a journey which typically starts and finishes in softness and quietness.
By her own account, the critical influence at the beginning of Firsova’s formation as an artist was her father. Her parents were both physicists, he an internationally distinguished thinker in the field of atomic theory. An only child, she grew up among adults who were all scientists and who, as she puts it, “always talked carefully and clearly. None of them wasted words.”
About her father she goes even further: “As a scientist, he was a profoundly creative man, more creative perhaps than many artists. And with a powerful sense of the importance of form. Maybe I am wrong, but I feel my own instinctive approach to musical form was shaped by his example.”
After her father, the next most important influence on Firsova’s creative life came also from outside music: from her youthful encounter with the great Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam. His work, she declares, remains to this day central to her composing. “When I read Mandelstam, I feel I am reading what I would have written, had I been a poet.”
Mandelstam was a leader of the ‘Acmeists’, a small group of writers in the early 20th century, passionately resistant to the fashionable, overripe, intoxicating Symbolism that was so popular in that period. Acmeists favoured the opposite: a quality they called ‘beautiful clarity’, a phrase that might be aptly applied to Firsova’s musical intentions.
In later years, Mandelstam fell foul of Soviet power, dying of exhaustion and disease on the way to the labour camps in 1938 aged 47. As he himself once tersely observed: “In Russia, poetry is often a motive for murder”. Given the appalling political circumstances of the time, it is unsurprising this story was mostly covered up until the Khrushchev Thaw in the 1950s, so when the young Firsova discovered him and his poetry, sometime in the 1960s, she was looking at something almost new. Deeply moved, and sensing the abundant musical possibilities of his delicate and translucent art, she read everything of Mandelstam’s she could get hold of.
The initial result of this creative fascination on her part, with an artist from another but not so distant era, was a series of vocal settings of Mandelstam’s poems, mostly for single voice and different chamber ensembles. If we look carefully at these early pieces in her output, we can see that as well as being almost self-consciously ‘beautiful’, they acted as a kind of laboratory in which she could develop the wider musical language for which she was searching.
Mandelstam, in other words, inspired Firsova to become herself.
Consider her op.31 cantata for soprano and chamber ensemble, Earthly Life, from 1984. Five Mandelstam poems are arranged by the composer in an arch-shape describing a journey from stillness, through repugnance, to restless thought, and back through repugnance to stillness once again, though this time a different stillness, animated by an almost classical belief in the transfiguring power of art.
In her word-setting, Firsova is always intensely responsive to the sound of a poet’s language, and to its rhythm and phrasing, which – like wind through a leaf-canopy – gently pushes her towards particular musical details and shapes the overall rise and fall of her melodic writing.
But now notice also the specifical acoustic significance of Mandelstam’s words - for example, in the very opening lines the composer sets:
The tense and muffled sound
Of a fruit falling from a tree
In the midst of the silent chanting
Of the deep quietness of the forest…
No translation can capture here Mandelstam’s delicate web of Russian assonance and rhyme, but the sense of these words is as revealing as their sound when we try to grasp what Firsova is aiming for in the unfolding lines of all her music, whether in this one tiny vocal piece or elsewhere in her many instrumental and orchestral works:
- a feeling of tenseness or tautness (the Russian word carries the sense of ‘wariness’);
- a muffled quality (something similar to what T.S.Eliot memorably described as ‘heard, half-heard, in the stillness…’);
- that curious isolated rhythmic beat when a falling fruit hits the soft ground, a moment that exists on its own, outside metre or pulse (such individual ‘beats’ abound in Firsova’s music);
- and the almost Cage-like idea of the continuous ‘silent singing of… deep quietness…’.
Almost exactly the same gestures can be found at the very opening of a recent orchestral piece, Night in Appen op.186 (2020), written partly in memory of a sleepless night Firsova spent in the northwest German home of her lifelong friend Sofia Gubaidulina:
- the ‘singing stillness’ of the night around the house (tam-tam, and an extremely quiet sustained chord in the lower instruments of the orchestra);
- a woodblock suggesting not so much the falling of Mandelstam’s fruit as the occasional cracking of a twig;
- and a gently and sinuously unfolding melody, the equivalent of the vocal part in the earlier piece, but this time for different wind instruments, heard almost as though from a great distance, and shadowed by the occasional sighing of a violin or two.
In this purely orchestral work composed very recently, Firsova is still revisiting and breathing new life into musical morphemes she opened for herself nearly forty years ago, trying to give musical voice to Mandelstam.
And these morphemes – one could call them ‘shapes’ or even ‘musical syllables’ – reappear along with a whole vocabulary of images in almost every piece she has written in her mature composing life.
Take, for example, the very next moment in the opening section of Night in Appen: another characteristic Firsova thumb print, a sudden move from one extremely quiet and sustained harmony to another, almost like a sigh, or a curtain being drawn across a window.
It is typical of Firsova that, taken separately, the verticalities of both of these harmonies suggest powerful tonal possibilities. However, when she moves from one chord to the next, it is overwhelmingly the moment and colour of the move that seem to matter, not any ulterior tonal significance. One fleeting tonal suggestion evaporates in favour of another. The music lures us in to listen to the moment and be touched by whatever it might suggest as simply a phenomenon among many others, vanishing as time moves forward.
Naturally, Firsova’s musical language has much in common with the language of many of her Soviet contemporaries, especially those older ones whose music she grew up admiring and who were in different ways her mentors (Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Denisov), as well as the rather different music of her close friends and contemporaries including above all her late husband, life-colleague and partner, Dmitri Smirnov (Smirnov and she shared their lives for almost half a century, and together emigrated to the UK with their children in 1991). Firsova obviously belongs to the same culture as they did. There are in her music, as in the music of so many of these Soviet and post-Soviet composers, characteristic tricks of rhetoric, and those curiously idiosyncratic patterns which Russian musicians like to call ‘intonations’, and which have deep roots in older Russian musical traditions.
But in important ways the music of Firsova also differs strikingly from the music of the others in this group. To take just one example, Russian and Soviet art are very often saturated with symbolic thought: Denisov and Schnittke, in different ways, were both fond of attaching symbolic values to chords and images; Gubaidulina created for herself what is practically an iconography; and Smirnov used various symbolic systems in his music, often arcane and very often inspired by his favourite poet and thinker, William Blake.
In her own music, Firsova quietly and implicitly rejects such exomusical strategies. Instead, following her beloved Mandelstam, she steadfastly continues, as she has done all her life, to seek that same enigmatic simplicity and ‘beautiful clarity’ of approach which mattered so much to him. As the poet himself once put it elegantly:
“The only thing that is truly real is the work of art itself.”
© Gerard McBurney, 2023
(Composer, orchestrator, writer, broadcaster, deviser, reconstructor of lost and forgotten works by Shostakovich.)