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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“I came from the Maidan and composed my own version of Ukraine’s anthem to the same words”

On the concert “Unperformed Masterpieces” and Valentyn Sylvestrov’s commentary
23 January, 2014 - 10:51
“I DON’T CHOOSE THE TEXTS – THEY COME TO ME” / Photo from The Day’s archives

Inna Halatenko (soprano) and Oleh Bezborodko (piano) presented the vocal cycles, composed by Valentyn Sylvestrov to verses of Ukrainian and Russian poets, in the House of Actor. The author was present in the audience, and we talked to Sylvestrov after the program.

The flight and catharsis experienced during the concert “Unperformed Masterpieces” continued in time: the paradigmatic lines excite you like during the first reading and you catch yourself at a desire to take the classics from the bookshelf and reread it – and you do reread it.

The vocal genre is for Sylvestrov one of the favorite ones. Having started in the 1970s-1980s with Quiet Songs and Simple Songs, he has composed about 200 works for voice and piano. What is it? Poetry set to music? Music, inspired by the word, which came first? Or direct contact with heaven and a call to the audience to go back to eternal values?

All works of the program, apart from the cycle which consists of five songs based on Ivan Franko’s verse, were performed for the first time. Those included Three Songs to Taras Shevchenko’s poem “Cherry Garden near the House,” Lesia Ukrainka’s “I Was Standing and Listening to Spring,” Pavlo Tychyna’s “Blueness has Fanned my Soul”; a cycle of songs to poems by Tamara Severniuk, “Tamarysk,” “I Want to Go Home So Desperately,” “Ring my doorbell,” and Pavlo Tychyna’s “O, Ms. Inna”; three songs to Alexander Pushkin’s “Prisoner,” “Play, Adele,” and “Elegy”; the cycle from the song to Alexander Pushkin’s words “While No One Asks for a Poet,” instrumental play Idyll and Elegies to Kostiantyn Sihov’s verse. In the final there are two songs to the verse by Afanasii Fet “The Night was Shining” and Mikhail Lermontov’s “Mountain Summits,” which sounded like a symbol of a new summit of the 12 years’ long creative fellowship of Valentyn Sylvestrov and Inna Halatenko.

Listening to her wonderful soprano of unusual timber with a huge gamut, you start believing that human voice, a perfect instrument, is able to preserve the elusive beauty of the world. The tremulous artistry of the singer, crystal-pure, expressive performance of pianist Oleh Bezborodko is like a cloud of light, which flew into the hall, creating in the former Karaim kenesa a branch of paradise garden on Ukrainian soil. When people began to applaud, the composer went to the stage and performed on grand piano his plays Christmas Waltz and Lullaby (Space of Time).


After the concert Valentyn Sylvestrov answered the questions of The Day.

How do you choose poems for your songs?

“I don’t choose, they come to me… I start reading, I read poetry which I like on a regular basis – one, two times – and I’m ‘busted.’ Sometimes it is accidental, like it recently happened in Chernivtsi: poetess Tamara Severniuk came to me after the concert and presented with a collection of her verse. I read it and saw very good texts connected with Tychyna and Fet, and composed music. This is a rare thing, because I usually set poems I love since childhood. And those are not separate songs, but cycles to verse of various poets, which are performed non-stop, and they are considered to be one text.”

And poetic miniatures of such different poets as Fet, Tychyna, Lermontov are performed in this single text?

“Fet has real masterpieces, such as ‘Take my heart away to the ringing faraway,’ and in the 19th century Tchaikovsky and other composers created romances to this verse, and the song ‘Don’t wake her up in the morning’ by Varlamov has become a folk song. And how beautiful is Fet’s poem with the lines: ‘I don’t feel pity for life with lingering breath, / What is life and what is death? / I regret about the fire, / Which shined above the whole creation of the world, / It vanishes in the night and cries as it leaves.’ These are totally Blok lines, real Silver age, some silver element. Not a golden one, but namely a silver one. ‘A Silver Night’ – he even has titles of this kind. And ‘The Night was Shining,’ as it is known, was a great poem for Blok. There was no symbolism yet, but Fet implemented what they wanted to realize in poetry.

“News pieces on TV anger me. This is totally outrageous. The president said that he implemented moratorium for use of force. And what do we see? The lies do not end. I have recently come back from Maidan and composed a Ukrainian anthem of my own, to the same lyrics. I don’t make a claim for something, this is simply a response. Mykhailo Verbytsky’s anthem is very good, and you know, I have a strange feeling: when people sing it in Maidan, without accompaniment, its sounds better and better. I know it for a long time, but now, as I listen to it, I feel that wings are growing in my soul.”

“Pavlo Tychyna is a pride of Ukrainian culture and its sorrow. This has already become a common place: early Tychyna is a subtle lyricist, a genius, and later problems arise. His poems ‘Blueness has fanned my soul,’ ‘Flowery meadow and golden rain,’ ‘Golden noise above Kyiv’ is the gold of poetry. Even his early revolutionary ‘When he fell from the horse,’ ‘In the square’ are alive and related to folk poetry. And the poem ‘In Memory of the Thirty,’ dedicated to people shot near Kruty was not printed in Soviet time, Tychyna was even regarded as the bard of the Ukrainian Council. But what he wrote after the 1920s is impossible to read. Do you remember his shameful ‘May they go mad and die, if they like’? However, something was striking roots in his late oeuvre, like in the verse ‘Funeral of a Friend.’ That was a terrible tragedy: a genius lyricist got into the ‘pot of Soviet foolishness’ and he was scared, everyone was shot around him. The same happened to Mayakovsky: the great poet wrote Soviet nonsense with ‘cannibal’ content. But early Mayakovsky was a boorish person and a superman. And Tychyna was tender, and suddenly this ‘cannibalism.’ However, for us it is easy to speak now, but that was the time when you had to make the choice: someone sacrificed, other could not, and we will never find out the reasons. If Tychyna has 15 real poems, he is a great poet!

“Similarly, Lermontov has among numerous verses only a handful of true ones. I composed Mountain Summits in Austria, in the town of Schwaz, near Innsbruck. There are mountains everywhere: they are hanging above the city in a threatening way, as it may appear at first sight, but in fact quietly and attentively. There was a feeling of attentiveness, as if they were keeping the place. I am a person of the steppe, I rarely go to mountains, and that was quite a strong impression for me. Lermontov’s lines were appropriate: the verse is short and quite succinct, it just asked to be set to music. It has a deep thought connected not just with mountains, but with human life and destiny.”

Publication of your interview in the last issue of The Day in 2013, where you shared your opinion concerning the events in Ukraine had a broad response. You were quoted by human rights champion Myroslav Marynovych: “Composer Valentyn Sylvestrov wonderfully described the government. Falsehood can be heard in Yanukovych’s speeches. This is a good music term. They all are mercilessly playing out of tune.”

“News pieces on TV anger me. This is totally outrageous. The president said that he implemented moratorium for use of force. And what do we see? The lies do not end. I have recently come back from Maidan and composed a Ukrainian anthem of my own, to the same lyrics. I don’t make a claim for something, this is simply a response. Mykhailo Verbytsky’s anthem is very good, and you know, I have a strange feeling: when people sing it in Maidan, without accompaniment, its sounds better and better. I know it for a long time, but now, as I listen to it, I feel that wings are growing in my soul.

“I dedicated two choruses a cappella to Maidan, Anthem and Christmas Psalm. I called them ‘Dedication to Maidan. Kyiv 2014.’ The Anthem has phonemes of church chimes. When Maidan was dispersed, St. Michael Monastery tolled the alarm bells, and it was the second time in entire history of St. Michael Monastery. The chimer, who tolled the bells, told that the first time when it took place was during the Tatar-Mongol attack in 1240. In music I have intensive alarm bell – allusion of these events. Probably, Mykola Hobdych’s choir will perform them some time.

“The anthem which is sung now is real music, only later you think how it was created. There are things that are done well, but they have problems with genuineness. I cannot say I compose genuine music. But I’m trying to. What I like in music? I like Schubert. High-brow people grimace: ‘It is very popular,’ but there is truth in his most famous works, such as Ave Maria. I like him for what you cannot live without, the simple things, like bread, water, wine, they are for life. This is genuineness. And the delight is in these masterpieces.”

Your new, second, disc in the series Music of Poetry has been released, with songs for voice and piano performed by Inna Halatenko and Roman Repka. What does this title mean?

“Music of poetry is the word that makes the sound. Words in such music should not be behind, they should go before the sound. Words are like grates of a garden, and sound is like the garden’s blossoming peeping through these grates. This is the music of poetry. Taking Schubert’s Lieder (songs in German) this is present there too, but it is more of the song that is present there. In my works everything is strongly connected not only with the meaning of the word, but also the grate, the sounding of the word. Not only the meaning of the word, but the word itself, although it of course has a meaning. But if the sense takes it, it will be a commentary: then you need to add facture, more accompaniment, we ‘sit and go,’ like on a train. And here we all the time stop, we don’t have this ‘dragging.’ You may not know the language, not understand the meaning of the words, and it will be right anyway. There will be the Word that sings, like a face of sound, a new kind of Lieder. However, they all are songs – their melodies can be sung without words, and you will recognize them.”