Elena Firsova composes Piano Concerto for Concertgebouw Orchestra: ‘A new work of art brings new life’

On 16 and 17 June, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra will present the world premiere of Elena Firsova’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra. She was inspired by a quotation from Boris Pasternak and a motif from Beethoven. I interviewed her for an article in the Dutch music magazine De Nieuwe Muze: ‘Edison Denisov taught me how to write effectively for orchestra.’

‘For me, composing means self-development, contact with beauty, and connection with the immaterial world’, says Elena Firsova (1950). ‘Composers have a lot in common with priests and gardeners.’ Thus her compositional attitude comes close to that of Sofia Gubaidulina, with whom she has been friends for decades.  ‘Our friendship goes back to 1975, when we spent a summer together in Sortavala, not far from Finland.’

Elena Firsova (c) Alissa Firsova

Whereas Gubaidulina is a frequent guest at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Firsova’s music was only performed once before; in 2006 the orchestra premiered The Garden of Dreams. The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is her second commission, written for artist in residence Yefim Bronfman as part of the Horizon series.

Moscow Conservatoire

Elena Firsova was born on 21 March 1950 in Leningrad, today’s St. Petersburg. She grew up in a family of scientists: her father was a famous atomic physicist, her mother was a teacher at an important physics institute in Moscow. When she was six years old, she moved to Moscow with her parents, where she started composing in secondary school. At 16, she went to a music school, soon attracting attention for the high quality of her pieces.

In 1970 she was admitted to the Moscow Conservatoire, where she studied composition,  analysis and orchestration. During her studies, she wrote the chamber opera Feast of the Plague. This is based on Alexander Pushkin’s play which would also inspire Gubaidulina for an orchestral work in 2005. In 1972, she married the composer Dmitri Smirnov, who, like her, studied in Moscow.

Philip Herschkowitz

During her studies, she became friends with Edison Denisov and Philip Herschkowitz, both of whom composed atonal music. – Herschkowitz had even studied with Anton Webern before the outbreak of the Second World War, and was one of his most important pupils. In 1946, he settled in Moscow, where he became an inspired promoter of twelve-tone music.

As a private teacher Herschkowitz had a great influence on several generations of Russian musicians. He especially inspired composers of the so-called ‘underground division’, whose music the regime frowned upon. Firsova and Smirnov found themselves in the company of leading figures of the avant-garde such as Denisov, Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke and Valentin Silvestrov.

Elena Firsova: ‘Edison Denisov was our dear older friend and a lifelong inspiration. Dmitri [Smirnov] and I loved his compositions. We learned a lot by listening to them and analysing his scores.’

Looking back, Firsova says: ‘I got to know Herschkowitz through Dmitri, who had some private lessons from him while studying at the conservatoire. When we met Philip again in 1982, we took lessons from him together.’

It must have been a godsend to hear first-hand accounts of Webern, one of the great masters of the Second Viennese School. However, Herschkowitz was apparently not very forthcoming with information: ‘He rarely spoke about his former teacher. He only told us how he had paid a last visit to Webern in 1939, just before he fled from Vienna’. Indirectly Webern did influence their relationship, though: ‘Philip had been taught for free, and therefore refused to accept money from me and Dmitri.’

Edison Denisov

It was however not Herschkowitz , but his student Denisov who put Firsova on the track of atonal composition. Though Denisov was never her official teacher, she regards him as a role model. ‘He was our dear older friend and a lifelong inspiration. Dmitri and I loved his compositions and learned a lot by listening to them and analysing his scores.’

Just like Denisov, Firsova employs serial techniques, but instead of bone-dry pieces, she manages to write appealing and deeply moving music that gets under one’s skin. She combines serial compositional techniques with a poetic and humanistic attitude; her work is extremely refined. The pulse is often slow and her focus is more on timbre than on melody or harmony. She shares this sensitivity to sound with Denisov: ‘He taught me how to write effectively for orchestra.’

Edison Denisov (c) Vivien Guy

Partly thanks to Edison Denisov, she developed a lifelong love for the work of Osip Mandelstam, the poet who was murdered in a Gulag camp in 1938. Together with colleagues such as Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilyov, he belonged to the so-called ‘Acmeists’, who in the 1920s strove to write concise and clear poetry. She admires Mandelstam’s conciseness: ‘His poetry is written exactly as I would like to compose my music. I feel close to him, to his inner sensations, his attitude towards art and death.’

Osip Mandelstam

Firsova, like many Russians, was interested in poetry from the very beginning. This interest is partly rooted in the communist repression, when poets criticised the regime between the lines, while at the same time gratifying the search for spiritual meaning. – The current regime may cherish close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, but in the Soviet Union openly professing a religion was certainly not encouraged.

Just as Mandelstam generates terse meanings in just a few words, Firsova paints beautiful soundscapes permeated with melancholy, with seemingly simple means. She based many compositions on his verses. An unmistakable highlight are the seven cantatas for soprano and (chamber) orchestra that she composed between 1979 and 2009.

Anna Akhmatova

Firsova also greatly admires Mandelstam’s kindred spirit Anna Akhmatova, whose Requiem she set for soprano, choir and orchestra in 2003. This fourteen-part epic, written between 1935 and 1961, poignantly expresses the sufferings under the Stalin dictatorship. It is considered the most important document about the period of the Great Terror, and was forbidden literature. On the sly people passed on the poems orally.

Firsova matches Akhmatova’s gripping verses by portraying the feelings of suffering, powerlessness and dismay in an alternation of tormented stillness, hair-raising dissonances, furious percussion, and loudly blaring references to the Dies Irae motif. A second thread is the theme D-Eflat-C-H, the German note names for the initials of Dmitri Shostakovich. In 2006 she also incorporated this musical motif in The Garden of Dreams for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Dmitri Shostakovich

She calls Shostakovich ‘my first god’, but her attitude towards her illustrious predecessor seems somewhat ambivalent. The Garden of Dreams describes a dream in which someone in a beautiful garden keeps coming across the motif of his initials. Finally, the person arrives at a gigantic statue of Shostakovich, which, like Pushkin’s Stone Guest, is both enchanting and terrifying.

This ambivalence is understandable, because for a long time Shostakovich dominated the musical life in the Soviet Union; as a budding composer it’s only natural to try and escape from such an immense shadow. Though, of course, during his lifetime Shostakovich suffered strong repression from the apparatchiks.

One of the low points was the infamous meeting of the Union of Soviet Composers in 1948, when chairman Tikhon Khrennikov accused him, along with such greats as Prokofiev and Khachaturian, of ‘formalist perversions and anti-democratic tendencies’.

Tikhon Khrennikov 1948: ‘Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khatchaturian display formalist perversions and anti-democratic tendencies.’
Tikhon Khrennikov 1979: ‘Elena Firsova, Dmitri Smirnov and Sofia Gubaidulina compose pointless and noisy mud.’

Khrennikov stayed in power after Stalin’s death in 1953. Though the communist system became somewhat less rigid, the circumstances for adventurous composers remained precarious. Some thirty years after Shostakovich’s condemnation, Khrennikov attacked a younger generation during the Sixth Congress of the Composers’ Union in 1979.

Noisy mud

He was particularly irked because works by Elena Firsova, her husband Dmitri Smirnov, Sofia Gubaidulina and others had been performed abroad without permission. ‘They are terrible composers, whose music is pointless and noisy mud instead of real musical innovation’, he roared. ‘They should be denied the right to represent Soviet music abroad.’ – Unintentionally thus paying them a great compliment.

The consequences were less far-reaching than for Shostakovich and his fellow sufferers. The music of  ‘the seven of Khrennikov’, as they went down in history, could no longer be played on radio and TV, and it was forbidden to publish their scores. ‘But’, says Firsova, ‘our pieces were hardly played anyway, except in the hall of the Composers’ Union.’ One commission was withdrawn: ‘Dmitri and I were to write music for 21 television documentaries for the Hermitage, but this was stopped after three episodes.’

When in 1990 party leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced more openness, the ‘terrible composers’ revived the Association for Contemporary Music (ACM). This had been initiated in 1923 by Nikolai Roslavets to promote the work of avant-garde composers, but had soon foundered because of opposition from the state. The new ACM set up an intensive exchange with the West, bringing modernists such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen to Moscow.

Alissa Firsova – Dmitri Smirnov – Elena Firsova 2013


Like its predecessor the new ACM was short-lived, for when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many composers left the country. Firsova and Smirnov moved to England, where their daughter Alissa would develop into a successful composer and their son Philip into a renowned artist; Smirnov would succumb to corona in 2020.

Shortly after her immigration, Firsova received a commission from the BBC Symphony Orchestra of Wales. This was a welcome boost: ‘At the time I was toying with the idea of an orchestral composition, which became Cassandra opus 60.’ This was premiered in 1993. The title not only refers to the Trojan visionary, she explains: ‘I also had images in mind of the uncertain situation in the Russia I left behind. I was worried about the future and the fate of our world.’

Pasternak & Beethoven

Her new Piano Concerto is inspired by a quotation from Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago: ‘Art always deals with two things – it reflects on the mystery and meaning of death.’ It is self-evident to her how we should interpret this: ‘It relates to me and my music: a newly created work of art brings life, new life.’

Elena Firsova: ‘My Piano Concerto is the “twin” of my Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra. In both concertos I quote the motif “muss es sein?” from Beethoven’s last string quartet opus 135.’

Musically, she calls her Piano Concerto a ‘twin’ of her 2015 Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra. ‘That’s unintentional, mind you. I noticed at one point, to my own surprise, that in both concertos I quote the well-known motif ‘muss es sein?’ from Beethoven’s last string quartet opus 135.’

She completed her Piano Concerto in 2020, the year she lost her husband. Yet it is certainly not a disguised in memoriam for Smirnov, she emphasises: ‘I finished it in March, when Dmitri was already ill, but still at home. He died in hospital on 9 April 2020’. A month later she sent the fully elaborated score to her publisher Sikorski in Hamburg.

In 2022 her misgivings about the future of Russia as expressed in Cassandra three decades earlier, turned out to be prophetic. Much to Firsova’s dismay: ‘The war against Ukraine fills me with deep shame, I count myself lucky that I left Russia thirty years ago, and was last there seventeen years ago.’

In my Radio show An Ox on the Roof on Concertzender of 1 May 2022, I played Firsova’s Requiem. Listen to the broadcast here.


About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
This entry was posted in Interview, news, women composers and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Elena Firsova composes Piano Concerto for Concertgebouw Orchestra: ‘A new work of art brings new life’

  1. Pingback: In 2021 the theme of ‘female composer’ still touches upon an open nerve | Contemporary Classical – Thea Derks

  2. Pingback: Een os op het dak Concertzender: Requiem voor Oekraïne – Klassiek van nu

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