Edison Vasilyevich Denisov,
one of the most important Russian composers of the second half of the
20th century, has for many years held a course for instrumentation and
score reading at the Moscow Conservatory, in fact, as the secondary
function of a senior teacher. As a result of his enthusiasm for avant-garde
tendencies of the West in his own work, he was not "entrusted" with
his own composition class (the troika, famous in some circles, Schnittke,
Gubaldulina, Denisov, had no official recognition). However, many students
of composition attended Denisov's class, in order to get to know his
work and curious to listen to the critical comments and wishes of the
In the summer of 1973 Vladislav Solotaryov asked Denisov to listen to
his third Sonata. Denisov gladly agreed and invited both of us home.
He lived in the composers' house on the corner of Student Street and
Kutusovsky Prospect. The landlord, of average build and with a winning
smile, was very friendly, and I under- stood that he knew Solotaryov
quite well. In the course of our conversation I noticed that his judgments
were brief precise and categorical and generally tolerated no opposition.
He spoke in a low voice, sometimes quickly then slowly again and thoughtfully.
He sat with Vladik on the sofa, and I sat in an arm-chair a little further
away. Throughout the performance of the Sonata Denisov studied the score
carefully. Then he began to give his impressions and opinions. I was
impressed with the professional precision with which he analysed the
whole work page by page. I remember that he liked the first movement,
the second rather less (he liked its sonority), he was highly appreciative
of the third movement (fugato), and on the finale he said:
"Vladik, after such wonderful music in the third movement how can you
write such rubbish?"
He clearly disliked the eclecticism in the Sonata (12-tone music, tonality).
However, his closing summary was unexpectedly positive.
Do you know what? You will not change anything. The sonata is perfectly
formed and is good to listen to. As far as errors in your works are
concerned, I recommend on the advice of Dimitri Dimitriyevich Shostakovich
that you correct them in later works. I would advise you to act accordingly.
I listened with great satisfaction to flattering words of sincere admiration
from the mouth of the master with regard to the possibilities for the
When we parted, he gave me his telephone number and spoke the words
which in the next 20 years would be the theme of our contact:
"Give me a ring! In any event, I will write a solo work for you!" -
2 - As a result we saw each other quite often at concerts in the Composers'
Union or in the Conservatory. I made a point of attending his premieres.
Likewise he attended concerts, in which I played works by Gubaidulina.
Every year I dared to dial his telephone number three or four times.
It must be said that on the telephone he knew how to generate the atmosphere
of an intimate conversation, by conveying the feeling that he had been
already expecting our conversation. The conversation usually lasted
quite a while, 15 - 20 minutes. Edison Vasilyevich told me where in
the world and by whom his works were being performed, and complained
of lack of time.
He sometimes steered the conversation towards his contacts with international
artists: a certain very famous flautist or a trumpeter is asking for
a work. "The saxophone is a very interesting instrument: I would like
to compose something for it." Another time: "The guitar is a difficult
instrument, but it would be interesting to write for it." He always
finished by saying: I will write something for you without fail."
Early in 1976 I played the premiere of "Ispaniada" in a concert in memory
of Vladislav Solotaryov, I had the impression that some places (cadenzas
in the second half of the piece) dragged on, that many chords with pauses
as well, in my opinion, destroyed the form. Therefore I should have
asked Solotaryov for advice, but oh dear! ... I prepared an abridged
version, but at the premiere I felt obliged to play the composer's original
version. When the question of publication arose, I was not bold enough
to publish my version, but decided to consult another composer. Denisov
was the obvious choice. He immediately invited me to his class at the
Conservatory. I played both versions. Edison Vasilyevich banished my
doubts instantly, saying: "You are quite right. There are some unnecessarily
long passages. Shorten them where you have indicated."
Denisov was a great authority among foreign musicians. He maintained
particularly close creative contacts with French colleagues. The French
Ministry of Culture repeatedly commissioned specific works, in particular,
the opera "Foam of the Days" (by Boris Vian - note by Herbert Scheibenreif).
In the academic year 1980/81 the young talented accordionist, Max Bonnay,
came into my class for the practical course at the National Gnessin
Institute for Music Education.
I hit on the idea of commissioning a piece from Edison Vasilyevich through
the French Ministry of Culture, especially as Max already had such contacts.
I came with him to Denisov's class at the Conservatory. I only introduced
them to each other, when Edison Vasilyevich conversed without any problem
and with unmistakable delight in the French language, of which he had
a good command. Then he dissuaded us from the idea of commissioning
a piece, because he did not want to abuse his good relationship with
the Ministry, and said: "Friedrich, I will write for you without a commission,
thus repaying an old debt."
On 1 April 1987 a humorous concert was organised in the concert hall
of the Gnessin Institute. Well-known instrumentalists and composers
were having fun on the stage, I remember the organist, O. Yanchenko,
emptying with one pull a bottle of vodka on the stage with someone and
guzzling cabbage from a plate. Then one of them for some reason climbed
up a ladder (that was the "Opus" of Dimitry Smirnov, a pupil of Denisov,
who later with his wife, E. Smirnova, also a composer, emigrated to
England). Denisov wrote a Fantasia specially for this concert on themes
of Soviet songs from the 1930's, "The steamer sails past the port",
for the Bayan and an ensemble of percussion instruments under the direction
of Mark Pekarski. In this piece there was a piano, and a group of sappers
came on, performing various pyramid-like gymnastic formations to music
on stage, which were in fashion at the time. This work lasted ten minutes
and was written tonally throughout with subtle humour and sophisticated
composition technique. The performance was a total success, and after
the concert Edison Vasilyevich repeated several times, as though to
justify himself: "Friedrich, that is not what I have promised you. I
will write a solo piece for you without fail."
The years passed by. Further brief meetings and telephone conversations
did not move the matter forward. Then suddenly in the summer of 1994
I opened the newspaper "Isvestia", to which I had subscribed for many
years, and read the notice that Edison Denisov had had an accident,
while driving his own car on the Minsk Road, 7 Kubiniki District, travelling
from the summer house for composers in Russia to a rehearsal of the
symphony orchestra, which was preparing works by the composer for a
concert tour to Japan. My first feeling was shock: Edison Vasilyevich
in mortal danger. The newspaper did its utmost in this situationů Over
several editions I read of the developments. On one occasion I read
that Denisov's condition had stabilised, but one could not talk of a
real improvement. Some of the composer's French friends arranged to
transfer Denisov to a military hospital near Paris and organised a special
flight for him. Some time later I read in "Isvestia" an article by the
French correspondent that Denisov's health was slowly improving and
that he was now ready to start working on a small work for chamber orchestra.
Then I had an idea.
I rang Max Bonnay in Paris:
do you know that Denisov has had an accident?
find out urgently the military hospital where he is undergoing treatment;
get in touch with him about the commission of the work for Bayan;
and contact the French Ministry of Culture in this matter.
Bonnay did everything
he could to put this idea into action. For my part, I wrote a letter
to Denisov via Max. I feel it is necessary to publish in full Edison
Vasilyevich's reply (with only minor notes) and other letters to me,
because they are of great interest for the inheritance of correspondence
of a unique personality.
Letter - Paris, 4 March 1995
I was delighted to receive your letter from Spain. I began a little
composing again in November, and now I can work almost as before.
I really wanted to write a work for the Bayan in January/February,
but then put off this idea for a silly, strange reason - I ran out
of music paper and, while I was waiting for a friend to buy me some,
J. Lyubimov (Director of the well-known Taganka Theatre) earnestly
demanded some music for "Medea". I resolved to devote 11/2 months
entirely to this work, time which I never had. I was writing music
for ten days maximum (sometimes only five days), and then I started
writing a work for 16 brass instruments (for Frankfurt). This was
a commission from long ago (1990), and the scheduled premiere had
already been cancelled three times. I am still in hospital for the
time being, but will be discharged in a week's time. I will have to
go back three times a week for a check-up. We now have a flat in Paris.
(I don't know how long we shall stay here, but I cannot yet think
of returning to Moscow, because the doctors will not discharge me
at the moment.) After 20 March I will be at home again for good.
I have already abandoned my crutches and now walk with a stick. My
foot still hurts (especially at night), and I am limping badly. But
the doctors give me to understand that I am getting better. At present
they are not ruling out the possibility of two further operations
(knee and upper thigh), but I would like to avoid that. I have had
four operations already, and that is already too much... The weather
in Paris is bad - at the moment there is sleat. There is very little
sunshine, and most of the time it is cold. In January I finished a
rather long concerto for flute and harp, and now I am very busy, writing
this work for brass. I had never worked with such an line-up of instruments
(two small trumpets, two trumpets, two wing horns, four French horns,
three trombones, Dudonium and two tubas). As all my latest music is
quiet and tender, I must change the aesthetic style.
Max offered some basic knowledge on the Bayan, but that was not enough.
It is a pity that Katya (Denisov's wife - note by F Lips) left her
notes behind in Moscow - they were excellent.* As I shall be writing
a piece for Bayan at some point, they are very important to me.
Your perpetual "debtor" Denisov
|Naturally I immediately sent
to the address given my summary of possibilities for the Bayan, which Denisov
* Many years ago I wrote down on two sheets of paper (double-sided) the
possibilities of the Bayan, in which I listed the basic facts and composers
with whom one must collaborate, and passed them on for inspection.
In September 1995 I received a second letter from him, from which it appeared
that the work had already been written.
|Second Letter -
La Napoule, 27 April 1995
In July (and on 11 August) I was in Moscow, where I tried to ring
you, but was unable to get through to you. At last I have discharged
my long-standing duty and written a piece for you. I must tell you
at once that this was a very interesting experience for me. The piece
is not fast and is polyphonic throughout. Its title is "From Dusk
to Light". lt lasts 10 - 12 minutes, I think. I have left a copy for
you with my son, Mitya, who has also been unable to contact you by
I met Max Bonnay in Paris: we worked together for about an hour and
a half. He said there was no need to change anything: it was so easy
to perform. lt is of course very important for me to know your views.
I signed a contract for publication with the highly respected French
publisher, "Leduc", where the work is to be published. On the question
of the premiere, please talk to Max himself.* (* On the question
of the premiere of the work, I soon agreed with Max: I suggested two
premieres at the Moscow International Festival for Bayan and Bayanists
in December 1996, which we each performed in the concert.)
I was with Katya and the girls for a month near Yekaterinburg, with
Katya's parents in the village of Cherdanzevo. It was very hot in
the Urals in the summer. On 11 August I returned to Paris, and on
14 August we went to the seaside for three weeks. We were invited
to the chateau at La Napoule, which stands by the sea 6 km from Cannes.
lt is very beautiful there, but also unbearably hot. I had some urgent
work to do:
I had to finish the opera "Lazarus" by Franz Schubert (performance
on 21 January 1996). It is always more difficult to work on unfamiliar
music than on one's own. The living conditions are excellent here:
we have two large single rooms (with bath and toilet of course), and
food is almost "free" (FF 125 per day for four people). I do not feel
very well - this accident has really shaken me up. I am not sure whether
Katya did the right thing by dragging me out of the grave. I am not
used to feeling ill.
lt was very moving to see you at the concert in the Tschaikovsky Hall.**
(** I sat with my wife just by the aisle in the stalls in the Tschaikovsky
Hall and, when Denisov came on the stage to bow after the premiere
of his work, he noticed me as he returned to his place and in view
of everybody in the hall came up to me and embraced me. I was of course
very moved) You played everything very well, apart from the Schubert
(this has to be practised in the general rehearsal). I now have the
urge - I believe that is normal - to write something else for the
Bayan. It is a good instrument and has hardly been researched at all.
I therefore wish to write a sonata for saxophone and Bayan. Only I
have first to be clear of my endless musical "obligations" and find
time for it.
Yours ever, Denisov
Soon after that I received
the manuscript. In my heart I felt quiet triumph and joy: at last after
so many years of waiting! And pride in the Bayan: if we have in the
package music by high-ranking composers, then we become, in fact, a
real part of the whole culture of musical scholarship.
is small, regular, but clear. lt is hard to read, not so much because
of the contemporary music, but rather because of the rhythms! ... Each
bar has its difficulties of rhythm. Some bars -had to be literally deciphered:
like a millipede; what does the 27th foot do, if the 18th has just been
raised? I often remembered that Denisov, before he went to the Conservatory,
graduated from the Applied Mathematics Faculty of Tomsk State University.
His way of thinking revealed itself in his musical creativity. The slow
development of the piece is based on the nuances of piano and pianissimo.
When I played it later in concerts, for some reason I always wanted
to create the picture of a still shining light. (The idea that his music
radiates light is not only my impression. After his death musicologists
expressed this thought several times in publications.) Furthermore,
in the word association "Edison Denisov" the letter "s" appears in the
middle of both words - and also at the beginning of the word "svyet"
("tight" in Russian - note by H Scheibenreif).
In his work Denisov uses monograms out of the notes E, D, E flat - EDISON
DENISOV. The work for Bayan "From Dusk to Light" is likewise built on
these second steps. As I became more familiar with the work, I discovered
what I felt to be rhythmical inaccuracies in the writing of the manuscript.
I wrote immediately to Edison Vasilyevich about this and suggested some
corrections. I concluded from his reply that he agreed with some, but
not with others.
|Third Letter - Paris,
26 November 1995
Yesterday I received your letter and am delighted that you like the
piece. When I had finished it, I somehow felt I would like to write
something else for the Bayan. I hope that this time it will go quicker.
I will definitely write the Sonata for Saxophone and Bayan. You can
play it with Alyosha Volkov. He is currently the best saxophonist
in Russia. You must know him, because he was at the Gnessin Institute.
I have fond memories of your visit to my home with Vladislav Solotaryov.
It is a pity that his life ended so early and tragically: he was very
talented and a good man. It was not really necessary for him to study
With regard to the premiere of my piece, please make your own decision.
lf you play in "Autumn" ("Moscow Autumn" Festival - note by Friedrich
Lips), I shall be happy. After publication by "Leduc" (work has already
begun on it), it can be published in Russia, without asking anyone's
permission. In other countries it is only possible in agreement with
"Leduc". In principle, this is because I have given "Leduc" the (copy)rights
for all countries except Russia. (This is one of the points in my
contract with this publisher.)
Thank you for the registration: I think that is very important for
publication. I shall forward it to "Leduc". Thank you also for pointing
out some errors, particularly in places where there are difficulties
with rhythm. But some corrections were wrong, for example: (differences
of opinion on rhythmical difficulties continue with examples of notes
- note by Friedrich Lips)
All these clashing rhythms are not "mathematical" in nature, but underline
the freedom and independence of polyphonic lines. To a certain extent
this is like an "improvisation". Unfortunately, I must now go to hospital
twice a week for treatment. For this reason I cannot go away for the
time being (I would like to come to Moscow in November). On 29 February
I have a small concert in the Rachmaninov Hall. I want to come to
Moscow, say 22 February - 2 March and will of course be happy to meet
Thank you once again for the registration and all your comments.
PS All your other corrections are right; only in bar 16 (left hand)
it must be: 5:6. (The Quintole covers three-quarters and contains
5 units instead of 6.) ED
|At the end of February Edison
Vasilyevich flew to Moscow, where we met in his flat, in which he received
me once with Solotaryovs music. This time it rang with Denisov's music.
"Friedrich, I am very satisfied with your ideas. There has been hardly any
comment. You play differently from Max, but that is good. There should be
We talked about various matters. At the end of the conversation he suddenly
said, almost incidentally, that he felt unwell. "The doctors found something
wrong in my stomach. I don't know whether Katya has done the right thing
in fetching me back from the hereafter again."
We agreed with Denisov that he should definitely be in Moscow in December,
in order to be present at both premieres at the Festival for "Bayan and
|Fourth Letter Paris,
2 April 1996
Thank you for your nice letter. I was very happy to see you in Moscow
and to work with you. I am becoming more and more fascinated by the
accordion (as though I am coming alive), and I hope to write some
more works for this difficult, but very interesting instrument. It
all depends on time - at the moment I have made far too many promises
.... Thank you for planning the world premiere of my piece. How long
- 8 - does it take? I would be very interested to know. What you suggested
to me in Moscow (registration, tempi, character) suits me fine. I
have already made two corrections for Leduc. The edition is lovely.
I think the score will be published in the summer. (I will send you
ten copies straight away.) It is OK to publish this piece in Moscow,
as my contract excludes Russian territory. However, that is excluded
for other publications (in the West). This applies to all works of
Max has so far not rung me or got in touch otherwise. lf he is going
to play at the festival in December, I think that will be interesting
(two different interpretations).
Somehow I would like to write a Toccata for Bayan. I don't know why.
I have taken on too much work for the time being: I have only just
finished the big score of the Second Symphony (premiere in Dresden
1/2 June 1996); now I have to write two more works urgently for Germany:
one piece for 26 instruments for Dresden (premiere 1/2 October 1996)
and a major concerto for flute; and clarinet with orchestra for Essen
(premiere 23 October 1996). After that there is a big assignment in
the electronic studio in Cologne (work for soprano, ensemble and tape
on poetry by Paul ▄lan - 20 minutes), and all that, without taking
account of master classes in Edinburgh (20-28 April) and Paris (1-10
November), or work on two international juries (I shall be President
of one jury).
I want to return to Russia, but I am tied to the hospital for the
time being: I am writing this letter now in the hospital. I have to
go back there every fortnight (for 3-4 days, sometimes more). That
disrupts my whole life: I have no possibility of working as I used
to (sometimes I am not back to normal for 10 days after my treatment).
Neither can I travel normally (I have to discuss every journey at
length with my doctors). I am now coming to Moscow in the second half
of May (about 18 May). You can get the date of my arrival from my
Yours ever, Denisov
As planned, two world
premieres of the work for Bayan "From Dusk to Light" by Edison Denisov
took place in December 1996 as part of the international Festival for
"Bayan and Bayanists" only one day apart: in my recital and in Max Bonnay's
However, about two weeks before the start of the festival news came
from Paris of the composer's death. News of the demise of our great
contemporary was broadcast on all television channels and newspapers.
He was buried in a cemetery in Paris.
The years pass by. Time turns inexorably the pages of life. Some of
them are full of interest. I am very proud that one of these pages is
devoted to the creative, and for me memorable, contact with one of the
most important masters of tie second half of the 20th century - the
composer, Edison Vasilyevich Denisov.
The German translation of this article came from Dr
Herbert Scheibenreif and is authorised by Friedrich Lips.