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Leaders of a lost generation

By Norman Lebrecht / March 14, 2001

In the early 20th century, emigre Russian composers changed Western music for ever. Now their successors languish in St Albans.

TEN years ago, a senior Tory minister drove a family of Russian refugees through a loophole in his government's new Asylum Bill.

Dmitri Smirnov and Elena Firsova were leaders of a promising new generation of post-Soviet composers - a generation that knew not Shostakovich and rejected the quirky anarchies of Alfred Schnittke. Their Moscow home in early 1990 was the hub of a revivified Association of Contemporary Music, whose fervent members huddled around the visiting Pierre Boulez. Where are they now? Scattered across four continents.

Smirnov and Firsova fled to Britain fearing counter-revolution and a lack of fresh food for their two children. David Mellor, the music-loving Treasury Secretary, chased their file through the Home Office and won them a three-year residency permit. A Labour spokesman, Alistair Darling, grouched: "There are a lot of people in the same boat - who don't play music."

Having moved home 13 times in six months, the Smirnovs were loaned a house on the Dartington Estate in Devon, before moving to Keele University as visiting professors. They mastered English idioms, became British citizens and composed prolifically. As frontliners in a creative mass exodus, hopes ran high that their group might re-energise western music, igniting millennial London as Stravinsky and Prokofiev had excited 1920s Paris.

Some hopes. Ten years on, Smirnov, now 52, and Firsova, 50 this month, are as little known as they were on the day they arrived. There is a Philharmonia concert of two of their works at the Royal Festival Hall tomorrow night at six o'clock, but it is a free pre-concert, an amuse-gueule for musical gourmets. It is also, lamentably, their only orchestral performance in Britain all year.

Their ACM contemporaries share much the same fate. Shunned by compatriot conductors, undiscovered by westerners, Russia's emigre composers are the unheard ghosts at Europe's over-subsidised feast. With the exception of Sofia Gubaidulina, whose 70th-birthday year has aligned an unikely coalition of vacant new-agers and cerebral note-splitters, the middle generation of Russian music is mouldering unheard in regional universities and dormitory towns.

Smirnov and Firsova consider themselves more fortunate than most. Married since 1972, they defected to a culture they adored. "My father," says Firsova, "always told me as a child: England is the best country in the world." His observation was the more poignant for the fact that her father, a nuclear scientist, was never allowed to travel abroad and cultivated his anglophilia by reading English novels. Smirnov, a descendant of opera singers, derived his yearnings for England from the paintings and poetry of William Blake, on which 20 of his scores are based.

"Our aim was not to stay for ever," recalls Firsova. "It was a very dangerous time, all our friends were leaving. Everybody expected a coup, or something more terrible. We had an invitation to Cambridge and performances in London, so we came."

Stranded in London with visas running out, their six-year-old son, Phillip, struck up a playground conversation with a stranger, who wrote to his MP, who happened to be the only concertgoing minister in the British Cabinet. "I was willing to do much more," Mellor said at the time. "We didn't ask for political asylum," notes Smirnov. "We wanted to have an opportunity to go back." In Moscow, meanwhile, their music was taken off concert programmes and their "defection" widely condemned. Nine years passed before their music was played again in their homeland - and then with "(England)" cruelly parenthesised behind the composers' names.

Here, after a swirl of attention, performances dwindled and, when their five-year terms at Keele expired, a promised post at the Royal Academy of Music failed to materialise. Moving to St Albans to be near London, they asked a policeman if he knew of other Russians in the town. "Not here," was the reply. Adrift in middle England, Firsova began commuting one day a week to Manchester to teach at the Royal Northern College, while Smirnov took in private pupils. "We are quite happy," both insist.

"We are not totally at home," admits Firsova, "but in Russia we were seen as 'internal emigrants' because we loved English ideas, and here is better. Our friends in Germany and the States do not have it any easier."

Cold as their reception has been, it has not clouded their arcadian ideal of England or the urgency of their work. Smirnov has completed 127 scores, Firsova 98. Both possess a professional rigour that is the hallmark of the Moscow conservatory. Called in at short notice to supply music for a BBC TV documentary on Stalin's Gulags, Smirnov delivered 40 minutes of orchestral full score in a week. His current project, for the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, is a musical portrait of Dmitri Shostakovich, along with a wind setting of the emblematic eighth string quartet. Next on his desk is a cello concerto, commissioned by Mstislav Rostropovich.

Firsova's is a subtler art, with 10 string quartets at its core. Her music often hints at private thoughts, never fully articulated but peeping through the foliage of her score like a cat in bushes.

Neither writes distinctively Russian music, eschewing the national taste for lugubriousness, big bells and double basses. Their primary aesthetic influence was the westernised iconoclast Edison Denisov, who unfashionably proclaimed that beauty must come first.

"Denisov also taught that you can say big things very quietly," notes Smirnov. "This was very important in Moscow at that time," adds Firsova, "because Shostakovich mocked beauty. He believed the world was terrible and composers must reflect that in their music."

Firsova and Smirnov have little contact with British composers, let alone the intense friendships they enjoyed back home. "English composers tend to be closed," sighs Smirnov. "It's a question of culture."

Denisov died in Paris in 1996 and the rest of their ACM circle - Ekimovsky, Grabovsky, Tarnopolsky, Karayev, Shoot, Korndorf, Vustin - are universally dispersed. One, the dreamy Vladislav Shoot, followed them to Dartington.

This is a diaspora that has been doubly dispossessed. In 1917, Russia lost its finest composers and the West was enriched by their exile. In 1991, Russia lost its composers for a second time but the West by now could not care less.

Smirnov and Firsova are leaders of a lost generation whose music is sinking in a featherbed of consumerist indifference. Disowned by Russia, unclaimed by Britain, they have fallen between the cracks of two societies where culture has become inessential and tradition is a thing of the past. Like the tundra of Siberia, the future of Russian music is melting away, forsaken by one and all.

2 May 2000: Back to the avant-garde

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