Dmitri Smirnov-2 Fugues Op 6
Peter Sheppard Skaerved-Violin (Hill 1900)
In 1994, I accidentally ‘dug up’ a work by the Russian composer Dmitri Smirnov. I had been playing his wonderful homage to Bach and Handel ‘Partita’ (1985) for some time. When Goldsmiths College asked me to play Partita at an evening celebrating ‘Dima’s’ music, I seized the opportunity to learn a new work of his. Looking through the enormous pile of solo music which I had originally prepared for the ‘Winter Journey’ project, I found-‘Two Fugues’ for solo violin-Dmitri Smirnov (1970)’. I was very intrigued at the prospect of playing such an early piece, written when the composer was younger than I was, so I set to work on these two colourful pieces of counterpoint. I did’t bother the composer for help, as it was only a few days before the concert, and I thought that it might be more interesting to surprise him. On the night, I was very anxious about playing the piece; it was very new to me.
After I played, I was very alarmed to see Smirnov loping towards the stage with a face like thunder. It had gone tolerably well, but seeing this Russian looming in front of me, I was irresistibly minded of David Oistrakh’s first meeting with Sergei Prokofiev.[i]
In 1927, Prokofiev came to Odessa. The conservatory, where I would later find myself teaching, decided to put a special event to celebrate his birthday. It was decided that a young, celebrated jewish violinist from the school, David Oistrakh would play for him. Oistrakh was very experienced, and had played Glasounov’s colourful violin concerto under the composer’s baton when he was only fourteen. He prepared Prokopfiev’s 1st Concerto. This piece was written for the Polish Violinist Paul Kochhanski, who was supposed to have played it in Moscow in October 1917. This performance did not happen, the concert was, not surprisingly, overtaken by larger events. The Odessa performance was to be given in a small room, with piano accompaniment. I like to think that it happened in the violin teaching room of the Conservsatoire where I teach when I visit, but nobody seems sure when I ask. Prokofiev was given the place of honour at the front of the audience, right under the young violinist’s nose. Oistrakh reported that, as he played, the composer’s face got darker and darker, angrier and angrier. When the performance was over, he did not take part in the applause, but strode up the piano, pushed the accompanist aside, and played the piece through. ” That’s how it should go.” Years later, when Oistrakh and Prokofiev were famously friends and colleagues, the violinist asked the composer about that young violinist in Odessa. “Ah yes,” said Prokofiev (I like to imagine, with venomous glee), “I gave him a good drubbing!!”
I stood there waiting for my ‘drubbing’ from Dmitri. But as he approached the stage, I saw that he had tears in his eyes. He embraced me, and turned the small audience.
“I have never heard this piece.”
The “Two fugues” were written for a young violinist,and they were never played. I do not believe that my rather tentative performance had moved him, but rather the sudden reappearance of a musical ghost from the past.
Smirnov is a composer with deep convictions and beliefs as to the symbolism and meaning of music. He ascribes great importance to the choices of notes that a composer makes, and the meaning that is buried within them. Upon the death of the composer Alfred Schnittke, he wrote an in memoriam to him which is composed only of the names of the composers that Schittke loved, and his own name, ‘spelt’ in music. His piece ‘DSCH’, for two violins, another in memoriam, this time to the composer Dmitri Shostakvich, only uses the four notes D(d)-S(e flat)-C(c ), and H (b natural), which write out the beginngin of Shostakovich’s name. The older composer used this selfsame group of notes, or motif, as the starting point for a number of his most impassioned ‘autobiographical’ works, including the deeply troubled 8th Quartet. Indeed, whilst he was studying with Edison Denisov, the older composer published his own D-S-C-H work, a wind quintet.[ii] Clearly, any composer who thinks thus, is likely to have a deeply personal identification with the symbolism of every note that they write. A work like ‘Two Fugues’ might would have a comparable impact on a composer . Nonetheless, I was still relieved that Dmitri did not shout at me! The pieces have been central to my solo repertoire ever since.
[i] Viktor Jusefovich, “[Part of Book-optional],” David Oistrakh-Conversations with Igor Oistrakh, Translated-Nicholas de Pfeiffer, [Edition] ed., vol. [Volume] ([Original Date]; London: Cassell, 1977) P163-4.
[ii] Ian Macdonald, in The New Shostakovich (reprint, London: Fourth Estate, 1990), P.312.