Алексей Ботвинов
Pianist, founder of Odessa Classics
9 minutes for reading

VALENTIN SILVESTROV: «Silence Can Be the Most Valuable Thing on Earth»

VALENTIN SILVESTROV: «Silence Can Be the Most Valuable Thing on Earth»
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Valentin Silvestrov. Photo by Kaupo Kikkas


This conversation with Valentin Silvestrov took place in Tallinn on June 11, 2024, the day after his solo concert in the packed 1,000-seat Estonia Concert Hall, as part of the 10th Odessa Classics Festival.

I curated the program, and despite the impressive size of the venue, I decided to present Silvestrov’s late-period compositions — quiet, meditative music. There were solo piano pieces, piano and violin duets, and finally, a trio written in 2023, but still very quiet, with numerous pauses and silences.

It was a considerable risk. Modern audiences in large halls are accustomed to hearing many musicians on stage and deafening, triumphant music to conclude each concert on a significant note.

I wanted to show the true Silvestrov. To my great delight, it worked. It wasn’t just a success; it was an absolute triumph. The audience followed us, creating a unique, genuinely unforgettable atmosphere in the hall.


Alexey Botvinov: Yesterday’s concert was beautiful, very touching, and very emotional.

Valentin Silvestrov: I was thinking about using beauty and tranquility to contrast with what is happening around us.


Alexey Botvinov: Your music is full of beauty and harmony, and indeed, it stands in such stark contrast to what is happening in the world. Is this beautiful music of yours a reaction to the war?

Valentin Silvestrov: For us, the war essentially started in 2014, not two years ago. It wasn’t a direct reaction to the war itself. I have very little music directly related to it.

For example, I wrote «7 Pieces», and one of them — «Chaconne» — was composed after I had already moved and was in Berlin. In these seven pieces, there is one part related to the war, but I decided not to publicize it. In this Chaconne, although it’s deformed and not direct, the melody of the Ukrainian anthem, which you played at the concert yesterday, runs through it. But it sounds as if it’s in defense. After each presentation of the anthem, a military rhythm follows, so there is a sense of the anthem being defended in the music.

However, this defense is not aggressive because our anthem is very gentle; it even refers to enemies affectionately as «vorozhenky» (editor’s note: diminutive form of the word “enemies”). The anthem is lyrical, without any threat, just music. But in this case, in my «7 Pieces», there appears a danger to the anthem, and another motif serves as the anthem’s defense.


Alexey Botvinov: How do you explain the sharp change in your style at the turn of the 2000s from avant-garde to melodic, full of simplicity and harmony?

Valentin Silvestrov: Around the year 2000, there was a radical shift in my work from experimental avant-garde to quiet, harmonious music. This shift symbolizes the transition from the 20th century to the 21st century for me.

The 20th century was incredibly loud, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. It was full of countless grand ideas, both in quotes and without. Naturally, music responded to this, for example, Shostakovich with his expressionism, which also reacted loudly to this loudness, as a reaction to great tragedy.


Алексеей Ботвинов и Валентина Сильвестров
Alexey Botvinov and Valentin Silvestrov


Alexey Botvinov: How did this happen to you?

Valentin Silvestrov: By the end of the 20th century, there was a gradual reaction to all this, expressed in the words of the famous Russian philosopher Sergey Averintsev. In the late 20th and early 21st century, in one of his articles, he presented the thesis: «The acoustics of our time do not tolerate raised voices».

In the music of the 20th century, a strange thing appeared — the fear of silence. But in fact, silence can be the most valuable thing on earth, and it turns out not to be a great idea. The most significant idea is a quiet, peaceful life. That is the truly great idea, not the «great ideas» for which millions of lives are destroyed.


Alexey Botvinov: How do you compose? Do you start with a melody or an idea?

Valentin Silvestrov: For me, everything starts with sound, not with an idea. Ideas have caused so much harm, these so-called great ideas, that I want to stay as far away from them as possible.


Alexey Botvinov: You have also been composing choral music recently.

Valentin Silvestrov: In the 2000s, I began composing a lot of choral music based on liturgical texts. Studying this collection of sacred texts, I found many interesting aspects. It seemed that there were also many great ideas, and unfortunately, it often feels like people treat them the same way they do in Russia — sacrificing lives for these ideas.

However, these liturgical texts actually speak primarily about the value of peaceful life. For example, the first part of the Liturgy lists what is desired for a peaceful life for people, including a prayer for peaceful times.

This is the main prayer that unites the entire collection of prayers, and it speaks not only of peaceful times on earth but also of peace in people’s minds.


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Alexey Botvinov: Has the term «meta music» ever been used to describe your music?

Valentin Silvestrov: Yes, that term has been used. It was in reference to my large composition written at the end of the 20th century. It is not a concert piece; it is a symphony for piano and symphonic orchestra. There is a similar symphony by Szymanowski, which is not a piano concerto but an ambivalent genre, and it contains the idea of both a direct statement and an allegory.

Imagine an overtone: when you touch a string in a specific way, it creates a sound that moves upward. I mean that the metaphor lies in this — the music touches other music and produces a semantic overtone. It gives the impression that the real music being played is actually a symbol of another kind of music from another world. The message we hear is not straightforward; it hints at something else


Alexey Botvinov: We have often talked about this. That silence is the main element in your music. A silence in which something musical, fragmentary, is happening.

Valentin Silvestrov: What was hinted at in that meta-music has now become a reality in my recent work. It is a reality that is not direct but one that resembles memory. The transition from the 20th to the 21st century was important not only for me but also for many of my colleagues.

First of all, music, not just mine, has lost its direct relevance. I put it this way—the face of the music you played has lost the tan of modernism and avant-garde. They have faded away, like a tan, but the relevance remains. It has just shifted to another plane.

In the 20th century, manifestation was important, and here manifestation still exists, but it is quiet and hidden, and within this hiddenness, there is a struggle against all the «neo» and the citation of classics. There is no place for «neo» or direct citation here anymore.

However, if you look closely, you might find something interesting. For example, in one of the pieces you played yesterday, someone noticed the first three notes of the Ukrainian anthem. Perhaps in the 20th century, a composer would have hinted at this more explicitly. But here, in my work, it is simply part of the musical fabric.


Alexey Botvinov: After you had to move from Kyiv to Berlin following the outbreak of the war, have you been composing a lot?

Valentin Silvestrov: I have stopped using the word «compose» because it also means «to lie» in everyday language (editor’s note: in Russian language “to compose” is often in use as «to make things up”). Since childhood, when someone says, «You are making things up!» it implies lying. My shift in style began gradually, possibly even with «Kitsch Music» or earlier. This move away from overtly pointing out relevance gave me a special feeling.

Of course, one should avoid the notion that «God enlightened you» or «directly sent you the music». Still, you don’t need to extract music from somewhere; you need to wait until it comes to you at a distance where you can reach it.


Валентин Сильвестров
Valentin Silvestrov. Photo by Kaupo Kikkas


Alexey Botvinov: It’s interesting when you moved to Berlin in early March 2022, did this process continue? When you had to change countries, did the music still come to you?

Valentin Silvestrov: We drove from Kyiv to the Polish border, passing through endless lines of cars and refugees. We had a special government permit that allowed us to bypass most of the queue. Had we been in the general queue, we would have waited for a very long time like everyone else, but we managed to get through quickly. However, I saw the immense suffering of people who had been living normal lives but were now forced to leave their homes like migratory birds.

When we entered Poland, the situation was similar—endless lines, mostly of older adults standing in the rain without shelter or hotels, for several days. It was terrible to see how they were not being let through while we were passing by.

All these horrors that I witnessed started to resonate in me as music of sorrow. When I arrived in Berlin, at our first meeting, I played a sorrowful melody that reflected the orphanhood of people who had left their homes and were fleeing into the unknown. This music had no condemnation or description of grief; it was my pure internal reaction to what I had seen, not «composition».


Alexey Botvinov: «I will never forget our meeting at the Gedächtnis Kirche in Berlin on March 11, 2022. It was a charity concert for Ukraine initiated by my friend, violinist Daniel Hope. The concert was broadcast live to several European countries, and former German President Joachim Gauck gave a speech.

Bechstein donated half a million euros to Ukraine. Daniel and I performed, among other pieces, music by Silvestrov. Daniel asked if the composer was still in Kyiv. When we found out that Valentin Silvestrov had arrived in Berlin just a couple of days earlier, we, of course, invited him to the concert.

At the end of the concert, we asked him to say a few words. Valentin passionately called for support for our country and unexpectedly shared with the audience that he had seen scenes of immense human suffering on his way from Kyiv and that a melody had been born within him. Valentin wanted to play it. It was pure improvisation; no one expected it. The entire hall anticipated tragic music of sorrow and grief. But Valentin sat at the piano and played a melody of incredible beauty, light, and harmony.

Daniel Hope and I often recalled this moment because it was a complete shock from the contrast of this otherworldly, angelic music with the horrors of war that had inspired it. This is the essence of Silvestrov — paradoxical genius».


Valentin Silvestrov: I even remember that at that time, the words of Shevchenko were running through my head: «…і на оновленій землі, врага не буде супостата, а буде син і буде мати, і будуть люди на землі» («…and on the renewed earth, there will be no enemy or adversary, but there will be a son and a mother, and there will be people on the earth»). He spoke about how, on the renewed earth, real people lived with family, mother, and son as their main values. These words were spoken by the poet over 100 years ago, and yet all this suffering continues. These lines were also in my head at that time.

What I do is not compose music in the usual sense. Back then, I just remembered that poem by heart, and I didn’t even think about composing music. I was observing everything around me, and the music started playing in my head. There is a process of composing music that is a deliberate effort, like when you do push-ups, and there is a process when you live with the music. The same thing happens with my large symphonies, although with symphonies, it’s slightly different — you can’t compose a symphony all at once.

A symphony is something I «live into». You live, and the symphony is born alongside your life; it runs parallel to your life and takes shape. You make some corrections, whether poorly or well, but it continues to evolve, like a child born from life itself, not something that you compose.


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