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'Composers are like priests and gardeners' - for the 70th birthday of Elena Firsova

On March 21, 2020, St. Petersburg-born Elena Firsova celebrates her 70th birthday.
As Elena Firsova once said, 'Composers – not all of them of course – have much in common with priests and gardeners'. It's a somewhat surprising statement, to which Firsova adds that, to her, composing means self-exploration, coming into contact with beauty and the nonmaterial world. This explains why her generally short and always carefully wrought compositions are invariably intimate and highly lyrical in character. Placing beauty of art at the midpoint, even in times of political crisis and adversity, speaks for Firsova's great artistic self-assurance.
Born in 1950 into a family of Leningrad physicists, she already started composing at the age of 12 and received her first composition lessons four years later. In 1970 she became a student of Alexander Pirumov at Moscow Conservatory. Her private teacher Edison Denisov brought her into contact with contemporary music. Thanks to him and Philipp Herschkowitz, a pupil of Alban Berg and Anton Webern, she internalised the musical aesthetic of the Second Viennese School, an aesthetic that has more or less dominated her music to the present day. But her musical language also reveals the influence of such French composers as Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez.
In 1972 Elena Firsova married the composer Dmitri Smirnov. In 1990 she and her husband, together with Nikolai Korndorf and Edison Denisov, founded the Association for Contemporary Music, which performed Russian contemporary music with its own ensemble. The first performances of her music in Cologne, Venice and Paris in 1979 met with great acclaim. But in the same year the young composer received a bitter setback in her native Russia: the Composers' Association attacked her music as 'unsoviet'. Fearing a political backlash and worried about the future of their children, the couple decided in 1991 to emigrate to England. There Firsova initially became a professor at the University of Keele near Newcastle-under-Lyme (1993-97) and taught in Manchester (1999-2001).
'When we moved to England', Firsova recalls, 'we were given some very important commissions, including at the Proms. I and my husband, Dmitri Smirnov, were invited to performances of our music at the South Bank Festival in London. We were greatly supported in England by our friend Gerard McBurney, who arranged a sort of research fellowship in Cambridge to help us become accustomed to our new life. So we decided to try our luck, and were successful.' The conductor and arranger Gerard McBurney is responsible for many arrangements of Shostakovich's works, including a brilliant version of the operetta Moscow: Cheryomushki.
Firsova has written well over 100 compositions to date. Her vocal works often make use of words by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who was imprisoned by the Russian régime in 1937 and died one year later. But her instrumental works too are almost always connected with Mandelstam's poetry, his relation to art and death.

Important works by Elena Firssowa:

- Requiem for soprano, mixed choir and orchestra based on texts by Anna Akhmatova
- „Beyond the Seven Seals“ for orchestra
- Double concerto for violin, violoncello and orchestra
- Chamber concerts No. 1-5
 - Music for 12 for chamber ensemble
- String quartets
- Three poems by Ossip Mandelstam for voice and piano

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