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Edison Denisov (Composer)

Born: April 6, 1929 - Tomsk, Siberia, Russia
Died: November 24, 1996 - Paris, France

Edison (Vasil'yevich [Vasilievich]) Denisov was a remarkable, innovative Russion composer and patriarch of the Russian musical avant-garde. He was named after Thomas Alva Edison, by his father, an electrical Engineer. He studied mathematics at the University of Moscow, graduating in 1951, before deciding to spend his life composing. This decision was enthusiastically supported by Dmitri Shostakovich, who gave him instructions in composition. From 1951 to 1956 Denisov studied at the Moscow Conservatory - composition with Vissarion Shebalin, orchestration with Nikolai Rakov, analysis with Viktor Zuckerman and piano with Vladimir Belov. In 1959 he was appointed to the faculty of the Consevatory.

Edison Denisov was among Soviet-era composers, who in the late 1950's, early 1960's, were irresistibly drawn to and derived inspiration from contemporary European music: late Debussy and Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern and Pierre Boulez, Béla Bartók and Nono. As he mastered new composition techniques and new forms of expression, Denisov perceived the evolution of music as the evolution of a language. His innovative works paved the way for a new fusion of Russian and European traditions. An astute explorer of tonal possibilities, Denusov wrote instrumental works of an empirical genre. The titles of his pieces reveal a lyric character of subtle nuances, often marked by impressionistic colours.

Like his avant-garde colleagues, among them Alfred Schnitke, Sofia Gubaidulina, Arvo Pärt, Tigran Mansurian, Boris Tischenko and Valentin Silvestrov, all labelled dissident composers in the former USSR, Edison Denisov couldn't hope to hear his music performed on stage during Soviet times. The thought that avant-garde composers opposed depersonalized academism in music and still worse, the fact that they sought to establish direct contact with their European colleagues frightened the former Soviet cultural ideologists. It was next to impossible for a Soviet composer to have his work premiered abroad or to be commissioned by foreign performers to write a new piece. Denisov reversed the situation.

The European premiere of Edison Denisov's Sun of the Inkas cantata to lyrics by the Chilean poetess Gabriela Mistral (1964) was a tremendous success. He wrote articles for foreign newspapers and magazines about new trends in Soviet music and used his personal contacts in the West to hand over the scores of pieces composed by his Soviet colleagues to European musicians. On the other hand, he received plenty of scores and recordings of contemporary music by European and American composers and held his unique music library open to all his friends, contributing to the noble cause of enlightenment. For more than 30 years Denisov "enlightened" students at Moscow's Conservatory but it was not until five years ago that he was allowed to teach composition.

Edison Denisov's enlightening activity was directed to the future but also to historical roots. He pulled from oblivion the musical avant-garde of the 1920's represented by Alexander Mosolov, Nikolai Roslavts and Vladimir Deshevov, revived the Contemporary Music Association founded back in those times, helped organize the Moscow Ensemble of Contemporary Music in 1990, in short, created conditions for alternative music. In the early 1990's, backed by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, he introduced the practice of sort of mini-lectures preceding a concert, which was also very important. He explained to the audience the essence of a piece to be performed and briefly answered questions if there were any. He possessed a rare gift to explain complicated things in simple and understandable terms and very laconically.

Edison Denisov's heritage is extremely diverse: a ballet based on Alfred de Musset's Confession of a Child of the Century, symphonies, cantatas, oratorios, including a requiem entitled The Story of Life and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ, some 20 instrumental concertos, chamber ensembles, choral and vocal music. He wrote three operas, one of which, The Foam of Days based on Boris Vian's novel, earned him honorary membership of the French Order of Literature and Art. In the 1990's, by that time a universally recognized composer, he toured half the globe, giving master-classes and sitting on the jury panels of prestigious composers' competitions. His music was performed by best Russian and foreign musicians: conductors Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Alexander Lazarev and Daniel Barenboim, the famous "Ensemble Intercontemporain", violist Yuri Bashmet, cellist Ivan Monigetti, oboist Heinz Holliger, percussionist Mark Pekarsky, to name but a few.

Edison Denisov wrote: "Work goes easily and freely when I have a direct contact with nature. I must be alone, only the rustle of leaves outside my window and birds flying up to me, or I must see white, pure snow colored by sunrays into miscellaneous and slowly changing hues. A splash of water in the distance, a thread of fog pulled over the lake, a symphony of colors in autumnal landscapes - nature gives me more than useless layers of fossilized academicalism".

Selected Works

Le soleil des Incas (Солнце инков, The Sun of Incas), text by Gabriela Mistral for soprano, flute, oboe, horn, trumpet, two pianos, percussion, violin and cello (1964)
Italian Songs, text by Alexander Blok for soprano, flute, horn, violin and harpsichord (1964)
Les pleurs (Плачи, Lamentations), text of Russian folksongs for soprano, piano and three percussionists (1966)
Ode (in Memory of Che Guevara) for clarinet, piano and percussion (1968)
DSCH for clarinet, trombone, cello (and piano?) (1969)
Peinture (Живопись, Painting) for orchestra (1970)
Sonata for alto saxophone and piano (1970)
Piano Trio (1971)
Cello Concerto (1972)
La vie en rouge (Жизнь в красном цвете, The Life in Red), text by Boris Vian for solo voice, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion (1973)
Piano Concerto (1974)
Signes en blanc (Знаки на белом, The Sighs on White) for piano (1974)
Flute Concerto (1975)
Violin Concerto (1977)
Concerto Piccolo for saxophone and six percussionists (1977)
Requiem after liturgian texts and poems by Francisco Tanzer for soprano, tenor, mixed chorus and orchestra (1980)
L'écume des jours (Foam of Days), an opera after Boris Vian (1981)
Tod ist ein langer Schlaf (Death is a Long Sleep) - Variations on Haydn's Canon for cello and orchestra (1982)
Chamber Symphony No. 1 ((1982)
Confession (Исповедь), a ballet in three acts after Alfred de Musset (1984)
Three Pictures after Paul Klee for viola, oboe, horn, piano, vibraphone and double bass (1985)
Quatre Filles (Four Girls), an opera in one act after Pablo Picasso (1986)
Viola Concerto (1986)
Oboe Concerto (1986)
Symphony No. 1 (1987)
Clarinet Concerto (1989)
Four Poems after G. de Nerval for voice, flute and piano (1989)
Guitar Concerto (1991)
History of Life and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christus according to St. Matthew for bass, tenor, chorus and orchestra (1992)
Concerto for flute, vibraphone, harpsichord and string orchestra (1993)
Chamber Symphony No. 2 (1994)
Symphony No. 2 (1996)
Femme et oiseaux (The Woman and the Birds) homage to Joan Miro for piano, string quartet and woodwind quartet (1996)

Source: Russian Culture Navigator Website (November 2004); Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians (1997); Wikipedia Website
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (April 2006)

Use of Chorale Melodies in his works


Chorale Melody


Es ist genug, viola, piano (1984), arr. va, fl, o, cel, string quintet [variations on the theme of Bach's chorale]

Es ist genug

1984 / 1986

Links to other Sites

Russian Culture Navigator
Edison Denisov (Bossey & Hawkes)
Edison Denisov
Edison Denisov (Internet Edition compiled by Onno van Rijen)
Edison Denisov: biographie (Ircam) [French

Edison Denisov (Wikipedia)
Edison Denisov (Refnn Musicologie) [French]
Edison Denisov - Composer of Light by Dmitri Smirnov
Fragments on Denisov by Elena Firsova & Dmitri Smirnov [Russian]


Yuri Kholopov & Valeria Tsenova: Edison Denisov, Harwood Academic publ., 1995
Yuri Kholopov & Valeria Tsenova: Edison Denisov - The Russian Voice in European New Music; Berlin, Kuhn, 2002

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