Svyatoslav Lunyov: Music of Memory, Music of Hope Text by Iryna Tukova. Translated by Lesya Lantsuta Brannman

Фото: Linda Xu / Unsplash

The list of Svyatoslav Lunyov’s works on his official website include numerous compositions. Each is a smaller or larger part of the mosaic that gives an idea of the sound world invented by the composer. Undoubtedly, in further discussions, one could single out the most important opuses among them and expertly substantiate one’s own position. However, in this text I will be as subjective as possible and recall my own path of coming back to music through Lunyov’s works.

The events of more than a year ago destroyed our world, including music and the ability to perceive it, listen to it, and think about it. For many weeks, the first steps of my partial return to myself took place, thanks to the music of Svyatoslav Lunyov. It was his compositions that I remembered first, rekindling my interest in music.  Is Svyatoslav Lunyov writing music now? If so, what kind of music?

Returns to previous environments are about memories and recollections. It is the musical history of mankind with its signs and symbols that seems to be one of the cornerstone themes in the composer’s work.  Many of Lunyov’s opuses are simple and accessible, no doubt the secret behind their popularity among a wide range of listeners. Many also hide numerous layers of meanings, which can only be deciphered by diving deeper and building multilevel connections and associations that arise directly or indirectly.

Svyatoslav Lunyov
Svyatoslav Lunyov. Photo by Vasilina Vrublevskaya

A history of European music over the last three centuries is contained in the piano cycle Mardongs (1998-2005). It presents sound portraits of both classical music and contemporary music, behind numerical ciphers. Mariologia (2016) for harp, percussion, and mixed choir, contains the texts of traditional Marian antiphons (dedicated to the Virgin Mary) in a new reading and interpretation through the involvement of hidden musical symbolism. The Wreath of Sonatas for Piano (1995) has the first stanza from Shakespeare’s Eighth Sonnet encrypted/hidden/musicalized in the sound material. The Sonata for Cello and Piano (2009), reminds us of John Cage, where four of the five notes of the music theme of the composition reproduce Cage’s name. Pieta (2014) for sextet is based on poems by Rilke. I could go on for a long time, marveling at each work and the composer’s skill, and enjoying the decoding of hidden meanings and subtle emotions.

The Noel Consort (2013-2014) is a light, technically perfect, joyful and, at the same time, melancholic arrangement of traditional European Christmas songs (or, by the composer’s definition, a concert for a mixed choir a cappella). Christmas heals and gives faith in life and its continuation. Listening to the choral miniatures, one seems to touch the ancient world in which these melodies and texts once arose, and rejoices in their existence today. It is no coincidence that The Noel Consort, among other works by Lunyov, was performed at the Ukrainian Christmas concert at Carnegie Hall on December 25, 2022.

The absurdity of everything that has occurred since February 22, 2022, brings to mind the Hymns to the Memory of the Citizens of Atlantis for symphony orchestra (2010). This cycle is based on the orchestral intermissions and epilogue to the never-staged opera by Lunyov that is based on a poem by Venedikt Erofeev: Moscow-Petushki (1992-2012). I have always been particularly disturbed by the last movement of the Hymns since it is based on the anthem of the Soviet Union (now the anthem of Muscovy). Stretched out in time and radically altered by the large-scale orchestral interpretation, it is almost unrecognizable. The anthem dissolves in time and space along with Atlantis and its inhabitants.

What could a new work by Lunyov be like in the spring of 2022? He posted a new electro-acoustic installation Post on his YouTube channel on May 25, 2022. The annotation to the content contained only two words written in different languages: “I accuse!” Perhaps this is the most truthful and frightening purely artistic testimony about the first months of the full-scale invasion. Chaos, darkness, and despair are conveyed in the sounds, causing one to intensely listen to oneself and to others.

The composition seems to be created out of darkness (a lonely sound that appears as if by itself, a black rectangle of the screen). Gradually some shadows and silhouettes begin to appear, and familiar sounds are heard. However, no matter how hard one tries, it’s not possible to see and understand these shadows and hints. The sound turns into a scream, and the scream turns into an explosion, a catastrophe that destroys everything. It is a POST from which nothing will ever happen again.

Only Tutti for large symphony orchestra (2005) can bring you out of the Post state. A long time ago, at the Kyiv Conservatory, Nina Gerasymova-Persydska held seminars on contemporary music for graduate students. Composers were invited to those seminars to present their new works. Svyatoslav Lunyov came every year, slowly talked about his ideas and new compositions, smiled sincerely and promptly disappeared. He presented Tutti at the seminars every year and it has been one of the most important pieces for me over the last fifteen years. I recall, after one of the seminars, that the spellbound audience heard the voice of Olha Pryhodko (a graduate student then, now a well-known choral conductor and interpreter of numerous works by contemporary authors) saying: “I thought that paradise didn’t exist. Now I know that it does.”.

At first glance, it seems difficult to endure more than half an hour of non-stop orchestral sound, especially since it is the tutti of a large symphony orchestra that continues almost constantly. However, Lunyov works with ontological time in a way that compresses and restructures it. You realize this only later. The sound is captivating and fascinating since listeners emotionally experience the process of the emergence and formation of the universe from the Big Bang, which the work begins with. 

Tutti isn’t just about creating the universe, but also about creating the kind of universe one dreams of: majestic, eternal and harmonious. Tutti is about life, overcoming chaos, and about human beings and faith in them. This is how the world was created in which one wants to be. At least, I want to be in it. 

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About the Author

The Claquers is a Ukrainian online magazine devoted to classical music that unites a group of music critics with the mission to foster a critical conversation about art music in Ukraine and beyond. The Claquers organization was founded in June 2020 by musicologist Stas Nevmerzhytskyi and three colleagues: musicologist Dzvenyslava Safian, music theorist Liza Sirenko, and cultural critic Oleksandr Ostrovskyi.

The publication’s provocative name suggests the context in which The Claquers was conceived. After two previous generations of proactive critics who had careers in education and cultural promotion, classical music criticism was limited to either positive reviews or no reviews at all. A fresh and uncensored eye on events in classical music life in Ukraine was needed to shake up the musical community and complete the country’s classical music ecosystem.

Unlike in western Europe and North America, art music audiences in Ukraine are much younger. The collective of writers with The Claquers is also young, and has taken on the task of explaining to these new listeners why a long tradition of classical music in Ukraine exists, and how it became a part of today’s cultural life. As a group The Claquers considers its main goals: to educate about contemporary classical Ukrainian music, to build bridges with popular culture by publishing about diverse musical genres and other arts (such as music in literature or in film), to expand the critical tools of music criticism with audio podcasts, and to cultivate audiences abroad via an English version of the website.

The Claquers was made possible by generous funding that enabled its establishment and is sustained by the generosity of donors on Patreon. This singular and engaged Ukrainian online hub devoted to classical music continues to engage people in this music and invite new authors.

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