Dmitri Smirnov: 1948-2020

Along with a number of people, I have been extremely saddened to hear the recent news of the death of Dmitri Smirnov, the Russian-born composer whose love for Blake was such that he became a committed Anglophile and spent most of his career creating stunning and innovative compositions that set a multitude of Blake’s works to music.

Having contracted COVID-19, he passed away on Thursday, 9 April, leaving behind his wife – herself a great composer of note – and their children, Alissa and Philip. I had been in correspondence a few times with him because of our shared love for Blake, and there follows a piece I wrote on him as part of a wider essay dealing with the musical reception of Blake in Europe:

When Fitch was compiling his original catalogue in the late eighties, however, he noted that Soviet-bloc nations had yet to discover Blake, with two startling exceptions (1989, xxiv). Elena Firsovas (b. 1950) Proritzanye (Augury) is an impressive large-scale symphony composed in 1987-88, but it is the work of her husband, Dmitrii Smirnov (b. 1948), which demonstrates one of the deepest and most impressive engagements with Blake among the works of any composer. Born in 1948 in Minsk, Smirnov studied with Nikolai Sidelnikov, Edison Denisov and Yury Kholopov at the Moscow Conservatoire, as well as being influenced by Philip Herschkowitz, who introduced him to the serialism of Anton Webern, which Smirnov would combine with Franco-Russian sensualism (Smirnov no date). One of the most important Russian modernist composers, and one of the founders of the Association for Contemporary Music in Moscow in 1990, he and his wife moved to England in 1991.

The influence of Blake on Smirnov cannot be understated, beginning with his piece for soprano, flute, viola and harp, The Seasons, based on the four poems from Poetical Sketches,  first performed in Moscow in 1980 and then arranged as a symphony, performed by the Latvian Symphony Orchestra in 1981 (F1148, F1144). Thus began a decade during which Smirnov returned to Blake again and again, demonstrating a deep knowledge of Blakes works (which he often translated into Russian),4 whether occasional pieces such as To the Muses (included in the 1982 Ballada for Saxophone and Piano) or much more extensive pieces like the operas, Tiriel (1983-85, F1154), which premiered in Freiburg im Breisgau in 1989, and Lamentations of Thel (1985-86, F1146), performed in the same year at the Almeida Festival in London.

The 1980s represented a particularly intense period for Smirnov’s engagement with Blake (although by no means encompassing all his compositions at that time, which also drew upon writers as diverse as Shakespeare, Pushkin and Pasternak), and after his move to England he continued to draw inspiration from Blake, increasingly drawing upon the paintings which were now more readily available to him, as in his series of four Blake Pictures (The Moonlight Story, Jacob’s Ladder, Abel, and The River of Life), composed between 1988 and 1992. His performances in England were enthusiastically received, with Stephen Pettitt praising the premiere of JacobLadder for The Times in 1991. Although Blakes influence has been less prevalent on Smirnovs work in the twenty-first century, he continues to be an important source, for example in the Blake Sonata No. 6, performed in London and Cambridge in 2015.  A number of Smirnovs works were also included in the 2011 programme held to celebrate Blakes birthday at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, as part of the William Blake and British Visionary Art exhibition.