'I love my country to this day - probably more than it loves me'

Alexander Raskatov: 'The bigger the country, the greater the gravitation that it has. I wonder if the citizens of Luxembourg could have nostalgia for their country'

Alexander Raskatov: 'The bigger the country, the greater the gravitation that it has. I wonder if the citizens of Luxembourg could have nostalgia for their country'

Fri, Feb 8, 2013, 00:00

For composer Alexander Raskatov, there’s no place like mother Russia, but he is still delighted to see one of his works get its premiere in Dundalk tonight

‘So many inexplicable things happen,” says Russian composer Alexander Raskatov, when I ask how his Monk’s Music has come to be premiered under the auspices of the Louth Contemporary Music Society in Dundalk. “But nothing happens, as French people say, par hazard.” Raskatov has lived abroad for two decades – he now lives in Paris – but the idea for Monk’s Music took hold in his native Moscow at an 80th birthday of Borodin Quartet cellist Valentin Berlinsky.

“We came to the conclusion that it would be interesting to try to approach the heroism of Franz Joseph Haydn with his Seven Last Words, an incredible piece of music which takes a whole concert, seven Adagios, one after the other. I told him I would like to try to approach this great musical mountain – that I wanted to put some vocal solos, a monodic Russian prayer by bass or baritone, between the adagios.”

The idea was for the sung sections to have a flavour of the music of the Orthodox Church. “I like very much one, as we say in Russian, starets, old man, a hermit, Silouan . . . a simple Russian man, a peasant who came to Mount Athos. He died in 1938. He wrote some fantastic religious texts, which came from his heart. Valentin Berlinsky was very, very interested, and gave me the green light to write the piece.”

But Berlinsky’s health, and internal troubles with the quartet delayed any premiere. Then, after Berlinsky died in 2008, the idea of performing the piece seemed to have died, too. “When I became acquainted with Eamonn Quinn, he proposed to put the piece on in Dundalk. And I didn’t hesitate.” So, instead of being performed in a big hall at the Moscow Conservatory, it will be in a Dundalk church. “I didn’t want to write a stylisation or imitation of classical style. And I didn’t want to write something that was technically complicated. For me, the most important thing was to write a kind of ascetic music, without any external effects – interior music.”

His original plan was to dedicate the work to the memory of a composer who played an important role in his life, Alfred Schnittke, who died in 1998. He was asked by the composer’s widow to complete the sketches for Schnittke’s Ninth Symphony, which, after a debilitating stroke, the composer wrote with his left hand. To this, Raskatov added a Nunc Dimittis of his own, which also carries a Schnittke dedication, and he’s not quite sure that it would be right to have two memorials.

Raskatov was still in his 20s when he met Schnittke. “He supported me very much. Our first meeting was in 1979, after the performance of a piece of mine for viola solo. He came to me and told me so many interesting and important and encouraging things. I was quite young. The hall was half-empty. His coming to me to say things that were personal and profound made a really big impression. He also supported me when I joined the Union of Soviet Composers. And, most importantly, his music influenced me a lot in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The last time I spoke to him, I think it was 1992, he was still able to talk by phone. He was in Hamburg, and said he would love to return to Moscow. It was his dream to come back to his country.”

Raskatov didn’t want to emigrate. “I love my country to this day probably more than it loves me. But in the early 1990s, in all parameters, things for me were so dark. I had two boys on the limit of the age of conscription. A lot of people emigrated because of this problem. Second, I had the feeling at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, that it was a dead end for me in a professional sense.”

‘All the best players left’

It helped that he had started receiving commissions from abroad. And he also understood that there was what he calls “a certain stagnation” in musical life. “All the best players left. The musical level in Moscow dropped. And there were signs of fate . . . I received a proposition from the publisher MP Belaieff, which played a huge part in my decision. But I couldn’t foresee the full consequences. There’s home-sickness, which means you don’t feel the same energy.

“I have a theory that the bigger the country, the greater the force of gravitation that it has. For me, I wonder if the citizens of Luxembourg or Liechtenstein could have a nostalgia for their countries, because they’re too small.”

He laughs at himself as he says this. “Russia is so enormous. Everywhere I feel like a shark swimming in the bathroom instead of the Atlantic Ocean. The positive is the professional possibility to go further.”

Raskatov doesn’t sound optimistic about the state of composition in the Russia of today. “I don’t want to say I am for totalitarianism, certainly not. But, on the other hand, this feeling of certain limits – what you can do, what you cannot do – gives a certain positive result. It gives a certain resistance, a wish to swim against the current.

“But when there is no current, where do you swim? When everything’s possible, at the same time it means that nothing is possible. Even Shostakovich, after the death of Stalin, for a certain time lost his feeling of equilibrium, he lost a figure to react against. It was difficult to write.” In post-Soviet Russia, “Composers began to imitate what already happened here in the West many, many years ago, just because it wasn’t forbidden any more.”

He’s afraid “people can lose their own richness. For me, and I can only speak for myself, I try not to forget where I’m from. I don’t want to exaggerate. But I don’t want to forget my predecessors, that we were rich enough to have Mussorgsky, Shostakovich and Schnittke, for instance.” He got good advice about his uprooting from the Hungarian composer György Kurtág. “We must not change anything in our perception of music. We just have to know ourselves better.”

Getting to know himself better turned out to be “a process of suffering. To keep myself away from so much that’s attractive, borrowing this or that, or changing the musical language. But I understood it wouldn’t be mine. That’s very positive. What’s negative is that I lost my language. And I lost the energy of the earth. I love the Russian nature. I like the forests. I like the space. I cannot find it here.”

* Gordon Jones and the Carducci String Quartet perform Alexander Raskatov’s Monk’s Music at St Nicholas’s Church of Ireland, Dundalk, at 8pm this evening

Raskatov online

Alexander Raskatov’s Gens Extoris, with Mira Yevtich (piano), conducted by Valery Gergiev is on YouTube at bit.ly/XSGkew. It starts 20 minutes into the video