Martynov's opera Vita Nuova with the London Philharmonic Orchestra

Vita Nuova will receive its U.S. premiere at Alice Tully Hall on Feb. 28. Based on a collection of verse by Dante Alighieri, Martynov’s work explores the music genetics of opera.

Vladimir Martynov’s father, the renowned musicologist Ivan Martynov, found himself in deep trouble with Stalin’s dictatorial regime for promoting and supporting contemporary composers. His book on Shostakovich was published in 1948, when Stalin had personally authorized a campaign against formalist—read “Western”—influences in Soviet music. To Stalin, Prokofiev and Shostakovich represented these adverse influences. The fact that the German music historian Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt chose to include a chapter from Martynov’s book in an anthology on modern music only aggravated Martynov’s situation.

“It was a miracle he wasn’t arrested and sent to a labor camp,” said Vladimir Martynov in a recent telephone interview from Moscow. A concert version of his first opera, Vita Nuova (“The New Life”) will be given its U.S. premiere by the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) with principal conductor Vladimir Jurowski as part of the Alice Tully Hall Opening Nights Festival on February 28, 2009. The work was originally commissioned by the Mariinsky Theater of St. Petersburg, Russia, and composed in 2001–2003. After the Mariinsky abandoned the production due to some difficulties with financial backing, the project was taken on by Jurowski and the LPO, which will also present it in concert version for the first time in London on February 18.

Martynov, who at 62 is perhaps the most prominent composer in contemporary Russia, had an “easier” time during the Brezhnev era. After years of working in the “formalist,” dodecaphonic style and later with Russian and Eastern folk music and electronic and rock music, his incessant search for spiritual truth and musical innovation brought him to Russian Orthodoxy at the end of the 1970s. He began to study the Russian Orthodox chant and restored the liturgies of the 16th and 17th centuries, while teaching at the Moscow Theological Academy. The KGB’s response was swift and pointed. Its agents raided the apartment where he and other faithfuls were taking confession with a Russian orthodox pastor, their mentor.

“I was summoned to the KGB and to the Composers Union, which declared me persona non grata,” said Martynov. “It was the norm,” he added with laughter.

Not any more. The 1991 Russian Revolution freed the Soviet people of communism. It also freed Russian artists from the political pressure to write music of Social Realism and use only Russian themes for their works. Still, this freedom has come with a price. The famed generosity of the Soviet government came to and end, and the masses, burdened by the hardship of the transistion, seemed to lose their interest in high culture. Furthermore, the cultural cycle entered the era of the dominance of pop culture and entertainment, ruled by consumerism and controlled by marketers and promoters.

Martynov acknowledged these facts of modern life in his recent books The End of the Time of Composers (2002) and The Zone Opus Posth, or the Birth of New Reality (2005) , in which he declared the inevitable end of composed music in general and the genre of opera in particular.

“Perhaps some people would disagree with me, but the time of the great operas is past,” he says. “The last great opera was Berg’s Wozzeck.” In the 19th century, Wagner and Verdi were the voices of the national spirit, and their operas were worldwide cultural events. Today, however, opera holds a different place in cultural life.”

Martynov’s opera is based on Dante’s La Vita Nuova, his early yet ground-breaking work written in 1295.

“I wanted to write not so much an opera,” says Martynov, “as a work about whether it is still possible to write an opera in modern times. My Vita Nuova is a research into the field of opera. It is an opera about opera. This is the reason why I’ve chosen Dante’s Vita Nuova, which is not just a text about love, but a text about a text about love.”

The multifaceted and layered nature of the Dante text perfectly suited Martynov’s goals. Dante’s text includes his passionate poetry—the sonnets about his love for Beatrice, whom he first met when he was nine and she was eight, and who died while he was writing La Vita Nuova. Each sonnet is followed by detailed analysis and autobiographical notes, which are written in prose. These commentaries reveal a spiritual metamorphosis, in which Dante’s earthly love evolves into divine love. In addition, Dante’s La Vita Nuova is also a treatise on poetry and literature. Thus, Dante’s text involves a system of mirrors, a kind of reflective system that becomes the main principal of Martynov’s Vita Nuova.

The opera consists of three planes: the poetry, sung in the original Italian; the narrative, which was written originally in Russian but translated into English for the London and New York premieres; and the liturgical, ritual, metaphysical plane, sung in Latin. Each plane has its own musical language.

“For the sonnets, I use the style of my youth as a composer—dodecaphonic,” says Martynov. “While the style of the late 19th century—of Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Mahler—is reserved for the narrative, that is for the plot and its action. The Gregorian chant is used for the liturgical part.” All of which would seem to align the opera with eclecticism.

“Though I understand that a conscious eclecticism has become a style, for me eclecticism is still an unsuccessful attempt at synthesis,” says Martynov. “In both cases, we talk about polystylism. But in the Vita Nuova, I try to connect the styles and create a synthesis.”

The stylistic and structural unification comes from the meditative and somewhat detached character of the music, as if the composer observes the physical level from a different level of existence. In this respect, it is similar to Wagner’s Parsifal , which Martynov considers an ideal opera. “I use it as a guide, as some kind of reference. There are even several allusions to it in the Vita Nuova.”

The score is also unified by using a minimalist technique, resulting in what Martynov calls syncretic minimalism. Both principals permeate the entire score, making listening to it a mystical, ritualistic experience.

Martynov once said that people usually see music as separate pieces of music. But Martynov would prefer to see music as a stream, which people can enter and live in. Can the finding of that stream be the future of music? To quote Shakespeare: The spirit of time shall.

Bittersweet Love
Wednesday 18 February
7pm | Royal Festival Hall

Martynov's opera reflects music from the last six centuries through a neo-romantic prism to express the language of love – a spiritual portrayal of the bittersweet perfection and endurance depicted in Dante's Vita Nuova.

"Martynov is a cult figure in Moscow, his hometown. People either totally reject him or are completely fascinated by him. He has a similar reputation to composers such as Arvo Pärt or John Tavener in Britain, even if Martynov's music is more dramatic and diverse than theirs. Every one of his musical outings is a big thing - either a scandal or a huge success." Vladimir Jurowski in The Guardian

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Martynov Vita Nuova