I felt sadness as well as shock at the news of Dmitri Smirnov’s death, aged 71. By coincidence I had recently finished reading his book about his teacher Philip Herschkowitz (brought to my attention by one of Dimitri’s former Goldsmiths College students, Robin Haigh.) It’s a marvellous read, about an eccentric but recognisable person, expressing so well the burden of inheritance from the Second Viennese School – Herschkowitz had been a pupil of Webern – but in the extreme context of the USSR.
I first heard about Dmitri and his wife Elena Firsova thanks to Gerard McBurney, probably in the mid 1980s; Gerard and Barrie Gavin went on to make some striking films about their artistic circle in Moscow. Even after Smirnov and Firsova had ‘safely’ moved to the UK, I felt in awe of these composers who had had to bear the considerable burden of official Soviet disapproval (for being too well-known in the west) while managing to be, it appeared, so freely creative. From those times I still have very good memories of Smirnov’s light, spacious William Blake-based opera performed by Almeida Opera, so pleasantly different from most of the aggressive, congested offerings of that era.
In search of Herschkowitz after reading the book, I came across Dimitri’s YouTube channel, a well-kept site full of interesting material, including quite a few recordings of his own music performed by his multi-talented daughter Alissa Firsova. Thank goodness for such resources at a time like this. It will presumably be a while before we can go out and commemorate our lost artists in the ways they deserve.
Pictured – NHS floral tribute outside St Thomas’s Hospital.