Elena Firsova is one of the most inward and intimate of contemporary Russian composers. Her music is lyrical, pure and confessional. There are few effects and no irony or self-conscious striking of attitudes. Her music is about her and it is part of her.
Distance was written in March 1992 in Cambridge, not long after Firsova and her husband, the composer Dmitri Smirnov, and their two children had moved to Britain.
As everyone knows, 1991-2 was the beginning of new instability and disorder in Russia. In the little world of composers, as everywhere else in the crumbling honey-comb of Soviet society, different people had different reactions. Some decided to stay and make the best of what they could. But many left, to Canada, the USA, New Zealand, Germany, France and, like Firsova, Smirnov and their friend Slava Shoot, to Britain. Living in Cambridge and feeling so far away and cut off from her friends, Firsova came across this poem, Distance, by the great Marina Tsvetaeva.
At the time she wrote this poem, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Tsvetaeva was living with her husband and family in Paris, having left Russia after the Revolution. Distance is addressed to her friend, Boris Pasternak, another great poet, who had stayed in the Soviet Union. Understandably, Firsova felt a sympathy with the feelings Tsvetaeva describes.
Distance is in two movements. ‘The first’, says the composer, ‘is a short introduction for string quartet alone, in which the basic motives are gradually formed. In the second and principal movement the string instruments are joined by the voice and clarinet, which plays the part of an invisible interlocutor’.
How pained its evocation of the loneliness caused by enforced separation; how economical its expression and how poignant its final disintegration
First performed by BCMG at the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham on 24 January 1993.