By Sigurd Neubauer
Alissa Firsova comes from a musical family where both parents, Elena Firsova and Dmitri Smirnov (1948-2020), are composers. Now, she’s following in their footsteps by carving out her own path; she’s finding inspiration from the style of the great German composer Richard Strauss (1864–1949) – whose life and legacy – we have covered on these pages.
“I don’t see myself as a contemporary composer as I am fascinated by Strauss and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911),” Firsova exclaims with enthusiasm. “We live in a great moment in time where composers have the freedom to compose in the style that they like.”
Firsova considers her style to be post Romantic, but emphasizes that composition can travel in time, which is to say, she explains, that for her as a composer “it is important to stay on this time machine to connect the past to the future as well as to the present.”
Her most celebrated piece is Stabat Mater, which she premiered in 2014 with the BBC Philharmonic. Firsova’s collaboration with the storied British orchestra is continuing as she will premier her latest work, a symphony for a full orchestra, which is called, Spell of Creation, at the upcoming Manchester International Festival on July 7, 2023.
I don’t see myself as a contemporary composer as I am fascinated by Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler
“To date, my two most performed pieces are Stabat Mater and Bride of the Wind for piano-duet, which was inspired by the painting and story of Oskar Kokoschka with Alma Mahler.”
The two pieces will be performed next during an upcoming international tour, which brings her to Houston, Texas, Vancouver, Canada, and Barcelona, Spain.
Last year, she composed Stages, which is a piece for trumpet and a string orchestra inspired by a poem by Herman Hesse. It has been performed in the UK and Finland. So far, Firsova has also composed chamber music for voice and choir.
It’s all within the family
Born in Moscow, Firsova’s early childhood memories center around her parents balancing between working on their respective competitions daily while taking care of their two children.
“I didn’t realize until later that not everyone learned composition,” Firsova recalls as she considered at the time composing songs “as a normal thing to do.” At the same time, she recalls that when she was little, Firsova “hated practicing the piano. There were lots of tears, but my mother made me practice. My parents were both composers but never performed.”
Her older brother, Philip, learned to play the piano at the age of six. “I wanted to learn to play it right-away, but my mother insisted that I be six first.”
The route to composition began shortly after taking piano lessons; “at the time, my father would write down the music that I composed, adding it to his music diary.”
In 1991, before the Soviet Union would collapse, Firsova’s parents told the children to pack up their clothes and favorite toys as they would embark on an adventure to London, UK.
“People didn’t know at the time whether the country would collapse,” she recalls.
Once in the UK, Mr. Smirnov and Mrs. Firsova took up residencies as composers at various universities across the nation, starting with St John’s College, University of Cambridge, followed by Dartington Hall – which is a famous music festival – and finally Keele University.
“After that, we saved enough money to buy a house on the outskirts of London.”
Despite Firsova’s many childhood tears stemming from a strict regimen of piano practice in Moscow, she ended up wanting to become a pianist.
But her career would inevitably follow in the path of her parents; she would become a composer.
Responding to how it happened, Firsova recalls how she had been recommended to apply for admission for the Purcell School, “which was like a paradise. I absolutely loved my experience there.”
Continues Firsova: “I entered a universe of its own where I met other children who loved what I loved, including from Russia which enabled me to rediscover my own Russian roots.”
In 2001, one of her teachers submitted Firsova’s piece —- Les Pavots – to the BBC Proms Young Composer Competition. She won the competition.
“At the time, it was decided for me that I would become a composer,” she recalls, adding that Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) became her idol. “As a pianist-conductor and composer, he became an helden [hero] figure for composition.”
(We have published a multi-part series on Rachmaninoff in honor of the composer’s 150th anniversary).
Responding to whether she felt pressured by her parents to become a composer, Firsova pauses, but responds diplomatically: “I never felt forced by my parents, but they showed me the way.”
Conducting and artistic career
Resembling her hero Rachmaninoff, Firsova is also the pianist-conductor per excellence. While at the Royal Academy of Music, she conducted in 2012 Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756-1791) Piano Concerto No. 23 from the piano. At the Academy, Firsova also conducted her very own Clarinet Concerto, Freedom.
“Unfortunately, I don’t conduct very often from the piano as I don’t have very much time,” Firsova explains, pointing out that between raising two boys while working on the steady flow of commissions she receives, time management is an issue. Nonetheless, she confesses that when conducting, it is mostly her own music or that of her parents.
Firsova’s father died in 2020 of the Covid-19 pandemic. “By performing his music, I keep him and his legacy alive,” she says, adding with visible pride: “His music is living as it is performed all over the world, including in Moscow, where it used to was forbidden.”
Mrs. Firsova, however, is as busy as ever. During a recent interview, her grandchildren, Allissa Firsova’s two boys, can be heard roaming around at their home in Munich, Germany.
Mrs. Firsova did not come from a musical family but rather from a scientific one.
“My father was a well-known scientist and my cousins as well. I began to compose little piece when I was nine years old,” she recalls, pointing out that she enrolled in the Moscow Conservatory at the age of 13 in 1970. It was here that she would eventually meet her husband.
Smirnov in contrast came from a family of opera singers but studied composition at the Conservatory from 1967-1972.
“At the time, all students were supposed to follow the style of Soviet composers Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), but we,” a reference made to herself and her husband, “were influenced by the Second Vienna School,” she explains.
Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951), whose life and legacy we have covered nearby, influenced his students such as Alban Berg (1885-1935), Anton Webern (1883-1945) and Hanns Eisler (1898-1962).
These composers are commonly referred to as the Second Viennese School.Their music wasn’t considered acceptable by the Soviet Union, she points out, but quips: “Because it was forbidden fruit, it was interesting for the young people at the time. [The French composer] Pierre Boulez’s (1925-2016) music was even more forbidden.”
Smirnov and his wife sought to break away from Rachmaninoff and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) music as they were drawn to contemporary Russian music.
At the same time, she prefaces, even though “those in charge didn’t like our music, we were not deprived from musical life.”
From 1979 and onwards, their music began to be performed in Western Europe from where they would receive commissions, which, Firsova points out, the Soviet Union did not like.
Discussing her music collaboration with her husband, Firsova reveals that they went in the same direction. “Our music reflects art and beauty,” she says, adding that once Smirnov died he had left an extensive musical legacy behind which include some 200 works, including three symphonies; concertos; chamber music and string music.
Firsova’s own Piano Concerto No. 1 was premiered last year by pianist extraordinaire Yefim Bronfman with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the baton of Jakub Hruša. For it, she found inspiration from the Russian poet Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) and a motif from Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).
Although Filip Firsov didn’t become a musician – even though he can play the piano by ear – he found his calling as a painter and sculptor instead. The three family members continue to collaborate, his sister reveals.
Recently, they have collaborated on a theme from Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)’s Divine Comedy where the mother and sister provided the music, and he the art.