Just in: Death of an immense composer

Just in: Death of an immense composer


norman lebrecht

October 02, 2019

Giya Kancheli, one of the foremost composers of the late Soviet era, died today in a Tbilisi hospital. He was 85.

Kancheli came to attention in 1973 with a third symphony that is bookended by a wordless tenor voice at either end. His music was original, lyrical, unfailingly moving. The sixth symphony of 1981 was probably his greatest success. He wrote seven, in all.

After the collapse of the USSR, Kancheli moved to Berlin, then on to Antwerp, where he was composer in residence with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. After 2008, he refused to visit Russia, a protest against Putin’s brief war upon his country.

Kurt Masur and Yuri Temirkanov performed his works in New York and Philadelphia but he never achieved the consistent exposure required to be considered as regular concert fare. Like Mieczyslaw Weinberg, his time will come.

UPDATE: Kremer mourns.


  • batonbaton says:

    Indeed, his time will come. For those of us who have given his music the time it deserves, it already has. RIP.

  • double-sharp says:

    [[ he refused to visit Russia, a protest against Putin’s brief war upon his country. ]]

    A war which was started by the unprompted bombardment of Tskhinval by American-backed/funded warlords in Tbilisi. An independent EU Inquiry concifmed this.

    • Part of America’s long-term, grand strategy is to take control of all the countries on the southern flank of Russia. We will thus be taking a lot more interest in the “culture” of these countries, especially in cases where we cannot invade and control them through military force. The culture of countries like, Georgia and the Ukraine, will thus become of increasing interest, even though these countries had heretofore hardly registered on American consciousness.

      • john Borstlap says:

        What is often forgotten when mentioning ‘American expansion’, is the motivation to offer the benefits of the free world to areas which have suffered terribly under totalitarian regimes. In almost all of such areas, populations look with longing and envy to the free world, where people are struggling with, in their eyes, luxury problems. When regimes of countries like Russia and China are complaining about being ‘encircled by hostile forces’, their real fear is that their populations may rebel against their control. Whatever the mistakes of countries of the West, this distinction between free societies and totalitarian ones lies in the background of conflicts surrounding totalitarian nations.

        • About million dead Iraqis might disagree with you. As a rule, US invasions and manipulations of countries have very little to do with democracy or prosperity and usually end in just the opposite. The Chinese government has lifted about one billion people out of poverty. I seriously doubt that the USA or any government it might have imposed could have done that.

          • john Borstlap says:

            As I have understood it, the mistake of the Iraq invasion – like the Lybian one – was the lack of a follow-up ‘marshall plan’ which left a vacuum, soon filled by the worst of local scum. The decadence and materialism of the West, its failing to understand its own civilisation and ideals, is a constant reminder of its fragility, but not of the meaning of its central ideas. In Russia and China, as in much of other parts of the globe, there are no human rights.

            Excuses of communist regimes for their ‘economic achievements’, over the corpses of millions of their own civilians, is a typical trait of the salon left who consider these consequences as mere ‘collateral damage’. The double standards of leftish historiography are notoriously unrealistic.

          • Your view is astoundingly naive, especially for a European. Given the much better news coverage and analyse in Europe, I can only assume that you are willfully ignoring the facts. It is now firmly established that the second invasion of Iraq was based on obvious lies. And far from a Marshall Plan, the US exploited sectarian divisions to create civil war to further weaken the country.

            In the USA, the Neo-Cons who promoted the war also promoted conservative, concepts of art. (The Neo-Cons ideas of Harold Bloom about literature were transferred to similar concepts about music.) Interesting that a Dutch person has so strongly subscribed to these American views. It’s little wonder that you complain of being isolated in Europe.

          • john Borstlap says:

            Of course the neocons were and are a terrible lot. As I have understood, the original plan to liberate Iraqi people from a cruel dictator who gassed his own people, who invaded neighbouring countries, who threatened Israel, etc. etc. was morally defensible, and not a ‘naive excuse’ to cover-up totalitarian aggression. That incompetent neocon people got their hands on the realisation process, was a terrible tragedy, who would deny it? My point was the double standards of the left, taking ‘leftish’ crimes very lightly, or not at all, and jumping upon any misdeed ‘from the other camp’ as the ultimate demonstration of Evil, as if the capacity for crime on a grand scale was merely a matter of political theory, instead of the sorry capacity of the human species in general – independent from party lines. The blindness of both conservative reactionaries and fanatic lefties for their own failures to understand civilisational values and what a ‘free society’ actually means, is quite depressing, and a negative influence upon the arts.

            And by the way, I’m not isolated at all in Europe, only in Holland, which is, in fact, a compliment.

          • william osborne says:

            I’m very late in catching up with this, but there are ironies in the numbers you site that say much about your perspectives. Saddam gassed 5000, so the USA went in a created a war and its consequences which have cost about a million lives. And of course, Holland is not at all isolated in the EU of its condemnation of this.

          • Max Raimi says:

            Um, unless I missed several news cycles, the US has not invaded any of the former Soviet republics. Mr. Borstlap was originally responding to your rather bizarre comment claiming an imperialist motive for any interest we may show in worthy and beautiful music such as Kanchelli’s. I wholeheartedly agree with you that the Iraq invasion was a catastrophe that no “Marshall Plan” could have saved.

      • double-sharp says:

        Next time I want the State Department’s official PR release, William, I will download it directly from their site.

  • Eric says:

    V sad news. A wonderful composer. Heartbreakingly beautiful music. BTW I think he was actually 84, not 85.

  • john Borstlap says:

    Kancheli had the courage to explore tonality and expression in a period when this was taboo. But only composers from Eastern Europe were ‘allowed’ to reject Western ‘modernity’, since they were considered ‘not modern’ anyway – in the eyes of Western ‘tastemakers’ they had an excuse, like Shostakovich. The success in the West of composers like Pärt and Kancheli was quite a surprise. It was followed by composers in the West like the British John Tavener, who styled himself as a Greek hermit. All as a reaction to Western sterility.

    The two pieces as vented in the above videos however, I find that there is a wide gap between the loaden pathos and any musical substance. Maybe other pieces of his are better?

  • Gregor Tassie says:

    I first became acquainted with Kancheli’s music when his symphonies were issued by Olympia in the 1980s. I was there too at Fairfield Hall Croydon when his Fifth Symphony was given its UK premiere by his great friend Jansug Kakhidze conducting the Georgian SSO. The performance was broadcast on Radio 3. He was a very quietly spoken man and I enjoyed several conversations with him and his musicologist wife. He toured with the orchestra and I recall the Fifth was also played in Birmingham and Glasgow in 1991. He was a great composer and most certainly he will be appreciated as one of the greatest composers.

  • Mathias Broucek says:

    A wonderful composer. Gramophone did an article on post-Soviet symphonies a while back which prompted me to try his music and I was very greatful to have discovered it.

    I hope you are right about his time coming, but Tubin’s still hasn’t, sadly….

  • Karl says:

    One of my favorite concerts was when the Ottawa Choral Society and Ottawa Symphony played Kancheli’s Styx for viola chorus and orchestra. That was back in 2014. I hope we get to hear more of his works in concert.

  • Rob says:

    Oh No! That 5th Symphony is mind blowing.

  • Christopher Culver says:

    Anyone know why ECM stopped recording Kancheli regularly? Was there a falling out between Manfred Eicher and the composer, or did Eicher’s tastes simply change over time (which is understandable when the man has been running his label for half a century now)?

  • Edgar Self says:

    What a charming photograph. Is the young girl perhaps Kancheli’s grand-daughter? I hope so.

  • Max Raimi says:

    More than 20 years ago we performed “Trauerfarbenes Land” at the Chicago Symphony. The material was so spare that it took me quite a while to grasp what he was doing; I actually hated the piece during most of the rehearsal process. But by the time we performed it, I was completely under its spell. I have no idea why we have never played anything else he wrote.