We’ve lost a composer who saw heaven in a wild flower

I am taking Dmitri Smirnov’s death from Coronavirus very personally.

Born in the same year, we knew each other for three decades, ever since I published a front-page lead in a Sunday newspaper on the generation of Russian composers who were seeking asylum in Britain. The story was reprinted here in the Los Angeles Times.

A Cabinet Minister, David Mellor, responded, enabling the Smirnovs to obtain residency papers. They settled happily. I would bump into them at concerts and festivals, always with mutual pleasure. And now, in a matter of days, Dima is gone. Last week, he was posting hopeful pictures from behind an oxygen mask. Hard to accept.

Over the years, I sometimes wondered why he settled here. The music establishment was not welcoming to Russian masters. With his great knowledge and gifts, Dima could surely have obtained a position at an American university or music organisation. But whenever I met him he reminded me of his undying love of Shakespeare and, especially, William Blake. From his home in St Albans he dreamed of England’s green and pleasant land. He could ‘see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour’. He was resilient and optimistic and positive. And now he’s been taken by the plague.

I’m going outside for a few minutes to swear.

Let me list a few of his successes. The conductors who performed his works include Riccardo Muti, Andrew Davis, Peter Eötvös, Oliver Knussen, Vassily Sinaisky, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Gunther Schuller, and Yan Pascal Tortelier. He was published by Boosey & Hawkes and Sikorski, and recorded on several labels. His chamber music was gaining cult status on the fringes of UK music. He was a seriously good composer and he was widely loved. He taught at Goldsmiths alongside my late friend Sasha Ivashkin. He never sold his soul.

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  • A beautiful tribute to dearest Dima – heaven in a wild flower indeed. Hard to accept he has been snatched from us. It’s touching to see this video of the happiest of nights, his 70th birthday concert were many of his friends came together. This 3rd violin sonata, using as Berg does Bach’s ‘es ist genug’ is a terrific piece that everyone should play. Last time we met was in Cheltenham in late January when Alissa and I and their dear friend Anatol Lieberman played the Beethoven Tripple, of course Dima was as warm, sweet and generous as always. When Dima and Elena would come to concerts Alissa and I gave I’d always be so happy to see them, share stories, eat and drink – and I’d be a little nervous knowing they where in the audience, Dima listened with such total intensity and concentrating, but would always find something adorable to say after. I miss him and so do many❤️

  • I too have taken Dmitri’s death very personally. I didn’t know him well; when I met him he was always part of a bigger group – with his wife and daughter and sometimes his son. Sometimes it was after a concert in which the supremely talented daughter, Alissa, had played. They were lovely people and I felt much affection for them and him. I still study at Goldsmiths College, but was never, sadly, taught by him. I narrowly missed being taught by Sasha Ivashkin, but his final illness had started to take hold. At Sasha’s funeral, of course, Dmitri and his family were there, in a sombre affair conducted entirely in Russian. Dmitri’s passing will be mourned by all who came in contact with him. Described in an announcement from Goldsmiths written by another friend of the family and fellow-composer, Prof. Roger Redgate, as “… an engaging, charming man and an inspiration to all those who knew him. He was a fine composer and teacher, who made a big impression on our students and the [Music] department generally.”

  • Dmitri was one of that special band of musicians who was not only a unique and fine composer but also a very special, generous and charismatic human being. I was very privileged to have conducted a small work by him at St John’s Smith Square several years ago and he was a total delight. He will be much missed. Great article Norman – thanks so much.

  • I knew him only briefly, but despite the cold way I was severed from that world, I have always recalled Dima as laughing and teasing. Despite coming from a totally different world, he was incredibly open spirited and without his playfulness the World is a darker place.
    One could see that Elena and Dmitri still loved each other deeply, how her frequently stoic expression would melt away. I remember in the brief time I knew them, that they went from being engaged on their second date to an enduring affection, the image of them having grown old together was unquestionably what I wanted in my relationship at the time.
    I feel great sorrow for Alissa and Phillip but, most of all Elena as I cannot bear the thought of her in Marshalswick walking the paths without him.
    I will always remember his humor, and open spirit.

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