Saturday, 1 February 2014

Professor Alexander Ivashkin 1948-2014

The cellist and musicologist Alexander Ivashkin died last night at the tragically early age of 65. Sasha was one of the most important champions of Russian music in the West, and promoted the music he loved with phenomenal energy and enthusiasm: performing it, writing about it, and encouraging others to do the same. He was an inspiring teacher as well, and many of his pupils, myself included, owe him a great deal, not only for the knowledge he imparted, but also his infectious enthusiasm, and, equally importantly, the opportunities he found or created for others to make music and to make a living out of it.
I first met Sasha in 2000. He had just moved to the UK to take up a chair at Goldsmiths. He was exactly the man the college was looking for: Russian music and performance studies were (and still are) two of the department’s greatest strengths, and he was able to take over the running of both. My plan was to do a PhD on the music of Schnittke, and I too had come to the right place; not only was Schnittke Sasha’s favourite subject, but he was also unquestionably the world authority on the composer’s music.
Over the following seven years (I take full responsibility for my slow progress), Sasha guided me patiently through my research. He felt very strongly that cultural barriers between East and West led to misunderstandings about Russian culture, and led to great Russian works being sidelined elsewhere. So to study Schnittke with him was to study the cultural context in which the composer worked (and few composers have incorporated their cultural context into their music as comprehensively or as successfully as Schnittke). Within a few months of our first meeting, he had organised a trip for me to Moscow and St Petersburg, armed with a list of phone numbers and addresses of key figures in the Russian musical establishment. I’m very lucky now to have many professional contacts and close friends in Russia, all thanks ultimately to Sasha. He was equally passionate about promoting younger musicians and scholars from Russia, and using his contacts in the West to provide them with opportunities. One of my close Russian friends, who is now an established academic is St Petersburg, told me this morning that he and many of his colleagues owe everything to Ivashkin.
Sasha had clear ideas about what was worthwhile and what was not worthwhile, musically speaking. If he was enthusiastic about, say, the work of a young composer, he would immediately find ways to promote it. If their music was for cello, he would perform it. If it wasn’t for cello, he’d persuade them to arrange it. Similarly, promising young scholars would find themselves invited to present their work at high profile seminars, would be introduced to his many contacts in the world of academic publishing, and would be presented with all sorts of imaginative ideas about possible funding ideas for their research projects.
But if something was not worthwhile, he’d make sure you knew. On one occasion I went to a masterclass he was giving for undergraduates at RCM on the Schnittke Piano Trio. He took to the stage and began his introductory address. Then he spotted me, trying to look inconspicuous at the back of the hall, stopped mid-sentence and shouted out “Gavin, what are you doing here? You’re wasting your time.” Er, right, hello Sasha. Nice to see you too. I wasn’t wasting my time, of course, and learnt a great deal about the work that afternoon, even if he assumed I knew it all already.
Sasha was very generous in his professional dealings, but liked to keep his private life private. The name “Sasha” was his one concession to familiarity, and nobody who knew him personally referred to him any other way. But his desire, and ability, to keep his long illness private attests to a certain personal distance between himself and his colleagues.
There was always warmth, though, in any personal contact with him. When I learnt of his illness, around September last year, I sent a card, and he responded with what were clearly heartfelt thanks. He wasn’t much of a facebooker, but anything he did post was usually about things that mattered. I remember putting up a picture of our daughter Elsa the day she was born, and a comment immediately appearing beneath “Congratulations. Big Russian hugs to you all.”
Some of Sasha’s thinking was very Russian, so much so that it could be hard, from a Western perspective, to find a common point of reference. He was a big believer in numerology, in numbers and dates being auspicious or having particular significance. He and I have a book in press, Schnittke Studies, to which he contributed an article entitled “The Schnittke Code”. The reference to Dan Brown is entirely deliberate. I spoke to him one autumn a few years back when he’d just come back from a holiday where he’d read The Da Vinci Code. I don’t think he really rated it, but he said that its popularity demonstrated that Westerners were just as interested in numerology, codes, and esoteric/religious significances as were Russians, just less able to admit the fact.
Similarly, Sasha’s “Schnittke Code” examines Klingende Buchstaben, a work Schnittke wrote for him, in terms of the hidden numbers and messages within the notes. Some of it seems quite fanciful, especially the claim that Schnittke predicts the age at which he would die in codes that are embedded in the music. But it didn’t seem fanciful to Sasha, and nor would it, I suspect, to Schnittke himself.
Much of Sasha’s writing on Schnittke concerns the consequences of the composer’s ill-health, a topic that neither Schnittke nor any of his advocates could ignore in the last 10 or 15 years of his life. Both Schnittke and Sasha read much into the parallels between the composer’s last years and those of Adrian Leverkühn, the (anti?)hero of Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus. From that perspective, Schnittke’s decline and early death could be seen as the playing out of some kind of fate. Whether we accept that or not, Schnittke’s death at the age of just 63 was clearly a very great tragedy for the music world. And now Sasha too has left us at a similarly young age, living just two years longer. Perhaps his is the death predicted in Klingende Buchstaben. I’m sure both men would have warmed to that idea, not that it makes the loss any easier to bear.
RIP Sasha. This is how I’ll remember you best:


  1. Oh, Gavin, I am so, so sad to hear of this - from you first (I'm in Reykjavik and feel quite alone with the grief). I knew Sasha was ill, and have twice replaced him at events, but couldn't get out of him what was the matter and decided to leave well alone. I loved his company and his lightness of touch; I always marvelled at his perfect English and style, especially in his Schnittke book; and I'll never forget his demonstration of why Prokofiev's Symphony Concerto was easier to play than its original, the First Cello Concerto.

    Your tribute is note perfect and the choice of the Peer Gynt epilogue absolute perfection. I also remember Sasha's analogy of the end of the Symphony Concerto as the soloist flying into heaven through the narrowest of entrances.

    Thank you.

  2. Thank you David. Yes, he had a real gift for those lecture/recitals didn’t he. Just thinking back, the last time I heard him play, and possibly his last ever public appearance, was in the Prokofiev Op. 58, in St Petersburg last Spring. A very fine performance.

  3. Gavin, thank you so much for sharing your memories of Sasha. He will be greatly missed by so many friends & colleagues. I have good memories of our meal: you, me, Natasha & Sasha, together in St Petersburg in May 2013.

  4. Thanks Gabriel. Yes that was a good evening. It was the last time I saw Sasha too.

  5. Very sad to hear the news. I was at Goldsmiths from 2003-06. Sasha was tremendously helpful with my (minor) research on Giya Kancheli, fixing up meetings with the composer. And I remember a solo recital he did in college - a semiprivate affair in the college, as a run-through before I think a Wigmore concert - of one of the Bach suites (No 3, I think). He took daring risks that you probably wouldn't on a public stage - it was genuinely breathtaking. He was quite blunt about my own performing skills - with complete justification! - though always with good humour. So when I got a text from him after one performance congratulating me, I was delighted. RIP Sasha. Very sadly missed, fondly remembered.

  6. I am so saddened at this news. As a testimony to his generous and wide-reaching perspectives, he had agreed to work on a recital of Mary Seacole (libretto by SuAndi) as a project centring black British classical music in conjunction with a cultural event I was planning in this field at Goldsmiths. If it can ever go ahead, his initial enthusiasm will be remembered.

  7. Thank you for this, Gavin. Sad news, indeed. He had such vitality, such energy. A dynamic and creative force.The Centre for Russian Music, Goldsmiths and beyond have lost a shining light. RIP, Sasha.

  8. In the photograph at the top of the page, Sasha is sitting with his cello I made back in 1993. He played it often in his contemporary programmes. For me it has always been an honour and a privilege to have been able, in some way, to participate in his music making. He will be missed by all who were touched by his life and music. Bruce Carlson