violin, piano, mixed percussion.
[Program Note, October 2012]
Sakharoviana is a reflection on the life and legacy of Soviet physicist and human-rights advocate Andrei Sakharov. The topic was chosen by percussionist Scott Eddlemon, who commissioned the work for performance on the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra’s Isotone Concert Series (winter 2013). Isotone presents concerts focused on the intersection of music and physics: thus the present topic.
Though he is noted for his work on developing the hydrogen bomb for the Soviet Union, Sakharov is also remembered for his persistent support of human rights in the face of Soviet persecution and exile. He has been admired for his wisdom, which involved “not just thinking but acting, not just intellect but character.” Such character included unusual integrity, passion, humility in the search for truth, a marked lack of hatred and bitterness, perseverance in his commitments, listening to others without imposing his own views, joy in close relationships, warm hospitality, and enduring hopefulness even amidst dire circumstances. It seems likely that his mother, Eskaterina, an Orthodox believer, had a profound formative influence on her young son’s character, even though he left the church at the age of 13 to follow his father’s example of humanism and atheism.
Sakharov pursued the development of the hydrogen bomb with good intentions, convinced that doing so would preserve the balance of power between the Soviet Union and the United States and thus promote peace. Over time, he began to see a stark difference between the Soviet constitution and the “unwritten ideological rules” imposed by the communist ruling elite (which undoubtedly offended his sense of integrity). He became involved in using his status and influence to promote human rights within the Soviet Union, and was known for compassionately helping anyone who came to him. The Soviet state could not openly condemn him, because of his position and status in the scientific world, but it did subject him to covert persecution and even a period of internal exile. Nevertheless, he continued to further the cause of peace, arguing that “the division of mankind threatens its destruction”. When the dangers of nuclear testing became evident, Sakharov advocated the partial test ban, which was enacted in 1963—incidentally, the year of his mother’s death. Sakharov died peacefully in 1989, suffering a heart attack while resting before the delivery of a speech.
Sakharoviana is cast in five movements, each exploring a dimension of the physicist’s story. The first, Eskaterina, is a meditation on the source of his character, evoked by reference to a Lutheran chorale known in American hymnals as “If Thou but Suffer God to Guide Thee.” This tune figures in the balance of the work in various guises. The second movement, Balance of Power, is a bald evocation of the race to develop the hydrogen bomb, casting opposing figures in an active dialogue marked by mounting anxiety and bewildering detonations. Tokamak follows with a different kind of balance. Its name comes from the geometry of a fusion reactor Sakharov helped design. The musical texture emulates the reactor’s doughnut-shaped electromagnetic field with particles spiraling within it, striving to maintain the precarious balance of containing a restless fusion reaction. The fourth movement takes its title from a phrase Sakharov used repeatedly: “The truth is never simple”. The rhythmic framework incorporates an approximation of pi, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter—a simple geometric relationship whose numerical value is beyond rational account. The last movement, In Memoriam Eskaterina, revisits and transforms the meditation of the opening, musically pondering God’s gracious gifts of good character to the world.