Composer, who are thee? – The Russians love him: Lantuat Nguen

Listed in the Russian Composer’s Union as a Russian composer, Lantuat Nguen (Nguyễn Lân Tuất) is author of numerous vocal and instrumental works and five symphonies, the latter being his main stream of creativity. His music has received highest acclaims from critics as possessing the natural combination of classical tradition and modern language. Even for those unfamiliar with classical music, listening to Lantuat’s symponies for the first time will bring their emotions to the surface.

At 15, Lantuat joined the army to fight against the French in 1950 and learned to play the guitar from friends. He later worked with other musicians at the Vietnamese Radio Station. There, recognized for his musical talent, Lantuat was sent to the former Soviet Union (USSR) to study in 1959. Shortly after that, in 1961, he received order to go back to Việt Nam for an “intellectual re-education” – something he refused to do. Back then Việt Nam was bouncing between China and the Soviet Union for support and solidarity, and it shifted temporarily to China in 1961. Thus the order to recall Lantuat from the Soviet Union. Understandably, Lantuat’s rebellion earned him the reputation of a “traitor” in Việt Nam and he was banned from coming back home. Meanwhile in the Soviet Union, Lantuat was transferred from Kiev to Lvov State Conservatory, Ukraine, to be out of sight of the Vietnamese students in Kiev. Lantuat was not allowed to visit Việt Nam until 1989.

In 2001, Lantuat is the first and only Vietnamese to have received the title of “Honored Artist of the Russian Federation” presented to him by Vladimir Putin. He is obviously a well-known name in the Russian classical music sphere whose music is still in high demand till the present day. He is also a familiar face in Novosibirsk – the third largest city in Russia, population of three million, where he has been living since 1983. Here, even the taxi drivers know who he is. Passers-by would greet him with “Professor.” He has also been awarded “The Order of Friendship” from President D. Medvedev and several Honored Diplomas from the Governor and Mayor of Novosibirsk. In 2010, the city of Novosibirsk organized a concert at the Opera House to celebrate his 75th birthday. On this occasion, the Mayor of Novosibirsk, in place of the Russian President, congratulated him. This was an event that has been repeated earlier on his 60th, 65th, and 70th birthdays.

Now 77, past the retired age, Lantuat continues to teach at the Novosibirsk Music Conservatory where he serves as Deputy Chair of the Composition Department. Lantuat looks much younger for a 77-year old person – a fact Lantuat often jokes about as the result of his being in “the Russian fridge” for fifty years. In addition to that, he is always surrounded by young, beautiful, female musicians who keep him active and young. And the male students? – they are too busy making money somewhere else.

Lantuat is fluent in French and Chinese, and after fifty years living abroad, his Vietnamese is still as pristine as it can be. He speaks with Northern accent and enunciates each word as clearly as it can be. There is no stammering in his speech. There is no rigidity in his flow and style. He can talk about music and composition in Vietnamese as if he is talking about the weather. I interviewed Lantuat via Skype and translated the discussion into English.

Anvi Hoàng: How does a piece of music take shape?

Lantuat Nguen: I really take my time with composing. There are people my age who author hundreds of works. I take time to think, sometimes years. Actual  writing is then pretty fast. The first movement, Adagio, of Symphony N 4, for example, is about my first love. It was 1953 or 1954, I was in the Vietnamese Artillery division, the first of its kind then. I met and fell in love with a singer named Tuấn Hồng from the Performing Troupe. I was 19 and she 15. Then, in 1959 when I went to the Soviet Union to study, we lost contact completely. By accident, I came across her in Sài Gòn in 1989 at the time she was getting ready to immigrate to Australia. Going back to Russia, I finished Adagio overnight. It is, however, one movement in Symphony N 4 titled “To The Faraway Beloved” that I completed in 1995 and dedicated to all the Vietnamese living abroad, myself included. “Adagio” is the contemplation about lives of Vietnamese people abroad. The second movement “Valse” is about my memories of the homeland. The third movement “Di Profundis” is a requiem for those Vietnamese buried under the sea on their search for freedom.

AH: How about inspiration for other pieces?

LN: I compose not only because of urges inside but also because of needs. In 1980 I had an accidental encounter with a Consular at the Vietnamese Embassy to Russia who told me, “There is no way you can go back to Việt Nam and rest your body there.” From this experience, I felt the need to write Symphony N 2 that started and ended with a mezzo-soprano vocal echoing the voice of a mother calling out to her child.

Lantuat, Tết 2012 – Photo courtesy from Lantuat

I am working on Symphony N 5 that is tentatively titled An Artist’s Life. Its first and second movements are complete and have been performed here in Russia. They are about childhood memory and life struggles, respectively. For me, people come into the world, spend their whole life fighting, then come to realize in the end that everything seems to have been arranged for them – they just have to take whatever fate which is dealt to them. As a lazy person, I promise my friends that the symphony will be finish by the time of my 80th birthday anniversary. What I am proud of is not the fact that I can write music, but that I can still write music at this age. For this, I thank God.

AH: For an ordinary person listening to your music, what story is there to look for?

LN: I’ve been here in Russia for fifty years where classical music is an everyday thing, so I’ve never thought about that. On top of that, as a professor of music composition, people listen to my music and they just understand – I never have to explain. I think a composer’s job is to compose, and a musicologist to explain.

AH: Does philosophy have anything to do with music?

LN: I’ve never thought about philosophy in music. Whatever you are, your personality, or your viewpoint, your music is. I don’t think of having to write a piece of music in which philosophy has to be reflected in each movement in someway. For me, music comes from the soul. I am lucky to study with the last student of the ingenious Russian composer [Dmitri] Shostakovich. Whatever I want to write, I can do it. I know of people who want to write music in certain ways but don’t know how to make it happen.

AH: What do you see when you look at the score?

LN: As a composer, I don’t see notes when I look at the score – I hear music. There are those who compose but without really hearing what they write. They write according to the theory, then wait till the music is played out to get the sounds of it, then they correct what they need to.

AH: Is that a skill or a an ability?

LN: It is an ability, but training is also important. You need to practice. I often tell my students to have the scores in front of them as they listen.

AH: How do you use different instruments in a piece: to create beautiful music or to showcase the composer’s and performers’ talents?

LN: In Symphony N 3, there are chanting, gongs and bells sounds. So, there are times when you use instruments to create something specific. According to the Russian tradition, however, specificity oftentimes is primitive. That is why I have some difficulty going to Việt Nam and having to explain what the trumpets are doing and why, for example. The symphony is played by one hundred and twenty musicians, if I have to figure out what each musician is supposed to do, that is like death.

AH: Who gets to decide what is good or bad music?

LN: That is “fate” – meaning time. A lot of composers, [Arnold] Schoenberg [Austrian composer, 1874-1951] is one, were once considered crazy and irrelevant. Now they are hot and important. We must take the matter of time into consideration – what is bad now is not really bad. When Shostakovich [Russian composer, 1906-1975] wrote music back then, nobody understood. Now he is well-known.

My Symphony N2 Motherland composed thirty years ago has been appreciated in Việt Nam. It is my hope and belief that my other pieces will have their time when Việt Nam becomes more advanced in fifty years. I would have felt reassured then, even if in heaven.

AH: Why is it that people understand popular music but not new/classical music?

LN: I have no say (Chịu thôi!) People have to go to new music concerts to learn to appreciate it. In Russia, pupils in elementary schools already know what classical music is. Creating the classical environment is very important. Still, what concerns Russian composers now is the fact that young Russians these days prefer rock and pop over classical music. The Russian government has to spread programs to popularize classical music among young people. Their priorities for the music schools and the professional orchestras are to do everything in their power to attract young people. Even for a country with such a long tradition of classical music, fear of losing young audience to rock and pop music is becoming very real.

AH: Was Mozart a genius? Do we have any “Mozart” in our time?

LN: Mozart is certainly a genius. He was like a musical father to me. What is essential in a composition are the melody and the purest musical soul as present in Mozart’s music. Therefore, his music is timeless.

Of course we have “Mozarts” in our time. Shostakovich is an example among others. However, it is not fair to compare them to great figures in the past like Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, or Wagner. One must remember that the question of whether one is a “Mozart” or not can only be answered a hundred years later. Some composers are not popular now, but in a hundred years they may be the “Mozarts” of the twentieth or twenty first century.

AH: Why do people like Beethoven so much?

LN: Because he got played a lot. If others are not performed, how do we know they exist.

AH: Performing arts are not thought of highly in Vietnam. How did your family react on knowing that you chose music composition?

LN: I often tell people that until 2001 when I received the title of “Honored Artist of the Russian Federation” did my father stop mocking me as “the musician.” Whenever he was interviewed, he would say proudly that all his children were successful professionals, except “one musician.” This is not only a prejudice in Việt Nam but everywhere else in the world where musicians are not appreciated. A music professor’s salary in Russia is only 600 dollars a month … Therefore, those who compose and teach are destined to compose and to teach, they cannot do anything but.

AH: What led you to the musician path?

LN: I was born in January. Right after that, my parents moved to the old imperial capital of Huế in April. Ten years living in Huế – the education, the growing up, the romantic environment there, the river and the mountain in Huế – my artistic inclination, philosophy and viewpoint were formed then. Huế people are romantic and gentle, quite different than Hà Nội people who are dry. I attribute my artistic career to Huế. My soul is still very Huế.


A version of this interview has been published by Vien Dong Daily News. Online Vietnamese version here.

Listen to music by Lantuat.