A Golden-Mouthed Choral Tradition: Russia’s Music of Praise
By Thomas May
You may have heard an interesting bit of music news that was announced last month by Santa Fe Opera: the commissioning of a new opera that’s being written by California-based composer Mason Bates. Examining the life of one of the most significant innovators of our time, this new work will be titled The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.
The wordplay of the title exploits an ambiguity about how we got to the tech-dependent era in which we now find ourselves. The evolution/revolution dynamic drives a narrative that also pertains to much of the past century, when the myth of regular, steady progress extolled by Western civilization since the Enlightenment gave way to a new age of unsettling, rapid, often violent change.
In few areas has the tension between longstanding tradition and cataclysmic revolution played a more dramatic role than in the history of cultural expression in Russia. Along with the First World War that framed it, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 marks a radical dividing line — as abrupt as traveling across multiple time zones in a single flight. The transformation of the Russian Empire into the Soviet Union had a particularly devastating impact on the tradition of sacred choral music, not long after a fresh impetus from composers like Grechaninov and Rachmaninoff — a movement known as the New Russian Choral School — had begun revitalizing that tradition.
We open this program — and the new season — with music by a figure who straddles the revolutionary divide: the long-lived Alexander Grechaninov (1864-1956), who was mentored by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The Cherubic Hymn is taken from Grechaninov’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom No. 2, Op. 29 (1902), which, according to choral composer/historian Nick Strimple, embodies “a significant evolution in musical styles, a link between the sacred works of Tchaikovsky and those of Rachmaninoff” [see sidebar].
The Cherubic Hymn refers to the angelic order and to the moment when the worshipers surrender their ordinary cares to enter into mystical union with the transcendent; the chanting is intended to induce an atmosphere of contemplation of the eternal such that the experience of normal time itself is transformed. The effect has often been likened to that associated with Orthodox icons.
Artistic Director Grant Gershon explains that The Cherubic Hymn serves as an anchor for our program — we will also hear settings of this hymn by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff on the second half — much as O Magnum Mysterium did for the Master Chorale’s Rejoice! program last season.
Grechaninov was a relatively late starter as a composer. He was also a bit later than his colleagues to abandon the Soviet Union, resettling in the West in 1925 and eventually becoming an American citizen. With the Soviet prohibition against sacred music — a modern form of iconoclasm, if you will — those who stayed behind (or returned, like Prokofiev) took up secular and patriotic themes if they wanted their choral music to be performed in public; otherwise they were forced to go underground.
Sofia Gubaidulina came of age in the officially atheist culture of Soviet Communism but converted to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1970, thus formalizing a fascination with religion that dated back to her childhood. Born in 1931, she grew up in the crossroads city of Kazan on the Volga River in the Tatar Republic. Her talent was recognized with scholarships until she ran afoul of official aesthetic doctrines. Gubaidulina faced censure at home while her work was becoming increasingly valued in the West, until she emigrated and resettled in Germany after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Dmitri Shostakovich gave the young composer life-changing advice: “Don’t be afraid to be yourself. My wish for you is that you should continue on your own, incorrect path.” Gubaidulina’s art fuses her arrestingly original voice with a sense of music’s ancient, sacred function. Her works trace an ongoing spiritual-musical odyssey in which issues of sonority and the specific technical challenges posed by each composition are inextricably linked to larger philosophical and even mystical layers of meaning. For Gubaidulina, the composer’s calling involves nothing less than to attempt “the recomposition of spiritual integrity through the composition of music.”
The Canticle of the Sun dates from near the end of the last century and was written to celebrate the 70th birthday of Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007). In her description of the piece (which lasts about 36 minutes), Gubaidulina calls him “the greatest cellist of the 20th century” and points out that the Canticle “is connected in its nature and character with his personality, which in my imagination is perpetually lit up by the sun, by sunlight, by sunny energy.”
Although Gubaidulina turns here to a Western religious text — the beautiful prayer of thanks and praise for Creation by Saint Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226) — her approach is consistent with the attitude of humility toward the words found in the Orthodox sacred music tradition. In her understanding of the music appropriate to Francis’s text, writes the composer, “under no circumstances should the expression of this canticle be intensified by music” or be “ultra-refined, ostentatiously complicated, or exaggeratedly overburdened. This is the glorification of the Creator and His Creation by a very humble, simple Christian friar.”
Gershon likens the spirit of deep devotion in this music to Messiaen: “It exudes a spirituality that requires Gubaidulina to find new means of expressing the inexpressible. Even though the techniques she employs are unorthodox, the totality of the experience is sensuous and deeply appealing sonically.”
As the composer elucidates, the Canticle of the Sun unfolds in four sections or episodes corresponding to Glorification of the Creator of the sun and moon (episode one) and of the four elements of air, water, fire and earth (episode two); and Glorification of Life (episode three, the longest) and of Death (episode four). Characteristically, Gubaidulina calls for unusual playing techniques and a symbolic division of labor among the playing forces that adds a layer of theatrical ritual to the performance.
The choir of 24 singers (each of the four voice parts subdivided into as many as six on a part) takes on a “very restrained” and “even secretive” role, while “all the expression” is relegated to the solo cellist and two percussionists. “The choral participants very often are the ones who respond to this expression,” writes Gubaidulina. After a choral outburst in luminous D major and a quieter passage, the cellist is instructed to keep retuning the instrument’s lowest string until he “abandons” the cello and turns to the percussion instruments. Playing glissandi on a flexatone to elicit responses from the chorus, he resumes playing the cello, ascending to its ethereal heights.
Tchaikovsky’s colleagues in St. Petersburg set themselves the goal of establishing an authentically Russian style in concert music and opera. Russia’s indigenous choral tradition — evolved and reinvented over the centuries from Byzantine chants brought over from Constantinople following the conversion to Christianity in the late tenth century — had in the meantime absorbed Western influences of its own, in particular through the contributions of singers from the Ukraine and Polish lands who imported aspects of the styles being developed by Italian and German composers.
The prohibition against the use of instruments in sacred music, according to Johann von Gardner’s history Russian Church Singing, stems from the belief that “by its nature [music without words] is incapable of [the] unambiguous expression of [sung words]” and “can only express and evoke the emotional element”; moreover, the obvious links between instrumental forms and dance made them unsuitable for the church. (So much for Bach!)
Tchaikovsky caused a backlash when he decided to set the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in 1878. The attitude of “untouchability” regarding Russia’s sacred music had helped dissuade “modern” composers from coming near. Ironically, Tchaikovsky’s motivation to take on what he called “a still hardly touched field of activity” was to offset the recent influences of officially approved composers and write music that would be more “harmonious with the Byzantine style of architecture and icons, with the entire structure of the Orthodox service.” Not unlike the coming century of Soviet scolds, however, the gatekeepers of music for church worship held a tight rein on what was allowed; they accused Tchaikovsky of wanting to draw on this material merely “for his musical inspiration…as historical events and folk songs and legends are taken…the libretto for his sacred opera.” It is, however, accurate to point out that Tchaikovsky (and following his lead, other Russian composers) mined the treasury of Russian chant for themes that could be used in secular instrumental works.
Tchaikovsky’s publisher ended up engaging in a significant lawsuit that opened the way for sacred pieces to be performed outside the church (at home or in public, as biographer Roland John Wiley points out). In any event, the 15-number setting of the Liturgy that Tchaikovsky composed represents, according to Wiley, a “counter-Italian aesthetic for Orthodox polyphony: mostly syllabic, simple-texture, mostly in four parts, with little or no repetition, and observing proper verbal accent.” Along with The Cherubic Hymn, we hear the hymn used at the conclusion of the consecration of bread and wine (No. 10) and the Communion Hymn (No. 14), which features the score’s “most elaborate counterpoint” (Wiley).
Like Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff faced accusations that his music for sacred liturgy would “distract” from the purpose of worship — though the current popularity of these works implies quite the opposite, in the sense that, aside from specific religious usage, many today find in this music a call to mindfulness, to a sense of wonder beyond the ordinary world. Another irony: Rachmaninoff’s reputation was long burdened by the charge that he was an old-fashioned Romantic who failed to come to terms with the modern era, yet the complaint lodged by Orthodox authorities accused him of tainting the sacred words with “modernist” expression. It’s worth recalling that the stark dividing line of the Bolshevik Revolution has its counterpart in the attitude of radical Modernism, with its desire for a complete break with the past — and Rachmaninoff was fated to run up against both at the height of his career.
Also like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff published music for two of the Orthodox Church’s major worship services: the first
was his own version — while imitating the archaic idiom — of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (Op. 31, from 1910), while the other (again, taking an approach similar to that of Tchaikovsky) comprises a setting of the All-Night Vigil (Op. 37, from 1915) that relies on authentic chant sources as the basis for most of its numbers. For the latter, only about one-third of the canticle melodies are Rachmaninoff’s own invention, though for variety he drew on different types of chant that had evolved over the centuries.
Also (misleadingly) known as the Vespers, the All-Night Vigil encompasses prayers used for other parts of the liturgy of the hours (including Matins and Prime). These texts from the Psalms and Gospels as well as Orthodox hymns are part of a lengthy Orthodox liturgical service used on the eves of major feast days such as the Nativity of Jesus. Nos. 3 and 6 (familiar to Westerners in its form as the Ave Maria) are freely composed and thus the exception to the rule here; they demonstrate Rachmaninoff’s stated aim to write “a conscious counterfeit of the ritual.” By contrast, No. 8 hearkens back to the fluid melody of the most-ancient form of chant (znamenny), dating from the Byzantine era.
We turn again to Alexander Grechaninov for a pair of selections from his Passion Week (Op. 58) of 1911-12, which culls a variety
of texts and prayers used not for one particular service but drawn from the entire seven days of the Passion leading to Easter. Set to Old Church Slavonic, Grechaninov’s sequence of 13 individual pieces — and clearly intended for performance outside the church setting — represent a high point of the New Russian Choral School that was soon to be suppressed by the new Soviet State.
No. 1 involves the parable of the Bridegroom and the Wise and Foolish virgins (also familiar from Bach’s Wachet auf cantata), while in the extraordinarily moving No. 11 comes a promise of the Resurrection as Jesus comforts his grieving mother while still lying in the tomb. Gershon remarks that these are emblematic of Grechaninov’s style, showcasing how beautifully he orchestrates for the choir, which makes for an interesting comparison with Rachmaninoff’s similarly coloristic palette of choral sonorities.
Andrei Ilyashenko (1884–1954), still another composer of the vast Russian diaspora, had begun solidifying a reputation with his sacred music before the Russian Revolution disrupted his path, and he ended up teaching music in Brussels. We Should Choose to Love Silence from 1922 is a “sacred concerto” for the service celebrating the Nativity and incorporates freely composed melodies that imitate chant style, along with a remarkable choral harmonic language.
Despite the outwardly austere restrictions of the mandatory a cappella medium, prismatic choral colors permeate Rachmaninoff’s setting of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (20 movements in all). For this composer, Russia’s choral tradition triggered Proustian associations of his boyhood in a country from which he would later find himself in exile. As a boy, Rachmaninoff recalled, “We spent long hours standing in the beautiful St. Petersburg churches. Being only a young greenhorn, I took less interest in God and religious worship
than in the singing, which was of unrivaled beauty, especially
in the choirs…”
— Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.
The St. John Chrysostom Liturgy
The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is the
standard ritual of worship in the Russian Orthodox Church — the counterpart to the Western Latin Mass — as opposed to the special rituals reserved for feast days. St. John Chrysostom was a fourth-century Church Father reputed for his stern reforms as well as his eloquence (“Chrysostom,” from the Greek, means “golden-mouthed”). Within this framework, The Cherubic Hymn is a short hymn used to introduce the consecration ritual (the Eucharistic liturgy in the West): it accompanies the “Great Entrance” during which the offerings of bread and wine are transported by the priest to the altar table.