by Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev (Taneev) (1856- 1915), concert pianist, composer and theoretician, studied under Nicolay Rubinstein, founder of the Moscow Conservatory.
What distinguished Taneyev from his fellow 19th-Century Russian masters was his disapproval of the contemporary nationalist school. He was the most westernized and cosmopolitan of Russian composers. His trips to Paris and throughout Western Europe introduced him to the polyphony not only of J.S. Bach, but to several Renaissance giants. He thus concentrated on the use of counterpoint in his several works, striving to apply its rules to Russian melodies.
The cantata John of Damascus, Opus 1, received its premier in Moscow in 1884. Taneyev utilized sixteen lines from A.K. Tolstoy's long poem of Russian legend on the life of Saint John Damascene, monk and last of the Theologian-Fathers of the Eastern Church. In its four movements John of Damascus in sentiment approximates a dramatic Requiem, having been composed in memory of Nicolay Rubinstein, who died in 1881.
In the first movement for chorus and orchestra, John views himself as a corpse embarking on an unknown journey, walking between fear and hope. He cannot hear his brethren lamenting over him. The chorus repeats in whole or part this descriptive scene rising to a powerful climax as John's remains are enshrouded in sacred incense.
Following immediately without break, the second movement, in Russian a cappella chant and in hushed tones, gives expression to John's love for his monk-brethren. He entreats them to pray to the Lord ("Gospod") as the orchestra tremulously re-enters and with the choir builds to an urgent crescendo on the repeated word "Gospod".
Immediately the vigorous choral-orchestral third movement, entitled significantly Fugue, presents a powerfully dramatic exposition of the words F tot den kigdá trubá vostrúbit mira p?eslavlénya, so similar to a phrase of the Dies Irae of the Latin Requiem Tuba mirum spargens sonum ("the trumpet blaring the wondrous sound"). Taneyev works his music into a tremendous homophonic chorale-like climax on John's words urgently beseeching God to "receive your departed servant into your heavenly abode."
After this stirring climax, there follows immediately the Finale reverting again to Russian liturgical chant repeating in calm peace and confidence the same petition.
Karol Szymanowski (Shimanofski) (1882- 1937) stands as the central figure of Polish music during the first half of the 20th Century. His definitive orientation as a profoundly patriotic Polish composer occurred after the Russian Red Army in 1917 destroyed his ancestral estate in Tymoszowka, Ukraine, and when in 1918 Poland emerged into national independence.
Initially commissioned in Paris in 1921, by the famed patroness Princess de Polignac, to be a sort of Polish or peasant requiem, the Stabat Mater eventually emerged to commemorate the deaths of Szymanowki's grand niece Ala, and Isabella, wife of a friend, Bronislav Kyrtall. In it Szymanowski welded together folk materials coupled to stylized versions of Slavic church music. Here he completed that process he had commenced in the song cycle Slopieswnie, the first deliberate attempt since Chopin to create on a high artistic level a Polish style. Of this great and beautiful composition he noted that "Each man must go back to the earth from which he emerged. Today I have developed into a national composer ... using the melodic treasures of the Polish people."
Stabat Mater utilizes the great medieval Sequence-poem of the Franciscan Jacopone da Todi as broadly translated into Polish by Josef Jankowski. This performance uses the Latin text Szymanowski also provided for wider performance opportunities. With skill he captures the human feelings aroused at the sight of Mary standing at the foot of the Cross. The music fluctuates between powerful drama and poignant sorrow in its movements as the vision of Judgement gives way to the assurance that Christ's victory brings our entrance into the glory of paradise.
It is said of Zoltan Kodály (Ko-dai) (1882- 1967) that no other 20th Century composer showed a greater knowledge of, or devotion to, the choral art. His great Hungarian compatriot Bela Bartók observed that Kodaly's compositions "in the main are characterized by rich melodic invention, a perfect sense of form ... as he strives for inner contemplation. He is a great master of form and possesses striking individuality."
Originally an "organ mass" for that instrument alone, the Missa Brevis premiered in Budapest's Saint Stephen's Cathedral in 1942. In 1944, Kodály transformed it into a liturgically sublime composition for chorus and organ. This version premiered in 1945 in the cloak room of the Budapest Opera House as Soviet guns pounded the city's German garrison. After another performance in 1945 in Belfast, Kodály orchestrated it for the 1948 performance he conducted at the Three Choirs Festival in England. The Mass's significant sub-title "In Time of War" (shades of Haydn) offers insight into the spirit of the work with its intense and urgent plea for peace embodied in the beauties of the Dona nobis pacem movement.
After the orchestral Introit prelude, the Kyrie presents one of the main themes of the Mass. In the Gloria and Credo, Kodaly welds his profound understanding of Renaissance and Monteverdian choral polyphony to the pungent and crisp harmonies of his orchestration. These movements build with extraordinary economy of means in a driving choral declamation to the final triumphant Amens. In the Et incamatus est of the Credo, Kodály emphasizes with dark-hued harmonies the deep mystery of the Incarnation, while later admitting more light into the Crucifixus, seeing in it the promise of redemption.
His tranquil and radiant Sanctus and Benedictus movements induce in the listener deep spiritual contemplation which rises to the marvelously arched climax of the work in the ethereal Hosannas. Kodaly integrates his pleas to the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) for mercy to sinners into his exceedingly powerful and pain-filled yearning for peace in the Dona nobis pacem, the fruit of five years of intense and war-weary suffering.
The prominent modern Czech composer, Petr Eben (b. 1929) composed his festive Prague Te Deum over the New Year holiday in 1990. His own description of this work of stringent modern harmonies is appropriate. "During the last forty years, we in Czechoslovakia have had no good cause for singing a Te Deum. What I wrote in 1950 was a bitter Mass for Advent and Lent which most accurately expressed our feelings; those of a people fighting for freedom and faith, those of a Church fighting for existence.
When in 1989 we suddenly achieved the freedom so long denied us, the Gregorian melody of the Te Deum hymn - with its joyfully ascending melody - just swelled up in my soul and, despite all the turbulence accompanying the revolutionary period, I managed to compose a Te Deum as an act of thanksgiving for all that had happened."
This Te Deum was first performed in Prague on 20 April, 1990 at a concert given in honor of Pope John Paul II. It is scored for four brass instruments, timpani, percussion and four-part mixed chorus.