Tradition & Individuality
By Thomas May
Haydn and Rachmaninoff might be considered an odd coupling, yet both have been pigeonholed in ways that give short shrift to the full scope of their respective visions: Haydn as the eternally sunny jokester and Rachmaninoff as the quintessential melancholy Russian. In these choral masterpieces, both composers reinvent traditional forms in ways that express their singular creative powers.
While Rachmaninoff was first touring the United States as a composer-pianist in the winter of 1909, he suffered a tremendous bout of homesickness—a foretaste of the pain he would face as a permanent exile from his native Russia following the 1917 Revolution. Could this be why he felt such an urge to reconnect with his roots upon returning in 1910 to his beloved estate at Ivanovka (a few hundred miles southeast of Moscow)? The composer would later recall its vistas as oceanic in scope, “where the waves are endless fields of wheat, rye, and oats, stretching as far as the eye can see.”
Prompted by these surroundings, Rachmaninoff quickly and with great pleasure set to work on The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Commentators like to speculate on the ambiguity of his religious disposition—Rachmaninoff wasn’t conventionally pious and in fact had side-stepped the Russian Orthodox Church’s strictures to marry his cousin—yet he convincingly taps into the most transfixing elements of a sacred tradition in this visionary, ecstatic music. In part he was no doubt also recovering persistent memories of the church visits he made as a boy in the company of his grandmother. The piano may be the instrument that first comes to mind at the mention of Rachmaninoff, but the sounds of chant and tolling bells lodged in his imagination and are equally recurring features (think of the chant-like melody that unspools at the beginning of the Third Piano Concerto, the notorious “Rach 3” featured in the film Shine).
The Liturgy in question is the one most typically used for the central worship ritual in the Eastern Orthodox Church (as opposed to those reserved for special feast days), with its hymns and prayers set to music for unaccompanied choir. It was named in honor of an early church father known for his stern reforms and his eloquence: “Chrysostom” is from the Greek for “golden-mouthed,” which also happens to be a fitting epithet for the glorious choral tradition, developed over centuries, that Rachmaninoff evokes. In 1878 Tchaikovsky paved the way for the later revival of interest in this tradition by other composers when, in a controversial move, he composed his own setting of the Liturgy intended for both ecclesiastical and secular performance. We’re familiar from operatic history with the tug of war between music and words, but it has deeper roots, in the need perceived by church authorities (both Eastern and Western) to regulate the role of music. Tchaikovsky’s was considered too distracting and was thus rejected for actual liturgical use; Rachmaninoff’s composition met with the same verdict. Although his hold-out romanticism got him a reputation as a conservative, what the Orthodox Church objected to, ironically enough, was Rachmaninoff’s “modernist” expression.
For contemporary audiences, however, the wonder of this music is its timelessness. Rachmaninoff adapted varieties of actual archaic chant for a large portion of his later and better-known sacred choral work, the All-Night Vigil. The Chrysostom Liturgy, by contrast, involves newly composed music that ingeniously mimics the contemplative atmosphere of the original. In this concert performance we hear a distillation of the lengthy, 20-section service. For all the outwardly austere restrictions of the medium, Rachmaninoff elicits a prismatic textural spectrum from his painterly combination of voices. Listen throughout to how he makes the music breathe in both smaller units and larger waves of shifting dynamics: the buildup of expectation of the godhead, for example, in “Come, Let Us Worship,” followed by a gentle dimming on “Alleluia.” The direction of the musical line continually glosses the words, as in the gradual descent to encompass the entire choir as a mirror of the angels in the “Cherubic Hymn.”
Rachmaninoff reserves his most otherworldly music for “We Hymn Thee,” which occurs near the transforming moment of the consecration, as a soprano solo emerges from a barely audible stasis generated by the chorus. Yet the earthy, direct charms of folk music are also absorbed into this idiom, as we hear in the bell-imitating echo effects of “Praise the Lord from the Heavens.” Rachmaninoff steels us to reenter the world with the vigorous, ringing proclamations of worship concluding the Liturgy.
Haydn, like Rachmaninoff, was also fated to live through “interesting times”—an era of revolutionary change not just for artists but for an entire society. By the time he came to compose the Harmonie Mass in 1802, the 70-year-old Haydn may well have intuited that this would be the final large-scale work he was to complete (though he would live seven more years, rattled by illness). By default at least, the Mass serves as a testament of sorts, an act of artistic summation for a career whose span ranged from the fading baroque to incipient romanticism and from the old paradigm of ecclesiastical and aristocratic patronage into the new era of the self-reliant artist.
In the splendid final sets of symphonies and quartets, Haydn had already consolidated his maverick achievements in instrumental music. Choral forms became the preoccupation of his last years. In these Haydn weds a new appreciation for the high baroque’s rhetorical brilliance with the Enlightenment-infused quest for an ordered world that radiates through his mature work. The Harmonie Mass achieves the extraordinary feat of pulling all these strands together—not with the forlorn nostalgia of a weakened man looking back on vanished certainties but with a larger-than-life confidence.
Yet the work was hardly effortless. Haydn devoted special effort to its composition (and to the first performance which he conducted in September 1802). It’s no coincidence that the Harmonie Mass calls on the largest array of orchestral forces of all Haydn’s Masses, including an entire wind section, which adds an extra dimension of color that was unconventional at the time (the Mass’s nickname Harmonie reflects the German use of the word for a band made of wind instruments, as in serenades). The richer palette of his instrumentation (including organ), which accompanies the full chorus and a quartet of soloists, allows not only for stirring ensembles—in the exuberantly inventive fugues capping the tripartite Gloria and Credo movements above all—but also for intimate, tender commentary, as in the Et incarnatus est and the Agnus Dei.
As a master classicist, Haydn also builds beautifully proportionate structures, almost hinting at the grand idea of a choral symphony which would be fulfilled by Beethoven over two decades later. A harmonic omen (G-flat against the tonic B-flat) early into the opening Kyrie suggests that we are embarked on a large-scale journey. Along with other musical devices, Haydn uses tonality with refined economy to shape this fresh vision of the familiar ritual texts. The sudden lightening to G Major for the Agnus Dei comes as a surprising pastoral oasis, from which, with fanfares blazing (prefigured in the Gloria’s fugue), Haydn stages a dramatic return to the home key of B-flat in Dona nobis pacem. This is music resounding with the belief in a beneficent order behind the patterns of history and nature Haydn had observed through a long life.
Thomas May is the author of Decoding Wagner and editor of The John Adams Reader. He writes frequently about music and theater.