Program Ten: Russian Choral Traditions
About the Program
Upon Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s death in 1908, one critic wrote of his accomplishments in sacred music: “He uttered a new word and showed a new direction, and the works of his students and followers responded to the authoritative word of the artist.” Given that Rimsky-Korsakov was an avowed atheist, and his compositions for the church were few in comparison with his work in other genres, this eulogy is somewhat puzzling. The critic goes on to praise Pyotr Tchaikovsky for playing an equal role in ending a “dark age” in Russian church music that had reigned for decades. It is significant that our critic credits Rimsky-Korsakov with a “new direction,” for this became the appellation for the group of composers engaged in an unprecedented revival of Russian sacred music at the turn of the century. Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky came to be seen as precursors of this so-called New Direction, although neither man considered himself a church composer. Both helped cultivate a uniquely Russian choral idiom, but perhaps even more important were their respective roles in dismantling and rebuilding the institutions that had contributed to the “dark age” of church music.
When medieval Rus’ adopted Christianity in 988 CE, it inherited with it the musical traditions of Byzantium. These Byzantine roots, planted in Russian soil, developed into a unique style of liturgical chant, so the story goes, until successive waves of Western influence—Polish, German, and eventually Italian—diluted it over the centuries. The last of these Western incursions was institutionalized in the figure of Dmitri Bortniansky. Born in Ukraine, Bortniansky studied under Italian opera composers and was made the director of the Court Cappella (chapel) in St. Petersburg in 1796 by Tsar Paul I. Bortniansky’s legacy is a complex one: appointed during a period when many aspects of Russian court life were being Westernized, he helped introduce an Italian-influenced musical aesthetic. Though this would be a source of anguish to musical nationalists, he also was the first major composer of Russian sacred music, and his music would form the backbone of the repertoire for generations.
Under Bortniansky’s tenure, Tsar Paul issued the fortuitous decree that all music to be used in Russian churches must be approved by the director of the Cappella. This censorship authority was strengthened under subsequent directors, including Alexei Lvov, and expanded to include authority over publication of church music, resulting in a somewhat barren field of new sacred composition. Throughout much of the 19th century, very few works were approved other than those by the director of the Cappella himself. Lvov’s tsarist anthem Bozhe, Tsarya khrani (God save the Tsar) is also a reminder of the strong but lopsided bond between church and state in this period: since the director of the Cappella was a direct appointee of the tsar, the state held ultimate authority over the sounds of Russian Orthodoxy.
Meanwhile, the conditions for a revival of sacred music were slowly germinating. Throughout the 19th century, interest in pre-Petrine traditions steadily grew, and with it the quality of scholarly research on liturgical manuscripts. By the dawn of the 20th century, studies of medieval Russian chant, fueled by an ideological drive to cleanse Russian sacred music of Western influences, had helped inspire a wave of new compositions. This scholarly crusade was led by Stepan Smolensky, whose project was at once imaginative and retrospective. He advised composers of the New Direction to begin with the chants found in medieval manuscripts and work these out based on harmonic principles that avoided tendencies of European counterpoint and adhered to medieval church modes. While Smolensky’s theories were at times motivated more by his ideals than his scholarly findings, his own music skews to the conservative side of this spectrum, as heard in the pious chant setting “All of creation rejoices.”
Before this New Direction could ensue, however, the Court Cappella’s censorial control would have to be broken, a task unexpectedly accomplished by Tchaikovsky. Throughout the 1870s, his letters exhibit a growing interest in religion, both spiritual and aesthetic. In a letter to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, he writes: “For me [the church] has preserved a great deal of poetic beauty. I attend Liturgy very often; in my opinion the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is one of the greatest artistic creations of all time.” When Tchaikovsky set this liturgy to music in 1878, the work easily passed through the Moscow Office of Sacred Censorship on the basis of its text, but the real battle lay in the approval of the director of the Court Cappella, Nikolai Bakhmetev. Claiming the work was inappropriate for liturgical use, Bakhmetev secured a police order to confiscate all copies of Tchaikovsky’s liturgy. Tchaikovsky and his publisher filed a lawsuit and won, contending that the work was intended for concert rather than liturgical performance, a move that effectively broke the Court Cappella’s monopoly on church music. Tchaikovsky soon followed his liturgy, composed freely with a chant-like aesthetic in mind, with his “All-Night Vigil” setting based on chant melodies. Both would serve as templates for the New Direction.
In this atmosphere of growing interest in church music, Rimsky-Korsakov took up a post in 1883 at the Court Cappella, where he was the assistant to its new director, Mily Balakirev. Rimsky-Korsakov quickly set about rebuilding its educational program, bringing the professionalism of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he also taught, to the next generation of church singers and composers. In a way, Rimsky-Korsakov also brought the Cappella closer to the conservatory, for although Tchaikovsky’s two major sacred cycles would be held up as models for the New Direction, many contributors to this trend—Alexander Grechaninov, Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, and Maximilian Steinberg—had been students of Rimsky-Korsakov at the conservatory. Furthermore, Rimsky-Korsakov’s own sacred compositions helped solidify the practice of harmonizing traditional chants as one of the chief stylistic resources of the New Direction.
Ironically, having destabilized the institutional hegemony of the Court Cappella, Tchaikovsky soon joined the advisory committee of its rival institution in Moscow, the Synodal College of Church Singing. Unlike the Cappella of previous years, however, the Synodal College, with Smolensky at its head, actively promoted new compositions, and its choir performed the works of Tchaikovsky alongside those of Balakirev, Grechaninov, and Ippolitov-Ivanov at home and abroad. Aesthetically and ideologically, Smolensky and the composers in his orbit toed a fine line as they sought to establish a new national tradition of church music through a return to medieval sources. Carried to its logical end, this practice would result only in plainchant, leaving little room for creativity. Instead, the New Direction attempted to imagine what Russian church music could have sounded like had it developed its own methods of harmonization, free from Western influence.
The renaissance in Russian sacred music reached its zenith in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, which alternates between free composition and chant harmonization, absorbing medieval melodic strains into a choral sound that his contemporaries described as “symphonic.” Rachmaninoff’s fame was already at a high point, and when the work was premiered by the Synodal Choir in 1915, in the midst of war, nationalist sentiments further contributed to its success. At the time, Rachmaninoff could not have known the fate that would come to him, nor that of sacred music, after the impending revolution. Rachmaninoff, like many Russians born into the landed aristocracy, would flee the country, and Bolshevik rule prohibited further developments in sacred music. It is somewhat astonishing that Steinberg, Rimsky-Korsakov’s student and son-in-law, composed his chant-based Passion Week cycle in this environment. The work saw almost no chance of performance in the Soviet Union, so Steinberg arranged for its publication in Paris, yet not until 2014 in Portland, Oregon, was the work finally premiered. If Rimsky-Korsakov had “uttered a new word” in Russian sacred music, it seems that Steinberg gave the last words of the movement. But although this music was dramatically silenced by political circumstances, it has had long, if scattered, echoes.
—David Salkowski, Princeton University
Bard Music Festival Presents
Program Ten: Russian Choral Traditions10 AM Performance with Commentary; with the Bard Festival Chorale, conducted by James Bagwell
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908)
Our Father, Op. 22, No. 7 (1883)
Let all mortal flesh keep silent, Op. 22b, No. 3 (1884)
Behold, the bridegroom comes, Op. 22b, No. 4 (1884)
Dimitri Bortniansky (1751–1825)
It is truly fitting (n.d.)
Stepan Smolensky (1848–1909)
All of creation rejoices (n.d.)
Alexei Lvov (1799–1870)
God save the Tsar (1833)
Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–93)
From Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, Op. 41 (1878)
No. 3 Oh come, let us worship
No. 8 I believe in one God
Mily Balakirev (1837–1910)
The prophets proclaimed Thee (n.d.)
Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov (1859–1935)
Bless the Lord, oh my soul, Op. 37, No. 2 (c. 1903)
Alexander Grechaninov (1864–1956)
From Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom No. 1, Op. 13 (1897)
No. 12 Praise the Lord from the heavens
No. 13b Glory
Maximilian Steinberg (1883–1946)
From Passion Week, Op. 13 (1923–27)
No. 1 Alleluia
No. 4 When the glorious disciples
No. 8 The wise thief
No. 9 Do not lament me, Mother
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)
From Vsenoshchnoye bdeniye, Op. 37 (1915)
No. 1 Oh come let us worship
No. 6 Rejoice, oh Virgin
No. 8 Praise the name of the Lord
No. 9 Blessed art Thou, oh Lord
No. 15 To Thee, the victorious leader
Estimated run time: 80 minutes, no intermission.