Tuesday, 13 December 2011

A (Changing) Russian Christmas

A Radio 3 concert called 'A Russian Christmas', given by the BBC Singers, offered an intriguing survey of Russian Orthodox choral music from the Baroque to the present day, featuring much that was unfamiliar - though it ended with a short selection from Rachmaninov's much-loved 'All-Night Vespers' (a favourite work of mine) and, as an encore, a movement from the same composer's somewhat less familiar 'Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom'.

When I think of Russian Orthodox sacred music I think of chant-based modal melodies sung to rich, ancient-sounding harmonies in a purely homophonic style (where all the vocal parts move together in harmony - i.e. as a flow of chords - as opposed to polyphony where the voices go their own separate ways). Oh, and drones and deep basses (and, if I'm honest, big bushy beards) too.

I was in for a surprise.

The concert opened with a 'sacred concerto' (No.6) by the Ukrainian-born Dmitry Bortniansky (1751-1825), who was appointed Director of the Imperial Chapel Choir in 1796, the year of Catherine the Great's death. The music of Bortniansky and other court composers was, apparently, the official face of Russian Orthodox music for several decades - until the generation of Glinka ('the father of Russian music') came along and tried to free their country's sacred music from what they felt to be excessive European influence. That European influence is plain to hear in this 'concerto' (and, yes, YouTube has it!), 'Glory to God in the Highest' (setting Luke's take on the words of the angelic multitude to the shepherds abiding in the fields). That said, it conforms to tradition to the extent that it is for unaccompanied choir. This is significant because in Russian Orthodox liturgical music you are extremely unlikely to find any accompaniment. (You shouldn't find any at all). So expect no organs and no orchestras, just voices. As for the piece itself, it's a charmer for four-part mixed chorus with four short sections, the last revisiting the music of the first, in a style not too far from that written by many of the lesser lights of the Classical era (the ones we don't hear from very often, because it's nearly always Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.). There's a little bit of counterpoint in the third section but also quite a few suggestions of folk music (those bagpipe-like drones at the end of the outer sections being the most obvious example).

The concert then took us even further back to the Russian court of the 1680s, where one Vasily Titov (c.1650-c.1715) sang and composed. We heard his 'O Virgin unwedded' for double choir. To my ears, this sounded hardly any more like the stereotype (in my head) of what Russian Orthodox music ought to sound like than did the Bortniansky. What a superb piece it was though! Titov wrote in the period usually described as the Mid-Baroque (and he is a leading figure in what's known as the 'Moscow Baroque') but his music reminds me most of the greatest German composer of the previous-generation-but-one, Heinrich Schutz. There's still something of a luminous aftertaste of the late Renaissance about it, with rich polyphonic writing, madrigalian touches and melodic phrases that, at times, remind me of Monteverdi. Sadly, this gem isn't yet available on YouTube but some pieces by Titov are and they seem to confirm my feeling that he composes in a style closely akin to a late-Renaissance/early-Baroque composer - pieces such as Glory - Only Begotten Son and The Angel Cried Out (though neither piece is as good as 'O Virgin unwedded'). It's a wonderful thing to find great pleasure in a composer you've never even heard of before.

The illuminating programme continued with two short, pleasing Christmas hymns, Today the Virgin (on YouTube) and Thy nativity, O Christ our God by Alexander Kastalsky (1856-1926), another composer I'd never heard of but whose influence, I learned, was huge. If you know Rachmaninov's two unaccompanied choral masterpieces, you'll recognise that they share the same roots as these pieces (if transforming them, through genius, into something considerably greater). What the nationalist Kastalsky achieved was to create a new style by taking the ancient chants of the Russian Church and fusing them with the singing techniques of Russian folk music. Now this is much more like what I always imagined Russian Orthodox sacred music would sound like.

The glories of Rachmaninov's great masterpieces I will leave for another time, but the concert included an early piece that the Russian didn't even consider worth publishing, O Theotokos, Ever-Vigilant in Prayer. (The Theotokos is a name for the Virgin Mary in the Eastern Orthodox tradition). It's a frequently lovely piece and I suspect you'll find it a likeable discovery, if (like me) you didn't know it already. Though it does exhibit a fair amount of licence, admitting polyphonic passages and some unOrthodox textures, it has everything that I mentioned near the start of this post when I listed things I think of when I think about Russian Orthodox music - chant-based modal melodies sung to rich, ancient-sounding harmonies, much purely homophonic writing and, yes, drones and deep basses too. (Can't tell about the big bushy beards though.) In these passages, the music feels timeless and age-old. As I've learned, however, though it may be timeless, it certainly isn't age-old.

The story of how we got to to where we are can, it seems, be simply told. So here goes.

Russian Orthodox chant (Znamenny chant) is indeed ancient, developing out of Byzantine chant. It was sung in unison and was melismatic in character. Accompanying drones were a common feature. Around two hundred years ago (at the dawn of the Romantic Era), something very new came into Russian Orthodox liturgical music - the rich, homophonic, chord-based sound we now know and love. It was an innovation. Kastalksy added fresh innovations at time passed...and doubtless so on and so on.

That's something I hadn't realised before. The timeless tradition changes.

Liturgical music, as you're doubtless well aware, was suppressed by the incoming communist regime following their takeover in 1917. This concert introduced us to several composers who reacted to this new state of affairs in contrasting ways. The options seem to have been: (1) to leave the Soviet Union, (2) to stay but to give up composing sacred music, (3) to compose sacred works in secret or (4) to compose and publish a few sacred works but claim to be doing so not out of any religious feeling but merely to contribute to Russia's cultural heritage.

Rachmaninov made for the exit door, as did his fellow Romantic Alexander Gretchaninov (1864-1956), whose gently radiant setting of the 'Glory to God in the Highest' was also performed. Though this piece is sadly unavailable on YouTube, you might like to try his Joyful Light instead, which happens to be even lovelier. Both are unaccompanied and keep to the then-current (and still-current) spirit of Russian Orthodox sacred music. Gretchaninov, however, attempted a modest  revolution of his own, risking (and receiving) accusations of blasphemy, by introducing the organ and the orchestra into some of his sacred works. That was an innovation that didn't really catch on.

Representing those who took the second option in reaction to Bolshevik rule was another composer whose name was completely unknown to me, Pavel Chesnokov (1877-1944). He was, it seems, a hugely prolific sacred composer prior to 1917 but was forced to write secular music thereafter, until the regime destroyed the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow (pictured above) - an act that so depressed Chesnokov that he gave up composing altogether. (The Cathedral was rebuilt after the Soviet Union collapsed). His attractive but surprisingly wistful-sounding Eternal Council (a piece from before the revolution, according to the BBC presenter) tells the story of the Annunciation, with a solo mezzo-soprano singing the words of the Angel Gabriel, accompanied by a chorus of tenors and basses. It struck me as being closer to conventional Romantic choral writing, particularly in its harmonies, than anything else in the programme.

From a later generation, and choosing both options (3) and (4), was the neo-Romantic Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998), a younger contemporary of Shostakovich who (every account I've read tells me) has always been popular with his fellow countrymen. (On the strength of the pieces I've heard, I'm pleased about that!) We heard three mouth-watering pieces from a collection called 'Inexpressible Wonder' that, to my ears, show a composer in love with the traditions of Russian sacred music, though refracting them (fairly unobtrusively) through modern ears: an enchanting hymn to the Virgin Mary (not without a few bittersweet dissonances); a chordal, chant-driven song in praise of the birth of Christ; and a dramatised Gloria & (quietly luminous) Alleluia. I can't find these pieces for you on YouTube except for the Alleluia, but to get a flavour of the sacred side of Sviridov, please give this highly 'traditional' Trisagion a go and, if I say so myself, demonstrating what I'm saying about Sviridov, please also try out Unuttered Miracle

The concert also showed that the Russian Orthodox tradition (away with the inverted commas!) survives and is, thank goodness, still alive in the age of Vladimir Putin - a man who isn't averse to co-opting the magic of Russian Orthodoxy. We heard a couple of pieces (paradoxically) from composers now living in those former outreaches of the Soviet Empire, the Baltic States, namely a 'choral concerto', Svjatki, from Galina Grigorjeva and Three Chants by Andrejs Selickis (b, 1960).

Mr. Selickis is Latvian but, unusually, Russian Orthodox. His ascetic music is highly informed by the old tradition - the Byzantine chant tradition - of Orthodox sacred music, though there are a few concessions to the last two hundred years of innovations,  and the pieces presented were, for me, the most magical music of the evening. Four-part unaccompanied writing, simple flowing lines, often just one or two at a time, modestly sung either in unison or in octaves, or accompanied by chordal drones, this is beautiful music that I would love to hear a lot more of. Unfortunately, you won't be able to follow this up as his music has yet to find promoters on YouTube.

The piece by Galina Grigorjeva (b. 1962, pictured above), born in the Ukraine but now living in Estonia, was a 'choral concerto', (long) after the manner of Bortniansky. Galina, like Andrejs Selickis, works within the Russian Orthodox tradition, but her music seems to me to be more in keeping than her Latvian contemporary's with the open-to-everything spirit of our own age's contemporary classical music - especially those parts of it who inwardly digested the lessons taught by Bartok about talking folk melody to heart. Svjatki means 'Christmastide', but secular aspects of Christmas are as much a part of the work as the seasons's purely Christian side. It comes in six movements, beginning with a lively 'Slava', and Kastalsky would probably have been pleased by her use of folk-style singing techniques. I would use the damning-with-faint-praise word (word?) 'OK' to describe my feelings about this piece. The lady's music so far makes just one appearance on YouTube - an excerpt from a percussion piece called There is a Time for Autumn - where, rather tellingly I think, you will  hear a chant-like melody over a drone (in classic Orthodox style), alongside more conventional (and less engaging) modern percussion writing/doodling.

A joyous Christmas to every one of my many millions of Russian Orthodox readers!

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