Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Arkhangelic Music

Alexander Arkhangelsky

I've previously published a couple of posts that reflect my attempts to understand how Russia's great choral tradition developed. Each new discovery, however, seems to complicate matters somewhat.

It turns out that the 19th century nationalist flight from Bortniansky's Western European-influenced style that culminated in Rachmaninov's Vespers might not be quite so straightforward and linear as I first thought. As you will probably be aware, 19th century Russian music is often said to have split into two opposing camps - a nationalist camp (most famously represented by the Mighty Handful) and a westernising camp (circled around Anton Rubinstein). Does the way Russian composers tried to re-invigorate their nation's Orthodox choral tradition reflect this split? 

Only up to a point. 

A simple account might run like this: One group of composers (let's call them 'the Lvov tendency') chose a certain direction. Inspired primarily by German composers, principally Mendelssohn and Schumann, they started writing music of greater simplicity where the melody was placed in the uppermost part and set in the context of Western-style four-part harmony. Another, more nationalist set of composers (let's call them 'the Kastalsky tendency') chose to draw deep on old Russian chants, bringing appropriate modal harmonies to bear on them and sometimes employing Russian folk melodies. 

This, however, is where things get more complicated. That account is far too simplistic.

For starters, the so-called Germanising tendency came first, historically-speaking. It was the initial stage in the reaction against Bortniansky and all that he stood for. The nationalist tendency arose later. 

[Before we get to these composers it might be helpful to be reminded of what they were reacting against:

Bortniansky, Let God arise
Bortniansky, Cherubic Hymn

Also, much of this seemingly Germanophile music sounds very much like Russian Orthodox music to me. Why? Partly, I think, because a lot of Russian Orthodox music does sound like this! Also because these composers began using chants as melodies in some of their pieces and because they sometimes mingle their Mendelssohnian diatonic harmonies with Russian modal ones. Also, the chant-like phrasing of some of these pieces (even when the melodies aren't chant-based) makes them sound closer to the nationalist camp than a simple 'dialectical' approach would suggest they should. Yes, they do have German-style Romantic moments and passages but they also contain moments and passages that are freshly informed by the beginnings of Russia's first serious period of study into its ancient chant traditions. On a simpler level, of course, the Russian language and the distinctive sound of Russian choirs in performances should also be considered factors

So all of this was a break with the previous decades of Russian music. It was the beginning of the great revival of chant as a basis for musical works. So it was then a Russifying project, even if it brought in other non-Russian influences too. The nationalists would only take it a few stages further - 'purifying' it of those remaining Western vestiges. The comparison of this 'camp' with the Rubinstein camp doesn't really seem to be a particularly firm one to make then. Ah, so the linear narrative might be safe after all - even if it isn't quite so straightforward! 

This tradition appears to have been founded by Alexei Lvov (1798-1870), a friend of Mendelssohn's and the successor-but-one of Bortniansky as head of the Imperial ChapelLvov is best known for being the man who wrote the music for the old Russian imperial national anthem - the one most of us know from Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, God Save the Tsar. An exemplary example of what he brought to the Russian choral tradition can be judged from Of Thy Mystical Supper, where (with occasional octave doubling) four-voice Mendelssohnian homophony and Western-style diatonic harmonies mingle with modal harmonies and the sound of a Russian choir singing chant-like melodies in Russian. It it almost as beautiful as the same composer's Lord Have Mercy, which might sound like every non-Russian listener's idea of Russian choral music were it not for the presence of some highly Western-sounding chords. 

Other composers followed him, including Gavriil Lomakin (c.1812-1885), a friend of Balakirev's (oh yes!) best known for his Cherubic Hymn. Keep listening to this piece and you'll hear how Western it turns in its final section. Another such composer was Mikhail Strokin (1832-1887), known for his charismatic setting of Let Thy Servant Depart in Peace (the Nunc dimittis). The tradition continued into the 20th century with composers such as Dmitry Allemanov (1867-1918), for a taste of whose music you might like to try the Nativity Kanon - and the main subject of this post, Alexander Arkhangelsky (1846-1924).

Before I get to Arkhangelsky though, it's time to take another detour and remind you of what the other side of the coin sounds like. The nationalist side's great name (before Rachmaninov came along) was my old friend Valery Kastalsky (1856-1926), whose works took up the emphasis on chants, thoroughgoing modality and Russian folk song - all of which can be heard in such pieces as On this day the Virgin, God is with us and Open the Doors of Compassion.

So onto Alexander Arkhangelsky then, and things get even more complicated. Arkhangelsky founded a highly influential choir. It had the distinction of being the first to features women's voices (instead of boys). The choir performed sacred music but also Russian folksongs and had a mission to revive the country's Orthodox repertoire and free it from certain of its westernised aspects. To that extent he too was in the nationalist camp. His music, however, certainly sounds to be closely in the spirit of Lvov.

Russian Orthodox churchgoers are, by all accounts, fond of their Arkhangelsky. The sheer number of videos on YouTube devoted to his music, especially when compared to these other composers, is testimony to his popularity. To those who are less sympathetic to his more Mendelssohnian brand of Orthodox liturgical music he can be found too sentimental - an accusation so often thrown at Mendelssohn himself. 

See what you think. 

In  Arkhangelsky's Vespers all the ingredients of the Lvov style are there - the four-part homophony, the touches of Mendelssohnian harmony, the essential simplicity, the melody in the uppermost part, plus the modal touches and chant-like melodies too. Lyrical warmth is the quality Arkhangelsky himself most brings to the table. For comparison (and for the sheer pleasure of hearing it), please then listen to Rachmaninov's ravishing Vespers, fully composed in the nationalist spirit and first performed in consultation with Kastalsky. In the Rachmaninov the voices packed into the harmonies rise beyond four as high (at one point) as eleven. Here Russian Orthodox chants (ten genuine, five of Rachmaninov's own invention) and modal harmonies reign supreme.

Further Arkhangelsky listening:

I doubt even now that I've really got to the bottom of all this. Even if I haven't there's been some very fine music along the way!

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