Maximilian Steinberg, “Passion Week”, Op. 13 — Notes

Historians of Orthodox Christianity have charted the emergence of a ‘Russian Religious Renaissance’ out of the so-called ‘Silver Age’ of Russia, the culturally fruitful but politically turbulent decades immediately prior to the Bolshevik takeover in 1917. This movement encompassed a broad range of efforts aimed at various forms of spiritual, ecclesial, cultural, and national renewal within the traditions of Slavic Orthodoxy. Its creative and often eclectic use of diverse ancient and modern sources overlapped with such other contemporary cultural phenomena as pan-Slavism and, thanks in part to the brilliance and productivity of Russian intellectuals living in Western exile, its effects continued to be felt well into the Soviet period.

In recent years the All-Night Vigil, Opus 37 by Sergei Rachmaninoff has become a cornerstone of the choral mainstream, but outside of a small corner of academic musicology it is seldom considered in depth as a product of the Russian Religious Renaissance. Nevertheless, some years ago Vladimir Morosan had sketched out the historical development of what fairly might be described as its musical analogue: the ‘New Russian Choral School’. This came about during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when an influential and productive group of Russian Orthodox churchmen, composers, and conductors found inspiration for the creative renewal of church music in Slavonic monophonic chant and native traditions of polyphonic singing, both historic and living. In addition to Rachmaninoff, the ranks of the composers in the group include such figures as Stepan Smolensky (1848–1909), Alexander Grechaninoff (1864–1956) and Alexander Kastalsky (1856–1926), all of whom were associated to varying degrees with the Moscow Synodal School of Church Singing. In their works one regularly finds seemingly contradictory styles reconciled: for example, traditional chant motives set to late Romantic harmonies, or imitative counterpoint (the sixteenth-century Western style of part-writing then being revived in the Roman Catholic West by the Caecilian Movement, with its exaltation of Italian Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina), dissolving into polyphonic textures redolent of Russian folk music in their parallelisms and open sonorities.

The Unexpected Contribution of Maximilian Steinberg to the Russian Religious Renaissance

Maximilian Oseyevich Steinberg was born in 1883 in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius, at that time a part of the Russian Empire. Raised in a cultured Jewish family, he moved to St Petersburg to continue his education in both science and music, enrolling simultaneously in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of St Petersburg and at the Conservatoire. At the latter he studied under illustrious teachers including Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who welcomed him (along with his classmate Igor Stravinsky) in the social circles of his family. Steinberg soon became a trusted assistant to Rimsky-Korsakov, travelling with him to Paris in April 1907 for the Saison Russe organised by Diaghilev and, a few days before his death in June 1908, marrying his daughter Nadezhda Nikolaevna in the Orthodox Church (an act that would have required Steinberg to be baptised a Christian). Unlike Stravinsky, Steinberg decided after the advent of Communism to remain in Russia, where he had a long and illustrious career as a composer and served in a variety of leadership roles at what eventually became the Conservatory of Leningrad, dying in that city in 1946.

Maximilian Steinberg - Passion Week, Op. 13

In the living room of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Igor Stravinsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, his daughter Nadezhda Rimsky-Korsakov, her fiancé Maximilian Steinberg, and Ekaterina Stravinsky, Stravinsky’s first wife, in 1908, shortly before the death of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, in the early years of the Communist regime Steinberg decided to compose music in a genre that had become completely unacceptable for public performance in the Soviet Union and to which he apparently made no contributions when it was at its pre-revolutionary apogee: Orthodox Christian choral music in the tradition of the New Russian Choral School. This resulted in his Passion Week (Страстная Седмица), Opus 13, a setting of hymns for Holy Week in the Church Slavonic language that was composed between 1921 and 1923 and later published (in 1927?) in Paris by the émigré firm of W. Bessel with alternate Latin and English translations. In its selection of texts from multiple services of Holy Week and its sophisticated musical technique, it clearly resembled an earlier Passion Week, Opus 58 by Grechaninoff that was first performed in 1912. Like its predecessor, Steinberg’s Opus 13 offers the listener a musical journey from Jesus Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem, through his betrayal and Passion, to the vigil of his Resurrection on the eve of Easter Sunday. Steinberg’s work differs from that of Grechaninoff, however, in two important ways: 1) whereas Grechaninoff had set several texts used throughout the period of Great Lent, every text Steinberg selected is directly tied to the historical narrative of Holy Week; and 2) Steinberg based all but one movement directly on traditional chant, with the vast majority drawn from ancient Znamenny chant, the foundational repertory of Russian church singing. By using chant in this manner, Steinberg endowed his own Passion Week with comparative objectivity, tempering the sonic luxuriance of late Romantic harmonies with open sonorities mildly spiced with diatonic dissonance and occasional passages of imitative counterpoint.

To date, I have yet to discover any evidence that Steinberg’s Passion Week has ever been performed in its entirety either inside Russia—where the Paris edition seems to have been all but unknown and the composer himself wrote wistfully in his diaries of the impossibility of ever hearing it sung—or abroad. The presentation of what we therefore believe to be its world premiere performances by Cappella Romana was made possible in the first instance by Fr Daniel and Matushka Tamara Skvir of Princeton, New Jersey, who kindly thought to share with me their rare copy of this forgotten masterpiece when I was a Visiting Fellow in Hellenic Studies at Princeton University. An anonymous donor is generously supporting both the performances themselves and recording to be made of Steinberg’s Passion Week during the coming summer. Thanks are also due to Irina Chudinova and Galina Kopytova of the Russian Institute of the History of Arts in St Petersburg, who granted me access to the composer’s autograph manuscript of this work, and to the Stanley J. Seeger ’52 Center for Hellenic Studies, Princeton University, Dimitri Gondicas, director.

—Alexander Lingas

Portions of these notes are based on an article that Dr Lingas wrote for the Orthodox Arts Journal, at orthodoxartsjournal.org

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