Ivan Moody: From Darkness to Light

From Darkness To Light

Cappella Romana Rachmaninoff Concerto for Choir

Ivan MoodyThe From Darkness to Light programme is a journey in more than one sense. Firstly, it takes us from spiritual darkness (the condition which is cured, according to Orthodox Christian tradition, by metanoia, a change of heart) to light, the radiance of the Resurrection of Christ, by which mankind is made new. Secondly, it takes us from Soviet Russia back to Tsarist Russia, forward to present-day Ukraine, and, so to speak, sideways to Western Europe.

We begin the journey, then, in the middle, with Alfred Schnittke’s Stikhi pokayanie. The suppression in the Soviet Union of any manifestation of religious belief, especially after the dismissal of the relatively tolerant, and highly cultured, commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky in 1929 from NARKOMPROS, the People’s Commissariat of Public Education, had also cut artists off from a significant part of the artistic heritage of their native country. A revelation such as that afforded painters by the great 1913 exhibition held in Moscow of “Ancient Russian Painting,” and, indeed, the lifelong enthusiasm for icons of Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), and its corresponding influence on Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953), was therefore impossible. In his book La musique du XXe siècle en Russie, Frans C. Lemaire traces the trajectory of attempted spiritual extinguishing of Russia, beginning with the première of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil (“Vespers) and working through the survival of a religious sense, even in the disguised religiosity of cantatas and other works glorifying Lenin, a reinvention of that part of their heritage to which composers could not refer if it had the slightest religious overtone. As we now know, the trajectory of spiritual extinction ended in failure. There was a renaissance of music that could transmit the sacred, which Lemaire described as composers “rediscovering the right to the spiritual ‘unreality’ which had been taken from them in the name of socialist realism.” The fact that works overtly based on spiritual texts, such as Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto for Mixed Choir and Rodion Shchedrin’s Stikhira, could not only be written in the late 1980s, but performed and even recorded, was the clearest possible indication of the resurgence of this “spiritual unreality.” [N.B. Shchedrin’s 1988 Sealed Angel was performed in the Northwest last month by the Oregon Repertory Singers.]

Schnittke is an extraordinarily interesting figure. Firstly, in that he was, like his compatriots and colleagues Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina, an explorer, interested in officially unacceptable innovations from the West, and quite capable of employing them while at the same time parodying the official line. The Symphony no. 1 (1972), whose enormously and scandalously successful première took place, two years after it was written, in the closed town of Gorky – now once again Nizhny-Novgorod – provides a blatant example of this; so blatant, in fact, that the work was performed only once more in the next ten years. Its Moscow première took place more than twelve years later.

Secondly, as imbued as a great deal of Schnittke’s music may in retrospect seem to be with Orthodox spirituality and culture, he was of Jewish descent and was in fact a Roman Catholic (a family circumstance deriving, apparently, from French ancestry before the 16th century); he was only baptized into the Catholic Church in 1980, in Vienna, and, though a Catholic, he was profoundly interested in the spiritual and artistic traditions of Orthodoxy. Schnittke himself was quite clear about the ambiguities inherent in his own personality:

“Although I don’t have any Russian blood, I am tied to Russia, having spent all my life there. On the other hand, much of what I’ve written is somehow related to German music and to the logic which comes out of being German, although I did not specifically want this… Like my German forefathers, I live in Russia, I can speak and write Russian far better than German. But I am not Russian… My Jewish half gives me no peace: I know none of the three Jewish languages – but I look like a typical Jew.”

His search for religious and philosophical meaning had led him to a deep, indeed obsessive, interest in the theme of Faust, which lasted from 1959 to 1994, when his opera on the subject was finally written, and he had also investigated cabbalism and the I Ching before deciding to be baptized. This confluence of cultures made Schnittke peculiarly aware of the power of vocabulary and its context, something very obviously apparent in his use of “polystylism,” in which the structural or surface quotation of particular musical vocabularies could serve as either an alienating or an integrating factor; his Symphony no. 1 is an outstanding example of the latter.

The importance of the theme of repentance to Schnittke is shown by his composition in 1987 of Stikhi pokayanie (“Penitential Psalms” is the usual, but inaccurate, English translation, thus the use by Cappella Romana of “Verses of Repentance”; the German “Bußverse” is closer) for unaccompanied mixed choir, again a large-scale composition, lasting some 45 minutes, even longer than the Concerto. The work, written, like Rodion Shchedrin’s Stikhira, for the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus’, was inspired by a collection of early Russian literature, which includes these spiritual lines or poems by anonymous monks, and through thematically these texts might seem to offer much less variety than those of St. Gregory Narekatsi, whose words Schnittke set in his Choir Concerto, the music employs essentially the same techniques and is characterized by the same degree of technical virtuosity as the Concerto.

In both works there are very strong echoes of the Russian sacred repertoire of the 19th and early 20th century; this imparts a sense of belonging to a tradition which in turn provides much of the music’s strength. The typically Russian treatment of long, chant-like melodic lines revolving around essentially homophonic textures is what creates this impression above all. Following Bartók’s idea of “imaginary folklore,” the Serbian musicologist and conductor Bogdan Djaković has described Schnittke’s technique in these works as the use of “imaginary church folklore,” after the practice of a number of composers the new Russian choral school of the late 19th century, composing original choral music stylistically consonant with liturgical tradition but with no direct quotation of chant. Schnittke goes much further than his forebears, however, in his use of modernist techniques – in particular polytonality and clusters – which would never have been considered suitable for ecclesiastical use but which are part of his personal response to these remarkable texts. This response was nevertheless deeply informed by the composer’s knowledge and love of Russian choral music of the past, as is abundantly clear when, as happens at several points during the sequence, the clouds part and the dense, questing character of Schnittke’s music gives way to a sunlit tonal apotheosis.

That music of the past included, of course, the work of Rachmaninov, whose Vigil (“Vespers,” 1915) has now become so well-loved in the West. With that work, the composer sealed his relationship with liturgical composition: he had said everything he was to say in that field. In addition, it was, to quote the musicologist Marina Frolova-Walker, “the terminus for the New Trend, or for any elaborate Orthodox liturgical music.” Indeed, the “New Trend” would only be taken up again after the collapse of the Soviet Union – Schnittke’s Stikhi pokayanie and Shchedrin’s Stikhira were special exceptions insofar as the millennium of the Christianization of Russia could not be ignored. But the Rachmaninov’s masterly use of the choir in his Vigil did not come from nowhere; he had composed a setting of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom five years earlier, a work that was not favourably received, and, much earlier, in 1893, the sacred concerto we hear tonight, “O Mother of God, vigilantly praying.”

The choral concerto is a genre peculiar to the Russian Empire; in Russian and Ukrainian churches, from the mid-17th century onwards, a multi-sectional work, the texts taken from psalms or liturgical sources, for unaccompanied voices, was frequently sung during the communion. Rachmaninov’s concerto, written for and first performed by the Moscow Synodal Choir, sets a slightly varied version of the kontakion for the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God. Though its style is far removed from the later, frequently virtuosic, “choral orchestration” of the Vigil, it is nevertheless a magnificent achievement, an intensely personal and expressive setting of the text that makes a unique contribution to this genre.

The music of the Ukrainian Galina Grigorjeva (b. 1962) has been described as “minimalist,” but as usual the label itself is minimal, serving as a mischaracterization rather than an accurate descriptor of her music. Originally a pupil of Yuri Falik at St. Petersburg Conservatory, she later moved to Tallinn and worked with Lepo Sumera – who has been characterized as the creator of Estonian minimalism – at the Estonian Academy of Music. She has been particularly concerned to situate her music in relation to her spiritual heritage, especially in the form of overt but distanced reference to Russo-Ukrainian liturgical music. This occurs in Kant, or Cantus, which makes specific reference to the paraliturgical genre of the kant cultivated in a number of Slavic lands during the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, Svyatki is a six-movement choir concerto written between 1995 and 2004 setting popular devotional texts, Na iskhod (“On Leaving”), written originally in 1999, and setting of parts of the Office of the Parting of the Soul from the Body, and in Diptych, written for the Ensemble Credo, and first performed by them in the Kaarli Church in Tallinn in December 2011.

The composer sees the work as a reflection on death. The first movement is a setting in Slavonic of the Song of Symeon (Nunc dimittis), but it is shot through with sadness – it is a song of farewell. The second brings consolation, and sets words from the ninth ode of the Canon of Matins for Holy Saturday, a dialogue between Christ and His Mother in which the joy of the Resurrection is anticipated and which flowers into an increasingly elaborate, polyphonic texture that is deliberately reminiscent of the remarkable polyphony of the Russian Middle Ages.

Resurrection is also the theme of my work Anástasis, and the title is in fact the Greek word for “Resurrection.” In this piece I have been concerned with the very human sense of expectation of the Resurrection of Christ – illustrated particularly in the repeated calls of “Anásta” (“Rise!”) but also with that expectation’s clear fulfilment – the reply is “Anésti” (“He is risen”). It sets texts taken from the services of Holy Saturday from the Orthodox Byzantine rite, in English and Greek, portraying both the wavering of Christ’s own disciples and, later, their absolute conviction of the fact of His Resurrection. I have been concerned in many of my works with the moment of the Resurrection, a moment of blazing light which transcends both conventional religious belief and practice and scientific rigour; every time I confront it, I am struck by wonder – wonder at the way the physical and the metaphysical can become so intertwined. The human, scientific, and ecological implications of this moment are manifold… it seems to me that, if it were otherwise, there would be no point in writing a work concerned with this theme.

Anástasis was commissioned by the Hilliard Ensemble and Singer Pur, and given its first performance by them in Regensburg Cathedral in 2007. I took advantage of this extraordinary mixture (the presence of four solo tenors, for example) to create some sounds and textures that would otherwise not have occurred to me. These performances by Cappella Romana are the first by a full choir.

—Ivan Moody ©2015

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