RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH MUSIC






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Publication: Music Library Association. Notes
Author: Myers, Gregory
Date published: June 1, 2012

Alexandre Gretchaninoff. Collected Sacred Choral Works. Introductory articles by Vladimir Morosan and Marina Rakhmanova. (Monuments of Russian Sacred Music, ser. VII, vol. 2.) San Diego, CA: Musica Russica, 2009. [Portrait & facsimile, 2 p.; From the Editor, in Eng., Rus., p. xv; The Sacred Choral Legacy of Alexandre Gretchaninoff, in Eng., Rus., p. xvii-xlv; score, p. 3-373; crit. notes, p. 377-88; The Russica(TM) Transliteration System, p. 389-90. ISBN 978-0-9701767-2-1. $95.]

Constantine Shvedov. Otche Nahs = Our Father. No. 12 from Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, op. 16. San Diego, CA: Musica Russica, 2011. [Editor's notes, p. 2; score, p. 3-7. Pub. no. Sh 027. $1.85.]

Georgy Sviridov. A Wondrous Birth = Stránnoye Rozhdestvó vídevshe. No. 7 from A Wondrous Birth. (Choral Music of Russia.) San Diego, CA: Musica Russica, 2011. [English text, p. 2; score, p. 3-19; notes, p. 20. Pub. no. CMR 010-7. $2.90.]

Since its inception in the 1980s, the firm of Musica Russica, with its musically very talented founding editor-in-chief Dr. Vla - dimir Morosan, has been dedicated to publishing and distributing Russian sacred choral music. The result has been the issue of an invaluable series of anthologies that has included the complete sacred works of Tchaikovsky (ser. II, vols. 1/2/3), Rimsky- Korsakov (ser. III), Viktor Kalinnikov (ser. VIII), and Rachmaninoff (ser. IX, vols. 1/2), with an important additional volume given over to an early figure in Russian church music composition, Vasily Titov and the Russian baroque (ser. XIII, Historical Editions, vol. 1). Each volume is a balanced amalgam of musical score and sound scholarship. The collected sacred choral compositions of the very long-lived Rimsky- Korsakov student, Alexandre Gretch ani noff (1864-1956), comprise ser. VII, vol. 2.

No expense has been spared in the production of this deluxe volume, which has been crafted of the finest materials available in the publishing industry: hardcovered, hand-sewn, with gold-embossed titling in both Russian and English, with carefully set music printed on the finest heavygrade paper. Accessible to both scholar and performer alike, each volume in the series- and this one is no exception-has been provided with a thoroughly researched scholarly introduction and copious notes in both Russian and English that serve to place the composer in his historical context and provide details of his musical evolution. The musical scores that follow are pain - stakingly set and provided with Russian/ Church Slavonic texts and Roman transliteration underlay, with English translations provided.

For the Gretchaninoff volume, the Russian-language notes have been coauthored by editor Morosan in collaboration with the eminent Russian musicologist Marina Rachmanova, followed by its En - glish translation by Dimitry Shapovalov and Morosan himself. The first part is a concise description, jointly written by Morosan and Rachmanova, of Gretchan inoff 's sacred concertos and numbers for the All-Night Vigil, with the second part given over to a detailed analysis written by Rachmanova alone of his Passion Week music.

All works presented are early, having been composed during the period between 1898 and 1912, evidently a high-water mark for Gretchaninoff for sacred music composition, during which time the composer reached his stride. The musical selection that follows is divided into four large sections according to function and placement in the Orthodox liturgical cycle, and date of composition: (1) a set of four sacred concertos, a genre that figured prominently in the composer's output from very early on; (2) individual hymns from the All- Night Vigil (combined Vespers and Matins); (3) his opus 58 music for Passion Week (13 numbers); and (4) the composer's opus 59 All-Night Vigil service (ten numbers). Rounding off the volume are three bilingual appendices that include critical notes, the unison chants that served as the compositional bases for the choral settings, and the system of Roman transliteration employed in the series.

Concerning the repertory, the editors acknowledge that Gretchaninoff's works are written in the choral tradition passed down since the eighteenth century. While Gretchan inoff cultivated the same conservative style that has come to define Russian sacred music, the quality of his finely crafted output is never in question. Particularly noteworthy in this regard are the Passion Week numbers, which are what author Rachmanova describes as: "the only unaccompanied choral cycle in Russian music of that time that can be characterized as a type of choral 'mystery play' based on canonical Orthodox liturgical texts" (p. xxxv). While dismissing for liturgical reasons the possibility of an actual dramatic performance during the worship, there is an historical precedent for the sacred drama/mystery play in Russia dating back to the sixteenth century, a point not mentioned in the text.

As for his musical style, Gretchaninoff is best described as an adherent to the tenets of the so-called New Russian Choral School of sacred music composition, as mandated by the director of the Moscow Synodal School and early church music scholar, Stepan Smolensky (1848-1909), a figure who enthusiastically advocated a return to Russia's indigenous Znamenny chant tradition as a basis for choral composition. Gretchaninoff mastered chant-based techniques, and in this regard he succeeds in creating a repertory that at least to some degree re-establishes the organic relationship between text and music lost in the earlier period of the once dominant Italianate style.

At the same time, no stylistic break with the past is apparent; the composer makes his obeisance to Dmitry Stepanovich Bortnyansky, particularly in his choral concertos (ironically, it was Bortnyansky himself who was the first to return to the old chant as a basis for sacred music composition). Gretchaninoff is also prone to the use of typical word-painting devices, and the employment of the chromatic harmonic techniques of his day. In his secular compositions Gretchaninoff espoused many of the tenets of Russia's so-called Silver Age. In the notes, the authors describe his approach to choral writing as "symphonic" and "leitmotivic" illustrating, by the composer's own admission, his admiration for Wagner, all of which is manifest in his settings of the drama-charged Passion Week numbers, which mark the climax of the church year and the celebration of Easter.

While a welcome addition to collections of sacred choral music, and endeavoring to put Musica Russica's production in the most positive light, the very raison d'être of this series in general and this volume in particular raises some questions. First, perhaps an insignificant point, this is designated volume 2: where is volume 1 and what does it contain? As a more serious criticism, the series as a whole does little to move beyond or expand the narrow and very conservative choice of Russian church music, reproducing or recycling in perpetuity the same tired old repertory that dominated the church-singing style before the Revolution. As already stated above, Gretchaninoff's sacred concertos continue in the well-worn tradition of such eighteenth-century figures as Bortnyansky, Maksym Berezovskyi, and Artemii Vedel. Indeed in the seven decades of state-imposed atheism by the Soviet regime, sacred music composition fell into a state of stasis, kept alive only by those composers who retreated into exile, Gretchaninoff-who ended his days in New York-being one of them.

Second, as fine as these volumes are, their offerings are redundant: we already have the complete published editions of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Rach - maninoff, including their contributions to the sacred choral repertory. Why then do we need this series? Moreover, is it historically correct to include secondary figures like Gretchaninoff, Kalinnikov, and Shvedov alongside the greats named above? Perhaps a more objective historical perspective is needed here.

Furthermore, for whom are these volumes intended? While always an asset to libraries, the target audience is a very small niche market, namely those Russian-only parishes outside of Russia with large and capable choral forces. (Worth noting is that increasingly, North American-based Ortho - dox Churches use English.) The technical demands of this music are well beyond that of your average Russian church choir. As a reminder, the glory days of St. Petersburg's Imperial Capella and the Moscow Synodal Choir are long past! Instead, as a supplier of choral music, Musica Russica should promote a more modest repertory.

Finally, in addition to the Gretchaninoff volume, this writer had the opportunity to examine two individual numbers issued by Musica Russica, the first, an elegant setting of the Lord's Prayer by composer Constan - tine Shvedov (1886-1954), a virtual unknown outside of sacred music circles. Unfortunately, an incomplete and poorly edited half-page of notes that accompany this score provide very little information. More important is the paraliturgical setting of a Christmas work by a master of the choral idiom active during Soviet times, Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998). His "A Wondrous Birth," no. 7, is part of a multimovement work of the same name, and probably carries greater historical import than the entire volume of Gretchaninoff. Sviridov, whose attraction to the Russian Orthodox Church and its traditions increased from the 1970s, is credited with keeping the tradition alive during a period when the Soviet authorities proscribed sacred music composition. The score is accompanied by a fine set of notes on the back cover. It is on this composer's music that Musica Russica should expend its efforts.

All told, we should always look forward to any new publication in the realm of Russian sacred music by Musica Russica. At the same time, editor Morosan and company sorely need to expand the musical canon beyond this ultraconservative body of Russian choral music into more modern compositions both sacred and secular. For historical purposes, the issue of more pre-Italianate works of the seventeenth century-like Titov, or even chant anthologies for use in the services-not only would broaden its historical base, but also attract a larger and more varied target audience.

Author affiliation:

GREGORY MYERS

Vancouver, BC, Canada

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