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The Divine Liturgy

March, 2019

Program notes by Eric Banks and Barry Creasy
preface by Sanford Dole

While both works on tonight’s program have “sacred” texts, in each case the concert setting is where you will encounter these beautiful pieces. As Eric Banks states in his notes for a concert with his choir several years ago, Russian composer Alfred Schnittke was preoccupied with mysticism and chose to set ancient psalm texts to express his deeply held mystic beliefs. Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose parents had separated when he was very young, was raised by his mother in a secular household, and as an adult, he refused to attend church or confession regularly. Nonetheless, he felt compelled to set the entire text of the Russian Orthodox liturgy, hoping it would be performed in the church services. As described by English scholar Barry Creasy, this was not to be the case, as the piece was shunned by the Church. I hope you as concert attendees appreciate two of the most glorious works of unaccompanied choral music from the 20th century.

Sanford Dole

Alfred Schnittke was born in Engels, on the Volga River, in the Soviet Union. His father was born in Frankfurt to a Jewish family of Russian origin who had moved to the USSR in 1926, and his mother was a Volga-German born in Russia. Schnittke began his musical education in 1946, in Vienna, where his father, a journalist and translator, had been posted. In 1948, the family moved to Moscow, where Schnittke studied piano and received a diploma in choral conducting. From 1953 to 1958, he studied counterpoint and composition with Yevgeny Golubev and instrumen­tation with Nikolai Rakov at the Moscow Conservatory. Schnittke completed the postgraduate course in composition there in 1961 and joined the Union of Composers the same year. He was particularly encouraged by Phillip Herschkowitz, a Webern disciple, who resided in the Soviet capital. In 1962, Schnittke was appointed instructor in instrumentation at the Moscow Conser­vatory, a post which he held until 1972. Thereafter he supported himself chiefly as a composer of film scores; by 1984 he had scored nearly 70 films. Noted above all for his hallmark “poly­stylistic” idiom, Schnittke has written in a wide range of genres and styles.

His first Concerto grosso (1977) was one of the first works to bring his name to prominence. It was popularized by Gidon Kremer, a tireless proponent of his music. Schnittke first came to America in 1988 for the “Making Music Together” Festival in Boston and the American premiere of his Symphony No 1 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He came again in 1991, when Carnegie Hall commissioned Concerto Grosso No 5 for the Cleveland Orchestra as part of its Centennial Festival, and again in 1994 for the world premiere of his Symphony No 7 by the New York Philharmonic and the American premiere of his Symphony No 6 by the National Symphony. Schnittke composed nine symphonies, six concerti grossi, four violin concertos, two cello concertos, concertos for piano and a triple concerto for violin, viola and cello, as well as four string quartets and much other chamber music, ballet scores, choral and vocal works. His first opera, Life with an Idiot, was premiered in Amsterdam in 1992. His two other operas, Gesualdo and Historia von D Johann Fausten, were unveiled in in 1995.

Schnittke was often the target of the Soviet bureaucracy, as was one of his greatest influences, Dmitri Shostakovich. His first symphony was effectively banned by the Composers’ Union, and after he abstained from a Composers’ Union vote in 1980, he was banned from travelling outside of the USSR. Even so, from the 1980s on, Schnittke’s music gained increasing exposure and international acclaim. Schnittke has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Austrian State Prize in 1991, Japan’s Imperial Prize in 1992, and the Slava-Gloria-Prize in Moscow in June 1998; his music has been celebrated with retrospectives and major festivals worldwide. More than 50 compact discs devoted exclusively to his music have been released in the last decade. In 1985, the year he completed his Choir concerto, Schnittke suffered the first of a series of serious strokes which left him in a coma. He was declared clinically dead on several occasions, but recovered and continued to compose. Despite his physical frailty, however, Schnittke suffered no loss of creative imagination, individuality or productivity.

Beginning in 1990, Schnittke resided in Hamburg, maintaining dual German-Russian citizenship. After another stroke in 1994 left him almost completely paralysed, Schnittke largely ceased to compose, though some short works emerged in 1997 and also a ninth symphony, whose score was almost unreadable because written with great difficulty with his left hand. He died in 1998, after suffering yet another stroke, in Hamburg.

At one point in his life, Schnittke converted to Christianity, and this only reinforced the deeply held mystic beliefs which influenced his music. Schnittke’s preoccupation with mysticism is evinced in his Concerto for mixed chorus a cappella, which is unquestionably one of the choral masterpieces of the last century. Schnittke’s Choir concerto is an expressive and complex work in four movements, and sets the Russian translation of a series of “sorrowful psalms” by the medieval Armenian saint, Grigor Narekatsi. Throughout these devotional prayers, images of light and darkness are juxtaposed with life and death, salvation and sin, violence and peace, all ravishingly set by this master.

Eric Banks, founder and director of Seattle-based choir The Esoterics

Although in the western Christian tradition the word “liturgy” is used to describe the wording and form of any religious office, in the Orthodox Church, it refers specifically to the eucharistic rite—what a Catholic would call “The Mass.” In common with the western rite, “The Liturgy” contains an Introit, sentences for the Epistle and Gospel, the Creed, Sanctus and Benedictus; it also includes a number of Litanies and a Eucharistic Prayer.

John of Antioch was chosen as Bishop of Constantinople in 398 A.D., largely on the reputation of his devotional and inspiring sermons (the Greek sobriquet “Chrysostom” means “golden-mouth”). Despite opposition to his attempts to reform the lives and morals of the citizens by the Empress Eudora (and his eventual exile by her in 404 A.D.), John became regarded as a father of the early church, and was canonized shortly after his death. Among his surviving works are his radiant sermon for Easter day, a prayer (“…when two or three are gathered together in Thy name…”) and his version of the Orthodox liturgy. In fact, it is probable that the “Liturgy of St John Chrysostom” is actually a later adaptation of two earlier liturgies—those by St. Basil and St. James—and merely dedicated to the reforming patriarch who began the process of change. For many centuries, however, the “Chrysostom Liturgy” has been the most used version of the liturgy in the Orthodox Church, and when Russia adopted the Orthodox faith in the 10th century, the Liturgy (translated into Church Slavonic) was adopted, too.

This setting of The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, written in 1910, was the first of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s three major choral works, the others being The Bells (1913) and the All-Night Vigil or Vespers (1915). The composer had just returned from a harrowing tour of the United States, and he settled down, at his recently-inherited estate at Ivanovka, to a period of steady Russian-inspired composing. Although history marks Rachmaninoff down as not being par­ticularly religious, it is clear from his letters to friends and colleagues, and from the nature of the work (it is a complete setting of the Liturgy, including responses to prayers for priests/deacons), that he intended the work to be used in church rather than just as a concert piece (Tchaikovsky’s 1878 setting of the Liturgy had been condemned by the church authorities as being too frivolous). Rachmaninoff’s written codicil on the manuscript (“Finished, thanks be to God, 30 July 1910, Ivanovka”) would seem to confirm his spiritual motivation. In a letter to his friend Morozov, Rachmaninoff wrote:

I have long thought about the Liturgy, and I have long aimed at it. I took it up rather by chance and immediately got carried away. After that, I finished it very quickly. Not for a long time…have I written anything with such pleasure.

In fact, the piece was composed in an astonishingly short time—less than three weeks. Unlike the All-Night Vigil, which contains several movements based on traditional Orthodox Znamenny chant, the Liturgy is entirely free-composed and contains no extraneous material. For guidance on the content of the work, Rachmaninoff turned to Alexander Kastalsky, director of the Moscow Synodal School (a religious foundation). It was the choir of the school that gave the piece its first (secular) performance on 25 November 1910. Alas, once again, the church authorities were unimpressed, and felt that Rachmaninoff’s setting was not suitable for church use, and so it was probably never performed in a religious context. As a teacher of religion at the Synodal School remarked, “…absolutely wonderful, even too beautiful, but with such music it would be difficult to pray; it is not church music.”

Barry Creasy, Chairman, Collegium Musicum of London