O Pavitel' sushchevo fsevo [16'27]
Fsem tem, kto vniknet [11'37]
Unquestionably one of the choral masterpieces of the 20th century, Alfred Schnittke's Concerto for Mixed Chorus is an extended setting (about 40 minutes' duration) of words from 'The Book of Lamentations' by the Armenian monk Grigor Narekatsi (951-1003). Written in 1984/5, it is scored for a very large choir and for this recording Holst Singers were augmented by large contingents of London's finest singers.
Like Wagner (in Tannhäuser) and Richard Strauss (in Guntram), Schnittke was attracted to the poetry and music of the minnesingers, the German medieval tradition of courtly lyrics and secular monophony. At first he planned to write an instrumental piece (intended for his third violin concerto) based on songs by the minnesingers, but he later rejected this idea and decided to keep these vocal melodies for vocal music. The result is Minnesang (1980/81) for 52 voices (18 sopranos, 12 altos, 10 tenors and 12 basses).
The third work on the disc is the haunting and evocative Voices of Nature, from 1972. This is a vocalise—that is, without words—for ten female voices and vibraphone. Its first public performance took place in spring 1975. Superb performances directed by the recipient of the recent Gramophone Award for the Best Choral Record of the Year (Britten's Sacred and Profane, CDA67140), Stephen Layton.
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It was a real shock for many young Russian composers when, at the beginning of the 1970s, Alfred Schnittke – who was deeply respected and trusted in everything he did, and who had always been a consistent follower of the radical avant-garde in music – unexpectedly turned back to an almost conventional style and to the seemingly unjustified simplification of his musical language. It was difficult to accept, but it was the spirit of the times: tiredness and disillusionment with structuralism and complexity, as well as the rolling back to positions of a so-called ‘new simplicity’. But at the same time Schnittke suddenly won a great number of new admirers and worshippers, and since then his music has soared to the peak of its recognition and popularity.
One of the seminal works of Schnittke’s new style was the Concerto for Mixed Chorus (1984/5). The premiere took place on 9 June 1986 at the State Pushkin’s Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow with the State Chamber Choir conducted by Valery Poliansky. Schnittke based his Concerto on the third chapter of ‘The Book of Lamentations’ by the Armenian monk Grigor Narekatsi (951-1003), translated into Russian by Naum Grebnev.
Everybody knew Schnittke’s strong interest in God and religion, a subject that has always been highly important for the Russian intelligentsia and always forbidden in Soviet times. This theme was raised again and again as a form of protest against communist ideology, for the freedom of the conscience and for the choice to believe or not.
Schnittke joined this ‘God-seeking’ division and had already written the Catholic Requiem in 1975, which was allowed by the authorities only because it was performed as incidental music for Friedrich Schiller’s play Don Carlos. The words of the Requiem have also been used as a text hidden underneath the instrumental lines of his Piano Quintet written between 1972 and 1976 in memory of his mother. His Second Symphony ‘St Florian’ (1979) was a ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’ Mass, where instead of the Latin text the soloists and choir just sang ‘ah’. Der Sonnengesang des Franz Assisi (1976) was a ‘hidden’ work, never performed in Soviet Russia. Schnittke’s agonizing search for the religion or congregation he belongs to was reflected in his Fourth Symphony (1984) – another ‘song without words’ – for four soloists, chorus and orchestra, where characteristics of Jewish, Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic religious music were merged in one strange multi-faceted combination.
In his Concerto for Mixed Chorus, in spite of a slight flavour of ancient Armenian choral singing (such as the ‘empty’ parallel fifths of the opening phrase, or the mode with the augmented second and diminished octave in the third movement), Schnittke had chosen a clear model of the Russian choral concerto of the eighteenth century represented by such composers as Dmitry Bortniansky or Maxim Berezovsky, who made a strong influence on the liturgical music of such great Russian composers as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.
The four movements of the Concerto reflect the four different subdivisions and themes of Narekatsi’s chapter: (i) the rapturous praise and appeal to God; (ii) the list of those whom the lamentations might be expected to reach; (iii) the hope of redemption and deliverance for those who will understand the essence of these words and for the poet himself who wrote them; (iv) the humble prayer asking God to complete these songs and give them a healing power.
The musical language of the piece is extremely simple: it is based on traditional harmony and familiar melodic formulae of Russian Orthodox music of the past, so-called ‘znamennyj raspev’ (a singing by signs or neumes). But listening to it again and again, one can recognize some typical elements of Schnittke’s style and even come to understand that the piece is a sort of microcosm or vocabulary of Schnittke’s personal musical language in its most open and clearly visible form.
We can point out some of its features: for example, a gradual forming of diatonic clusters, as at the second line of the first movement – ‘bestowing priceless gifts upon us’ (‘bestsennymi darami nas dar’ashchij’); the confrontation of the triads with a common third, as C sharp minor and C major by the words ‘invisible, eternal’ (‘nevidimyj, izvetchnyj’) or G sharp major and G major with the text ‘and terrifying and beneficent’ (‘i uzhasajushchij, i blagadatnyj’); the comparison of major and minor triads of the (enharmonically) same tonic as D sharp minor and E flat major expressing the words ‘treasure, purest rain’ ('klad, prechistyj dozhd'); the extensive use of imitations or canons, as in the second and third movements; the use of chromatic scales in the melody and even chromatic moving clusters in the harmony, as in the third movement at the words about sin or death; use of wide intervallic leaps (sevenths, octaves or ninths) for the expression of some great and important ideas such as ‘the burden of unredeemed sins’ (‘gruz grekhof neiskupl’onnykh’) in the third movement. This list goes on and on.
The dependence on the text was in this case especially enormous. Schnittke himself stated about the piece: ‘I wrote music which was evoked by this text, but not the music I wanted to write’. This phrase can explain a lot about the style and direction the composer was forced to choose, not by fashion nor a striving for popularity, but by the attentive listening to his inner voice, the trust in his own intuition and wish to express his most intimate and profound thoughts and feelings.
But this process began much earlier and we can see some similar results in his other pieces represented here. Voices of Nature (Golosa prirody, 1972) is a vocalise for ten female voices (five sopranos and five altos) and vibraphone, without text. Its first public performance took place in spring 1975 at the Bolshoi Hall of the Moscow Conservatory with the Students’ Choir of the Moscow Conservatory conducted by Boris Tevlin.
Originally this was an episode from the music for the documentary by Mikhail Romm ‘And Yet I Believe’. After the terrible pictures of war and catastrophe, drug addiction and the revival of Nazism, suddenly a dreamlike episode follows showing the mountains and forests, deer, and the Earth from space, accompanied by music of light and beauty.
Schnittke found that the piece is quite suitable for concert performance, in spite of the fact that its structure is so simple: just two phrases, thirty melodic sounds and about five minutes in duration. The music begins with a very quiet middle D and gradually finds its path by groping, forming on its way some diatonic clusters or tonal chords (of B flat major and C minor) and quietly disappearing at the upper D. The sound of the tremolo vibraphone is perfectly merged together with female voices, generating a magically glimmering musical timbre.
The other work on this disc, Minnesang (1980-81), was written for fifty-two voices (eighteen sopranos, twelve altos, ten tenors and twelve basses). It was first performed on 21 October 1981 at the festival ‘Musikprotokol’ in the Chamber Hall of Graz Congress, with the Pro Arte Choir (Graz) conducted by Karl Ernst Hoffman. It sets the original minnesingers’ text.
Influenced by Provençal troubadours and northern French trouvères, the poetry of German lyric poets flourished in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Minnesingers were mainly of aristocratic origin, in contrast to meistersingers who were of middle merchant class and came two centuries later. They called themselves Minnesinger (‘Singers of Love’) because love (Minne) was the principal subject of their poetry.
As with Wagner in Tannhäuser and Richard Strauss in Guntram, Schnittke was attracted to the poetry and music of Minnesang. He began to work with this material in 1977. At first he planned to write an instrumental piece based on songs by minnesingers, and intended this for his Third Violin Concerto. But later he rejected that idea and decided to keep the vocal melodies for vocal music.
Schnittke selected a number of the original songs of the Monk of Salzburg (c1350-1410), Friedrich von Sonnenburg, Meister Alexander, Heinrich von Meissen (died 1318), Neidhart von Reuental (c1180-1240), Walther von der Vogelweide (c1170-1230) and Wolfram von Eschenbach (died c1220). He divided the fragments of these songs among the fifty-two singers (ten groups of three to six people plus two groups of soloists). ‘I set the task to limit myself with only montage work without changing any note of these songs’ – Schnittke wrote in his programme note for the first performance.
Schnittke did not want to use the choir in its usual way, but suggested dispersing the singers on and around the stage, or to perform the piece somewhere other than a concert hall. As he stated: ‘I wanted to create a picture of some magic act, which is based on this music. And the middle High-German text, incomprehensible now even for Germans, which I left unchanged, has no importance here – it is transformed into phonemes, and does not express any plot, but rather creates some mood’.
Already in the finale of his First Symphony (1972), Schnittke had a similar experience of working with borrowed musical material. There he took a number of Bach’s chorales and made them sound simultaneously in a rich clustering C major. Here he chose a Dorian (white-key) D minor, exploring exquisite multi-voiced diatonic textures based on multi-storey unison canons for at least fifteen minutes before a clear modulation into C major with a huge climax on C. A two-minute coda written in a quiet C minor follows, suggesting a charming tonal contrast to the main body of the piece.
The paradox of Minneang is that the score looks extremely complicated, but the music sounds amazingly simple and attractive. However, its simplicity is very different to the simplicity of the language of the Concerto for Mixed Chorus, which convincingly expresses very profound and complicated ideas and feelings, where every tiny gesture and every motive is very significant and powerful. And Voices of Nature is also different: its innocent intuitive simplicity and astonishing laconism is capable of showing beauty in its greatest possible scale like ‘the world in a grain of sand’.
Dmitri Smirnov © 2002