Beginning rehearsals on The Sealed Angel
Chorale convened for its first rehearsal of the 2012-13 season last Wednesday, to begin learning The Sealed Angel, by Rodion Shchedrin (b.1932). After spending an hour and a half placing singers in a new seating arrangement, we read through the final two movements—movements we sang in concert two seasons ago, and therefore familiar to a goodly percentage of the group. Although a recording of the work has been available to the group for some weeks, there is nothing quite like getting a piece into ones own voice, and hearing it up close for the first time; clearly, members, especially the new ones, were surprised and relieved to discover that this strangely named work is hauntingly, evocatively beautiful, promising lots of meat for the singers, and a rare, thrilling experience for listeners. It is risky to commit ones group to a virtually unknown work, gambling that your risk will pay off three months down the road; presentation and marketing can turn into a major financial loss, if you guess wrong. I believe I have guessed right; we are going to have a great time with this work.
Shchedrin, currently one of Russia’s premier composers, wrote this nine-movement cantata in 1988, in commemoration of the millennium of the conversion of Russia to Christianity. It received its premier that same year, and was awarded the Russian State Prize in 1992 by President Boris Yeltsin. Originally titled Russian Liturgy, the hour-long work references pre-1917 Russian Orthodox worship, with its sacred, Old Slavonic texts, chant-based melodies, and modal harmonies. Shchedrin comes from a religious family, which maintained the forms and habits of its faith through the Soviet era; and his goal in composing this work was to enable a reawakening of orthodox Christianity, within the changing but still officially atheistic state. But rather than promote a literal resumption of this tradition, Shchedrin suggests a new approach to it, represented through his use of instrumental accompaniment, which would have been forbidden in traditional orthodox worship.
As the date of the work's premier approached, Shchedrin became cautious concerning official censorship, and he changed the work's title to the relatively harmless The Sealed Angel, after a well-known story by the celebrated Russian novelist Nikolai Leskow (1831-1895), thus veiling the work's liturgical basis.
Leskow's story concerns a community of "Old Believers," whose greatest treasure is an icon of an angel, said to perform miracles of healing. The prohibited sect is denounced to the state, and the official seal is embossed onto the middle of the confiscated angel’s face. Though Shchedrin’s work is not programmatic, it explores the most ancient practices and liturgies of the Orthodox Church in its musical materials, and features liturgical texts Leskow mentions in his book. In both its monumental dimensions and subject matter, The Sealed Angel is rooted in the tradition of large-scale liturgical compositions, particularly all-night vigils, which were prominent up to the time of the Revolution, particularly as set by such composers as Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Gretchaninoff, and Chesnokov.
The work is set for chorus a cappella, soloists, and "svirel"-- a generic term for Russian folk woodwind instruments. The notes in the German edition from which Chorale is singing, translate “svirel” as ”Flöte,” and, indeed, all the recordings of which I am aware utilize obligato flute, though a small-print footnote in the score states that “the actual instrument, whether a flute or a reed instrument, [is] open to choice.” I have decided to use oboe, rather than flute, for a couple of reasons. From a practical standpoint, an oboe is far easier for singers to tune to, than a flute, especially in the acoustically rich spaces in which we will sing; in addition, I find the somewhat straight and plaintive sound of the oboe more folk-like, than the rich, cultivated sound of a modern flute. Besides; since we will be producing a studio recording of our efforts, we will effectively be making available an alternative example of the work.