Diving into Steinberg's Passion Week

Our first rehearsal was a great success! Voices fell into place more easily than I had anticipated, and we were able to dive right into our new repertoire. After a few minutes spent turning on brains to the Russian style and Slavonic language, with a couple of motets from the more-familiar Moscow Synodical School, by Gretchaninov and Chesnokov, we moved on to our major work, Passion Week, by Maximilian Steinberg, who lived and worked in Petersburg. Maximilian SsteinbergOne is immediately struck, going from “Moscow music” to “Petersburg music,” by the difference in style between the two idioms. Moscow music, composed in Moscow before the 1917 revolution, is rich, dark, luxuriant. I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace this past summer, and was struck by Tolstoy’s description of the Countess Ellen’s “dark, heavy style of Russian beauty”-- everything he writes about her appearance and presence could be written as well about this musical style. The combination of Western harmonic movement with “exotic” eastern modalism; the mostly regular bar and phrase lengths; the galloping rhythms, which seem almost a musical representation of Cossacks riding across the steppes-- it is an immediately attractive, nationalistic musical language which speaks of every westerner’s fantasy of what romantic, imperial Russia must have been like. The idiom, like Ellen’s beauty, is immediately accessible and attractive—and rightly so: works like Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil have greatly enlivened our concert life in the past few years, and have inspired numerous contemporary, non-Russian composers to seek a similar path within their own idioms.

Steinberg’s Petersburg music is a different thing altogether. In the first place, Passion Week was composed in 1923, after the revolution, in an atmosphere of ”war, anarchy, and militant atheism” (Musica Russica)—Steinberg had to have known that he was working directly against his time, and that his composition would never be performed; and this realization has to have affected his compositional mood and vision. And his systematic approach to his materials was in any case very different.  Petersburg was Russia's window on western Europe, and the conservatory there, under the leadership of Rimsky-Korsakov, was more open to a Germanic, academic way of looking at music and music composition. Steinberg's music, though based upon conscientious utilization of the same, authentic orthodox chants which inspired the Moscow composers, makes very different use of them. The Moscow composers used these “canti firmi” as a starting point, copying, manipulating, and segmenting them as they saw fit, toward the sound ideal I describe above. Steinberg treats the chants, with all their idiosyncracies, their lack of harmonic and rhythmic dynamism, lack of emotionally satisfying beginnings, middles, and ends, as the iron fist around which he weaves his accompanying polyphonies and harmonies. The resulting music seems strangely passive, at first; written without time signatures or bar lines, it seems to wander, abruptly changing course without transition or motivation, cadencing without the denoument to which we are accustomed. As our rehearsal went on, I could sense that the singers were starting to “get it”—finding Steinberg’s inner logic and pace, sensing the new and different way he had of defining sections within the music. I can tell this concert will be a big challenge for us; I also can tell that the singers are not only intrigued, but attracted. Chorale is, as always, fortunate to have such bright, educated, sophisticated singers, who confidently, fearlessly, take on new challenges. Would that we could all feel so open to learning new things!

A final comparison occurs to me. The nationalistic renaissance of interest in native British music which took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, inspired many fine composers, conductors, choirmasters, to create an English choral style which is the envy of the entire musical world today. Earlier composers, especially Parry, Holst, Vaughan Williams, and their associates, produced a style which seems almost to shout, “This great and green and lovely England,” a style immediately accessible and gracious to the listener. We love this music, and I would not denigrate it for a moment. But then composers like Benjamin Britten came along-- inspired by the same nationalism, the same discovery of native roots, but putting these elements to much different use. Imagine if you will a concert of favorite greatest hits by Britten and Vaughan Williams: what a fascinating juxtaposition! Expect just such a juxtaposition in Chorale’s November concerts.