We named our upcoming concert “Left Behind” on a whim, last summer—we needed at least a placeholder, as we prepared promotional materials, and no other title presented itself. The name grew on us, however-- because it expressed, more clearly than anything else we came up with, the peculiar and tragic circumstances surrounding the music we had decided to program. I spent a good portion of my summer reading, and rereading, War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). I was struck forcibly by Tolstoy’s grand, romantic, nationalistic vision-- his portrait of what he regarded as the true Russia, shining through the accretions of other, assumed, foreign cultural influences. His was a very important voice, in the immense surge of Russian nationalism which overwhelmed the country, politically and artistically, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—a surge so complicated, so contradictory, so inevitable, culminating in the Bolshevik Revolution which began in 1917. The Russian Orthodox Church was, at first, a major part of this surge—resulting in a fundamental rebirth and revitalization of the chants and other musical material from the historic past, and a purging of Western European musical influences which had crept in, along with other foreign influences, during the preceding several hundred years. It was a heady time for the composers and performers of church music, mostly centered in Moscow and constituting a group now known of as the New Russian Choral School—they produced a virtual explosion of new choral compositions, based on old models but with modern vigor and excitement, and fostered a vital, thrilling approach to choral performance, appropriate to these compositions.
The best-known name to emerge at this time, to us Americans, is Sergei Rachmaninoff, who composed two major choral cycles for the Orthodox church; but he was by no means alone. Other names include Pavel Chesnokov, Alexandre Grechaninov, and Nicolai Golovanov, who, along with a host of others, produced an immense body of repertoire over a very short period of time, about fifteen years, until they were cut short by the revolution, in 1917. The Orthodox church was ultimately closed down by the officially atheistic state, and with it, church music. Many of these composers left Russia while they could, but were unable to continue composing church music outside of their familiar context; others remained in Russia, but turned their skills toward composing instrumental music, or secular, nationalistic music for the state. Copies of their church music slowly became available in the West, at first in English translation, but more and more commonly, now, in the original Church Slavonic; the entire repertoire has become an important part of the world-wide canon of choral concert music. Very little of this music, however, was composed after 1917; its context had disappeared, as surely as the context for Bach’s cantatas has disappeared, and the music exists today as art music. That particular mode of composition, as a living expression of worship, was choked off, and left behind, in 1917.
A particularly poignant tragedy took place in the musical life of Maximilian Steinberg, a contemporary of the composers named above, who lived and worked in St. Petersburg, rather than in Moscow. Inspired by hearing a performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, he determined that he, too, would contribute to this repertoire, and he set to work composing a similar cycle, Passion Week, based upon historic chants and models. He continued working on it through the early years of the revolution, completing it finally in 1923. The anti-church stance of the revolutionaries had not started out as absolute, and Steinberg had hoped that his composition would be performed, at least as a concert piece; but by the time he had finished it, the work was condemned by the authorities, and the composer never heard it performed. More profoundly than for his Moscow colleagues, Steinberg’s work was left behind. He managed to get a copy of it to Paris, where it was published, with its text translated into several different languages, inviting performance by anyone who might be interested; but there is no evidence that it was ever sung. Fortunately for the musical world, Russian-American conductor Igor Buketoff (1915-2001) owned a copy of this Parisian publication, believed in the work, and pressed for its performance over the course of his life. Finally, after his death, the work received its first performance on April 11, 2014, in Portland, Oregon, by the Cappella Romana. It was performed in New York in an “open reading” by the Clarion Choir on the same weekend. Finally, just last week (October 24-29), it received it’s Russian premier, first in St. Petersburg, then in Moscow, in performances by the Clarion Choir. “Left behind” did not ending up meaning left forever.