Program notes for this weekend's "Sealed Angel" concerts
Rodion Shchedrin (b.1932) composed his nine-movement cantata, The Sealed Angel, to commemorate the millennium of Russia’s conversion to Christianity. Despite the official atheism of the Soviet era, Shchedrin’s family had retained its religious identity--- his grandfather was an Orthodox priest, and he himself had been secretly baptized. At age twelve, he was admitted to the Moscow Academy of Choral Art, where he received a rigorous choral music education, singing sacred works both by Russian composers and by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, but with nonreligious texts—“awful, new, especially written words by terrible poets—about the wonderful weather, the birds singing, the grass growing, praising the Motherland—just terrible!” In an interview with David Wordsworth, Shchedrin says that he had long wanted to compose a major religious work in the Russian choral tradition, exemplified in the major works of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, “but for the great composers of the time, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, for instance, this was impossible; such religious feelings could be punished very seriously. They had to write choral works called ‘Hymn to Stalin,’ ‘Hymn to Lenin,’ and such things. I finished my work in 1988 and wanted to call it a ‘Russian Liturgy’ but knew even then that it would not have left my desk, despite perestroika, so not even a religious title. I had no commission and no choir in mind at all.” He instead entitled the work The Sealed Angel, after a well-known story by celebrated novelist Nicolai Leskov (1831-1895). Leskov's story concerns a community of "Old Believers," a conservative sect that sought to keep sacred icons and texts free from the influence of modern reforms. The community’s greatest treasure is an icon of an angel, believed to provide healing and guidance. Outsiders come to know of this angel, and the community is denounced to state officials, who confiscate the icon, coat it with wax, and emboss an official seal onto the angel’s face. Ultimately, a famous painter of icons named Sebastian is able to restore the icon to its full glory and power. Though Shchedrin’s cantata borrows very little from the story’s actual content, his choice of the story’s title is far from random—the restoration of the icon in many ways reflects the restoration of Orthodox faith and practice, during the period of the Soviet order’s disintegration; and Shchedrin’s text features liturgical texts and prayers Leskow mentions in his book. One particular passage, “Angel of the Lord, may thy tears be poured forth wherever thou wilt,” heard in its entirety in both the first and last movements, and in abbreviated versions elsewhere, and set to the dominant musical theme of the work, comes directly from Leskov’s story—it is a prayer said before the icon by one of the story’s characters.
Fortunately, Shchedrin’s timing was good, and the degree to which his title hid his religious intent, sufficient. He was able to organize a performance of the work in Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Hall in 1988, the year of its completion, and the performance was well-received. Just four years later, in 1992, he and his cantata were awarded the Russian State Prize, by President Boris Yeltsin. The first American performance took place in Boston, in 1990, under the direction of Lorna Cooke de Varon.
Musically, as well as religiously, Shchedrin’s work looks backward at least as much as it looks forward-- backward toward the remarkable musical flowering in the realm of Russian Orthodox liturgical music during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which in turn was based upon the traditional chant of the Russian Orthodox Church. This chant, which can be traced back to the 11thcentury, consisted only of unison voices singing sacred texts, clearly and continuously, with no accompaniment, harmonization, or musical procedures such as polyphony or canonic imitation, which might obscure audibility or meaning. But contact with western European music and musicians in succeeding centuries weakened this practice; by mid-19th century, Russian choirs generally sang four-part harmony, following prevailing Italian and German musical styles. Harmonized according to the western system of functional tonality, the modal system of the ancient chants lost its integrity, and the resulting music lost meaning and interest. Composers, conductors, and church officials, aware of this, worked in the waning years of the century to develop a new style of church music, which revealed and preserved the nature of the ancient sources, while adapting the best of what had come from the outside. This music reached its peak in the compositions of Rachmaninoff, Chesnokov, Grechaninov, and others, and was halted only by the Revolution of 1917, when the composition and performance of church music was banned.
The Sealed Angel clearly owes a great deal to this liturgical tradition. Though newly composed, rather than based on pre-existent chants, Shchedrin’s music sounds comforting and accessible to listeners familiar with the pre-revolutionary style-- his melodies and their modal harmonizations, the voicing of his chords, the free metrical nature of his rhythms, unabashedly hark back to the music of his models. At the same time, he adds much that is outside the strict liturgical tradition: broadly expressive accelerandos and allargandos, extensive atonal passages, and unpitched screams, along with foot-stomping and hand-clapping. More importantly, he uses a solo instrument (forbidden in traditional liturgical music) both as accompaniment, and as a character in the drama—perhaps voicing the spirit of the angel, or the spirit of God. Shchedrin says of this instrument, in his interview with Wordsworth, that he had wished to use a Russian folk instrument, “a sort of Russian pipe, maybe like your recorder,” which would evoke the Russian folk tradition, “the music of the countryside, the Russian peasants I heard around me as a boy.” He concluded that the instrument he had in mind “would create pitch problems for the choir and is not able to play fast music, a very primitive but beautiful instrument, but many technical limitations. So I decided to use perhaps the nearest Western equivalent, the oboe, but this can also be a flute.”
Shchedrin accomplishes his purposeful combination of traditional elements with modern sounds, techniques, and procedures, so smoothly, and so unselfconsciously, that the listener is not jarred or confused by the result-- the music sounds very much of a piece, and unified in its impact. One senses that its stature will only grow over the coming years, as more choirs and audiences learn of it and experience it.