Reawakening The Sealed Angel

Rodion ShchedrinChorale is now two weeks into rehearsals for our June 9-10 presentations of The Sealed Angel, by Rodion Shchedrin (b.1932).  We learned this work back in 2012, when we performed and recorded it—and it has sat in the back of my mind ever since, quietly demanding that it be heard again. Then, the relative obscurity of the work, and its strange title, were somewhat daunting: would audiences even be willing to listen to it? I remember first reading through it in rehearsal—singers were surprised and relieved to discover that it was hauntingly beautiful, promising lots of satisfying emotional and vocal involvement for them. Over the course of performing and recording it, we found that it also afforded a rare, thrilling experience for listeners; indeed, those performances were some of the most rewarding we have ever done, and earned a stellar review for us from Lawrence Johnson of Chicago Classical Review, who wrote, “Friday night’s performance of The Sealed Angel at Hyde Park Union Church offered one of the most transcendent, beautifully sung and immaculately directed choral performances of this or any other year.” A month later, our performance was designated Top Classical Performance of 2012. 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. Fortunately, we guessed right. And we are beyond happy to be working on it again, this spring. Singers who were not with us in 2012 are in for a wonderful musical experience. Shchedrin, one of Russia’s premier modern 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; 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, most of 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.