Why "The Sealed Angel"?

Though one of Russia’s most important composers of the second half of the twentieth century, Rodion Shchedrin is not well-known in the United States. His “liturgical cantata,” The Sealed Angel, was first performed in this country in May 1990 by the New England Conservatory Camerata and the Longy Chamber Singers under the direction of Lorna Cooke deVaron. Portions of the following are extracted from that performance’s program notes: Rodion Shchedrin was born in Moscow on December 16, 1932. He graduated from the Moscow Conservatory where he took courses in piano with Yakov Flier and composition with Yuri Shaporin. Following graduation, he achieved great recognition within the accepted Soviet establishment. He wrote about current trends in Soviet music in official publications and held several significant posts within the Composer's Union, including chairman of the Russian Federation section. He received numerous awards, and was made a People's Artist of the USSR in 1981. Shchedrin has settled abroad since the break-up of the Soviet Union, and has homes in Munich and Moscow. His early works are written in an orthodox Soviet idiom. In the 1960s Shchedrin began incorporating different styles of music, such as Neoclassicism, pop music and jazz. In the 1970s, he found his personal synthesis. His music spans a broad range of styles, from engaging, folk-based melodies to atonal techniques of the West.

Shchedrin composed The Sealed Angel, also known as ‘Russian Liturgy,’ in 1988, in commemoration of the millennium of the Christianization of Russia. It received its premier that same year, and was awarded the Russian State Prize in 1992 by President Boris Yeltsin.

Shchedrin came from a religious background; his grandfather was a priest, and his parents raised him with knowledge of their historic Orthodox faith. He attended the Moscow Choir School between the ages of 12 and 18, where the pupils were introduced to the great liturgies of the 18th and 19th centuries with secular texts. With this ‘Russian Liturgy,’ which utilizes Old Slavonic sacred texts, he wanted to compose a work which would resume the tradition of Russian Orthodox music that had been interrupted by the 1917 Revolution. The Perestroika of the mid 1980’s seemed to offer this opportunity.

Shchedrin specifies that sections of the short story by Nikolai Leskov (1831 - 1895) called "The Sealed Angel" be read to the audience amid the nine movements which make up the choral part of The Sealed Angel. The texts of the movements are liturgical but have been adapted by Shchedrin. "The Sealed Angel" was written by Leskov in 1872. The story describes a group of people in 18th-century Russia who belonged to the sect called the Old Believers.

In the mid-17th century the Russian Orthodox patriarch Nikon came into violent conflict with the Russian Tsar Alexis. As head of the Church, Nikon decided that all of the Russian religious texts and icons should be cleaned up ridding them of the errors, which have been introduced over the centuries of copying. A group formed known as the Old Believers disapproved of the reform; they regarded the religious texts as sacred documents transmitted from God. In 1656, a church council sanctioned the Nikon reforms and ordered that the Old Believers be banned or imprisoned. Nikon was deposed in 1666, but the Russian church retained his reforms and anathematized those who continued to oppose them. The next major religious reform took place under Peter the Great in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It was Peter who did away with the office of patriarch and changed his title from Tsar to Emperor, the ruler of both church and state. Peter the Great and the rulers who followed began importing foreign art. Models from the West offered new modes of art for religious objects, and the long history of the Russian icon came to an end with the exception of the devout Old Believers. Their icons were painted by their own artists who followed in the footsteps of the old masters. The Orthodox Church and the Tsar's authorities persecuted the dissenters by raiding their homes and coating their icons with sealing wax and taking them away. The Old Believers formed a vigorous body of dissenters within the Russian Orthodox Church for the next two centuries. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Russian government did away with the secular legislation that forbade the practices of the Old Believers and encouraged all the underground units to come out into the open. For many decades, Old Believers flourished, especially in Moscow. They collected old icons and even had them scientifically restored.

Nikolai Leskov himself was a connoisseur and collector of icons. "The Sealed Angel" was written in the studio of an old icon painter. He admired the Old Believers' stubborn tenacity, but he recognized the fact that their fanaticism resisted real progress.

In his story a group of Old Believers are working together to build a stone bridge over the Dniepr River in Ukraine, under the supervision of an English engineer, whom they called Yakov Yakovlevich. The authorities raid the special wagon where the icons of these Old Believers are set up for their worship; they throw wax seals on the icons and confiscate them. The Old Believers are heartbroken at the loss of their beloved icon of a shining angel, which they believe absolutely was guiding their lives. They hire an icon painter named Sebastian, who steals into the side of the monastery where the confiscated icon is held, makes a tracing of the original, and paints a duplicate icon. When Sebastian has finished, a trio of the Old Believers steals the true icon and the artist removes the wax seal from the angel's countenance. After placing a wax seal on the duplicate, they take it, during an evening service, which occupies all within the monastery, to the side chapel to replace the original. As they pass it through the window, they discover that the seal has come off the counterfeit icon. When evening service ends, a remorseful Luka Kirrilov, their leader, confesses to the Bishop their plan and its denouement. The bishop, saying that the Church's angel (the copy) is more holy than the original because it removed its own seal, persuades Luka to join the established Church. Luka agrees to do so and all his fellow Old Believers follow him.

Shchedrin’s work is in no way programmatic, but it does explore the most ancient practices and liturgies of the Orthodox Church in its musical materials. Shchedrin named the work after this story, rather than identifying it as a sacred work, to avoid the state censorship which persisted at the time of its composition.

The complete work consists of nine movements; Chorale will present only the last two.