25 October 2007, 16:28

CHURCH MUSIC BY TCHAIKOVSKY

We devoted this program to the church music by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The “Vespers” and the “Liturgy” — two colossal works of genius… Masterpieces, that were destined to play a very special role in Russia’s musical history… “The Liturgy”… Incidentally, for Tchaikovsky, this was his first effort in church music!

We devoted this program to the church music by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The “Vespers” and the “Liturgy” — two colossal works of genius… Masterpieces, that were destined to play a very special role in Russia’s musical history…



“The Liturgy”… Incidentally, for Tchaikovsky, this was his first effort in church music! Imagine what a first tentative experiment may result in!



It’s true that by the time of the creation of his “Liturgy” Tchaikovsky was already the author of “Eugene Onegin”, four symphonies, the Violin Concerto, in a word – masterpieces, all! However, in this case we are dealing with a unique event: the masterpiece was “programmed”! We can find the reply to your quite possible surprised and perplexed reaction in the diary entries of the composer himself. “I want to try and do something for our church music. In this respect a composer faces a vast, almost untouched field of activity!”



What did Tchaikovsky mean by “virtually untouched field of activity”, if for nine centuries church music was one of the pillars of Russian culture? It thundered, it shone, it showered onto the world scores, hundreds of grand-scale choral canvasses. Church music was written by all composers, throughout the thousand years of the existence of professional musical art in Russia.



The fact is, in Tchaikovsky’s time – even from the very beginning of the 19th century – the situation had changed. The level of Russian church music had drastically dropped, and the Masters paid practically no attention to it! (Glinka, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov – they, too, wrote church music, and very good music at that… But every one of them has but a few choral works – their main attention having been focused on the new for Russia genres of opera and symphony!) Tchaikovsky, as we all know, was also busy in this sphere, and most intensively, too. But he deemed it his duty to return to Orthodox music its former grandeur…



The desire to write church music was no mere ‘intuitive’ impulse for Tchaikovsky. In all his other undertakings very impulsive and often prone to adopting conflicting decisions, capable of becoming fired by a new idea momentarily and just as quickly cooling off, in this case Tchaikovsky went consciously and unhurriedly towards his intended goal, once he’d set his mind on it.



The birth of his choral monuments was preceded by a truly gigantic scientific work! The composer studied hundreds of old music manuscripts, prepared for publishing a complete collection of works by the Titan of Russian church music Dmitry Bortnyansky – and that’s many hundreds of compositions! In the process of this analytical effort he could see his own goal ever more clearly and distinctly: he wanted to return to Orthodox music its one-time national originality. And for this, believed Tchaikovsky, one had to return quite forgotten traditions of old Russian church music… to breathe fresh life into absolutely unique chants, written in line with canons that had nothing in common with European music.



The great “Liturgy” by Tchaikovsky has a symptomatic subtitle: “an attempt at harmonizing old Russian chants”. Indeed, this is in no way a self-denigrating comment by the composer! At one time, in the first centuries of Christianity in Russia, the ability to follow tradition was deemed the summit point of those creating music. These highly respected people were called ‘canon singers’. It was seen as the higher purpose of all those creating ancient chants to further traditions, to continue what had been trail blazed by ancient predecessors, carefully selected by generations before them.



Let us give Tchaikovsky’s desire to be such a “canon singer’ it’s due… it was no easy task to deny oneself any opportunity to self-express one’s own sentiments in music. And this was a feat for a composer who in all of his other, non-church efforts, like no other announced loudly to the world his private, unique experience and super-emotions!



The conscious humility and reverence for the great canons of the ancestors – such was the church music of Tchaikovsky…



We should also duly appreciate the great intuition of the wonderful Russian composer. For almost a century before Tchaikovsky almost falling into oblivion, now Russian church music reclaimed its former lofty grandeur. The road that the creators of new great masterpieces followed was the road mapped out by Tchaikovsky in his “Liturgy” and “Vespers”…





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