Posts Tagged 'Classical sheet music'

Musica Russica: Bringing Russian Choral Music to the World

VladimirMorosan

Vladimir Morosan

In 1979 a young American graduate student named Vladimir Morosan won a Fullbright Scholarship togo to the Moscow Conservatory to study choral performance in pre-revolutionary Russia. The Soviet state had banned public performance of sacred music decades before that in 1923, and vicious attacks on and repression of the Russian Orthodox Church combined with strong censorship over creative output practically eliminated Russians’ access to their own sacred musical tradition and the continuity of that tradition throughout the Soviet era. Nevertheless, because Morosan was an American citizen, not a Soviet citizen, he was allowed to access historical materials, articles and sheet music relating to the Russian Orthodox sacred tradition. Recognizing the extraordinary opportunity this presented, Morosan’s supervising professor at the Conservatory, himself secretly a believer, said, “Vladimir, you understand our situation, of course. We cannot perform our great sacred music openly. So I’m charging you to gather everything that you can and take it to the West, and teach them in the West how this music is to be performed so that it’s not lost forever.”

MusicaRussica.jpegBy 1987 Morosan had founded Musica Russica, setting out to compile a historical anthology of Russian sacred music to mark the millennium of Russian Christianity celebrated in 1988. The result, published in 1991, was One Thousand Years of Russian Church Music, a collection of 79 pieces covering a wide range of styles and genres of sacred music from early chant fragments through Golovanov’s “Lord’s Prayer” (“отче наш“/”Otche nash“), originally published on the eve of the 1917 Revolution. Major figures like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Rimsky-Korsakov are not included in this anthology but are instead given their own volumes, each focusing on a single composer’s complete sacred works. Today Musica Russica’s growing catalog encompasses Russia’s major sacred works, as well as a number of folk songs, and continues to extend back into the rich historical catalog and to support the reinvigorated Orthodox tradition of the post-Communist era.

What is it that distinguishes this music from the Western sacred choral traditions? Perhaps most instantly recognizable are the octavo basses, followed very closely by a fullness of sound across voice parts and registers. Though some of the more recent choral works contain optional instrumental accompaniment for concerts conducted outside of church settings, all of the music is composed to be able to be sung a cappella, as Russian churches don’t use instruments at all. As such, a lot of what we’d recognize instrumentally in the Western style became internalized in the choir, including those very same deep octavo basses.

The most critical element of Russian sacred choral music, though, is the word. In fact, some people say it’s not even appropriate to call Russian sacred choral music “music,” as “music” was something created in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance as the interplay of instruments. In the Orthodox understanding, Russian sacred choral music is deemed to be “singing,” which illustrates that the core experience is the sung word and that what is sung draws its raison d’être from the word. How the singers and conductor interpret something, how they experience it and how they communicate it to the audience, therefore, is of the utmost importance.

This is also true musically. Performing Russian sacred choral music without a sincere regard for the words is rather different than doing the same with Western sacred choral music. If we listen to the masses of Bach, Mozart or Brahms, for instance, what we hear is an interplay of musical sounds that incidentally have some text. The core, however, is an instrumental musical structure. In stark contrast, Russian sacred choral music contains little in the way of imitative counterpoint or fugal structures. There are a lot of vertical chords that aren’t always so interesting if you strip away the words, but if you pay close attention to the linguistic phrasing, what emerges is an ancient chant synthesized with the ancient Russian tradition of communal folk singing delivered through the lens of some of the greatest compositional masters of human history. This makes it some of the most singable repertoire in the world. As Morosan says:

Russian choral music is idiomatically choral. It encompasses so much of what we experience any time a group of people gets together and sings something in common.”

To give you a glimpse into this quite remarkable catalog, perhaps listen to a short piece by Rachmaninoff, “Rejoice, O Virgin” (“Bogoroditse Devo”), the sixth movement from his All-Night Vigil (Всенощное бдение/Vsenoshchnoye bdeniye), often considered to be one of the most beautiful choral pieces ever written. In many ways this piece is rather simple, but perhaps that is why we can connect with it so deeply.

As one of Rachmaninoff’s favorite compositions, he even requested that the fifth movement, “Lord, Now Lettest Thou” (“Ньине отпущаеши”/“Nine otpushchayeshi”), be sung at his funeral. This movement has a notorious final descending scale in the low bass line that ends with a sustained B-flat 1 (i.e., the third B-flat below middle C). Rachmaninoff recalled that when he first showed this passage to Nikolai Danilin, conductor of the Moscow Synodal Choir, before the premiere, “Danilin shook his head saying ‘Now where on earth are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas!’ Nevertheless, he did find them. I knew the voices of my countrymen.”

For those already familiar with Rachmaninoff, it’s perhaps worth taking a look at the 20th-century neoromantic composer, Georgy Sviridov. Living most of his life under the Soviet regime, Sviridov wasn’t able to simply publish sacred music. Like many of his contemporaries, he wrote sacred music “into the desk drawer,” knowing that the pieces may never be heard, but he also managed to find clever ways to get around the Soviet censorship system. A 1973 staging of Alexei Tolstoy’s play, “Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich,” a Romantic-era play set in the late 16th century, provided an opportunity to present a trio of sacred choruses at Moscow’s Maly Theater under the guise of incidental music. These Three Choruses — “Rejoice, O Virgin” (“Богородице Дево”/“Bogoroditse Devo”), “Sacred Love” (“Любовь сбятая”/“Liubov sviataya”) and “Verse of Repentance” (“Покаянный стих”/“Pokayanniy stih”) — employ actual liturgical chant melodies, as well as a heterophonic texture stemming from ancient folk singing.

Musica Russica offers these pieces and many more, complete with performance notes, detailed transliterations, English translations, pronunciation tracks and even a DVD called The ABC’s of Russian Diction to help choirs outside of Russia connect not only with the language, but with the entire essence of this deeply soulful and uplifting musical tradition.

Cantabile Qualities: Choral Music by Beethoven

Guest post by Jan Schumacher

Beethoven is not primarily thought of as a vocal composer, but why not? The choral collection compiled by Jan Schumacher, which contains both well-known and unknown choral works by Beethoven and original transcriptions of Beethoven’s works by other composers, reveals a great deal of extremely attractive repertoire.

The widely-held prejudice that “he could not write for voice” sticks to few composers as much as it does to Ludwig van Beethoven. This may be due to the fact that his place in music history is primarily as a revolutionary symphonist and creator of incomparable chamber music like the string quartets and piano sonatas. To take this to mean that he had no understanding of the human voice or did not know how to write for chorus, however, is to draw the wrong conclusion. Beethoven, like nearly every other composer of his age and indeed until the first half of the 20th century (with a few notable exceptions such as Chopin and Paganini), was equally used to composing for voice and instruments.

It is when we try to label Beethoven that we develop what can be misleading expectations. For instance, though we often group Beethoven together with bastions of Viennese classicism like Mozart and Haydn, this designation would lead us to expect a vocal lightness in his works that we find in his contemporaries. Indeed, there are many pieces among Beethoven’s choral works that do satisfy these expectations and are very singable for many choirs. The vocal demands of the Mass in C major, for example, are quite similar to those of the late Haydn masses.

Yet we must also recognize that defining Beethoven as a “classical” composer is extremely limiting. Beethoven was ahead of his time in many respects, and in his choral works, this push toward romanticism manifests through greater demands on the vocalists, as we see in the choral parts of the 9th Symphony and in his greatest choral-symphonic work, the Missa solemnis. The extreme ranges required by the Missa solemnis do not represent a failure of craftsmanship, but rather a clear compositional intention. The contrasts in the Missa solemnis are in fact essential elements of the work!

We should also consider Beethoven’s demanding choral repertoire in light of later composers like Berlioz, Liszt, Mahler and Reger who also demanded the utmost from their choral singers. Were these composers criticized as strongly as Beethoven for their choral works? Connecting Beethoven with these later composers instead of with the Viennese classicists allows us to see that Beethoven and choral composition fit together very well and that it is worth examining his choral output as a whole.

A very popular work, even during Beethoven’s lifetime, was Meeres Stille und Glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage), Op. 112. Beethoven set Goethe’s two-verse poem in a striking fashion: the first part (poco sostenuto, but alla breve time!) vividly describes the oppressive quiet and the vast expanse of the calm sea. In the lively second part Beethoven depicts both the surging and strengthening of the sea, as well as the inner joy and hope of the boatman who, thanks to the onset of the wind, can hope for a rapid voyage home. Beethoven demonstrates his vast compositional mastery in both the choral composition and the skillful orchestration.

Another gem that is performed much less often is the Elegischer Gesang (Elegiac Song), Op. 118, a short, restrained choral movement with string accompaniment. Beethoven composed the work in memory of Eleonore von Pasqualati, who died at the age of 24. She was the wife of Johann Baptist Freiherr von Pasqualati, a longtime friend of Beethoven’s. Musically condensed phrases of great intensity await the listener, which lead again and again into moments of softness and gentleness. The Elegischer Gesang may not be one of Beethoven’s major works, but it is a jewel well worth discovering. Together with the vocal and instrumental parts, a piano part has been handed down, and this can be used as an alternative to a string quartet. It is this version of the Elegischer Gesang that is included in the Beethoven Choral Collection.

BeethovenChoralCollectionQualitatively, there can be no doubt about Beethoven’s preeminence as a choral composer. It is only in terms of quantity that his choral output cannot compare with composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Handel or Bach. At first this seemed to be a problem in publishing a volume of Beethoven’s choral music, but of course there are canons, shorter choral movements, a few Scottish songs and excerpts from incidental music — e.g., König Stephan (King Stephen) and Die Ruinen von Athen (The Ruins of Athens) — as well as his oratorio, Christus am Ölberge (The Mount of Olives), all of which undoubtedly contain exciting discoveries for such a collection.

A number of choral arrangements of Beethoven’s instrumental works, as common and popular during Beethoven’s lifetime as they are today, are also included in the collection. Characterized by a noble, cantabile quality, Beethoven’s slow movements are especially fine models for choral arrangements, such as Silcher’s Persischer Nachtgesang, based on the second movement of the 7th Symphony, and the Hymne an die Nacht, based on the second movement of the “Appassionata.” Both of these are included in the Beethoven Choral Collection. Equally exciting are the discoveries of the Drei Aequale, originally brass pieces that were arranged for chorus by Ignaz von Seyfried and sung at Beethoven’s funeral, and Gottlob Benedict Bierey’s Kyrie, based on the first movement of the “Moonlight Sonata,” and Agnus Dei.

Inspired by these arrangements, we commissioned a series of new arrangements for the Beethoven Choral Collection. Leading contemporary composers such as Heribert Breuer, Gunther Martin Göttsche, John Høybye, Giacomo Mezzalira, Christoph Müller and Peter Schindler have contributed to the collection. Arrangements from Clytus Gottwald and Jaakko Mäntyjärvi are also included.

The Beethoven Choral Collection is a real treasure trove for all choirs celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020, as well as for choirs looking to add a truly fantastic volume to their library. We hope that the collection will inspire all manner of church choirs and choral societies, including major cathedral choirs and ambitious chamber choirs, to explore Beethoven’s vocal works and to give Beethoven his well-deserved appreciation as a choral composer.

 


JanSchumacher

Jan Schumacher is University Music Director of the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main and Conductor of the Camerata Musica Limburg and the Chorus of the Technical University Darmstadt. With his ensembles he performs a wide repertoire ranging from Gregorian chant to premieres of new works and jazz, and from symphonic orchestral repertoire to Big Band and vocal and electronic improvisation. He also directs seminars for singers, orchestras and conductors throughout Europe and internationally and is the editor for several choral collections at Carus-Verlag.

Musical Characteristics and Performance Practice of the Classical Period

By Jacy Burroughs

The Classical period of music had its advent in Italian music of the early eighteenth century and extended into the early nineteenth century. Some musicologists mark the end of the Classical period around 1815, at the end of Beethoven’s compositional middle period. However, the Classical period truly overlaps with both the Baroque and Romantic periods. Characteristics of and performance considerations for Classical period music are outlined below.

Continue reading ‘Musical Characteristics and Performance Practice of the Classical Period’


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