Some of the greatest Russian composers have been inspired to write music for the Russian Orthodox Church: Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and even Stravinsky, set psalms and liturgies to music. The Orthodox Church proscribes the use of musical instruments during its services, and therefore some of the most harmonious unaccompanied singing has developed over the centuries in this liturgical tradition with a uniquely Slavic style.
This inspired form of four-part singing was described as being exalting: “One does not know whether one is in heaven or on earth,” exclaimed one of the emissaries of Prince Vladimir, who originally brought the tradition to Kiev from Constantinople.
An audience in Kent, Connecticut, had a chance to hear samples of this choral tradition written by classical composers at St. Andrews Church on November 18th by a highly trained chorus of singers called the St. Petersburg Men’s Ensemble. The group is highly trained, most at the St. Petersburg Conservancy; they sing with eminent choirs in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. The St. Petersburg Conservancy Choir that they belong to has 25 singers, including eleven basses.
The St. Petersburg Men’s Ensemble launched its tour of the northeast in Kent and will be traveling to churches throughout the region with a quartet: a baritone, two tenors, and a bass. They presented a program of both liturgical music as well as folk songs set to music by famous composers in the second part of the program.
The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which was set to music by both Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, was sung by the ensemble. They sang the version by Rachmaninoff, which was very moving and ends on an extremely low note. The Tchaikovsky version, first published in 1879 without the permission of the church, had to receive authorization from the Senate to be played because it was considered to be “too Western.” The group also performed a piece by Pavel Chesnokov (1877-1941), considered one the foremost composers of Russian sacred choral works of his time, composing over 500 choral works. He was forced to compose only secular works during the Soviet era and eventually stopped composing altogether, because of this oppression.
The group sang a sacred concerto by the composer Dmitry Bortnyansky (1751-1825), who wrote sacred concertos and operas in five languages and whose liturgical work was later edited and published in ten volumes by Tchaikovsky.
Native Russian music traditions influenced liturgical music as well as many classical composers such as Borodin. The second part of the program presented some of the music from the pantheon of Russian folk music. The group came out wearing Russian folk shirts to the delight of the audience. (They had been wearing tuxedos during the first part of the program.)
A poem by Mikhail Lermontov, “I’m alone when entering the Road,” featured a solo by tenor Andrei Volikov, who has a pure high voice verging on counter tenor: “I’m alone entering the road through the mist....night is calm….one star whispering to another star. I am not expecting any changes, not regretful of my past. I am searching for freedom without raging or dreaming….”
Songs familiar to Americans such as “The Volga Boatmen” and “Those Were the Days” were sung in their traditional language and form. Choir Director, Kiril Sokolov explained that the Volga boat song was a shanty sung by slaves who had to haul the barges from the edges of the river.
A funny song with onomatopoeic lyrics simulated male crying and bawling. The song describes a young man in love who is prevented from marrying his sweetheart. It is called “The Bast Shoes” (“Lapti’). Another amusing song, called “The Tula Harmonica,” tells the story of two brothers who buy boats to row to St. Petersburg, only to find they have holes in the bottom. The brothers laugh and point at each other with each singer laughing in a different way.
Kiril Sokolov, the director, explained that the program was designed to present a range of genres and periods that would allow Americans to become more familiar with Russian spiritual and folk music. The quartet’s stated purpose is to allow audiences to experience choral acapella music that would normally be sung by a much larger choir.
The evening was organized by Margaret O’Brien, Co-Chair of Music in the Nave, the music commission at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Kent. “I thought it was a unique opportunity to hear a Russian ensemble. The authenticity of the group appealed to me and I was not disappointed.”
After the concert, the group embarked to Danbury for their next program on November 19 at St. James’ Episcopal Church. They can be heard on Youtube video posted below.