Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Confronting Composers of Reluctant Religious Persuasion

In 2007, I had the pleasure of researching and writing an extensive program note [7200 words!] for a presentation by Gaudeamus of Johann Sebastian Bach's B Minor Mass, a performance in which I was also privileged to sing. The entire process – research, listening, writing, rehearsing, and performing – became an intensive, weeks-long personal seminar in Baroque music form and style. Moreover, through the research and contemplation necessary for production of meaningful program notes, I gained a clearer understanding of the strength of Bach’s very personal Christian faith. Bach’s open and well-documented piety – almost child-like in its simplicity and directness – makes it fairly easy for modern performers to understand and interpret his sacred works: they are exactly what they appear to be.

Understanding the sacred works by composers of more reluctant religious persuasion is less straightforward. How are we to approach the sacred works of composers who were known to be “of little faith”?

In an earlier essay, I wrote about how Beethoven’s bitterly private faith creates challenges in understanding and performing his Missa Solemnis. In the last several weeks, I’ve been confronted with this challenge on three fronts. With the all-professional choir CONCORA, I recently performed Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (Vespers). With The Hartford Chorale (160 voices) I’ve been in rehearsals for May 17 and 18 performance of the Missa Solemnis with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra. With the South Church Chancel Choir (where I am engaged as section leader), I will perform sacred works by Ralph Vaughan Williams in a Three Choirs Festival on April 27.

Rachmaninoff was rather at odds with the Orthodox Church and was not an especially religious man. Yet in the remarkable All-Night Vigil he achieves an intense and authentic spirituality, communicating the Russian liturgical texts with genuine understanding and appreciation, even though he may not have experienced personal conviction of their veracity. Perhaps, like Beethoven, Rachmaninoff was possessed of a very private faith that was not to be burdened by, or constrained by a “church.” Reviewers, program annotators, and listeners often believe the All-Night Vigil to be Rachmaninoff’s expression of his religious faith, and react to it accordingly. In fact, he composed it primarily as a means of exploring modern choral treatment of what he called the “magnificent melodies of the Oktoechos” chants.* Nonetheless, participating in a performance of this work, whether as singer or as a listener, can be an unforgettable experience. And for singers and listeners who are members of the Christian faith (regardless of sect), experiencing the All-Night Vigil must be tremendously moving.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was described by his second wife Ursula as “an atheist… [who] later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism.”** When we perform his Dona Nobis Pacem, Benedicite, and O Clap Your Hands on April 27, we will sing ancient words of the Church; how do we reconcile and interpret their meaning when we consider that Vaughan Williams did not hold them sacred? Indeed, he interweaves the still-modern, still-grieving secular voice of Walt Whitman in a way that shatters our complacent familiarity with the Christian texts and makes us consider them in an entirely new way, as commentaries on the utter brutality and inhumanity of war. Perhaps because Vaughan Williams forces us to confront our own inhumanity, the traditional but frail words of faith are imbued with a new poignancy and, in Vaughan Williams’ musical settings, a profound spirituality. We hear in this music “a fundamental tension between traditional concepts of belief and morality and a modern spiritual anguish which is also visionary.” ***

At CONCORA’s Providence performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil on April 20, one man in the audience stood quietly for the duration of the Vigil, as is traditional in the Orthodox Church. For this man, our performance was clearly a worship experience, a quiet hour of contemplation and spiritual renewal. Others in the audience may simply have enjoyed the wash of sound, the surging dynamics, and the endless variety of choral color that Rachmaninoff creates with his innovative scoring. Each response was entirely valid . . . our goal was to bring pleasure to our audience and to create an oasis of beauty in a troubled world. As Mr. Coffey says, when we are singing we cannot wage war.


* Rachmaninoff’s Recollections, told to Oskar von Riesemann. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1934, page 176.

** “Ralph Vaughan Williams,” by Hugh Ottaway and Alain Frogley. GroveMusic online, retrieved April 22, 2008. (subscription required) www.grovemusic.com

*** Ibid.

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