About this Recording
8.573665 - STEINBERG, M.: Passion Week (Clarion Choir, Fox)

Maximilian Steinberg (1883–1946)
Passion Week


The achievements of the ‘new Russian choral school’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been widely recognised in the musical world. In the course of this veritable renaissance of new compositions and arrangements for unaccompanied choral voices, a pleiad of composers, spearheaded by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and followed by Alexander Kastalsky, Pavel Chesnokov, Alexander Gretchaninov, Viktor Kalinnikov, Alexander Nikolsky, and Sergey Rachmaninov, to name just a few, explored the sonorous and expressive capabilities of the choral instrument to an unprecedented degree. They sought out new ways of evoking the splendour of the ‘Kingdom of God on earth,’ joining the spiritual depth of ancient Christian liturgical texts and chants with transcendently beautiful choral polyphony.

Generally speaking, this school is associated with the city of Moscow, and in particular with the Moscow Synodal School of Church Singing and Moscow Synodal Choir. Indeed, many of the composers—Kastalsky, Kalinnikov, Nikolsky, and Chesnokov—were affiliated with the Synodal School, and important premieres such as Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil and Gretchaninov’s Passion Week, took place in Moscow. Less known is the role played in this movement by composers whose primary sphere of activity was in St Petersburg, regarded as a more Western-looking bastion of modernity and the avant-garde.

Nonetheless, St Petersburg was not altogether unaffected by the general movement in the liturgical arts towards the recovery of a more traditional, nationally Russian and Eastern Orthodox style. In the realm of church architecture, this was reflected by the construction of such edifices as the Dormition Cathedral, the Church of the Saviour on the Blood, and the Naval Cathedral of St Nicholas in Kronstadt, all completed in the early twentieth century. In the realm of Russian Orthodox sacred choral music, the most important figure was Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908), and a number of composers who were in one way or another connected with him: Anatol Liadov (1855–1914), Sergey Liapunov (1859–1924), Nikolay Tcherepnin (1873–1945), and Alexander Chesnokov (1880–1941), whose contributions to sacred choral music have yet to be thoroughly explored. Even less known is the remarkable work featured on the present recording—Passion Week, composed by Rimsky-Korsakov’s favourite student and son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg (1883–1946).

Rimsky-Korsakov’s involvement with the choral church music of the Russian Orthodox Church dates from his tenure at the Imperial Court Chapel from 1883 to 1894, as assistant to Mily Balakirev. While there, he was involved with producing polyphonic arrangements of traditional unison chants, and also wrote a number of compositions in a deliberately simple yet original style, in accordance with the emerging national character of Russian church music. Although after leaving the Chapel, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote no more choral music for the church, he evidently transmitted his exploration of early chants, as well as some degree of familiarity with the sources of ecclesiastical melodies, to his students. Some fifteen years after his death, this knowledge manifested itself most wondrously in Maximilian Steinberg’s Passion Week.

Maximilian Oseyevich Steinberg (pronounced Shteynberg in Russian) was born into a Jewish family in Vilnius, Lithuania, and moved to Russia to study at St Petersburg Conservatory with such esteemed composers as Liadov in harmony, Glazunov in orchestration, and Rimsky-Korsakov in composition. Rimsky took the young Steinberg and his classmate Igor Stravinsky under his wing, treating them both as extended family, but it was Steinberg who accompanied him to Paris for Diaghilev’s Saison Russe; and it was Steinberg who, on June 4, 1908, four days before Rimsky’s death, married the latter’s daughter, Nadezhda Nikolaevna, a sacrament that required him to be baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church.

Steinberg would also prove to be Rimsky-Korsakov’s heir apparent academically and professionally, recommended by him to teach the orchestration class at the Conservatory, and entrusted with editing several of his compositions and textbooks after his death. Joining the Conservatory faculty in 1908, he became, in 1915, Professor of Composition and Orchestration, a post held by his father-in-law, and eventually was appointed the vice-rector of the Conservatory. One of his most illustrious students was Dmitry Shostakovich.

Although Steinberg’s early works were closely connected with the intellectual currents of Russia’s ‘Silver Age,’ he largely rejected the modernist direction of his fellow-student Stravinsky, and became recognised, in the words of Boris Asafiev, as ‘the overall perpetuator of Rimsky-Korsakov’s compositional school, [who also] was close in his way of thinking to his other teacher, Alexander Glazunov’.¹ He wrote mostly programmatic symphonic music, with close ties to literary and artistic themes, as well as music exploring some of the Soviet Union’s ethnic cultures, such as those of Uzbekistan and Armenia.

At first glance, Steinberg’s Passion Week, Op. 13, composed over a three-year period between 1920 and 1923, may appear as somewhat of an enigma. Bearing the subtitle ‘Based on early church chants,’ it is his only known sacred choral work, with ten of its eleven movements based on thematic material drawn from the standard chant books (Obikhod) of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was composed in St Petersburg during the turbulent years of the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War, in an environment where repression against the Church was already being felt, and arrests of nobility, clergy, artists, intellectuals, as well as ordinary believers, were commonplace: Steinberg’s own brother-in-law, Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakov, a professional violist, was arrested. Shortly after the work was completed, the performance of all sacred music was banned by the Bolshevik cultural commissars. On December 12, 1923, Steinberg made the following entry in his diary: ‘Today I learned from Klimov² that all sacred music has been banned, with exception of two classic works. That means there is no hope of hearing Passion Week… new values have not yet been created, while the old are humiliated.’ The question arises: why, in the midst of a successful academic and musical career, did the composer produce a work that was clearly at odds with the prevailing political climate and could have seriously jeopardized his standing with the authorities?

On closer examination, Passion Week can be seen as a logical extension of the composer’s interest in the sacred and the mystical, as evidenced by some of his works composed in the 1910s—his settings of Maeterlinck (incidental music for Princess Maleine, Op. 11, 1916), Byron (the ‘opera-mystery’ Heaven and Earth, Op. 12, 1916)—and those immediately following Passion Week—Rabindranath Tagore (the song cycles Opp. 14 and 15, 1925), and Omar Khayyam and Rumi (the song cycle From Persian Poetry, Op. 17, 1926). It was only after the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church intensified in 1928 that Steinberg shifted the focus of his compositional activities to safer, nonspiritual subjects closely aligned with the tenets of ‘socialist realism’. But in the early 1920s, Steinberg’s turning to traditional Russian ecclesiastical chants and to the theme of Christ’s Passion can be regarded as the artist’s response to an anguished search for identity and meaning in a nation and society that had lost their compass.

Even so, Steinberg was not willing to see his Passion Week languish in oblivion. Once it became obvious that performances of the work in the Soviet Union would be impossible, he took advantage of his privileged status as conservatory professor, which allowed him to travel to France, Holland, and Germany in 1925 and 1927, as well as his contacts with the publishing firm of W. Bessel and Company, which had relocated from Russia to Paris in 1918. Through Bessel he published Passion Week in 1927, with a text in Church Slavonic, Latin, and English, hoping thereby to stimulate performances of the work in the West. The first complete performances, however, would not take place until April 2014, in an open reading by The Clarion Choir in New York City, and the concert premiere in Portland, Oregon, by Cappella Romana.

In the realm of choral cycles written on sacred Orthodox texts, Steinberg’s Passion Week follows upon the precedent of Alexander Gretchaninov’s Passion Week, Op. 58, which premiered in 1912. In that work, Gretchaninov chose thirteen hymns from different services of Orthodox Holy Week and assembled them into a single cycle, composing large-scale, extended settings that were clearly intended for performance in the context of a sacred concert, rather than a church service.

Although Gretchaninov’s Passion Week was certainly the precedent that Steinberg had in mind when creating his own cycle some ten years later, he did not replicate Gretchaninov’s choice of titles exactly. He omitted four selections and added two, resulting in a total of eleven movements.

The liturgical Church Slavonic texts are all drawn from the Orthodox services of Holy Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (Nos. 1, 2, and 3), Holy Thursday (Nos. 4, 5, and 6), Holy Friday (Nos. 7 and 8), and Holy Saturday (Nos. 9, 10, and 11). Each of the hymns and prayers brings to mind in the consciousness of the listener the particular scriptural event or liturgical occasion with which they are connected: Jesus Christ’s eschatological preaching in the Temple during the days following his triumphal entry into Jerusalem; the Mystical Supper and Judas’ treachery; the Crucifixion and the promise of salvation to the thief on his right hand; the deposition from the cross and Jesus’ burial; his foretelling to his mother of his resurrection on the third day; and his resting on the Sabbath, while ‘all mortal flesh keeps silence’.

While Gretchaninov’s work was almost entirely freely composed, using pre-existing chant melodies in only three movements, Steinberg’s use of pre-existing chants in ten out of eleven movements is, in many respects, the defining characteristic of this work: it is a true tour de force in its systematic and extensive use of ancient chants, several of which are performed on this disc preceding Steinberg’s settings of those melodies. Yet Steinberg wasn’t simply arranging chants polyphonically for use in a worship service; he was writing sacred music for concert performance, fashioning eleven musical movements, each with distinctive and powerful expressive content, using medieval unison chants that are in their raw, original form.

Another important precedent to Steinberg’s work was Sergey Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, Op. 37, also conceived for and premiered in concert, in which the composer makes extensive use of pre-existing chant melodies and employs various techniques of weaving them into polyphonic choral textures. Steinberg undoubtedly knew both works, as Gretchaninov’s cycle had been performed in St Petersburg in 1913, and Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil became a repertoire standard of the Kapella before the ban on sacred music.

Steinberg’s Passion Week shares with these works the rich and colourful use of choral textures, employing divisi in as many as twelve parts. But in some respects, Steinberg builds upon and supersedes the achievements of his predecessors: for one thing, he uses more Great Znamenny chants, which are more complex and richer in terms of melodic content than the recitative-like Kievan and Lesser Znamenny chants favoured by Rachmaninov; he is freer and more creative in his approach to and utilisation of contrapuntal and imitative textures; and although he never departs entirely from conventional tonality, Steinberg’s harmonic palette is more diverse and daring in some instances.

Following its publication in 1927, Steinberg’s Passion Week did not see the public exposure the composer had hoped for. A copy of the score likely was given to the Russian-American conductor Igor Buketoff (1915–2001) in the course of a meeting, in 1957, with Dmitry Shostakovich, who visited the United States as part of a cultural exchange and passed on the score of his one-time mentor, Maximilian Steinberg. From that point on, Buketoff sought to find a chorus that would be able to do justice to the music, but he died before such a performance could be arranged. The quest passed on to his daughter, Barbara Mouk, and his niece, Tamara Skvir, who brought the work to the attention, respectively, of Steven Fox, conductor of The Clarion Society, and Alexander Lingas, conductor of Cappella Romana. A new edition of the work was prepared and published by Musica Russica of San Diego, California.

Vladimir Morosan

¹ Cited in Gnesin, M. “Maksimilian Steynberg,” Sovetskaya muzyka, 1946, No. 12.

² Mikhail Klimov (1881–1937) was the conductor of the St Petersburg State Kapella, formerly the Imperial Court Chapel, the leading choral ensemble in St Petersburg (known at the time as Petrograd, and later renamed Leningrad).

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