Monday, October 24, 2011:Not-Quite Orthodox

Conductor and Prague Singers founder Stanislav Mistr (left) leads the mixed choir in a not-quite traditional Orthodox Liturgical piece

Not-Quite Orthodox

If you missed the concert Wed, Oct 19 on ‘Orthodox Romanticism,’ you missed a fascinating piece of music history brought to life by The Prague Singers (Pražští Pěvci) and conductor Stanislav Mistr. It was part of the Archaion Kallos International Festival of Orthodox Music 2011, with concerts continuing through the end of this month.

That concert presented the Liturgy of St John Chrysotom, Opus 31 by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Orthodox chants, including this Liturgy forming the religion’s Mass, originated with the Early Church. But Rachmaninoff was a “modern” composer of the 19th century. And that got him into trouble.

The special atmosphere of St Cyril and Methodius church, site of the International Festival of Orthodox Music 2011

The Russian composer supposedly wrote the entire piece in just three weeks. But his inspired writing wasn’t the problem. Rather, the controversy came because it was based not squarely on the traditional chants (usually performed with only two, male “voices”); Rachmaninoff’s is a sort of free-style derivation.

Church officials were not impressed.

It was“absolutely wonderful, even too beautiful, but with such music it would be difficult to pray; it is not church music,”  a Moscow religious teacher was quoted as saying, according to Barry Creasy of the Collegium Musicum of London.

The piece was quietly put away, apparently never performed again. A new edition was published in 1988, reconstructed from part-books resting in an Orthodox monastery in America.

Trouble for St John, Too

The Saint John of the title was John of Antioch, an inspired preacher (chrysotom means golden-mouthed) appointed Bishop of Constantinople in 398 AD. His attempts at moral reforms also got him into trouble. He was exiled in 404 and canonized shortly after his death.
The Chrysostom Liturgy (the original, not Rachmaninoff’s) is the most-used Liturgy in the Orthodox Church, and Russia adopted it, along with the faith, in the 10th century.

If you want to hear more examples of modernity meeting Orthodox music, you can find out how very contemporary composer Arvo Part handles Postmodernism and Orthodoxy. Selections from his Two Slavonic Psalms, No. 117 and 181 (Kanon Pokajanen), a Czech premiere, will be performed this Wednesday (Oct 26) at 7:30 at the Cathedral of St Cyril and St Methodius. The Prague Chamber Choir and Philokallia will be conducted by Marios Christou. Two world premieres, Cherubic Hymn by Barton, and It Is Truly Meet by Gemrot, will also be presented.

To hear a little of Rachmaninoff’s then-controversial Liturgy, just click on the video below. It features Stanislav Mistr, bass Wouter Tukker, and The Prague Singers. – oo

– Mary Matz

Photo Credits: Miroslav Setnička

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