Was Pyotr Tchaikovsky a pious man? I don’t think so. But he was the master of melodies in his time. And as such he was keenly aware of Russia’s rich tradition of liturgical songs. Never one to leave something untried, he set out in 1881 to study traditional chants for an All-night vigil, a service of the Russian-Orthodox church celebrated the eve of Sundays and major liturgical feasts. It would become the “Hymns of the All Night Vigil”, Op. 52 for choir only. The Academic Choir Glinka under Vladislav Tchernushenko has recorded this unusual and little known piece of music.
Away with Italian elements
“It is an attempt, modest certainly, to fight against the horrible style established by Bortnyansky”, he lambasted in a letter to his editor Pyotr Jurgenson. Dmitry Bortnyansky was the head of the Imperial Chapel and grand master of all Russian-Orthodox liturgical music. Too much Italian influence, too many playful and lofty elements distracting from the essence, the religious message. “I intend to reintroduce austerity to our church music, that has been denatured and spoiled in the edition of the Imperial Chapel.” Thus Tchaikovsky eliminated all elements deemed Italian and harmonised the different chants in the specific sequence as they were to be performed during service.
…but no experiments!
The cycle is made of 17 different chants partly originating from the Byzantine, the Greek-Orthodox and the Kiev tradition, Kiev being the capital city of the first Russian state, the Rus of Kiev (1054-1237). The general tonality is G major, and Tchaikovsky does not permit himself any experiments. As befits the nature of this specific music, his transformations are subtle and conservative, but his works combines the sobriety of a prayer with solemn melodies that warm my heart and comfort my soul even though I don’t understand the Russian text.
Today, it’s All Saints Day and since the 8th century Catholics remember on this day their saints, their martyrs and their pious forefathers. The Russian-Orthodox church celebrates this on the first Sunday after Pentecost. I thought it the appropriate day to discover a new facet of my favourite Russian composer. Time for meditation.
© Charles Thibo