Something solemn! That was the idea. But no Bach! Anybody can blog about Bach’s music on Christmas. And everybody does. Except me. I had a few other options: Saint-Saëns, Händel, Pärt. I listened to preludes, fugues, organ pieces – no. What about a cantata? I liked the idea. A cantata – I didn’t know too many cantatas that weren’t written by Bach though. And then my eyes fell on the perfect music for Christmas: Alexander Grechaninov’s cantata “Praise the Lord” (Хвалите Бога), Op. 65.
Grechaninov (1864-1956) was a brilliant composer of liturgical music, a paramount figure in Russia. In 1881 he entered the Moscow Conservatory as a piano student and quickly became acquainted with the symphonic, chamber and stage music. He studied counterpoint and music theory with Anton Arensky and music forms with Sergey Taneyev. Grechaninov was a deeply religious man, and in 1910, the Tsar granted him a pension for his liturgical music. However his innovative ideas did not please high-placed persons. Once he started to use instruments in his church music, forbidden by the Orthodox Church, his liturgical music could no longer be performed at services.
Joseph Yasser (1893-1981), the Russian-American organist, music theorist and musicologist coined the term of “heterodox compositions” for Grechaninov’s religious music. Yasser wrote that the composer was “the first and, apparently, the only Russian composer who had thus far had courage enough – for courage it was, in Russia’s pre-revolutionary period – to include an instrumental accompaniment in some of his sacred works. […] It saw its premiere in a concert hall rather than a church.”
The cantata “Praise the Lord” was composed in 1914, written in four movements, scored for Tenor, choir, organ and orchestra. It saw its premiere in 1931. By then, Grechaninov had left his home country. After the October Revolution, Grechaninov had lost his pension and the composer was apprehensive of the newly born Soviet Union’s revolutionary future. He toured Europe as a pianist and, upon the invitation of a wealthy American expat, settled down in Paris. In 1939 he went to America, which he had often visited since 1929; he settled in New York the following year and took American citizenship in 1946.
A witty contemporary observer remarked that Grechaninov was all too ready to praise the Lord of the Orthodox Church, but “with the sound of the trumpet, the harp, the timbrel, the strings and the organ”. Add the choir and the Tenor voice singing Psalm 150, and you have a very solemn and festive music, a blend of Orthodox liturgy with Western European polyphony and orchestration. Deeply enjoyable. And once again, merry Christmas!
The cantata has been recorded by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra and the Russian State Symphony Cappella.
© Charles Thibo