A Plea for Repentance

Following is one of Alfred Schnittke’s Psalms of Repentance (# VII). These psalms are adaptations of 15th century poems, commemorating the millennial anniversary of Christianity in Russia (in 1988). Appropriately, the words are translated from the Russian to King James English:1

Oh my soul, why art thou unafraid
of the dead in their graves
of the bare and terrible bones?
Where is the prince and where the ruler?
Where the rich and where the poor?
Where is loveliness of countenance?
Where the rhetoric of wisdom?
Where are the proud, where those who lust for fame?
Where are those who boast to others
of their gold and pearls?
Where is pride, where is love?
Where are the greedy?
Where is the seat of true justice
that giveth the guilty no rest?
Where is the ruler, where the slave?
Is everything not equal:
dust and earth and stinking dirt?
O my soul, why dost thou not tremble in dread?
Why art though not afraid
of the terrible judgments
and everlasting torments?
O wretched soul!
Remember how attentively thou didst obey
The words of the earthly czar,
A merry-making man,
but didst not heed the commandments
of thy heavenly Creator.
Thou livest in sin,
not revering but mocking
the teachings of Scripture.
O my soul!
Weep, cry out to Christ:
“Jesus save me!
Deliver me…”—answer the prayers of the saints—
“…from torments bitter and eternal.”

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1 English translation by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart © ECM Records (though with slight emendation in the addition of quotes and ellipses in the final three lines), as taken from Alfred Schnittke Psalms of Repentance, ECM New Series 1583, 1999 ECM Records GmbH. See also Alfred Schnittke: Psalms of Repentance (ECM New Series 1583).

Translating Sorrow

Psalm 30:5: Weeping may spend the night…

Sorrow. Sometimes I perceive it in the eyes that look through me at the store. Sometimes I see it in the aging man’s eyes peering back at me in the mirror. Sometimes it seems all-pervasive.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that of late I’ve been drawn to neo-Classical composers who have works in this vein.

Henryk Górecki

Already familiar with Polish composer Henryk Górecki, I decided to try the Nonesuch Records 1992 release of Symphony #3, aka Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Stricken, I played it over and over for a time. Unbeknownst to me, the disc somehow became popular the year it came out, eventually selling over a million copies—well above typical Classical sales levels.

The symphony consists of three movements, each a different song. The text of the first is taken from a 15th century Polish prayer as from the point of view of Mary, mother of Jesus, called “Holy Cross Lament”:

My son, my chosen and beloved
Share your wounds with your mother
And because, dear son, I have always carried you in my heart,
And always served you faithfully,
Speak to your mother, to make her happy,
Although you are already leaving me, my cherished hope.1

The subject of the third movement is similar to the first in that it is from the perspective of a mother and about her son. In this one, using text from a Polish folk song, the mother knows her son is dead but cannot find his body. Despite this, she finds some solace.

Between these two is the shortest of the three, both in terms of text and music, this one themed opposite of the others. An 18 year old Polish girl, in poetry to Mary, pleads with her to not weep for her. The words were inscribed on a basement wall in what was then Gestapo headquarters in Zakopane, Poland. The young woman, identifying herself as Helena Wanda Blażusiakówna, dates the start of her imprisonment as 26 September, 1944.

In native Polish the subtitle of this three movement symphony is Symfonia pieśni żałosnych. The English rendering (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) inadequately captures its rich multivalence. According to the liner notes,

[t]he subtitle . . . has suffered much in translation. Pieśni is simply ‘songs’; but the qualifying Żałosnych is archaic, and more comprehensive than its modern English, German, or French equivalents. It comprises not only the wordless ‘songs’ of the opening double basses and monastic lament, but also the prayer and exhortation (“Do not weep”) of the Zakopane graffito, and the lullaby, both elegiac and redemptive, of the final folk song.

The final three verses of the folk song exhibit acceptance and hope:

Perhaps the poor child lies in a rough ditch
And instead he could have been lying in his warm bed

Oh, sing for him God’s little song-birds
Since his mother cannot find him

And, you, God’s little flowers, may you blossom all around
So that my son may sleep happily2

Weeping may spend the night, but with the morning: joy (Psalm 30:5; cf. Luke 24:1-10; John 20:10-18).

Giya Kancheli

Forget writing music like Giya Kancheli’s, I’d be ecstatic if I could write prose the way he does. The introduction to his Piano Quartet in l’istesso tempo (1998) can nearly serve as a preface to his oeuvre following his 1991 emigration from his native homeland of Georgia (post-dissolution of the Soviet Union):

Again and again we witness with deep regret how, despite the obvious improvements of the civilized world, our planet is still torn apart by bloodshed and conflicts. And no artistic creation can withstand the destructive force that so easily rejects the fragile process of progress.

Taking everything that goes on around me very much to heart, I try to express my own mental state in music. In essence, I write for myself without harboring any illusions that—as Dostoevsky put it—‘beauty will save the world’.

So my music is sad, rather than joyful, and the coloring of my personality means it is not at all destined to find a wide audience. One won’t find any calls here to struggle, to equality, to the bright future. Rather, one will find bitter sorrow over the imperfection of a society that cannot draw lessons from the most terrible historical examples.

I express my thoughts in an extremely simple musical language. I’d like to believe that listeners will not be left cold by my music, and will not identify its deliberate simplicity with what I think is the most dangerous feeling: indifference.3

Yes; it’s been said that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference.

Yet Kancheli exhibits seeming indifference to his own region’s religious tradition. For his composition Time…and again he slices a verse from Paul’s letter to the Galatians out of context, applying these words to the contents of this work:

Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not (1:20).4

In the notes to another release, a writer observes that “[u]nlike Pärt and Górecki, Kancheli makes no direct appeal to Christian doctrine”, but is inspired by ‘the widely understood feeling of religiousness which is manifest in all music dearest to [his] heart.’5

In verbiage accompanying the 2004 release Diplipito is a review of Kancheli’s Valse, Boston written by John von Rhein from Chicago Tribune: “…Nobody conjures troubled landscapes in sound like Kancheli. He has given [us] a bleak, very Eastern view of modern existence, but the effect is cleansing.”6 I think that’s the essence of why Kancheli writes: catharsis. I know that’s what I derive from most of his works.

The title piece (Diplipito) of the release referenced just above appropriates a line from Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky: “My work of silence, my mute creation…” For the part of the countertenor, Kancheli’s score is marked simply: “Meaningless words from a Georgian epic.”7 Is Kancheli playing us here? Is a clue found in the dedication to the companion piece Valse, Boston: “To my wife, with whom I’ve never danced.”?8 Or should these works be understood alongside his others of the time, such that the former expresses the inexpressible with wordless utterances, while the latter states the sad truth that he’d never danced with his wife? I suppose dancing seems a needless luxury when one feels such persistent, crushing sorrow.

Yet the 2015 release Chiaroscuro sees a turn in outlook. The meaning inherent in the title of the title track is the juxtaposition of light and shade—contrasts. This piece is paired with Twilight, an apparent self-reference to his advanced years. In his notes on Twilight, Kancheli observes from his desk a pair of poplar trees. They change with the seasons from spring, to summer, to fall, and then winter, in which the bare branches reveal, “a perspective reaching into infinity…”9 This functions as a metaphor for life:

After being seriously ill, I now associate the wonders of nature with human life. Up to a certain point we do not pay attention to problems with our health. And then, suddenly, comes a moment of serious trial, when life—to speak metaphorically—hangs by a hair. It’s only a combination of circumstances that allows us to return and continue it—temporarily, alas, in comparison to my poplars.10

He dedicated Twilight to Julia Mironova-Khoperiya and Sergie Mironov:

The Lord has given them a rare goodness that cannot be expressed in words. I don’t know whether I could even partially depict it in my music. I am infinitely grateful to fate for the fact that these two people were beside me at the critical moment, and literally brought me back to life…and to my poplars.11

We are never more alive when trials and tribulations subside.

Kancheli passed away 2 October, 2019. I’d like to think he (re)embraced the Christian faith—that he embraced Christ—before his passing.

In homage to the composer, I direct you to this version of Chiaroscuro:

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1 English translation by Krystyna Carter, ©1992 Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers, Ltd (unpaginated).
2 Ibid.
3 Text here is an amalgamation and a slight adaptation of the liner notes from ECM New Series 1767, In l’istesso tempo, 2005, pp 17-18 (as translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart) and the liner notes from ECM New Series 2442, Chiaroscuro, 2015, pp 4-5 (translation uncredited).
4 As from ECM New Series 1767, In l’istesso tempo, 2005, p 2 (and p 21).
5 Wilfrid Miller’s notes to Vom Winde beweint, ECM New Series 1471, 1992 (unpaginated).
6 Taken from ECM Records’ description for ECM New Series 1773, 2004. (The bracketed “us” replaces “as” in the text, which I take as a typographical error.)
7 As translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart in the liner notes to ECM New Series 1773, p 14 (see immediately preceding note).
8 ECM New Series 1773, p 2.
9 Taken from ECM New Series 2442, p 7 (no translator credit).
10 Ibid.
11 ECM New Series 2442, p 16.

Silence Punctuated Occasionally by Music

“…When the musicians saw the score, they cried out: ‘Where is the music?’ But then they went on to play it very well. It was beautiful; it was quiet and beautiful.”

— Arvo Pärt1

OK, I confess I’m being a bit hyperbolic with the title. But music can be as much about the space/time between the surrounding notes—the silence—as about the notes themselves. This space can evoke a sense of tranquility, melancholia, anticipation, drama, etc. or combinations thereof.  Both Arvo Pärt and Erik Satie exemplify this approach of placing more distance between notes on the page, to varying degrees, in some of their compositions.

Pärt:

Arvo Part

Arvo Pärt was previously featured in a blog post about 1.5 years ago. That post centered on the music of, lyrics to, and background of one brief choral prayer of peace. Below is a bit more biographical data on the man as well as some historical background on his oeuvre:

Arvo Pärt began his series of orchestral works with an obituary—but one that was at the same time the start of something new. Written in the year 1959 while he was a student at the conservatory in Tallinn, Necrology is the first piece by the Estonian composer to make use of serial music—a scandal for Soviet aesthetics. And so Pärt began what was to be an eventful life as a composer alternating between periods of withdrawal in the search for a style and periods of considerable creative output. Since the early ‘60s, Pärt (who was born in 1935) has traveled between the extremes of official recognition and official censure. Our Garden for children’s choir and orchestra (1959) and the oratorio The Pace of the World (1961) were awarded the first prize in composition in Moscow in 1962. Because of its text—“I believe in Jesus Christ”—Credo for piano, choir and orchestra, was banned.2

The quote at the beginning of this blog post (Where is the music?) is a reference to one of Pärt’s most famous pieces, Tabula rasa (Latin for “clean slate”), composed of two movements. Below is a performance of this work by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Paavo Järvi, with Viktoria Mullova (1st violin), Florian Donderer (2nd violin), and Liam Dunachie (prepared piano):


In many of the renditions I have heard the second movement is played too hurriedly. The above rendering is suitably slow. Near the end of the piece only one bass viol remains, and in its solitude it grows ever quieter until it ceases altogether, acquiescing to the increasing scarcity of musical notation.

Below is, in my opinion, the best complete live performance currently on YouTube (disregard the grainy video; the audio is clear enough). Inexplicably, however, the initial strokes of each of the violins are omitted (each instrument is to actuate its own note—different from the other—and is to play in unison with the other). In the first movement (Ludus), the diminuendo portion is slower-paced than the intervening crescendos, thus providing a fittingly moving contrast. The final movement (Silentium, beginning at 11:26) is paced at what I deem to be the right tempo, resulting in a more delicately rounded prepared piano tone—not somewhat abruptly truncated like faster readings—every note retaining appropriate distinction and intonation:

My favorite rendition, though, is found in the (premier?) ECM Records WDR (West German Radio) recording of November 1977, featuring the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Saulus Sondeckis, with Gidon Kremer & Tatjana Grindenko (violins) and Alfred Schnittke (prepared piano).

From the same period of creativity producing Tabula rasa is the brief, sparse piano piece Für Alina. Below is a vlog showing the score as the doubled single notes are struck—one note for each hand (two different notes are struck simultaneously, with the exception of the very first one):

Below is the same piece rendered just a bit slower by a different interpreter:

Satie:

Satie

Some of Erik Satie’s music is recognized as a precursor to minimalism, or minimal music, as in the works of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Gavin Bryars, etc. Thus, Satie may have had indirect influence on Pärt. But whereas Pärt seems to be spiritually grounded throughout his (still-ongoing) career, one may perhaps describe Satie’s life as a bit ‘messy’—not unlike many Biblical characters. Not unlike me.

An eccentric with a wry sense of humor, Satie titled one of his written works, Mémoires d’un amnésique (Memories of an Amnesiac). Additionally, he wrote cryptic player’s instructions between the staffs (staves) such as, “with astonishment”, “on yellowed velvet”, and “like a nightingale with toothache”.3 (I would have really enjoyed getting to know this man!) His Vexations, unpublished during his lifetime—and there is no evidence to suggest it was intended for publication4—is conjectured to have been written in response to the demise of a romantic relationship, though there may be a different impetus for this work.

Reinbert de Leeuw (who just recently passed) provides my favorite interpretations of Satie’s piano music. His tempi are typically slower than other Satie interpreters—this extra space allowing the pieces to ‘breathe’ a bit more—and his touch seems appropriately light or heavy given the particular piece or section of a piece. The vlog just below is timestamped at what is probably my favorite Satie composition, Gymnopédies (1888; there are three variations), performed live (though, somewhat annoyingly, with an inordinate amount of coughing):

And here are de Leeuw’s slower-paced studio renditions of Gymnopédies 1 & 3 from 1977, with suitably stark mostly b&w images:

Also from 1977 is de Leeuw’s Ogives 1—4 (1889), set to interspersings of Monet’s and others’ artwork:

Here are more of de Leeuw’s interpretations (again rec. 1977), including the much lauded—and probably my second favorite—Gnossiennes (1890—1897; six in total):

Act Three of Satie’s ‘Christian Ballet’ Upsud (1892; de Leeuw, rec. date unknown), set to the artwork of Monet, Robert Reid and others:

Sarabande # 1 (1887; de Leeuw, 1977) set to various artists’ works:

All the above reminds me of the former tag line of my favorite record label, ECM Records, as found in one of their album inserts from the ‘70s:

ECM tagline

1 From an interview with Wolfgang Sandner (as translated by Anne Cattaneo), regarding his piece Tabula rasa, published in 1984 as part of the liner notes to ECM Records 1275.

2 Ibid; emphasis added.

3 This according to Ornella Volta’s liner notes (translated by Susannah Howe) for Erik Satie: The Complete Solo Piano Music (483 0236), p 26.

4 Ibid. “The care he took over any piece of writing destined to be seen by anyone else (even the shortest of letters) was always meticulous, bordering on the excessive; during his lifetime, he only ever gave his publishers signed and dated manuscripts, displaying the most elegant calligraphy throughout, his signature acting as his official authorisation for publication” (p 20). Vexations bears no date by the author.

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