Russian Choral Treasures

Symphony of Psalms

Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms is considered one of the monumental works of the twentieth century and one of his most mature compositions. According to musicologist, Joseph Machlis:

“For sheer grandeur of conception there is little in the output in the first half of the [twentieth] century to rival the closing pages of the Symphony of Psalms.”

The Symphony of Psalms was commissioned for the Boston Symphony’s fiftieth anniversary in 1930 and dedicated to the BSO. According to Stravinsky:

“My idea was that my symphony should be a work with great contrapuntal development… I finally decided on a choral and instrumental ensemble in which the two elements should be on an even footing, neither outweighing the other.”

The work has an unusual scoring using a large wind section but omitting the violins and violas thus establishing the particularly dark timbre for which Stravinsky was searching. He selected verses from the Psalms and directed them to be sung in Latin. The first two movements are taken from Psalms 39 and 40. The final and longest movement is a setting of Psalm 150 and concludes, after moving through a complex harmonic structure, with a wonderful C major chord.


A Cappella Russian Treasures

This brief segment of tonight’s program provides a scintillating sampler of the great wealth of Russian choral music. The first three works, sung in Church Slavonic, represent the Romantic choral literature of the Orthodox Church. Although each work is based upon ancient unison chant, all carry these Russian trademarks: rich harmonies; dark colors created by extended ranges (especially for the basses); frequent doubling of vocal parts with the men singing an octave or two lower the same notes as the women; homophonic and syllabic structure with all parts moving together rather than in the more familiar Western sacred counterpoint of individual melodic lines; and extreme contrasts of dynamics enhanced by voice pairings of two or four parts with full 8 part chorus.

“Kvalite” ??????? ??? ???????? by Pavel Chesnokov (1877-1944) is taken from All-Night Vigil Op. 44. It is sung at one of the high points of the Vigil service when all the clergy process forward to stand in the middle of the church with the people to begin the full censing of the church and the reading of the Gospel. All-Night Vigil services are celebrated every Saturday night and on the eve of feast-days.

“Cherubic Hymn” ??????????? ????? by Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) begins the Eucharistic portion of the Divine Liturgy and is sung during the great entrance, at which time the bread and wine are placed upon the altar.

“Bogoroditse” ??????????, ???? ??????? by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) is perhaps the best known of this evening’s works. It is taken from his All-Night Vigil published in 1915 and is an angelic and awe inspiring homage to the Virgin Mary.

We enter the world of Russian secular choral music with “Sacred Love” ?????? ?????? by one of Russia’s most popular contemporary composers, Georgy Sviridov (b. 1915). The long slow extended harmonies sung by a choir singing wordlessly represent the soul, the seat of love. The soaring soprano voice, pointing to the heavens, sings of a love that has been cleansed by suffering and now is free from pain and fear, a serene and sacred love.

“Kalinka” ??????? arr. by Vadim Prokhorov is a popular folksong known throughout the world. In Russian folklore kalinka and malinka both represent a beautiful maiden who is the object of passionate love. The rousing refrain and growing enthusiasm as the work progresses to the final line of the third verse, “Will you give your love to me?” leaves everyone energized and in high spirits.



The prolific composer and pianist Alexandr Tikhonovich Grechaninov (also spelled Alexandre Gretchaninoff) was born in Moscow, Russia in 1864 and died in New York in 1956. He began his piano studies at the age of 14 and three years later attended the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with several notable Russian musicians,

including Arensky in theory and counterpoint, and Taneyev in musical form. From 1890-1893 he studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory under Rimsky-Korsakov, who conducted Gretchaninov’s First Symphony in 1895. He enjoyed early public success as a composer, and composed in a variety of genres, including large symphonic works, piano music, chamber and instrumental music, liturgical music, and works for children, including several children’s operas.

In his earlier years, Grechaninov taught piano in St, Petersburg and then in Moscow, where he also worked in the Moscow University ethnographic society, arranging songs drawn from across the Russian empire. He also taught at several schools in Moscow, for which much of his music for children was written. Starting in 1910 he received an annual pension of 2,000 rubles for his liturgical music. After the revolution and the loss of his pension, he traveled to western Europe, eventually settling in Paris in 1925, where continued to compose and work as a pianist. In 1939 he came to America, moved to New York city in 1940, and become an American citizen in 1946.

A deeply religious man, Gretchaninoff was nevertheless liberal in his outlook, and came to feel that he had exhausted the technical resources of unaccompanied choral music in the traditional Russian Orthodox Church. His subsequent use of instruments barred his more adventurous settings of religious texts from use in Russian churches. The Cantata Hvalite Boga! began as a setting of Psalm 150 in 1914, written in a spirit of impatience with the barring of liturgical music with instruments by the church, a prohibition made more galling to the composer by the exhortation of the psalmist to praise the Lord with all musical instruments. He later prefaced this work with two additional Psalm settings, and added a treble chorus for the second movement. Hvalite Boga! was premiered on March 9, 1915 in Moscow by Serge Koussevitsky, who later became an important conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

In his setting of old Russian melodies, Grechaninov had forged a new style already evident in his earlier liturgical works. In Hvalite Boga!, he continued this use of a Russian choral declamation, based on a 19 th century “St. Petersburg” style of chordal harmonization of traditional chant, and interspersed with some occasional contrapuntal writing, and spatial effects achieved through antiphonal use of the orchestral and choral forces, as well as the placement of the treble chorus. Though harmonically more modern, and showing a kinship with more contemporary composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov and Debussy, this cantata does not stray from the composer’s innate conservatism, never violating the sense of timelessness and overarching spirituality of traditional Russian church music. Grechaninov’s score calls upon a large orchestra with a wide range of orchestral timbres, including a large number of brass and winds, and other colorful instruments such as gong, celeste, harp and organ. The setting of the text is expansive and unhurried, almost leisurely in spots, creating a sublime spaciousness and grandeur worthy of the greatest cathedral. (Notes written by Malcom Halliday, with information about the composer derived from an article about Grechaninov in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and information about Hvalite Boga! from CD notes written by Eric Roseberry, on the Chandos recording, #9698)

Symphony of Psalms ???????? ???????. – Igor Stravinsky
Dr. Douglas Weeks, Director of Worcester Polytechnic Institute Orchestra

I. Exaudi oratiionem meam (Hear my prayer)- Psalm 38:13-14
II. Expectans expectavi Dominum (I waited patiently for the Lord)- Psalm 39:2-4
III. Alleluia, Laudate Dominum (Praise God in His holiness)- Psalm 150

A Cappella Russian Treasures 
Dr. Robert Eaton, Artistic Director, Assabet Valley Mastersingers

“Kvalite” ??????? ??? ???????? from All Night Vigil- Pavel Chesnokov
“Cherubic Hymn” ??????????? ????? – Mikhail Glinka
“Bogoroditse” ??????????, ???? ??????? – Sergei Rachmaninoff
“Sacred Love” ?????? ?????? – Gerogy Sviridov

Zhannna Alkhazova- soloist
“Kalinka” ??????? – arr. Vadim Prokhorov


Kvalite Boga! (Praise God!) ??????? “??????? ????”, op. 65 –Alexandre Gretchaninoff 
Malcolm Halliday, Artistic Director, Master Singers of Worcester

I. Blagoslovi dushe moya Ghospoda (Bless the Lord, O My Soul)
II. Se zhertva taynaya (Now the Powers of Heaven)

Alden Voices of WPI- Treble Choir 
III. Hvalite Boga vo svyatil (Praise the Lord)
Zhannna Alkhazova- soloist