Sacred Choral Music from the Former Soviet Bloc

choral music concert

VocalEssence Chorus in concert

As an undergraduate composition student in the 1970s, I tried to like the music that my teachers thought important, including Webern, Stockhausen, Cage, et al. General audiences have never liked it, and I never did manage to like the music only an academic can love.

Inevitably a new generation of composers arose, but it was only after one of my graduate students invited me to a concert of mostly sacred choral music by Henryk Górecki in 1994 that I heard any European post-avant-garde music.

A surprising number of devoutly Christian composers lived and worked in countries of the former Soviet bloc, including Górecki and Krzysztof Penderecki of Poland, and Arvo Pärt of Estonia. They all have a strained relationship with the Western European post-war avant-garde.

Krzysztof Penderecki

sacred choral music

Ecce Homo (Behold! The Man) / Antonio Ciseri, 1871

Penderecki, the first of these composers to become known in the West, started out as a disciple of the avant-garde as a reaction against the government-sanctioned style of socialist realism. He used much the same rhetoric to describe his musical goals as did the avant-gardists.

His major sacred work of this period in his life, the St. Luke Passion, surprised many observers both for its overt Christian content and the fact that, because of its expressive and emotional qualities, the same audiences that rejected other avant-garde music embraced it.

It seemed a snub to the Communist government of Poland, but it also ignited controversy among the avant-garde; Penderecki dared to use two major triads!

Perhaps, therefore, it is no surprise that Penderecki eventually began to consider the expectations of the avant-garde every bit as restrictive and oppressive as socialist realism. He found the universalism it espoused both and illusion and a trap. He escaped from it by a return to tradition, beginning in the mid-1970s.

In 1980, Solidarity commissioned a work to commemorate those killed in Gdánsk during the uprising against the Communists. He responded with Lacrimosa, using text from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, and later incorporated it into his Polish Requiem. Penderecki has composed all kinds of music, including operas, orchestral works, chamber music, and choral works. He has composed nearly two dozen sacred choral works, including both some of his earliest and some of his latest compositions.

Anyone seeking recordings can choose from 6 recordings of the St. Luke Passion. Other frequently recorded sacred choral pieces include Agnus Dei, Cherubic Hymn, Stabat Mater, and The Dream of Jacob. For comparison, there are 19 of his most frequently recorded piece, the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.

Henryk Górecki

Basilica in Katowice, Poland, Górecki's home town

Basilica in Katowice, Poland, Górecki’s home town

Górecki’s earliest works show the influence of Szymanowski and Bartók. The first public performance of any of them took place in 1958.

Three years later, he had become a favorite among post-Webernian serialists and one of the acknowledged leaders of the Polish avant-garde.

He began to turn away from that style somewhat earlier than Penderecki, and offended the avant-garde establishment, which ceased to regard him as a major composer.

His former friends particularly rejected his Symphony No. 3 (1976), “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” as decadent trash. No one paid much attention until Nonesuch released a recording by the London Sinfonietta (David Zinman, conductor) and soprano Dawn Upshaw in 1992. It has sold more than a million copies and remained on the US classical music charts for nearly three years, and at the top of them for 38 weeks. Górecki himself was as surprised as anyone else. The notoriety he gained from it has not translated into more fame for his other works.

Later works have become progressively less dissonant and more listener-friendly. There are some 31 recordings of “Totus tuus” (1987), which Górecki composed for John Paul II’s third visit to Poland as Pope. It is a lovely, unpretentious work. Unfortunately, besides the Third Symphony, none of his other music appears on more than five recordings, and none of his sacred choral music on more than three. x

Górecki’s most important sacred unaccompanied choral work, Miserere (1981), received its North American premiere at St. Mary of the Angel’s church on the northwest side of Chicago in 1994. The enthusiastic audience filled this large church to capacity, making it for all but those who arrived earliest to find a nearby parking place—all this for a concert devoted to the choral music of a little-known living composer.

The Chicago Symphony Chorus, the Chicago Lyric Opera Chorus, and the Lira Chamber Chorus performed the Miserere, two other sacred works (Amen and Euntes ibant et flebant), and two settings of Polish folk music (sung by the Lira Chamber Chorus alone).

Despite the success of that concert, it appears that Górecki’s reputation will rest primarily on his third symphony and “Totus tuus.” It is easy to understand why the mammoth Miserere does not receive frequent performances; it calls for an eight-part choir and takes half an hour to perform. It is less easy to understand why his other small choral works haven’t gained much traction while “Totus tuus” risks overexposure.

Arvo Pärt

Pärt’s early career differs significantly from Górecki’s and Penderecki’s. His native Estonia, then a Soviet Republic, had much less artistic freedom than Poland. It was difficult for composers to learn about musical developments outside the Soviet Union. Pärt’s earliest works, not surprisingly, show the influence of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Bartók, composers whom the regime at least conditionally approved. Somehow, though, he learned about Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and started composing with it.

That had two unfortunate results. He got on the bad side of the Soviets and found his music banned. Not long afterwards, he found the twelve-tone technique to be a creative dead end. He lived in exile, first in Vienna and later in Berlin, from 1980 until about 2000, when he returned to Estonia. His international reputation began to grow in 1984 as the result of a recording project by ECM Records.

When the Soviet establishment first started to ban his works, Pärt began to despair of ever composing another note and withdrew into a contemplative silence, during which he studied Western European vocal works from the 14th to the 16th centuries.

In the process he developed a completely new style, which he calls “tintinnabuli,” or ringing of bells. After composing his Third Symphony in 1971, he intensified his study of even earlier music, including Gregorian chant.

Critics tend to lump Pärt, Górecki, and British composer John Tavener together as “holy minimalists,” but in fact they have not had any influence on each other, any common influences, or any contact with American minimalists.

Magnificat, sacred choral music

The Visitation (Mary and Elizabeth) in the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry and Latin text of Magnificat (ca. 1411-1416)

Pärt’s music, in fact, is completely out of step with any contemporary trend or school of composition. It tends to be based on triads, but is not exactly tonal or even modal in the Medieval sense.

His simple rhythm structures match his simple harmonies. It is difficult to describe his style without making it sound boring, yet Pärt enjoys a greater following than either of the other composers in this article.

Sacred choral music, with or without accompaniment, occupies a significant part of his output from his earliest to his latest works.

Although he converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church in the early 1970s, only in the 1990s did he begin a serious exploration of the Orthodox musical tradition. Most of his sacred music, therefore, is in Latin, although some is in Church Slavonic and, surprisingly, somewhat more is in English.

He has composed two settings of the Roman Catholic Mass. He has issued the second, the Berliner Messe, with both orchestral and organ accompaniment. Other large-scale works include his St. John Passion and Te Deum. The Magnificat has been recorded 40 times—the only sacred piece among his most frequently recorded works. De profundis follows with 18 recordings. Several other sacred choral works are also available on multiple recordings. Part: Magnificat / Magnificat Anitphonen / Berliner Mass / De Profundis

Photo credits:
VocalEssence Chorus. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Ecce homo. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.
Basilica in Katowice. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
The Visitation. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.


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