Forgotten Russian Masterpiece Has Belated Premiere

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Alexander Lingas, founder and director of Cappella Romana, led his ensemble in the world premiere of Maximilian Steinberg's "Passion Week.'
Alexander Lingas, founder and director of Cappella Romana, led the world premiere of Steinberg’s ‘Passion Week.’
By Philippa Kiraly

SEATTLE – A world premiere from an important composer is always an event, but what about the world premiere of a forgotten work by a forgotten composer some 90 years after its composition?

Maximilian Steinberg
Maximilian Steinberg

W. Bessel, an émigré firm originally based in St. Petersburg, published Maximilian Steinberg’s Passion Week in Paris around 1927 in collaboration with Breitkopf and Härtel, including alternate Latin and English translations with the Church Slavonic. Breitkopf today had no idea they had the work in their catalog until the Portland-based performing group Cappella Romana made inquiries about it. Passion Week received its premiere by the voices of Cappella Romana in Portland and Seattle on April 11-12. It is a major work that will surely become a staple of Easter Week celebrations not only in the Russian Orthodox Church but throughout the Christian world. But first, let me describe the extraordinary and serendipitous way in which the manuscript reached Alexander Lingas, founder and director of Cappella Romana and one of the world’s top scholars on the history and performance of Russian and Greek Orthodox music.

Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, his daughter Nadezhda and fiancé Maximilian Steinberg, Stravinsky's first wife Ekaterina, 1908. (Cappellaromana.org)
Steinberg, standing, among Russian musical royalty in 1908. Seated left to right:
Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and daughter Nadezhda, Stravinsky’s wife Ekaterina.

Steinberg (or Shteynberg) was a contemporary and fellow student with Stravinsky at the St Petersburg Conservatory, where his teacher was Rimsky-Korsakov. He was raised a Jew but married Rimsky’s daughter, Nadezhda, an act requiring baptism in the Orthodox Church. Steinberg later assumed Rimsky’s position as director of the Conservatory. Unlike Stravinsky, who moved west after the rise of communism, Steinberg chose to stay until his death in 1946. He wrote Passion Week between 1921 and 1923, and it is arguably the last major piece of sacred music composed in Russia after the imposition of Communist rule. Steinberg (1886-1946) knew it would never be published in Russia, much less performed there, hence its publication in Paris, though it was known about by only a few scholars after that.

Portland's St. Mary's Cathedral, site of the Steinberg premiere.
Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, site of the Steinberg premiere.

The current thinking is that years later, one of those rare printed copies was given by Steinberg’s student Shostakovich to conductor Igor Buketoff in New York, with the request that he have it performed. But Buketoff, whose father had been a Russian Orthodox priest, had by then become an Episcopalian and apparently just stashed it away until a few years before his death in 2001, when he gave it to his niece, Matushka Tamara Skvir, and her husband, the Very Rev. Daniel Skvir of the Orthodox chapel at Princeton University. The couple knew they might have something of musical value, and some years later they asked an opinion from Lingas, then a Visiting Fellow in Hellenic Studies there. Lingas recognized at once that Passion Week was a masterpiece. The last piece of the story fell into place when an anonymous donor gave $50,000 to Cappella Romana for its preparation, performance, and recording (including a new performing edition).

Lingas leading his Portland-based ensemble. (Tori Ava Photography)
Lingas leading his Portland-based ensemble. (Tori Ava Photography)

Round about the turn of the 20th century, the so-called New Russian Choral School arose, in which some composers and conductors, with the enthusiastic approval of Russian Orthodox churchmen, began to write and perform church music using the old Slavonic monophonic chant but creating it anew, incorporating it within modern harmonic ideas and even Baroque polyphony. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the week before Easter is called Great and Holy Week, and around it was developed an intense schedule of services. In his Passion Week, Steinberg set eleven of the hymns devoted to different days of this week, almost all using the ancient Znamenny chant as their basis, to be sung a cappella with a full choir of men and women’s voices. One hymn uses a Kievan chant, one a Bulgarian one, and in another, Steinberg uses an original composition, which might well be a chant.

As in the brief sample at right, the music is quite slow, sometimes a bit faster, never overly loud or dramatically soft, basically with a 2/2 beat though essentially without bar lines, and with chant sections freely sung. Yet the almost hour-long work is never placid or pedestrian, at least in Cappella Romana’s performance. Sometimes it sounded stern or foreboding, sober or somber, at other times brighter and joyful, or hypnotic, peaceful, and uplifting, or solemn and reverential, even exalted in Great Saturday’s canon. It’s a beautiful work to hear. The harmonies are open with late Romantic coloration of the chant base, but the artistry with which Steinberg brings out the meaning of the words is highly sophisticated. Steinberg often uses voices like instruments (he had a deep knowledge of orchestration, having completed Rimsky’s Principles of Orchestration after Rimsky’s death) There are long melismas, and at one time or another a voice emerges from the harmony like a solo instrument coming forward for a prominent phrase or two. One hymn, for Great Friday, uses a trio of solo female voices, the music then continuing with the full choir and a tenor solo emerging from it. Cappella Romana often sings without vibrato, but at times during Passion Week, it used a little as affect, creating shimmering chords. Since its inception in 1991, the group has been performing, with expert scholarship, Orthodox music from medieval times to today’s new works. The choristers have a deep understanding of how to sing it, while the ensemble’s rich but pure sound, excellent pitch sense, and expressive capabilities make their performances not to be missed.

Philippa Kiraly has been a freelance classical music critic since 1980. She wrote for the Akron Beacon Journal, then the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until its print demise, and now for The Seattle Times, City Arts, and a blog, The Sun Break.

Editor’s Note: We have learned there was a reading of this score in New York, thanks to the Clarion Society, on April 9, 2014. For the announcement of that reading click here.