Music of the Tsars

Classic Arts Features   Music of the Tsars
Great Performers brings Russia's greatest choir to New York in November.

They call it the Venice of the North. Peter the Great's incredible fantasy come true: Paradise on the Neva, a beautiful city on the misty shores of the Baltic Sea. St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 as Russia's great hope, a longed-for outlet to navigable seas, a window on the West, and a new capital to make Russia proud.

The city was renamed Petrograd during World War I‹"St. Petersburg" sounded too Germanic to patriotic Russians‹and ten years later, again renamed as Leningrad, as a symbol of its transformation into a Communist city. A crushing 900-day siege by German forces during World War II, which was met with heroic resistance by the city's residents, took more than half a million lives. But the city was miraculously restored to prewar splendor.

With its charming architectural mix of Russian and Italian elements, St. Petersburg stands today as a monument to the resilience and courage of the Russian people. In honor of the northern capital's 300th anniversary, Lincoln Center's "Music of the Spirit" series brings the St. Petersburg State Academic Capella Choir to the United States this fall for the first time in the choir's long history. Choral music has long held a special place in Russia's collective consciousness. "The Capella is incredibly famous in Russia," says David Eden, a Russian impresario who arranged the group's inaugural U.S. tour. "In St. Petersburg it is one of the great musical institutions, ranked with the Maryinsky Theatre, the Kirov, and the St. Petersburg Philiharmonic. It is Russia's oldest choir, in continuous existence for more than five centuries. Tsar Ivan III founded the Capella in 1479 because he wanted a choir to accompany him on campaigns. He was liberating Russian lands from the Tartar infidels after four centuries under the Tartar yoke."

For several generations, the choir accompanied the Tsars wherever they went, providing music for the Russian Orthodox liturgy (which traditionally permits use of no instrument other than the human voice). Tsars Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great both sang with the Capella in their time. Ivan even wrote some choral compositions, two of which survive. Peter adored singing and extended his participation beyond liturgical music, joining the Capella in concerts and taking an active part in recruiting fine singers for its ranks.

Abroad, Berlioz and Schumann considered the Capella the world's best; Beethoven requested it to premiere one of his masses. During World War II, in support of the Russian war effort, the choir gave more than 500 performances in less than two years. It has gone on singing through five centuries of Russian struggle, tragedy, hardship, and triumph. It has been a part of virtually every major state celebration since its founding‹including the inauguration of the new city of St. Petersburg in 1703.

The choir has been much recorded and has toured widely in Europe. Until this year, overseas touring has been ruled out for reasons of cost. "A 65-member choir is very hard to sustain," Eden explains. "The Capella has its own home, its own center in St. Petersburg that has been beautifully renovated. It gets invited to festivals in Western Europe and elsewhere. An American debut tour was proposed a few times, but the economics were problematic. It has been a struggle to pull it together. But we were absolutely committed to it."

The Capella's core repertory, for which it was founded, is the great literature of the Russian Orthodox Church. How did the choir survive state control under the resolutely secular Soviet government? "During the Soviet years, the choir did traditional classical choral repertory. It also gave premieres of important new compositions," says Eden. "Periodically, after a time, the choir tried to insert as much of the Orthodox repertoire as would be possible without upsetting the authorities. But what they could never do was give it a lot of emphasis."

A limited amount of the traditional sacred repertory was sometimes admitted in honor of a special event, or in connection with a larger program. "The old repertoire was kept alive in the conservatories," says Eden, "but until the 1980s you could not give it many public performances. The present conductor, Vladislav Chernushenko, is really credited as the one who began bringing back the old Orthodox music in the 1980s."

This fall the Capella Choir brings back the classic Russian Orthodox repertoire in all its glory, together with evocative settings of Russian folksongs. The November 1 concert presents a golden opportunity for total immersion in the unique Russian choral sound‹a sound of "stunning intensity," according to The Times of London, which also had its effect upon Hector Berlioz. Writing of the Capella some 175 years ago, the composer felt "gripped by a convulsive emotion." To Eden, who grew up with the Capella's sound in his ears, it is a warm and sensuous sound. Although numerous recordings are available, Eden says, "I always found with Russian choirs the strongest experience is to hear them directly, in concert." And this November, under the soaring arches of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, New York concertgoers will do just that as they thrill to the ancient airs of Russia.

Marcia Young is a New York-based music journalist.

Recommended Reading: