David Otis Castonguay
Director of Choral Activities
Originally published in Notes the state journal of the Virginia Chapter of MENC
Twenty years ago, American choral conductors who wanted to program Russian choral music had few options. The Chesnokov Salvation is created frequently appeared on festival programs and Rachmaninov's famous Bogorodiste Devo from the All-Night Vigil or Vespers was readily available in several different editions set to Ave Maria or Hail Mary, but neither of these works could be easily found in editions which included the original Russian text. There were LP recordings of the Don Cossack Choir and the Soviet Army Chorus which allowed us to hear Russian folk songs and liturgical music sung in all of their visceral Slavic splendor, but where could we find the music?
Even if authentic scores could be found, the text was written in the Cyrillic alphabet and English translations were virtually nonexistent. Then there was the problem of finding basses to fill out those low pedal tones that are so essential to the Slavonic liturgical style. In the late 1970's and early '80's G. Schirmer recognized this potential market and published a series of contemporary works by Russian composers. The scores featured good translations, but inconsistent and confusing transliterations of the Cyrillic text. Therefore it was still difficult to pronounce the texts accurately unless there were native speakers of Russian available to coach the singers. The G. Schirmer series rapidly went permanently out of print.
In the late 1970's Vladimir Morosan was a doctoral student in choral music at the University of Illinois. Mr. Morosan came from an ethnic Russian family and writing a dissertation on Russian liturgical music was an easy choice and it filled a gaping void in the scholarly literature. Within ten years, this dissertation would lead to the creation of a publishing house that would dramatically change the availability of Russian music in America.
Musica Russica is based in Madison, Connecticut. Morosan and his Russian-born wife publish an ever increasing catalogue of liturgical music, folks songs and newly composed concert works. The scores contain translations and excellent historical program notes. They are scrupulously edited from authoritative primary sources and are published in a large, readable format. Morosan also publishes collected works of Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and others in elegantly bound volumes that are rapidly finding their ways onto the shelves of major music libraries. In addition to the publishing activities, Morosan imports a wide assortment of Russian and other hard to find Slavic CD recordings.
While Musica Russica has provided a great service to the choral profession through its conscientious publications, perhaps the most significant thing Morosan has done to help bring the beauties of Slavic music to the classrooms and churches of America is the Musica Russica transliteration system. Morosan has developed a proprietary system which clearly indicates how to pronounce the Russian using a series of diacritical marks that can be taught rapidly and effectively. Morosan also provides cassette drill tapes of texts to assist conductors and choir members refine their pronunciation. Their excellent web site is currently undergoing a major renovation which will make it even easier and more informative. (www.musicarussica.com) Morosan can be reached by telephone at 800.326.3132 or fax at 203.421.3132. Musica Russica's email is: email@example.com
Selected octavos suitable for high school mixed and treble choirs follow below. Yes, Musica Russica publishes excellent editions of the Chesnokov and Rachmaninov works mentioned earlier, but I have chosen a few secular folk songs and liturgical works that are less well known. Most are written in ranges which are comfortable for high school singers. I invite you to explore this excellent repertoire. This list is a tiny fraction of what is currently available.
Author's note: The web edition of this article includes images of selected pages from each of the scores. Click on the links below to view representative pages of each score. These images are reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher for the sole purpose of enhancing the reader's ability to evaluate this music for purchase and performance. Please honor the publisher's generosity by respecting the copyright law.
SACRED MUSIC FOR MIXED VOICES
Pomiluy nas, Ghóspodi (Have Mercy on Us, O Lord) Alexander Arkhangelsky (1826-1924). Musica Russica MRSM Ar 050. SATB (Soprano: d-f1 ; Alto: A-d1 ; Tenor: D-g; Bass: G2 - Bb)
An excellent introduction to Russian sacred music for the high school choir. The opening soprano melody is accompanied by short responses by the lower three voices. There are brief moments of canonic imitation alternating with declamation by paired voices. There is nice harmonic variation and interest which is evocative of the plaintive text.
Shcho to za predïvo (Oh, What a Wonder!) Ukrainian Christmas Carol arranged by Vasil Barvinskiy (1888-1963). Musica Russica CC 011. SATB with soprano solo (Soprano: e-d1 ; Alto: A-b ; Tenor: E-e [some divisi]; Bass: E2 - G [some divisi] )
This one of a large number of Ukrainian carols, most of which celebrate Christmas. The lovely melody of the soprano solo is supported by homophonic writing for the choir. Simple and effective part writing includes flowing eighth note motion and passing tones which enliven the harmony. This gentle piece features two verses with a refrain that repeats once in each verse. There are a couple of brief excursions by the low bass down to an E2 which are just lightly sung. There is also one phrase where Barvinskiy calls for a line to briefly descend through D2 to B3 but this line is doubled in the normal bass octave above. An effective performance can be made without the three ultra low bass notes. There is another misprint caused by the Implode Music command in Finale in this score - a g# missing in the left hand of the piano reduction in measure 9.
FOLK SONGS FOR MIXED VOICES
Vo pole beriozonka stoyala (In a field a Birch Tree Was Standing) Russian Folk Song arranged by Pavel Chesnokov (1877-1944). Musica Russica FS 022. SSAATTBB (Soprano: g-f1 ; Alto: C-bb; Tenor: G-f [with a sustained g specified to be sung in falsetto; Bass: D2 - C)
This is an excellent introduction to Russian folk literature for the larger choir. The asymmetrical 7/4 meter with repetitive eighth note chanting by the upper voices contrast with drones and pedal notes sung by the male parts. Typical of the style, the slower opening is juxtaposed with an allegro middle section with the slower opening music returning at the end. The superb program notes clearly explain the cultural significance of birch trees and how they relate to this text and to Russian musical culture in general.
Sredi dolini rovniya (Amidst a Valley) Russian "Urban" folk song arranged by Constantine Shvedoff (1886-1954). Musica Russica FS 021. SATB (Soprano: d-g1 ; Alto: Bb-d; Tenor: D-f ; Bass: G1 - Bb)
This absolutely charming melody is realized in a simple, four-part, homophonic setting. The soprano states the melody first while the men sing the second statement of the melody accompanied by the women singing "ah." This includes an nice counter melody sung by the sopranos. Verses three and four follow this same pattern with a homophonic fifth verse and a coda. The text is a bittersweet reflection on love lost. Musica Russica uses Finale to typeset its scores and the some of the piano reductions exhibit crowding of adjacent notes caused by the "Implode Music" command. The misalignment is a minor annoyance when reading the piano reduction. An example of this can be found in measure six of this score.
SECULAR CONCERT WORKS
Posmotri, kakaya mgla (Behold, Shadows Have Fallen) Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915). Musica Russica PS 002. SATB (Soprano: B-f sharp1 ; Alto: A sharp-c sharp ; Tenor: E-g ; Bass: F sharp2 - B)
Taneyev was a pupil of Tchaikovsky and typical of Romantic composers he was fond of setting texts which describe nature. The character of the setting is primarily staccato with brief touches of chromaticism which are well-prepared within its Romantic harmonic idiom. Vadim Prokhorov describes the form of this work best in the program notes found in the octavo: "It [this work] is also an illustration of Tanyev's fondness for architectural structures and counterpoint: the chorus is written essentially in sonata form with mirrored recapitulation. The main theme is treated as a thesis that needs development...the major device used for this development is imitative polyphony." It is a piece of subtle charm. The final two pages of the score are found on back cover which is printed on buff colored paper. This diminishes the legibility of the final pages slightly.
SACRED CONCERT WORKS FOR TREBLE VOICES
Gotóvo sértse moyó (My Heart Is Ready) An a cappella cantata of eight settings of the Psalms of David by Yuri Yukechev (1947- ). Musica Russica CMR 005. Voice varies from SA in movement No. 1 to SSSAA with SSA soli in movement No. 8
While Musica Russica's choral catalogue began with and is still dominated by Slavonic liturgical music, Morosan has recently expanded into works by contemporary Russian composers. These lovely settings of biblical psalms are melodically based in Russian liturgical chant. The flowing melodies and well crafted counterpoint are immediately attractive. The early movements are easily accessible by smaller treble choirs, and the later movements will challenge the finest larger treble choirs. Choirs which enjoy singing music by Duruflé and Lauridsen will enjoy these works. Individual movements can stand alone.
Musica Russica sells an excellent CD recording of this work performed
by the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York, Nikolai Kachanov, conductor.