This is a good week to come out as a Slav. Picture me out, in all my barbarity. If the Slavic peoples contributed nothing else to the music world but that mighty upset of T. W. Adorno, it would still be huge. You’re welcome, humanity.
And why is this a good week to come out as (my) Slav(e), you ask? Because of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and its well-programmed three-night series of concerts called the Slavic Celebration, which includes works byProkofiev, Janáček, Chopin, Glinka, Stravinsky, Dvořák and Tchaikovsky, to name just the heaviest drinkers.* The remaining concert is on November 18 and 19 (INFO & TICKS). TSO’s Music Director Peter Oundjian conducts.
I attended the first concert in the series this Thursday, the Glagolitic Mass. On the program, Tchaikovsky’s Marche slave, Op. 31 and Astrophonia for viola (viola principalTeng Li) and string orchestra with (a very tempered — kudos to the TSO’s keyboard principal, Patricia Krueger) piano, a contemporary piece composed and conducted by the Czech composer Krystof Mařatka.
Which was followed by one of the funniest pieces created this side of pop culture, Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije Op. 60 (‘Lieutenant Etc.’) in five movements of his fictitious life: The Birth of Kije, Romance, Kije’s Wedding, Troika, The Burial of Kije. The work was commissioned by a Soviet film studio in the early 30s as a score for the eponymous Soviet talkie, based on the short story by Yuriy Tinyanov. Many years later, Woody Allen will use Kije music for (arguably) the best film he ever made, Love and Death. Here’s the final scene of the film where he dances with Death to the tune of Troika, the Kije’s fourth movement:
The Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass was performed last, with the The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir out in full force, and the soloists Christine Brewer, soprano; the warm-voiced and underused by the text Nancy Maultsby, mezzo-soprano; John Mac Master, tenor (fantastic diction, nice timbre, but barely heard above the orchestra until the very end — grumpity grump) and Tyler Duncan, baritone (no complaints). This is an everything-plus-an-organ-solo kind of work, and the orchestra went completely silent near the end when Michael Bloss at the organ took over the podium with his energetic solo.
Musically, the Mass is full of unexpected twists and turns, and deserving of repeat listening. Textually, the same mischievous business. Janáček the atheist decides to compose a secular mass not to a God but to a different kind of being in community. He takes the words of the traditional Catholic mass, but in the language of the Catholic church’s old nemesis, that other, Eastern church: the Old Church Slavonic. And he calls it Glagolitic, after a very old, non-dominant way of writing the Old Church Slavonic. (He could have called it Cyrillic, but that would have been too obvious and, well, Eastern-Churchy.)
This way, the visionary that he was, Janáček made one of the earliest pan-European moves way before the EEC was a shade of an idea. A huge dividing point between the Slavs is the Western-Eastern Christianity line. If you watch any clips similar to mine below on their original YouTube sites, you’ll see in the comments sections (and in a few other things, like the post-Yugoslav wars, ahem) that this strife merrily goes on, unperturbed by the 21st-century circumstances. “No, you have to give up Filioque and transubstantiation”; “No, you have to stop dividing the church along national lines”; “No, you have to get rid of the ridiculous confessions”; No, you” etc etc etc (Kije, Kije, Kije). So Janáček says, listen guys, I’m not wasting my energy on the parochialisms, imma let me finish some music. Some cassocked dudes might be miffed by my inventiveness? All the better.
And that, my friends is, the proto-European ‘tude to (his well-muddied Slavic) boot.
Kyrie (Gospodi pomiluj) according to the Glagolitizing Janáček:
A gorgeous Orthodox chant Kyrie, performed by Divna Ljubojevic & Melodi:
And this Kyrie, by an as-bad-as-Slav, opened-many-times-in-Prague doesn’t need introducing:
* Not a fact at all, but a useful Slavic stereotype nonetheless.