Lovingly, slovenly, slayingly, lavishly Slavic

Lovingly, slovenly, slayingly, lavishly Slavic

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 byProkofievJanáček, 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’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 LjubojevicMelodi:

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.


8 thoughts on “Lovingly, slovenly, slayingly, lavishly Slavic

  1. I truly enjoy all your comments and views. Being totally unaware of the happenings in the “Opera world” this is to me also a way to learn….
    Best from your hometown!

  2. Thanks for the lively review! My aunt always swears that Old Church Slavonic is the most beautiful language in the world. The Janacek is certainly gorgeous. And I think “Miffing Dudes in Cassocks” could be the title for a gloriously entertaining and informative music history series. (I had a good chuckle over “picturing you out, in all your barbarity,” too.)

  3. She means, in song, or does she read it? I’m impressed. Even fewer people know (& of) OCS than Latin these days. And apparently, as with Latin, nobody can tell how exactly it sounded. What it’ll sound like it will depend on what language the reader comes from, right?

  4. The best of my second-hand understanding is that yes, it’s anyone’s educated and furiously-defended-with-contentious-evidence guess as to what it sounded like. As far as I know, this rather extraordinary aunt does read it as well as appreciate it sung; she took a postgraduate degree in the comparative study of Slavic languages and literatures (I’m afraid I don’t know which.)

  5. Fascinating as always, but … Adorno? Was he “mightily upset” by Slavs, or by Slavic music? It wouldn’t surprise me a bit — but that’s partly because it didn’t take much, apparently, to upset Big Ted. He even hated jazz for some reason, if we can believe Greil Marcus anyway.

  6. Nemmine — I found some quotations (Adorno on Dvorak and Tchaikovsky. Geez, Theo — don’t skate around it, willya? Tell us what you *really* think.

  7. Stravinsky was his bête noire (one of many, anyway). I think it’s in his Philosophy of New Music that he analyzes Stravinsky as THE reactionary in modernist music (irregularities; too much rhythm which apparently speaks to our primal, lower selves; too much of a ritual, collectivist, brain-shutting kind of musicality, and so on) And Schönberg, of course, he posits and analyzes as THE progressivist – atonality, he was convinced, was the future of music, and a good prospect as well.

    He was also a colossus of political philosophy, mind. But some of his musicology — although its foundation lies on an extremely important insight, that no art form is politically neutral, music included — is silly. He did some interesting early sociology of music and sociology of musical recipient, but was always prone to cross to the side of mad rigidity and black-and-white puritanism.

    But your question is a valid one: is it only Slavs in music, or Slavs in general? The only composers he appreciated were German-speaking. I recently read a good Verdian musicologist and he noticed that somehow by some intriguing happenstance, Adorno never bothered with Italian composers. And I thought, heck, that’s true. I don’t think he ever deigned anybody his scrutiny but a few selected Germans. (And Slavs as the resident musicological nemesis. Which echoes some of Marx’s own thoughts about ‘the Slavs’.)

    The only exception to the German rule was Wagner, who was probably guilty of some of the same things that the ‘Slavs’ were.

    Now that I think of this, Adorno I think took the composer’s statements about their politics at their face value. So if Stravinsky had Rightist moments in his life, Adorno saw his music as part of that. If Wagner was a an anti-Semite, hell, then his Ring must be too. And so on.

    And again, a good initial insight: yes, the oeuvre is not only the artist’s output, but the oeuvre is the artist’s life and her output combined; but not in this unequivocal, straight way that interprets the aesthetic output by the author’s (usually inept) political statements.

    Though Adornians will say that, on the contrary, he offered elaborate esthetic analysis of these works as reactionary. Yes, but these tools he developed to fit his first intuition (that political allegiances of composers shade their composing). Is how it all comes across to me.

    But his hatred for pop culture… I am of two minds there.

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