I'm heading off in a few hours to sing Stravinsky in our choir's annual fundraising concert, and looking forward to it very much. We are performing all the movements of his 1948 Mass, with a wind ensemble, and, a capella, the Three Sacred Choruses (Lord's Prayer, Credo, and Ave Maria), plus the very difficult Anthem, sometimes known as The Dove Descending, set to a text by T.S. Eliot and dedicated to him. The vocal parts of Anthem are so independent that there is really no way to find your note from what others are singing; the best way forward has been for each of us to memorize each interval, and engrave the musical lines of our parts in our heads so that we can sing them confidently and individually.
Yesterday I read the latest essay, "The Strangers," by Teju Cole, in The New Inquiry, in which the author muses about "pre-secular" art: the art from the ages we call Middle, Medieval, and Gothic. Teju has another, apt phrase for it: "God-regarding" art. We tend to think of all art after the Enlightenment as "better", he says, because it is art that reminds us of ourselves. But what if we turn that notion upside down, and consider what we have perhaps lost, or fail to see now, from our "modern" perspective?
In working on these musical pieces, by one of the most iconic modern composers, I've been particularly struck by the Credo in the Three Sacred Choruses, which has insinuated itself into my head and won't let go. Like the Credo in any mass, this creed is very much a chant, and it proceeds without major variation, as "spoken music," with the choir chanting the words on similar notes throughout. But - and this is the testament to Stravinsky's genius - there is an internal rhythmic structure that actually does vary, and a subtle emotional movement that follows the text. As a result, this Credo, while stark and seemingly simple, contains worlds. I have found it more and more moving the longer we've worked on it.
Together with the other two Sacred Choruses, these three rather sombre pieces have felt like a statement to me, quite different from so much of Stravinsky's other work, but I didn't know exactly where they were coming from. Today I found part of an answer (posted with a video performance on the Wikipedia.) In his Chroniques de ma vie, Stravinsky wrote that he had seen a performance of Wagner's Parsifal in 1912, and been outraged at what he saw as the sacreligious presentation of "art as religion, and theatre as a temple." He had been moved to write the Three Sacred Choruses in response, attempting to connect his own present with his memory of the traditional, chanted Russian liturgical music: stark, modal, plain, and "medieval in their clarity."
I find it fascinating that the composer of the dazzling, audacious Firebird, and such completely atonal and difficult works as "The Dove Descending," which seems like a comment on modern individuality and separation itself, felt compelled to draw a straight line connecting himself back through the centuries to a much earlier, almost forgotten musical expression of faith. While the present-day listener may find it easier to see herself in the ecstatic resurrection dance of The Firebird, these other works are God-regarding in an entirely different way, emerging out of the great silence into the human stillness that reflects it, if we can stop long enough to listen and look.