2014-03-30 Notes from the Bench

“Nunc dimitis” by Alexander Gretchaninov

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate

Alexander Gretchaninov (1864-1956) composed sacred choral music for the Russian Orthodox Church, writing settings of the liturgy, hymn cycles, motets and various other shorter works. He worked with other composers of the era such as Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) and Pavel Chesnokov (1877-1944) who were associated with the Moscow Synodal School, an organization that taught music for the Church in Russia, which influenced Gretchaninov’s writing style. Gretchaninov’s works utilize chant-like melodies and the rich palette of choral textures that are commonly associated with Russian choral music; music that ranges from stark unisons to the “choral symphonism” style written with eight and twelve diverse parts.

Gretchaninov (also spelled Gretchaninoff) was a Russian late-romantic era composer, pianist, conductor, and musical ethnographer (an individual who studies and records the culture of a specific ethnic group). Gretchaninov was introduced to music rather late in his childhood. His father was a successful businessman in Moscow and expected Alexander to take over the family firm when he came of age. However, at the age of fourteen Gretchaninov began studying music at the Moscow Conservatory, despite his father’s objections. He later moved to St. Petersburg to study with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). Rimsky-Korsakov recognized the natural talent of Gretchaninov, and gave his extra time, mentored the young musician, and provided financial assistance; Gretchaninov received no financial support from his father while he pursued his music studies. In 1896, he returned to Moscow and became involved with theatre and opera productions. Over the course of his life, he wrote five symphonies, music for string quartet, numerous operas, choral works, and pieces for piano, violin, cello, clarinet, and the balalaika, a Russian folk instrument that is similar to the guitar. The balalaika has three strings and is characterized by its triangular body.

Gretchaninov enjoyed great success in Russia, and was recognized as a composer of distinction by the Tsar, who granted him an annual stipend. Gretchaninov left Russia in 1925, eight years after the revolution and the rise of Soviet power in the country, first immigrating to France and then in 1939 to the United States. He eventually became an American citizen and remained in this country until his death.


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