Soviet composers turn inner faith into musical form at Boston festival

The month-long festival in which Soviets and Americans are ``Making Music Together'' here has been full of surprises. But one of the most startling discoveries has been to find religious faith animating some of the most vibrant Soviet works yet performed in this event - works by composers from an avowedly atheist state. Equally startling, however, has been the wide divergence of Soviet viewpoints about the significance of this music and the degree to which its true intent must be disguised in the Soviet Union, even during the new era of glasnost (openness).

In public discussions between Soviets and Americans during the festival it appeared that glasnost had brought free expression for Soviet composers, including the freedom to produce religious works like Alfred Schnittke's ``Requiem Mass,'' which was performed here.

``Gorbachev has given us carte blanche,'' said Soviet composer Karen Khachaturian, whom recent emigr'e Soviet pianist Vladimir Feltsman, reached by phone in New York, describes as ``a strictly official musician with very deep connections with the nonmusical [establishment].'' A visiting Soviet music critic, Lev Ginsburg, said he believed it ``possible'' to get music on contemporary religious themes accepted. Yuri Melentev, minister of culture in the Russian Republic, said it was ``a great nonsense'' to suggest otherwise.

But Dmitri Pokrovsky, whose folk ensemble is including liturgical music on its programs in Boston, said that, while there are fewer problems now in performing such work than in years past, the problems ``still do exist,'' especially in the Ukraine. And Mr. Feltsman said that he did not think it would be possible to play music set to contemporary Hebrew texts ``in open concert,'' not only because of the difficulties in getting concert hall management and Ministry of Culture approval, but because ``first of all, you have to find the musicians who would like to do it.''

Feltsman further explained that Soviet composers support themselves through sales of work to the Ministry of Culture, which routinely purchases new compositions. While mediocre overtures and chamber music could easily be sold to the ministry, he said, to have a chance with a requiem mass, ``you have to write really good music.'' As a result, ``many people have a great sense of self-censorship.''

Composer Sophia Gubaidulina, also in town for the festival, essentially agreed: ``The composer is not prevented from writing,'' she said. ``The more important question is: Is it going to be performed? ... Is it going to be published?'' In the Soviet Union, her composition ``Seven Words'' (based on the last seven words of Jesus on the cross), during which the cello bow makes the sign of the cross, is known simply as ``Partita for Cello and Bajan.'' ``Difficulties are avoided by not giving it a title,'' she said. ``In other words, ... do it in a symbolic way, but don't advertise.''

Mr. Ginsburg, who supplied the festival with an extensive set of biographical and musicological notes on the composers visiting Boston, avoids the subject of religion completely, even when writing about Schnittke and Gubaidulina, in whose lives and compositions religion plays a central role.

In the Schnittke ``Requiem,'' the music speaks for itself. Unlike so many of the Soviet compositions heard during the festival, Schnittke's music comes from the inner world and operates at profound levels and to sublime effect. Although the musical antecedents of the ``Requiem'' are very Russian, the unusual ability of Schnittke's music to intimately convey deep grief, but simultaneously soothe and uplift the spirit, seemed quintessentially Mozartean.

Schnittke's novel choice of instrumentation - including organ, piano, electric guitar, and a host of percussion instruments - made for some unusual sounds, but Boston conductor Sarah Caldwell successfully knitted the varied instrumental voices of her ensemble into a cohesive whole.

The opening and closing movements of the ``Requiem'' have a quiet polyphonic holiness to them, which was insightfully exposed by the open, honest singing of the New England Conservatory Chorus. The measured, gentle sounding of a bell-like chime contributed to a sense of timelessness, which, in the first movement, served to draw the audience into Schnittke's special world, and, in the last movement, to send them away with a feeling of inner tranquillity and spiritual refreshment.

The middle movements link together organically, exploring a series of tensions waiting to be resolved harmoniously in the finale. The spreading of voices in the ``Dies irae'' suggest an angry confusion; the insistent buildup of rhythmic pulse in the ``Rex tremendae'' generates much excitement; and the softness of timpani adds pathos to the ``Lacrimosa.'' The dulcet tones of tenor Noel Velasco in the ``Sanctus'' were particularly touching. The subtlety of the choir in the ``Benedictus'' made it a movement of solemnity - mournful, but also rejuvenating.

To get some perspective on the differences in the ways the Soviets describe music like the ``Requiem,'' this writer spoke with Suzanne Massie, a visiting scholar at the Russian Research Center of Harvard University. She said that the word dukhovniye (which means ``spiritual'' in the widest possible sense) appears frequently in today's Soviet press. ``And [Mikhail] Gorbachev uses it in speeches,'' she added. The word has come up often during lunchtime festival discussion groups with Soviet composers, and the word ``spiritual'' appears in Ginsburg's English-language texts, too. The word religiozniye (religious), in contrast, has rarely been heard.

``There is a differentiation between religion and spirituality,'' said Edward Mirzoyan, president of the Soviet Armenian Composers Union. Mr. Mirzoyan is one of a number of Soviets interviewed who separate the concepts of dukhovniye and religiozniye in what the Rev. Alexander Kenez of Christ the King Ukrainian Catholic Church in Boston says is probably an attempt to ``divorce the concept of spirituality from God.''

Ginsburg explained that ``we struggle with spiritual values - that's the role of music. You have a soul; then you have a dukhovniye life. ... If you don't have a soul, you are not a human being. It's not a matter of religion, the soul.''

Isolating religious significance from spirituality can be used as a device that allows the claim to be made that works on religious themes are not, in fact, religious. Thus Mirzoyan, while aware of the performance of Schnittke's ``Requiem Mass'' in Boston, could nonetheless say, ``I'm not sure whether there is the real urge to write religious music.'' Composer Khachaturian said he considered the Schnittke mass to be spiritual, not religious. Ginsburg similarly saw the mass in a spiritual, not a religious, context. ``My personal opinion is that Schnittke is not religious,'' Ginsburg said.

But Schnittke himself, interviewed after the March 19 performance of his work at Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross, said, ``First of all, I am a religious person,'' and then he acknowledged the central religious influences in his mass, which provide ``the question and the answer,'' and which are the expression of ``the internal side of me,'' from which the music comes.

Even in as abstract a work as Schnittke's ``String Trio'' of 1985, performed March 21, Schnittke said he ``tried to reflect the importance of ... the unity of ... philosophy, of religion, and of art.''

Gubaidulina, whose music also features prominently in the festival, emphasized the central place of religion in her work, too. She goes back to the Latin roots of the word religio, seeing in it ``a kind of reconnection of the connection with God ... as a legato of one's soul to God .... And so I understand my work and write in the spirit of this connection.'' For Gubaidulina, ``religious or spiritual is the same issue.''

Also on the program with the Schnittke ``Requiem'' was a performance of the composer's Symphony No. 4, a work that combines elements from the Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish liturgies.

Then, last week, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed the US premi`ere of Schnittke's Symphony No. 1, and in separate programs of folk music Mr. Pokrovsky also included some music by Schnittke. Most moving was a meditative performance of a work entitled ``Voices of Nature,'' but based, Pokrovsky said, on the oldest Russian church traditions.

Gubaidulina's music was on quite a different plane, however, from folk music. Her ``Seven Words,'' brilliantly performed March 15 by the Festival Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Boston conductor David Hoose, represents pain, and is painful to listen to. Progressing from themes of ``Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,'' through ``My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?'' to ``Father, I give my spirit unto Thy hand,'' the intensity increases to frightening levels. This is profound music and, like the other religious music we have been hearing in Boston, it draws its meaning and spirit from the religious context in which it is set.

Gubaidulina's music has the power to transcend words, as does Schnittke's, and its meaning can doubtless live on even when its proper title is removed. The need to go underground may also have enriched the symbolic language of the music and led to subtle, abstract forms that might not otherwise have existed. But that doesn't make the need to mask a work's true religious identity any less unfortunate. Glasnost can hardly have progressed as far as official Soviets would have us believe if such disguises are still necessary and if official commentaries still hide the true nature of a composer's output and inspiration.

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