Estonia in Focus weekend: Galina Grigorjeva – Vespers (World Première)

by 5:4

A major new choral work was premièred at this year’s Estonian Music Days in Tallinn, by one of the country’s most celebrated composers. Born in the Ukraine, Galina Grigorjeva relocated to Estonia 25 years ago and has since become essentially adopted by the country as one of its own. On 6 April, Vox Clamantis, conducted by Jaan-Eik Tulve, gave the first performance of Grigorjeva’s Vespers. It’s an ambitious, 30-minute work in seven movements, each of which sets words (in English) drawn either from the Orthodox prayerbook or passages of the King James Bible. Not all of Grigorjeva’s music shows this so overtly, but the Vespers are clearly indebted to the general aesthetic (if not quite the technique) of Estonia’s most famous composer Arvo Pärt. It’s a different approach from that in some of her other choral work (about which i’ll be writing in due course), but here the music is for the most part intentionally kept emotionally remote, focusing instead on a more austere, one-step-removed mindset that taps deeply into both the soundworld and attitude of Orthodox worship. Perhaps it goes without saying that this won’t necessarily prove inviting for everyone.

Personally, both at the concert and a few months on i remain in two minds about the piece. As i noted in my original review, one of the risks taken by the most fervent religious contemporary composers – most obviously, in recent years, Pärt, John Tavener and Henryk Górecki, as well as, to an extent, James MacMillan and even, further back, Olivier Messiaen – is that the music can (inadvertently or deliberately) end up depending on the notion of a higher power in order, as i wrote before, “to ‘fill in the blanks’ and imbue the music with some of that power”. This is not true of every piece by these composers, of course, and in most of what i’ve heard of Grigorjeva’s music it certainly isn’t the case. In the Vespers, though, there are times when the music exhibits a kind of listlessness that one senses is precisely one of these places where the ‘magic’ is missing (or not, depending on your spiritual outlook). i’d cite the fifth movement as an example of this, a setting of the Nunc dimittis that’s perfectly pretty but at the same time seriously enervated, to the point that its broad assertive climax sounds terribly forced. Even more, though, is seventh movement ‘I will bless the Lord’, an extended setting of Psalm 34 that arguably pushes things too far for too long. There’s nothing wrong with a composition resembling (or indeed, for the composer, being) an act of worship, but in this movement the music seems to be leaving a very obvious spiritual ‘outline’ that – again, depending on where you’re coming from – either does or doesn’t get filled in. It’s a shame this is how the work ends.

Yet in general the ambivalent-tending-towards-negative reaction i had at the time has been considerably tempered through an increased appreciation of the work’s best points. i should stress that Grigorjeva has written some of the best choral music i’ve ever heard, and there’s much in her Vespers to relish. In the opening movement, for example, her version of something akin to Pärt’s ‘tintinnabuli’, using fixed pitches with chords shifting around them, is very beautiful and striking, all the more so due to being delivered with an overwhelming fortissimo. The use of melodies becoming drones beneath other melodies is a touch over-familiar (bringing to mind Michael Finnissy’s much earlier, similar approach) but effective in the bold, declamatory context in which Grigorjeva employs it in the second movement, and particularly in the way the music occupies such low registers, the melody eventually positioned beneath the drone. But it’s the third and fourth movements that most emphatically redeem the Vespers. The former also uses drones beneath melodies, but in a way that’s much richer and more varied, both the verses and the Alleluia refrains channelling echoes of organum, Tudor and modern harmonic practices to hypnotically lovely effect. Despite being one of the shorter movements, the fourth – setting the Phos Hilaron with vivid literality – is the most impressive and memorable. Beginning in the soprano stratosphere, Grigorjeva places pitches that at first form a coruscating ball of sound before progressing into a chorale-like sequence filled with an ineffable sensibility. Its inner elation evident in every chord, it’s as though a dazzling light were being viewed through a filter, Grigorjeva occasionally allowing some dazzling shafts briefly to pierce through.

Programme Note

Vespers, also called Evensong, is the sunset prayer service whose roots go back to early Christianity. The vespers service is held in all churches that preserve the apostolic tradition. In Psalm 141, King David prays, “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” The main idea of Vespers was developed in the 3rd century – a source of light in the middle of darkness represents Christ who becomes the Sun of Justice and the Light of Truth for his disciples. The main idea was also about finishing one’s day in order to look back at the past day with gratitude, pray for personal, church, and worldwide concerns as well as repent for the sins and trespasses of the past day.
Vespers symbolises the beginning of a new day in the Christian Orthodox tradition. Believers greet the darkness with the Light of Christ. Candles are lit to give glory to God while darkness takes over.
—Galina Grigorjeva


I. Come let us worship and fall down before God our king

Come, let us worship and fall down before God our King.
Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ, our King and our God.
Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ Himself, our king and our God.

II. Bless the Lord, O my soul

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, thou art very great;
thou art clothed with honour and majesty.

Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment:
who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain

Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters:
who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind:

Who makes his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire:

Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed forever.
(Psalm 104, King James Version)

III. Blessed is the man

Blessed is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous, and the way of the ungodly shall perish.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice in Him with trembling.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Blessed are all that have put their trust in him.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Arise, O Lord, save me, O my God.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Salvation is of the Lord, and Thy blessing is upon Thy people.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
both now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Glory to Thee, O God.
(King James Version)

IV. O Light

O Light gladsome of the holy glory of the Immortal Father,
the Heavenly, the Holy, the Blessed, O Jesus Christ,
having come upon the setting of the sun,
having seen the light of the evening,
we praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: God.
Worthy it is at all times to worship Thee with voices of Praise
O Son of God, Giver of Life,
therefore all in the world glorifies Thee.

V. O Lord, now lettest thou

O Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in
peace, according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared
before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles
and the glory of thy people Israel.
(Luke 2:29–32, King James Version)

VI. To the Virgin Theotokos

Rejoice! O Virgin Theotokos!
Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,
for you have borne the Salvation of our souls!

VII. I will bless the Lord

I will bless the Lord at all times:
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.

My soul shall make her boast in the Lord:
the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad.

O magnify the Lord with me,
and let us exalt his name together.

I sought the Lord, and he heard me,
and delivered me from all my fears.

They looked unto him, and were lightened;
and their faces were not ashamed.

This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him,
and saved him out of all his troubles.

The angel of the Lord encampeth round
about them that fear him, and delivereth them.

O taste and see that the Lord is good:
blessed is the man that trusteth in him.

O fear the LORD, ye his saints:
for there is no want to them that fear him.
(Psalm 34, King James Version)

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Chris L

Thanks for posting this, Simon – despite her influences arguably being easy to spot (as well as Pärt, I hear Gorecki, and also possibly the “Orthodox” Schnittke, on occasion), Grigorjeva is clearly a force to be reckoned with in her own right, in the choral sphere at least. Are you familiar with her Russian-language cycle On Leaving, which can be heard on here, and the four purely a cappella movements of which have also been sung by my choir a handful of times? Stunning stuff.

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