Galina Grigorjeva – Molitva (World Première, theremin & strings version)

by 5:4
4 minutes read

Today marks the 60th birthday of Ukraine-born, Estonia-based composer Galina Grigorjeva. Her music over the last decade or so has progressively moved more closely in both character and ideology to that of Arvo Pärt, rooted in musical simplicity, articulating aspects of Orthodox religious belief. In the case of her 2005 work Molitva (prayer), there’s another similarity; just as Pärt has endlessly rearranged his minimalist piece Spiegel im Spiegel for various forces, so Grigorjeva has created numerous versions of Molitva. The original was for saxophone and organ, since when there have been versions for saxophone and strings (2009), cello and strings, cello and organ, cello and piano, cello and string quartet (all 2011), saxophone and string quintet (2012), cello and male choir (2013), cello and mixed choir (2016), flute and strings, six cellos (both 2017) and, this year, for theremin and strings.

i’ve only heard a handful of those dozen iterations, but i’m inclined to say that this latest version is the most effective. As with a lot of Grigorjeva’s more recent music, Molitva tends to sound filmic and sugary (and in the case of the version with male choir, over-earnest), whereas the use of theremin immediately moves away from that, in part due to its eeriness (despite being nearly a century old the instrument’s unique sound still sounds unsettling, perhaps inducing a kind of ‘uncanny valley’ effect). Furthermore, the theremin’s fascinating timbre here sometimes resembles a voice, sometimes a reed instrument, always speaking with an overtly cantabile manner.

Molitva is essentially a simple song (mostly) without words, in which the theremin initially speaks within a dronal atmosphere, the strings creating a soft halo around it. When the music becomes more active (shifting the drone from B to F#) the strings continue to keep their distance, articulating little swells but always maintaining a light texture around the central melodic line. Grigorjeva develops this slightly following another harmonic shift (via C# to G#, where it stays until the end), introducing low pizzicati and giving the upper strings a countermelody. Thereafter there’s more equality between soloist and strings, though the theremin continues to have an other-worldly quality, never really gelling with the acoustic sound of the strings yet singing with them surprisingly cohesively.

A united climax, driven along by the strings emphatically restating their countermelody, leads to everything quietening and thinning, becoming dronal again. A final harmonic shift (back to F#) leads to the implied prayer literally breaking through the surface, as the words “да свѧтитьсѧ имѧ Твое” (Hallowed be Thy name) are chanted, the theremin falling silent and the strings folding around the voice. The ending is left somewhat ambiguous; it could, and perhaps should, be heard as a plagal cadence, an implicit ‘Amen’ to the prayer; yet it also sounds like an imperfect cadence, as if the music were saying, “over to you”, perhaps inviting a response from us, the listener.

The world première of this version of Molitva took place at the 2022 Tallinn Chamber Music Festival, performed by thereminist Grégoire Blanc with the Festival Chamber Orchestra conducted by Maano Männi.

Programme note

Prayer (Molitva) was written for the David Oistrakh festival held in Pärnu in 2005 and the original version was written for alto saxophone and organ. Thereafter, new arrangements were written for different instrumental combinations. Victor Hugo wrote the following in his novel Toilers of the Sea: “Prayer, that mighty force of the soul, an incomprehensible force. Prayer addresses itself to the magnanimity of the Shades; prayer regards mystery with eyes themselves overshadowed by it, and beneath the power of its fixed and appealing gaze, we feel the possibility of the great Unknown unbending to reply.” Orthodoxy holds the position that prayer can be both verbal as well as ‘soulful.’ We generally give our preferences externally. In Orthodoxy, laudatory prayer is paramount, and a eulogy to God sounds like this at the end when the following words are said: “And let Your name be blessed.”

—Galina Grigorjeva

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