Sergei Taneyev, At the Reading of a Psalm

By Leon Botstein

This first United States performance of Taneyev’s masterpiece At the Reading of a Psalm is not only part of the American Symphony Orchestra’s longstanding mission to revive neglected or unknown works of music that merit public performance and rediscovery, but it is taking place several weeks before the opening of the 2022 Bard Music Festival, which this year is dedicated to the life and career of Sergei Rachmaninoff, one of Taneyev’s students. The author of the Program Note for this concert is Phillip Ross Bullock, who is also the editor of the scholarly volume Rachmaninoff and His World, published by the University of Chicago Press, this year’s annual volume designed to accompany the Bard Music Festival.

Furthermore, this performance could not have happened at a more sensitive moment in history, owing to the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s imperialist ambitions to conquer Ukraine and deny its legitimacy as a distinct nation seek to justify themselves by associating the unjustified aggression and brutality of the war with the long history of the Russian Empire, particularly before the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent years of the Soviet Union, to whose memory Putin has remained loyal. Russia, which included Ukraine, was ruled under the Romanov dynasty, especially from the reign of Nicholas I on to the fall of the monarchy, in accordance with an ideology based on three vital pillars. These were autocracy, orthodoxy, and nationality, and together they defined the Russian state. The absolute power of the monarch, unchecked by the parliamentary and legal practices of liberal democracy, was justified in turn by loyalty to a construct of a distinctive national character shaped by true Russians. This, in turn, demanded the exclusive allegiance to the Russian Orthodox Church. The church was an indispensable ally of autocracy and national identity, as it remains today.

However, the question of what ought to pass for a culture that was authentically Russian was never settled to anyone’s satisfaction. Was Russia part of Europe, or was its true character shaped by cultures from the East? Theories of a middle ground between Occident and Orient—the Eurasian—flourished amidst the competing claims of links to Europe and decisive roots in Asia.

As the literary, musical, and aesthetic culture of Russia blossomed during the nineteenth century among the few who were literate and wealthy—mostly aristocratic landowners, urban merchants, and professionals—the tensions around how Russia should be defined and expressed in a unique manner mounted. In music, two distinct camps emerged. First, there was the brashly nationalist group based in St. Petersburg, often known as the “Mighty Handful,” that included Rimsky-Korsakov, Musorgsky, Balakierev, Cui, and Borodin. Then there was an opposing school centered in Moscow, a more European-oriented group that included Anton Rubinstein and Taneyev. Since Taneyev was one of the leaders of the Moscow group and was probably Tchaikovsky’s closest musical confidant, Tchaikovsky was more closely identified with those for whom Western musical culture was a source of admiration and influence. But Tchaikovsky was nineteenth-century Russia’s most famous composer, and he was admired by both groups. He kept good relations with all of his contemporaries. He found a way to assert his Russian identity and integrate the elements from the Western European compositional tradition he admired. The fact that he was invited to open Carnegie Hall suggests the extent of his fame. And his music never failed to communicate something distinctively Russian. 

Taneyev was more resolutely tied to the ambition to make Russia a major cultural voice within Europe and more persuaded of the indispensable legacy of Western European compositional craftsmanship and its universal validity. His textbook on counterpoint is astonishing in its breadth and depth. He kept his distance from the reductive and essentialist markers of Russian identity that distinguish much of the music of the Mighty Handful. The composition dearest to his heart was his opera Oresteia, written in the 1890s, which Bard SummerScape produced in 2013. It is no accident that the subject Taneyev chose for his opera was unlike that of most other Russian operas. It is not based on Russian literature or folklore but is drawn from Greek antiquity. And although the music, like Tchaikovsky’s, does not fail to signal that it is unmistakably Russian, it avoids the exoticism and stereotyped musical rhetoric that most Western audiences expect to encounter in music by Russian composers. Rather, it foregrounds the beauties of the Russian language in a libretto that is an adaptation of Aeschylus, the Greek tragedian, and delivers music that is indebted to late European Romanticism. 

Taneyev’s last great work—the one on tonight’s program—is even more remarkable as evidence of his ideals. Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky too wrote liturgical music closely allied to the official state religion, Russian Orthodoxy. And they used chants taken from sacred rites. The faith and religiosity in Taneyev’s cantata, in contrast, are not reminiscent of the official orthodox liturgy. Its Russian literary text is set in a distinctly European manner without imitation of Orthodox ritual. Its contrapuntal virtuosity is stunning and an homage to Western practice. The polyphonic complexity and sonorities are reminiscent of a massive cathedral, whose interior integrates lyricism and drama.

Taneyev, like his friend Tchaikovsky and his protégé Rachmaninoff, was nonetheless a patriot, but one who defied the dominant exclusionary and nativist nationalism. He shunned any manner of fundamentalist allegiance to the tenets and practices of the Orthodox Church. What this work suggests is an affinity with the radical Christianity espoused by Leo Tolstoy in his later years that challenged the practices and traditions of the organized church. Indeed, Taneyev can be thought of as the composer most comparable to Tolstoy, whom he knew and with whose wife he had a particularly close relationship. Tolstoy’s contribution to world culture was not only through literature. The way he reimagined Christianity and assumed the role of moral prophet and critic of modernity was not lost on Taneyev, and exercised a powerful influence, in Europe, America, and throughout the world. It profoundly affected readers at the turn of the century, including Mahatma Gandhi, Max Weber, and later Martin Luther King Jr. 

As this towering achievement of music and faith demonstrates, Taneyev’s music deserves an enthusiastic response, as an antidote to today’s unholy alliance of church and state in Russia, but also throughout the world as a tribute to how an artistic tradition dating back hundreds of years and shared by multiple linguistic and ethnic groups can inspire new music written by subsequent generations of composers, music that makes a claim for a shared, universal world defined by respect for human dignity, love, compassion, and tolerance.

Written for

Taneyev’s At the Reading of a Psalm