4.4 Veprik: Chant Rigoureux - Clarinet Music from Russia and the Soviet Union 1917-1991
CHANT RIGOUREUX op. 9
for Clarinet and Piano (1926)
Aleksandr Veprik (Александр Моисеевич Веприк, 1899, Balta, Ukraine–1958, Moscow) is considered one of the foremost composers of the “New Jewish School in Music” (see Chapter 4). He studied piano and composition at the conservatories in St Petersburg with Aleksandr Zhitomirsky and in Moscow with Nikolay Myaskovsky. Veprik showed great interest in western contemporary music, and on his travels to Europe he met Schoenberg, Hindemith, Ravel and Honegger. By 1929, under the rule of Stalin, all religious activities were banned in the Soviet Union. Jewish culture became officially unwelcome, and all main Jewish cultural establishments were shut down. In the 1930s, Jewish composers became increasingly cautious about emphasizing their roots, and many turned to composing ‘ideologically correct’ music without traditional Jewish themes. Veprik, who was at that time composition teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, tried to obey these strict rules, but even this did not save him from further repression. In 1940 he moved to Kirgizia, where he composed music in the traditional Kirgizian style (Nemtsov 2000, p.51–52). Though he was trying to fulfil the imposed artistic demands of the Stalin era, Veprik was arrested and sent to a Gulag in 1950; as official reason was taken rather “Jewish nationalism” than his compositions directly. During the four years of his imprisonment, Veprik composed works for an amateur Balalaika orchestra.
Chant Rigoureux (Строгий Напев) op. 9 for clarinet (in A) and piano is an unusual composition within the classical clarinet repertoire due to its deeply contemplative and religious character. The clarinet plays richly ornamented Jewish themes in the manner of synagogue singing, cantillation, while the piano part at times uses an unexpectedly complex harmonic language following in the footsteps of Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony op.9. In Chant Rigoureux op.9, Veprik creates an intriguing contrast between ancient melodies and modern harmonies. He composed Chant Rigoureux op.9 in 1926. Not only is this Veprik´s only work for the clarinet, but it is also the only work for a woodwind instrument in his entire oeuvre (which consists of piano music, songs, chamber music with strings, choral, symphonic and opera music). Veprik further elaborates his musical ideas from the Chant Rigoureux in the larger, three-movement composition Rhapsody op.11 for viola and piano. Totenlieder op.4 for viola and piano are musically close to Chant Rigoureux, as well. The clarinet instrumentation in Chant Rigoureux is noteworthy in the context of these other viola compositions, especially from the point of view of the somewhat atypical use of the clarinet. The viola player who performed Veprik´s works in his lifetime was Vadim Borisovsky, who made an arrangement of Chant Rigoureux for viola after Veprik´s death. Chant Rigoureux was published for the first time in 1926 and again in 1932 in Moscow (Weprik 1932). At least until 1929, it was performed several times by the leading clarinetists Sergey Rozanov and Aleksandr Volodin (Nemtsov 2006, 174–175). The composition has been recorded several times in the viola version, but not yet in the original clarinet version.
Chant Rigoureux is a one-movement composition with a duration of approximately six minutes. It consists of several small subdivisions which can be grouped into three sections. The subdivisions differ in sound colour, tempo, or texture, and are often marked by fermatas. One peculiarity of this composition is the entire absence of time signature. There are bar lines marked, but the time signature changes continuously – from one beat per bar up to nine beats per bar, including uneven time signatures such as 7/8. At first sight, this unevenness may contrast with the title, Chant Rigoureux, which one suspects might point at a stricter form. Two different ideas are possible behind this special notation. Firstly, Veprik may be highlighting the nature of ancient synagogue singing, pointing at medieval music notation without time measures (Schröder-Nauenburg, 71; Nemtsov 2008, 377–378). Secondly, this notation might also contain an avant-gardist idea, as composers experimented with various kinds of musical notations and forms in the first two decades of the 20th century in Russia.
The clarinet introduces the first melody pensively, reminiscent of a prayer (video ex.4.4.1: Prayer). The element of cantillation appears here as an enhanced declamatory element, both in the clarinet and the piano part. Veprik’s choice of using the clarinet in A with the inherent darker sound colour emphasizes the contemplative atmosphere.
 Nemtsov proposes the idea that Kirgizian music might have served as a kind of surrogate for the forbidden Jewish music to Veprik.
 Schröder-Nauenburg proposes that Chant Rigoureux is inspired by a Kaddish. Nemtsov links the composition to the rituals of Jewish liturgy, as if the clarinet and piano were imitating the alternating solo singing of the rabbi and the community answering in chorus.
Video ex.4.3.1: Prayer (Veprik, Chant Rigoureux, mm.11-21)
The predominating dynamic of Chant Rigoureux is soft, and the clarinet plays mainly legato. The few passages which deviate from this stand out in an almost surprising way. The clarinet interrupts the serenity with a “call”, as if announcing an important message (video ex.4.4.2: Annunciation). Soon the character of the piece returns to calm. It is a challenge for the performer to explore the various sound colours of the clarinet in this work: from strong and exclamatory to tender and delicate.
Video ex.4.3.2: Annunciation (Veprik, Chant Rigoureux, mm. 27-35)
In Chant Rigoureux some distinctive elements from Jewish traditional music stand out. Even though this work alludes to liturgical music rather than to folk music, some playing manners in the clarinet part are close to the Klezmer playing fashion, especially the ornamentation with peculiar grace notes, as the clarinet commonly plays in Klezmer music (video ex.4.4.2: Ornamentation). Furthermore, the above-mentioned free, rhapsodic elaboration of the melody, with an improvisatory character and elements imitating cantillation, indicate its origins in Jewish music. Also, the modes with the peculiar augmented seconds are very recognizable.
Video ex.4.3.3: Ornamentation (Veprik, Chant Rigoureux, mm. 39-48)
The final part, Tempo primo, opens with the clarinet in a cadenza-like, meditative section, as if wondering about the vividness of the preceding scene. The piano moves on with the main melody in octaves, going back to the strict and calm atmosphere of synagogue singing. The clarinet takes up the melody from the beginning for the last time, but now in a lower register, softer and calmer, more introverted – as if departing or whispering a farewell (video ex.4.4.4: Reprise). The piano finally consolidates the motive, which appears frequently throughout the composition, yet always in different shapes: this time doubled in octaves and played semplice, like an entire church community singing together in unison.
In the beginning it is not obvious that one should approach Chant Rigoureux musically and as a performer, due to its highly unusual character, the free form and the curious, somewhat “unclarinetistic” musical language of this work. Although it is not technically demanding, this work sets challenges to the performers in understanding, "finding the way" through the deep musical content and exploring the variety of sound colours. It can be helpful to the performers to disseminate the particular musical elements from the viewpoint of a possible Jewish liturgy, which can support the exploration of various performance options in Veprik´s Chant Rigoureux op.9.
Video ex.4.3.4: Reprise (Veprik, Chant Rigoureux, mm. 58-69)
Anne Elisabeth Piirainen, clarinet
Kiril Kozlovsky, piano
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1st doctoral concert "Abandoned Melodies"
15.05.2014, Helsinki Music Centre