The music Tchaikovsky wrote in Davos

January 27 2013

… was the third of the three settings of the cherubic hymn that are the first three of his Nine Church Pieces for unaccompanied mixed voices of 1884-85 (three settings of the same words).

Performers not stated. I did a post about Tchaikovsky’s stay in Davos in November 1884 here.

The nine pieces are all liturgical settings. His Liturgy of St John Chrysostom for the same forces from 1878 had set some of these texts (and others), including the words of the cherubic hymn.

This is the main (not only) divine liturgy in the Byzantine rite and is used by all Orthodox Churches. John was Archbishop of Constantinople from 398 to 404. The title of Patriarch came after the Council of Chalcedon. Kievan Rus (post here) was converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity in 988, nearly half a millennium before the fall of Constantinople.

Tchaikovsky wrote to Balakirev about the sacred pieces on November 17 (Julian calendar). That was the day he left Davos. Did he post the letter there or in Landquart? That date and the quotations below are from Tchaikovsky Research. “I have written three Cherubim’s Songs, which I am now sending to you. … If His Majesty orders [the Imperial Chapel Choir] to study one of them, then I humbly ask you, my good fellow, to choose which one of the three you consider to be superior. In my opinion the third (in C major) is the best, but I fear lest my attempt to imitate non-notated sacred chants (in ‘That we may receive the King’) [footnote: «Яко да Царя”» — the opening words of a verse in the Cherubic Song] should strike you as unsuccessful and inappropriate. Then again the remaining two are different, in that one (in D major) sounds closer in style to Bortnianskii [my link], while the other is much further away, although I am admittedly a poor judge of my own works, and you have complete discretion to choose any one of them.”

Balakirev, who was director of the Imperial Chapel, was important to Tchaikovsky at this time as a kind of mentor for the Manfred Symphony, which, as I showed in the earlier post and had always suspected, was partly inspired by this visit to Davos. And no sacred score could be published or performed without the Chapel’s imprimatur. Tchaikovsky Research shouldn’t present Balakirev’s reply, presumably from St Petersburg, as being from the following day. “I received your Cherubim’s Songs some time ago, and since I was not ordered to make a hasty decision, I sent them to your publisher friend in order to study them from the printed parts, which is more straightforward for choral works. On their relative merits I shall say nothing, since I have hardly seen them. But with regard to the one in C major, which you prefer, then I am not sure that it could be considered the best. Its opening is ruined by piquances […] [my bracket], has no spice to it and sounds like a kind of dance rhythm [after the opening notes]. Anyway, in spite of these reservations, it is my considered opinion they should all be published.”

“Considered” even though he had hardly seen them? Ruined by piquances, but lacking spice? [Postscript, January 29: the site has tidied up the translation and corrected the date of the letter to December 18 (Julian).] The C major hymn is perhaps not very Orthodox-ecclesiastical. Do we hear a dance rhythm? Did Tchaikovsky, who loved church music, think that he had imitated non-notated sacred chants successfully? His “publisher friend” was Petr Jurgenson.

Some of Bortnianskii’s music, including cherubic hymns, is on YouTube. The first performance of the nine pieces was in the Moscow Conservatory in February 1886.


It is hard to judge Davos when you are not there. But the evidence of the “public programme” posted on the Forum’s website this year wasn’t encouraging. It was only the public programme (an idea that came in circa 2002 as a gesture towards inclusiveness), but why is the real one no longer posted? It wouldn’t have to show times and locations, but why hide it? The public programme had unexciting people on panels and too many of them.

2 Responses to “The music Tchaikovsky wrote in Davos”

  1. […] We have heard a piece of choral music which he composed there. […]

  2. […] The music Tchaikovsky wrote in Davos […]

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