The story of a secret Passion

Why a major work written in 1920s Russia has only recently come to light

The story of a secret Passion
The Clarion Choir (credit: Isabelle Provost)

Next month, The Clarion Choir will give the UK premiere of Maximilian Steinberg's Passion Week, a grand-scale work for unaccompanied chorus. Though Steinberg wrote it during the 1920s, the Soviet composer was forced to keep its existence a secret. Conductor Steven Fox tells us more...

My dear colleague Barbara Mouk had been telling me about Passion Week since I first met her in 2004. Her father, the Russian- American conductor Igor Buketoff, had given her the score shortly before he passed away. The composer of the piece, Maximilian Steinberg, was the prized student of Rimsky-Korsakov, and eventually became not only his son-in-law, but also his successor on the composition faculty of the St Petersburg Conservatory.

Steinberg composed Passion Week in secret over a three year period, 1920-23, when the Bolsheviks had just banned sacred music, so it was never performed. Barbara explained to me that she believed Shostakovich, who was Steinberg’s student, had brought the piece over to the US on one of his trips here, hoping there might be a choir here that could finally perform the piece.

But Maestro Buketoff had trouble finding an American choir that was adept at singing in Church Slavonic. So he eventually handed the mission off to Barbara, and Barbara took it to me. But I must admit that I also was (shamefully!) slow to take on the project.  During my first years working with Clarion, we were almost exclusively focused on performing Baroque and Classical music. But in more recent years, we expanded into later periods, particularly with The Clarion Choir. As our repertoire started to take this new direction, Barbara re-approached me  about Passion Week and said - 'you have no reason not to give this piece a serious look now!'  And I am so thankful to her that she did. The piece is extraordinary, and, in my mind, deserving of a special place in the Russian choral repertoire.

The style of the work combines the rich vocal scoring and luscious Romantic palette one associates with Rachmaninov's choral works, but it also adds more modern elements of style: there are times when the rich vocal texture reverts hauntingly to a single voice and then into stark silence. The silences between phrases are a critical part of the piece, as we learned in performing and recording it. They add a sense of contemplativeness that I believe comes directly out of the Holy Week plainchants upon which the work is based.

I love in particular the last movement, ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’. For so many years, I could only associate that text, which does in fact originate in the Eastern Church, with Edward Bairstow’s setting, published in 1925. But I find Steinberg’s setting from two years earlier just as captivating. A particularly stunning moment is the depiction of the 'six-winged Seraphim'. The music expresses such wonder and awe at this splendid image of heaven. The choir parts then overlaps in a way that creates the effect of multiple choirs, choirs of angels singing aloud to one another. 


Steven Fox is artistic director of New York’s  Clarion Orchestra and Clarion Choir. Steinberg's 'Passion Week' will recieve its UK premiere in London on 30 October. For more information click here


  • Article Type: | Blog |
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