Tchaikovsky’s Hymn of the Cherubim, Op 41


THIS extraordinary work was brought to my attention by our commenter SiberianRhod, and I thank him.

It was written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) in 1878, when he was 38.

This was a time of intense turmoil for the Russian composer. There has been much speculation about whether he was homosexual and whether he tried to repress his feelings. If so, it may explain why, the previous year, he married a 29-year-old former student, Antonina Miliukova, whom he described as ‘a woman with whom I am not the least in love’. Unsurprisingly, the marriage was a disaster. Three days after the wedding Tchaikovsky wrote to his sister: ‘I begin to see that everything I can’t stand in my wife derives from her belonging to a completely strange family, where the mother was always arguing with the father – and now, after his death, does not hesitate to malign his memory in every way possible. It’s a family in which the mother hates (!!!) some of her own children, in which the sisters are constantly squabbling, in which the only son has completely fallen out with his mother and all his sisters, etc, etc.’

By contrast, Antonina apparently adored her husband, writing: ‘I would look at him surreptitiously, so he didn’t notice, and admire him enormously, especially during morning tea. So handsome, with kindly eyes which melted my heart, he breathed such freshness into my life! I would just sit there looking at him, and think “Thank God he belongs to me and no one else! Now he is my husband, no one can take him away from me”.’ 

After six weeks Tchaikovsky was at screaming point, unable to bear his wife’s constant chatter about her family, previous romances and her school days, and unable to compose a note. His brother, worried for his mental health, told Antonina the marriage was over and made urgent arrangements to take Tchaikovsky on a long tour of Europe.

He remained abroad for a year, during which time he completed his opera Eugene Onegin, orchestrated his Fourth Symphony, and composed his Violin Concerto.

He also set to music the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, one of the central eucharistic services of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The core of the text is attributed to St John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the 5th century.

Chrysostom is derived from the Greek for ‘golden-mouthed’ and denotes his celebrated eloquence. He was among the most prolific authors in the early Christian Church.

Tchaikovsky was deeply attached to the music and liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church. Although not a regular churchgoer he wrote to his friend and patroness Nadezhda von Meck (whom he never met): ‘There is nothing like entering an ancient church on a Saturday, standing in the semi-darkness with the scent of incense wafting through the air, lost in deep contemplation searching for an answer to those perennial questions, wherefore, when, whither and why?’

Later he wrote: ‘I consider the liturgy of St John Chrysostom one of the greatest productions of art. If we follow the service very carefully, and enter into the meaning of every ceremony, it is impossible not to be profoundly moved by the liturgy of our own Orthodox Church . . . to be startled from one’s trance by a burst from the choir; to be carried away by the poetry of this music; to be thrilled when . . . the words ring out, “Praise the name of the Lord!” – all this is infinitely precious to me! One of my deepest joys!’

He wrote the work between May and June 1878 and sent the manuscript to his publisher Pyotr Jurgenson in July. The same month he wrote to von Meck that he was ‘happy in the consciousness of having finished a work . . . Now I can indulge in full my secret delight in doing nothing.’

However at that time Russian church officials were quick to censor and ban the performance of new settings of sacred texts they found unacceptable, and much of the Liturgy was quickly confiscated by the director of the Imperial Chapel in St Petersburg. Publisher Jurgenson entered into a long legal battle which he won. It was a landmark victory, allowing Russian composers to create sacred music free from bureaucratic interference.

The first performance took place in the Kiev University Church in June 1879. The Moscow Musical Society gave a private concert at the Moscow Conservatory in November 1880; in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky wrote that it was ‘altogether one of the happiest moments of my musical career’.

The first public performance was given by the Russian Musical Society in Moscow in December 1880. The controversy surrounding the work brought in a large audience, who received the work positively and recalled Tchaikovsky numerous times at the end of the concert.

There are 15 sections to the work and the Hymn of the Cherubim is part 6.

By far the best, most ethereal, performance on YouTube is by the USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir, which I think must be a vintage recording as the choir was merged into the State Symphony Capella of Russia in 1991.

I chose this video because of the stunning images from St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow and the Church of the Saviour in St Petersburg.

PS: Thanks to commenter Nigel Ford, I am in a position to tell you that cherubim have four faces and four wings.

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