Alexander Raskatov's Green Mass

On Saturday 30 January 2016 Vladimir Jurowski will conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the world premiere performance of Alexander Raskatov’s Green Mass. Ahead of this performance, have a read of the work’s programme notes to understand more about the musical setting of Raskatov’s Mass and the way he makes use of language throughout the work.

Alexander Raskatov is no stranger to controversy. His 2010 opera A Dog’s Heart divided the critics – and not just because of its provocative storyline. Based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, which was so controversial in his native Soviet Russia that it was banned for more than 60 years after its first publication, it sees a medical professor replace the testicles and pituitary gland of a dog with those of a human to find out if it would turn him into a man. Raskatov’s retelling of the story cemented his international reputation as one of the foremost Russian composers of his generation. But it also raised questions about the integrity of his personal style, criticism of which he was keenly aware:

'In A Dog’s Heart I used a lot of things for which people will probably hate me … But I don’t care – I was free.’

Raskatov’s music seems deliberately to defy definition. While not polystylistic, neither is it easy to classify as post-modern, minimalist, or any other familiar contemporary label. He is determined to resist succinct classification and freely admits to using whichever musical style he feels is appropriate to that particular piece of music at that particular moment. ‘I am incapable of following just one direction’, he has said. But if Raskatov is magpie-like in his attraction to different genres, his music is still grounded in a distinctly Russian tradition. Like A Dog’s Heart, much of his vocal music is based upon Russian texts, and he has made several arrangements of music by his Russian predecessors – Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Schnittke. But his latest work is dedicated to Russia itself.

Green Mass is, as its title suggests, a celebration of Russia’s beautiful green landscapes – ‘a land of forests and fields’ – that Raskatov, who has lived in Paris since 2004, misses deeply. Yet it also reaches out to all of humanity, offering a salient reminder that we have been blessed with just one earth and that it must be protected for the sake of future generations.

‘I think we have done very bad things to our nature … I don’t belong to the Green Party, but if I were to choose a party, I would choose this one, because we all have a responsibility for what we will leave the next generation.’

While the backbone of Green Mass is a setting of the Catholic Mass in Latin, its five sections are interspersed with additional movements using secular texts dedicated to the beauty of nature: ‘The Wild Flower’s Song’ (William Blake), ‘Lebensalter’ (Georg Trakl), ‘Zangezi’ (Velimir Khlebnikov) and ‘Clotilde’ (Guillaume Apollinaire), as well as 'Preghiera', the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. In keeping with Raskatov’s global message, each uses a different language (English, German, Russian, French and Italian) and each is sung by one of the four vocal soloists. By combining texts both secular and sacred, Raskatov hoped to create a work that was both ‘theistic’ (worshipping God) and ‘pantheistic’ (honouring nature), a seemingly incompatible juxtaposition that Raskatov aims to reconcile through music:

‘In one drop of water we can see a cosmos … That’s why the most important musical patterns are not fixed but lead a nomadic life between liturgical and secular texts.’

In his efforts to create a synthesis of the spiritual and the earthly, Raskatov produces a work that flies between extremes. From the ‘tranquil and mysterious’ opening Kyrie that appears to breathe itself into life like the very act of creation, to the ferocity of the Gloria, with its destabilising metrical changes and sharp vocal outbursts that at times suggest anger rather than celebration. In between, Raskatov offers a shimmering setting of Blake’s poem ‘The Wild Flower’s Song’, in which the violins, violas and cellos split into a rich fabric of 44 different parts, conjuring an ethereal, dreamlike realm where nature offers a blanket of comfort, away from the harsh realities of modern life. But in almost every glimpse of the natural world, there are shadows lurking beneath the surface – a reminder of our wilful destruction of the earth around us.

Raskatov’s final poetic insertion, ‘Clotilde’, is the most sombre of all, evoking a landscape completely without sunlight, so that even shadows no longer exist. Viewed from this perspective, the text of the Agnus Dei that follows takes on new meaning – the words ‘miserere nobis … dona nobis pacem’ (‘have mercy upon us … grant us peace’) sounding like a quiet prayer of forgiveness to God for the sins committed against the natural world. This is not the place for a happy ending: as the choir intone their solemn prayer, the music ebbs away to nothing.

Programme notes © Jo Kirkbride.

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Don’t miss the world premiere performance of Alexander Raskatov’s Green Mass on Saturday 30 January, played alongside Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral).