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Motive Ouverture spirituelle, © Robert Mertens

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Ex oriente lux: the sun rising in the East became a symbol for Christian faith – and remained a catchphrase even after the ‘East-West Schism’ had divided the disparate traditions of Christianity into a Western and an Eastern church. From the perspective of modern historians, this was not a singular event in 1054, but a process of estrangement stretching over decades, even centuries, due to increasing linguistic, cultural, political, economic and of course theological differences, culminating in the catastrophic sack of Christian Constantinople by an army of Venetian crusaders in 1204. It was no coincidence that the Eastern tradition chose to call itself ‘orthodox’ (literally, ‘right in religion’) – after all, it worshipped in Greek, the original language of the New Testament. Even the spoken word of God was music, and song its most intense augmentation: no instrument but the human voice was able to express the effect of the Holy Ghost adequately. This conviction, manifest in sumptuous choral works, was handed down to the various traditions rooted in the Eastern church, spreading geographically from Africa to Asia. Ensembles from Russia, Armenia, Greece, Lebanon, Egypt and Ethiopia will offer resounding examples of these different traditions.
Echoes of these can be detected in works like the large-scale Concerto for Choir by the native Russian Alfred Schnittke – in the anti-clerical Soviet Union in 1986, this was as much of a scandal as the religious fundaments of the music of Estonian Arvo Pärt, particularly revered in the West today. His musical self-discovery in the 1970s went hand in hand with his conversion to the Russian-Orthodox faith. In a sublimated form, the latter may have already been present in the Symphony of Psalms which Igor Stravinsky, himself Russian-Orthodox, expressly did not conceive as a symphony featuring sung psalms, but psalms in a symphonic setting.
The ‘Western’ programme of the Ouverture spirituelle mirrors the status of choral music in the Eastern church, especially in great oratorios written in the Catholic or Reformed traditions. Of course the tradition of beginning the series with Joseph Haydn’s Creationcontinues – conducted this year by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It reaches its contemporary culmination with the world premiere of Peter Eötvös’s dramatic Halleluja – Oratorium balbulum; classical milestones include Mozart’s Mass in C minor at St. Peter and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. While the prophet in Eötvös’s work is afflicted with a stutter, the biblical Daniel in George Frederic Handel’s fascinating oratorio Belshazzar suffers no such impediment: summoned by the Babylonian king – truly a ‘monstrous human beast’, characterized by a pig’s grunt arising from the orchestra pit – Daniel interprets a mysterious writing on the wall (the well-known ‘menetekel’) to foretell his imminent end. The victorious Persian Cyrus liberates the Israelites from their Babylonian slavery: he too, appears as a light from the East.

Walter Weidringer

Tanslated by Alexa Nieschlag

Disputationes
as part of the Ouverture spirituelle

As in previous years, we are grateful that the Herbert Batliner European Institute will cooperate again with the Salzburg Festival, accompanying the Ouverture spirituelle with academic presentations and discussions. Complementing the concert programme focusing on Eastern Christianity, the Disputationes feature issues of intercultural and interreligious dialogue.

The first event takes place on July 22, 2016.
Three rounds of public conversations follow as part of the Ouverture spirituelle.

A recording of this concert will be broadcast by ORF on august 17, at 7:30 pm on the Ö1 channel.