Extracts from notes written by John Schaefer, American writer on music and program director of WNYC, one of the largest classical radio station in USA. These notes were written for the release on TNC Recording (TNC CD-1505) of Virko Baley’s Symphony No. 1, Sacred Monuments performed by the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, the composer conducting.

Agnus Dei is the third part of Virko Baley’s Symphony No. 1, Sacred Monuments. Beginning in 1985 with the original version of Duma, a soliloquy, now the symphony’s second movement, Virko Baley set out to build an aural monument of sorts, a symphony that offered a personal view, through the filter of time and one man’s memory, of a distant homeland. (In the process, Duma underwent some major revisions, and now shares some important melodic and rhythmic elements with the other, later parts of the piece.)

Baley realized that the grand scope of a symphony required ideas on a similar scale. Since Duma was written as a tribute to the Ukrainian composer Artem Vedel (c. 1770 – 1808), Baley decided to use as his starting point a set of four movements, each commemorating the life and death of a Ukrainian composer: Maxym Berezovsky (1745 – 1777), Artem Vedel, Dmitri Bortniansky (1751 – 1825), and Boris Lyatoshynsky (1895 – 1968). In the process, his monument became a musical Mount Rushmore, or as the composer himself puts it, “a ziggurat, a kind of pyramidal edifice consisting of successive structures, topped with a shrine.”

When it was finally completed, in 1999, Baley gave his first symphony a telling subtitle. Sacred Monuments suggest both the spiritual and the structural elements of the work. There are gargoyles here – evocative textures, dense yet transparent layers of sound, but they are reached in a much more intuitive way. Each sound, Baley says, “must come from the pit of one’s stomach and not from formal demands.” Nevertheless, the formal structure of the piece is necessary to understand what those sounds mean. Recurring rhythmic figures, melodic rows, sonic textures and instrumental signals tie together the symphony’s four movements; Baley refers to them as the work’s “stylistic fingerprints (a kind of musical DNA).” And they allow him to play with the formal aspects of the piece. One of Baley’s favorite devices is to set up a rhythmic pattern, only to immediately layer over it all sorts of intricate syncopations, hockets, counter-rhythms, and triplet and quintuplet figures. These multiple layers of percussion might be reminiscent of Indonesian gamelan or West African drum ensembles if they weren’t so carefully, at times subliminally, painted into the backdrop of this sonic landscape.

Virko Baley’s Symphony #1 describes a great arch. Berezovsky and Vedel met untimely ends, while Bortniansky and Lyatoshynsky died after long and successful careers; so the music builds from a troubled, dramatic first movement, through a lamenting second, to a jubilant scherzo in the third, and concludes with a Postludium that comments on the previous movements, weaving some of their thematic elements into new patterns. The finale also alludes to living Ukrainian composers associated with Lyatoshynsky, suggesting the continuation of a rich (and in the West, largely unexplored) musical tradition… 

The third movement serves as a kind of scherzo for the Symphony #1. And it seems to sum up the whole Slavic approach to death: “life is tragic; now shut up and dance.” Dancing and singing celebrate life but also express sorrow; there is no contradiction. The repeating dance theme is marked Allegro Jubilate, but is always played in a minor key. Only in this movement does Baley quote extensively: parts of Dmitri Bortniansky’s Choral Concerto #15 are woven into the fabric of the Agnus Dei. However, the dance refrain is not a quote from Bortniansky, nor a folk song. It is simply one of Baley’s most memorable creations…

The Agnus Dei begins with the dance theme, accompanied by pealing bell-like sounds in the keyboards. It alternates with reflective chorale sections, first in the winds, later in the strings, and later still in the brass, which quotes from the Bortniansky concerto. For the musicians, it’s a case of never a dull moment, as a seething current of sound runs throughout the movement. The percussionists frantically shift from one set of instruments to another; the harpsichord occasionally adds a tiny glimmer of Baroque keyboard music that makes no attempt to blend in; and the choral interludes are increasingly changed, extended, and re-voiced. Like a conventional Scherzo (which this is certainly not), Baley’s movement has a trio section in the middle. Here the dancing becomes more frenzied, almost dervish-like, and although an actual folk song is briefly quoted, the main folk-like material of the trio is again original. As with the main dance refrain, the melody of the trio is built up of complex layers of tied and dotted rhythms, triplets, and the alternating duple and triple meters that practically define the Eastern European dance tradition.

Given the celebratory quality of this Agnus Dei, the choice of title is a curious one. It’s a question Virko Baley has been asked frequently. His usual response is evasive but somehow typically Slavic. “I generally refuse to give a concrete answer, except a variation on ‘we are all lambs of god on the way to the slaughter.’ Ah, they say, Slavic angst. We all laugh - I do too, because I do laugh a lot, and I find a lot in life very funny.”  Humor in music is a dicey thing, but it’s easy to imagine the composer chuckling softly to himself as he penned this passage for the long-suffering percussionist: in the space of three bars, the percussionist, playing a trap set, is asked to maintain a jazz waltz feel over three different time signatures – none of them in the triple time of a waltz. The next few bars bring a tour of 3/4, 4/4, and 15/16 meters. This is part of the return, after the Trio, to the main Scherzo section of the movement. The dance refrain, which had previously raced through such odd meters as 17/16 and 23/16, begins to show the effects of the “death signal” and eventually breaks apart, as if broken pieces of rhythm have spun off. The comforting sounds of the Lutheran hymn tune in the strings suggest that this too is death: not a terrible misfortune or a crime, but a natural conclusion to even the most exhilarating life.

— John Schaefer, American writer on music and program director of WNYC