Monastic choir conductor discusses her musical tastes

Top five musical pieces in the life of Irina Kolesnikova

January 12, 2022

sister irina kolesnikova

Irina Kolesnikova joined Saint Elisabeth Convent in 2017 as a monastery worker. Here, she formed the choir named Anima, composed of monastics and sisters of mercy. She is now serving as the choir conductor. We asked Sister Irina about her tastes in music. She told us about her top five musical pieces that were the most influential in her musical career and personal growth.

1. Passion Week by Alexander Grechaninov

Looking back, I can say that music was God’s way of keeping in touch with me, as music was my instrument of perception and understanding. Incidentally, all the pieces that I will discuss here have God in them. They were all waypoints in my journey towards Him.

Let me begin with the composer who left a deep imprint on my life. His name is Alexander Tikhonovich Grechaninov, and the name of the piece is "The Sunday of Passions".

My decision to enter the musical college was spontaneous. My grandmother, who was my guardian, was categorically opposed. I downloaded some composers' biographies from the Internet and to prepare for my entrance exams. I asked her to print out the texts for me. She returned with the printouts in a peaceful spirit and said to me calmly, "I think I will let you enter the musical college after all." As it turned out, she had read the biography of Grenchaninov, whose parents saw his future as a successful merchant and vehemently objected to his pursuit of a musical career. That saddened him a lot. Because of his parents' objections, Grenchaninov did not begin to study music in depth until quite late in his youth, and he was twenty-nine when he finished the conservatory. He had very little support. He studied all by himself, against the wishes of his family. So we had something in common.

I never expected that five years later, as a student of the conservatory in Kiev, I would spend my entire journey listening to the Sunday of Passions cycle by Grechaninov. By the time I arrived, I was determined to perform it with a choir. A few weeks later, I managed to bring together a choir of almost forty people, composed of music students, conservatory graduates and professional musicians. We practiced for two months before we finally performed it in concert for the first time in Ukraine. I still remember it as a miracle.

2. Sergey Rakhmaninov. The Bells

Another composer who influenced my life was Sergey Rakhmaninov. I was six years of age, a first-grader at a musical school in my home town Nikolaev. My teacher took me out to a concert at the city’s musical college. I remember the concert hall very well. To me, it seemed huge, fabulous and unreal. When I entered the door, I was met by a cacophony of sounds. People were singing and playing music everywhere. That was my first encounter with the world of music that I could remember. The piece that grasped my imagination was the symphonic poem “Bells” It depicts the whole cycle of human life, from cradle to grave. Each of its four stages is marked off by the bells. The bells precede the coming of a child into the world and the mourning over the departure of a man at the end. Bells are a known symbol of the Holy Rus, and bell chimes accompany the life of a Russian at all times. The triumphant sound of the messenger bells adorned his feast days, and he lived through his hard times to the menacing sound of a tocsin. Bell themes are present in the works of many Russian composers, but most prominently so in this musical poem by Sergey Rakhmaninov.

My first encounter was in the course of musical literature at musical college. This work is his masterpiece. No verbal description can do it full justice, so the best way to appreciate its genius is to listen. This work made me think for the first time in my life about the finality of human life and its brevity. I still find these ideas relevant and worthwhile.

3. John of Damascus Cantata By Sergey Taneyev

The next entry on my list of the top five musical works that I would like to talk about is John of Damascus Cantata by Sergey Taneyev. Some also call it the Russian Requiem. The composer himself numbered it as his Opus 1, even though he had written multiple earlier works. I was most attracted by the text, while others pay attention to the polyphonic structure of the Cantata Taneyev’s spectacular achievement on a par with Bach. For the first time in the history of Russian secular music, he based his entire work on the theme of an old Russian melody. He took it from the chant “Rest with the Holy Ones.” The theme came to symbolise hope and reassurance. It left me under a spell. It evoked in me the sadness of doom; of having no control over one’s fate. It also made me reflect on the value of every minute of our lives.

One tends to like a piece even more when one performs it live. We have performed the cantata several times with several large choirs accompanied by a symphony orchestra.

4. Sixth Symphony By Pyotr Chaikovsky

This is the only symphonic piece that I continue to listen to regularly. Tchaikovsky has always taken a special place in my life. As a student at the musical college, I used to come to practise early in the morning. The Russian composer was looking at me from a portrait on the wall. Inscribed under the portrait was the following phrase: “If you practise every day without waiting to be inspired, you will achieve more than any third-rater with talent.” This phrase was my source of inspiration and encouragement.

I like this piece a lot because Tchaikovsky put his soul into it. He dedicated all of himself to writing it. You do not know Tchaikovsky if you have not heard it. Again, it raises the themes of life and death. It leaves you with a sense of great pain that came from Chaikovsky’s great personal tragedy. We can relate to it because nearly everyone will have had a personal tragedy of their own. At one point, the pain reaches its peak, and I can almost sense its intensity physically, at the tips of my fingers. I appreciate the extent of Chaikovsky's suffering from the tension in the music; it rises o a peak, and then breaks off abruptly to the sounds of the memorial service and the tune "Rest me with the saints". Mental and emotional states are contrasted throughout the symphony and presented lucidly and vividly in their extreme forms. One state succeeds another abruptly, changing rapidly from exhilaration to absolute misery - Life and death, Being and non-being. One is free to choose one or the other.

Chaikovsky uses in his symphony the theme “Rest with the saints” pioneered by Taneyev. More generally, the above three composers are connected. Grenchaninov, for example, attended Chaikovsky’s first opera production while still a child, and was a student of Taneyev.

5. Alfred Schnittke. Concerto for mixed choir

My top-five list closes with this piece. It was written to the text of the known Armenian poet Grigor Naretskani taken from his book of mourning chants. It brings us back to the middle ages. The message of Schnittke's concerto is congruent with that of the Penitent Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete. It has the same contrite spirit, roundedness in the atmosphere of the scriptures, and the motif of the human soul ascending to the Lord and finding her salvation in Him. The piece uses these lines from Naretskani: This book stands for my body - and this word for my soul. Schnittke said this of his music: “I wrote the music evoked by this text, not the music I had wanted to write.”

Irina Kolesnikova was born in 1994 in Nikolaev, Ukraine. She entered the State Higher College of Music in Nikolaev in 2013, Graduating in 2013. That same year, she became a student of the Chaikovsky National Musical Academy of Ukraine, - Assigned to the department of choral conducting. While still a student, she conducted several choirs and established her own choir named "Eternita". She graduated with honours in 2017. That same year, she joined Saint Elisabeth Convent in 2017 as a monastery worker, Here, she formed the choir named Anima, composed of monastics and sisters of mercy.

Recorded by Nun Olga (Velikaya)

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