The following is a truncated survey of Fr. Sembrat's composition as well as the recording by noted musicologist and recognized church musician Professor Mstyslav Yurchenko. We will be publishing the entirety of the text following the release of the recording in April.
Easter Sunday Ukrainian Liturgy composed by
Father John Sembrat OSBM
Father Sembrat’s Liturgy continues the better traditions of composed liturgies in the Ukrainian Church that go back to Dyletsky in the 17th century. On the other hand, this is also a contemporary sacred musical work, marked with its composer’s own creative specificity. Furthermore, upon careful consideration, one is fascinated to discover in the Liturgy traditional folk song elements, as well as the characteristic musical flow of Koshets, the colorful harmonies of Stetsenko, the nobility of Liudkevych, and the musical elegance of Sembrat’s contemporaries Skoryk, Kozarenko, and Havrylets.
The first impression on listening to the Liturgy and reading the score is that of the integrity of the music, its logical movement from one piece to another, and of the stylishness of the musical language. It would seem that the composer wrote the work at one sitting, such is the unity of the spiritual picture portrayed.
There is an atmosphere of joy and solemnity which is quite fitting for a Paschal Liturgy, an elevated spirituality, in which religious inspiration is pronounced from the first to the last. Every piece, every ektenia, every tropar is imbued with this pure religious feeling, a feeling of great spiritual obedience and chaste adoration of the Divine. The composer has created a stately musical fresco that breathes with sincere religious emotion, seemingly pouring forth as Faith from the human heart filled with awe. So, it is not surprising that this liturgical oeuvre actually took many years to complete, and the author’s labours have left nothing superficial, only that which is essential.
Among the most distinctive characteristics of Father Sembrat’s compositional style is its musical flow. This is what allows the liturgical cycle, which contains such a variety of individual pieces, to coalesce into a unified whole. The music flows softly, like a broad river, calmly and assuredly moving from piece to piece towards the end, encompassing the various larger “island” elements within its current. This flow is obviously important to the composer, who variously emphasizes the intention of maintaining momentum, including, for example, elements of recitative, or the practice of holding the last chord between the ektenia supplications so that the priest starts the next petition “on its heels,” so to speak, etc.
The stately character of this Liturgy, more than simply highlighting the majesty of the paschal theme, constitutes a stylistic concert quality in the composer’s musical language. This concert-like character is present in virtually every piece, with the lesser as well as greater forms in the Liturgy having clear musical arrival points. They “breathe” in broad dynamic waves, changing texture and directing the musical momentum towards emphasizing the key textual elements, thus lauding this most important Christian celebration. It is a distinctive feature of Father Sembrat’s individual style, and clearly connects his Resurrectional Liturgy with Ukrainian composed liturgies as far back as the 17th century, and their rich and ceremonious concert forms.
I would like to mention yet another quality evident in this work—its churchiness. Throughout all the pieces, we are aware of a deeply pious person, who not only opens his heart in prayer to the Almighty, he also knows how to make this experience understandable and felt by the attendant faithful. There is no part of Father Sembrat’s Liturgy that is unsingable in a church. Every intonation, motifs and phrases, small and large forms, are composed in a manner that feels “right” in church. In this specifically, Sembrat’s Liturgy differs from most of the modern Ukrainian choral religious works, which unfortunately do not sound churchy; so, in practice most of them do not find a home in our churches, and exist more like secular choral works, albeit with religious content. In contrast, this Liturgy has every chance of becoming part of the standard repertoire of choirs in all the Ukrainian church denominations.
Another specifically “Sembratic” characteristic of this Liturgy is its texture. At first glance, the music appears simple, not requiring a great effort to execute. But the more one listens, the more one finds complex chords, masterfully executed polyphonic elements, an interplay of juxtaposed forms, dynamic waves, etc. This complexity is only seen upon detailed analysis, while the sound itself is perceived easily and simply, and is fully enriched and exalted in performance by the male voices for whom it was composed.
As already mentioned, the music of the entire oeuvre is wonderfully unified. The composer establishes a soft, gentle atmosphere, reminiscent of a dimly lit village church, underlined by the warm sound of the male choir, with its handsome, enchanting timbre expressing the essence of Ukrainian nationhood, its goodness and strength.
Father John Sembrat is to be congratulated on his composition of a paschal liturgy, so important in the Ukrainian sacred music repertoire. The Ukrainian musical oeuvre has a need for such works, which continue the longstanding tradition of large-form composer’s creations, with gravitas in their content, attractive forms, and contemporary sound. Doubtless, upon publication this significant musical work will occupy a leading place in church music performance, will receive well-deserved accolades from the scholarly musical milieu, and will give pleasure to singers and listeners alike.
Equally, praise is due for the staggeringly beautiful recording by the combined male choir, under the direction of the outstanding choirmaster Michael Zaugg. They have presented the author’s musical imagery and experience with profound feeling and mastery.
Professor Mstyslav Yurchenko
Kyiv, February 2016