Orthodox leader inspires unorthodox music
During the 20th century several inspirational church figures were catalysts for the creation of new art and music in England. Probably best known is the Anglican Reverend Walter Hussey, whose commissions in the 1950s and 60s included Henry Moore’s sculpture Madonna and Child, stained glass from Marc Chagall, Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb and Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.
Less well known is the influence of the Russian Orthodox leader Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, who inspired one of the seminal works in 20th century sacred music, John Tavener’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. Born in Lausanne, Switzerland, Metropolitan Anthony had early musical connections as his uncle was Alexander Scriabin. The future Metropolitan’s father was a member of the Russian Imperial Diplomatic Corps, and as a child Metropolitan Anthony lived in Russian and Persia. The 1917 Russian Revolution forced the family to flee to Paris where the young exile took a doctorate in medicine at the University of Paris.
At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the now-qualified surgeon secretly took monastic vows and received the name Anthony. During the Nazi occupation of France he worked as a doctor, and was active in the anti-fascist movement. In 1948 he was ordained into the priesthood, and was sent to England as an Orthodox Chaplain. He was appointed leader of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and Ireland in 1962, and the following year became Exarch of the Moscow Patriarchate in Western Europe. He died in 2003 at the age of 89.
Metropolitan Anthony encouraged John Tavener to compose his 1976 setting of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom for priest and chorus, a setting that was controversial as the Metropolitan told Tavener to ignore the sacred tone system traditionally used in Orthodox music. After completing the work Tavener was received into the Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Anthony, and his subsequent compositions have been heavily influenced by the Orthodox Rite. In turn Tavener has himself influenced a generation of composers, including Ivan Moody whose Akathistos Hymn has already featured here.
Choral works are central to this new wave of Orthodox music, and Orthodox tradition eschews the use of instruments in liturgical music. But, ironically, a purely instrumental composition inspired by the Orthodox Church has become one of the most popular contemporary works for decades. Tavener’s The Protecting Veil pays homage to the sacred tones used in the Orthodox feasts of the Mother of God in an enormously long line for solo cello accompanied by string orchestra. The Protecting Veil was as a BBC commission for cellist Steven Isserlis, and the premiere was given at a BBC Promenda Concert in 1989 by Isserlis with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen. But some gentle political manoeuvring meant that these forces changed for the first recording, which went on to be a best seller. Steven Isserlis remained as soloist, but Knussen was replaced by Tavener champion, Orthodox Church member and famous tantrum thrower, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, and the orchestra was swapped to the London Symphony. And in an ironic twist the famous recording was made by the LSO in the BBC Symphony’s, soon to be sold, Maida Vale Studio 1.
So a fascinating overgrown path that reveals how the little known Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (below) was a catalyst for one of the most popular compositions of the late 20th century. In conclusion a few words about the origins of the Protecting Veil. The inspiration for the work came from Orthodox feast which celebrates the miraculous intervention of the Mother of God when Constantinople (now Istanbul) was under attack by the Saracens. As my header image shows the Mother of God appeared in the sky and held a protecting veil over the threatened Christians, forcing the marauding Saracens to retreat. And how topical that story is today. I write this just weeks before we travel to Turkey to visit Orthodox sites there, and just days after the funeral at the Christian Armenian Orthodox Church in Istanbul of murdered Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink.
Now playing – it would be easy to write this to the sound of Steven Isserlis’ best selling recording of The Protecting Veil playing, particularly as the CD comes coupled with Britten’s Third Cello Suite. But On An Overgrown Path never takes the easy option. So spinning in the CD player is Russian Orthodox Church Music composed, and conducted, by John Tavener and Ivan Moody, and sung by the Kastalsky Chamber Choir. This excellent CD (sleeve right) is in the Slavica Series of Ikon Records, a label which was founded by Metropolitan Anthony’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Assumption and All Saints in London. If you know the Protecting Veil but still bridle at Tavener’s choral music, and many do, give this CD a try. Tavener’s eight minute long Funeral Ikos is a wonderful introduction to his choral music, and is worth the purchase price alone. Need convincing? Here is a short sample from Funeral Ikon -
Metropolitan Anthony was active in the Resistance in Occupied France. So was another church leader who also inspired some wonderful liturgical music. Read about Brother Roger, and listen to a download, in The music of Taizé.
Image credit - Icon of Holy Protection of Mother of God from Byzantines.net, John Tavener by Richard Haughton, Metropolitan Anthony from Orthodxfrat.de. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included for "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk