Local Church, Local Music? Orthodox liturgical music in French parishes of Russian tradition

In France, the vast majority of parishes that worship according to the Russian tradition (by which I mean that they follow the Russian expression of the Byzantine rite and use Russian melodies and tones, whether or not the services are in Slavonic or French) belong to the Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe (hereafter referred to as the Exarchate). This sub-jurisdiction, headquartered at the Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky, Rue Daru, Paris, left the Moscow Patriarchate at the height of the Soviet persecution of the mother Church, and found refuge under the protection of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1931. The Exarchate extends over several countries of western Europe. It has spearheaded the introduction of services in local languages and acted in the spirit of the Council of Moscow of 1917 by allowing the laity a greater say in the running of church affairs. Thus the “Paris School” emerged, with the Institute of Saint Sergius as the jewel in the crown. The Orthodox theologians and intellectuals living in Paris remained rooted in Holy Tradition while showing a willingness to engage with the modern world. This freedom of thought and expression was not to everyone’s liking, as is shown by an auto da fé that took place in Ekaterinburg in 1998, when books by Nikolai Afanasiev, Alexander Men, John Meyendorff and Alexander Schmemann were burnt publicly. The Exarchate still has its enemies, but few would dispute that the relatively creative and exploratory character of the “Paris School” has benefitted, indeed saved, many western European Orthodox.

The Exarchate has as one of its aims the development of a local church.[1] What is meant by a local church? Whatever its administrative or jurisdictional arrangements, attributes of a local church include enculturation in the locality in which the Church finds itself, use of local language, and organizations that unite or at least bring together Orthodox who live in the same territory. A local church is also a universal one: it transcends national boundaries and is not an arm of any one state.

I am going to argue that a “local church” also implies “local” music, by which I mean the inclusion in our services of music using melodies specifically composed for the language that prevails in the territory in which the church is implanted. The creation of such a music would be in keeping with those strains of theological thought that prevailed in Paris since the foundation of the Exarchate (or even before) and which continue to this day. (Here I would stress that I am not talking about a “national” music. Indeed, when we talk about music written to the French or English languages, it becomes clear that we are talking about music that can be used in many countries world-wide; also, one should not exclude the possibility of music being written to Basque, Catalan or Welsh translations.)

To support my case that local church implies local music, I cite three figures associated with the “Paris School”, none of whom (so far as I know) wrote about music, but whose thinking would seem to provide space for the admission of new music in our services. Elisabeth Behr-Sigel (1907-2005) was already a noted theologian before she started to advocate the ordination of women to the priesthood.[2] Crucial to her thinking was the perception that Tradition is not mere repetition or precedent, set in stone for all eternity, but is something that unfolds and within which revelations can happen in the fullness of time. If for example, the first Christians had not taken the bold step of exempting non-Jewish converts from the Mosaic Law, the early Church would have gone the way of all the other, short-lived Jewish sects. The perception of unfolding Tradition has obvious implications for music: Tradition is not mere precedent and therefore does not exclude the creation of new melodies.

Metropolitan Antony (Bloom) of Sourozh (1914-2003) was a Russian exile who spent most of his childhood in Paris before leading the Russian Church in Great Britain and Ireland for several decades. His many writings and sermons stress the importance of entering into a personal, living relationship with God, of working out our own path to God and not be content to reproduce mechanically the life of any particular saint.[3] Metropolitan Anthony used to declare he was unmusical, but his emphasis on a personal, authentic way, on the responsibility of the person to seek a dynamic equivalent rather than a literal copy of the lives of the saints, can be applied to our musical choices. We must take responsibility for our music, relive it, re-create it, not simply copy what has already been done before.

Also of relevance is a remark about tradition by another Russian exile in Paris, Georges Florovsky, who taught at Saint Sergius (from 1925) and at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York (from 1949): “Tradition is not only a protective, conservative principle; it is, primarily, the principle of growth and regeneration […] Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only the memory of words.” [4] In the Orthodox Church it often seems that the “protective, conservative principle” predominates over that of “growth and regeneration”, at the expense of the notion of creativity in our liturgical music.

How do the principles outlined above match up to the development of a Francophone Orthodox musical repertoire? It is a mixed picture. The early and mid-twentieth century was dominated by the music of Maxime Kovalevsky (1903-1988), who along with his family emigrated from Russia to France after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.[5] Kovalevsky is the author of most of the arrangements and compositions still used to this day in Francophone Orthodox churches of Russian tradition. Later he joined the Église catholique orthodoxe de France (ECOF), a grouping of churches that resurrected the ancient Gallican rite while remaining in communion with the Orthodox Church (which is no longer the case).

In Kovalevsky we have a figure whose music has been “flogged to death” in parishes throughout France (and not just those within the Exarchate), yet who could repay further study, if only to rescue him from his most ardent supporters. One would like to know, for example, if his liturgical music is based exclusively on extant melodies or whether (as I suspect) he occasionally created his own. Most of the music he supplied for the churches of Russian tradition are based on Russian melodies, whereas for ECOF he supplied not only adaptations of Russian music but also of Gregorian chant. His music is not always easy: his harmonies are finely chiseled, calculated to avoid the obvious, and respect the original mode or scale of a piece without trying to absorb them into the modern major/minor tonal system. The melodic line often migrates between different voices in the manner of Alexander Kastalsky; this means that it is often not possible to perform his music convincingly without the full complement of four voices. Sometimes the French words do not fit very well, and later choir directors have made revisions to improve the declamation. One of these is the former choir director Father Nicolas Lossky, a great admirer of Kovalevsky.

Initially, the firm establishment of Kovalevsky’s music was an achievement that chimed well with the “local church” principles discussed above. The problem is that this “revolution” has, over the course of several decades, become fixed in stone. The Kovalevsky heritage has become institutionalized. Instead of ushering in an era of openness and suppleness, the music of Kovalevsky is used to the exclusion of almost anything else, and the repertoire has stagnated. Inertia and habit, masquerading as tradition, have crept in.

It is only right and natural that the Russian tradition, mediated by Kovalevsky, should supply the main repertoire of church singers for years, if not decades, to come. By the same token, as native-language worship becomes more established, it seems only appropriate that liturgical compositions written specifically for the translated languages should be admitted alongside the existing repertoire. Yet this is nor happening to the extent that it should, nor is it being encouraged. In discussing this question with fellow Orthodox, I get varying reactions. Some are sympathetic; others stare silently at the ground, not knowing what to say; others react with a furrowed brow and murmur, “We have to be careful”.

Excessive caution – indeed fear – is holding things back: fear of setting a precedent, uncertainty as to what sort of music is and is not allowed or appropriate, fear of offending ultra-conservatives, and so on. Another problem is the tendency we Orthodox have of idolizing our own tradition. A further obstacle to the reception of new pieces could be limited sight-reading skills – though this does not get in the way of very fast, difficult music for the Easter Vigil! Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

France is not lacking in church musicians who arrange or compose new music to French liturgical translations. Archpriest Michael Fortounatto (b. 1931), who was born in France of Russian ancestry and conducted the choir at the Russian cathedral in London for many years, has arranged several melodies in the English, Dutch and French languages.[6] After retiring from the Cathedral he took up residence in France in 2005 and has taught at the Institute of Saint Sergius. His harmonization are on the whole simple, well within the technical limits of most church choirs and indeed most congregations, but some are more ambitious, such as his well-known, luminous setting of “I see Thy bridal chamber adorned”, in which the alto and tenor voices sing the melody in unison while the other voices weave independent parts above and below it. His arrangements can be heard in some parishes in France, but it is perhaps too early to assess the extent to which they will take root there.

Music that is totally new has met with a less ready reception. Attempts to add to the repertoire of Francophone liturgical compsotions have been rare, isolated and unco-ordinated. Apart from the present writer, the only Orthodox composers I know who are writing original liturgical compositions for use in Francophone Orthodox churches are Stéphane Bortoli (b. 1956) and Serge Sorret. Bortoli[7] is the choir director of the church of Saints Pierre et Paul at Châtenay-Malabry. His Cherubic Hymn provides a fine example of clear declamation to supple rhythms. Sorret directed the now defunct Chorale Saint Jean Damascène, which specialized in the performance of Francophone Orthodox church music.

As one might expect in a Roman Catholic country, some of the most inspired composers/arrangers of Francophone liturgical texts are Catholic. François Gineste (b. 1943) is a Byzantine-rite Catholic who directs the music at the Greek-rite church of Saint-Irénée in Lyon. Like Kovalevsky, Gineste draws on both the Catholic Gregorian and the Russian traditions. Not only has he written Francophone adaptations of Gregorian and Russian chant, but he is also the author of original compositions that have been used in a liturgical context. He has made several recordings of music sung by a quartet, in which his tenor voice can clearly be heard performing exuberant flourishes.[8]

An exact contemporary of Gineste, the Dominican priest André Gouzes (b. 1943) is the author of over 3,000 musical settings (original compositions and arrangements) of modern French translations of texts drawn from several religious traditions.[9] His settings of Lumière joyeuse (Hail Gladsome light) and Il est vraiment digne de te bénir (Hymn to the Mother of God, “It is truly fitting…”) are couched in a simple psalmodic style that Orthodox would recognise and could profitably be absorbed into the repertoire of Orthodox churches.

Elsewhere in the Catholic Church, Orthodox texts and music have received a sympathetic reception, an interesting parallel to the growth of Catholic interest in ikons. The Frères et Soeurs de Jerusalem at the Basilica in Vézelay regular perform music to melodies of the Octoechos, and some Russian chants have been taken into the musical repertoire of the Taizé Community.

So in terms of its musical repertoire, the Exarchate has not entirely lived up to its principles – at least, not yet. Perhaps in order for new compositions to take root, we need stronger ecclesiastical structures. A robust, dynamic diocesan structure not distracted by political and jurisdictional issues could help to promote workshops and discussions and, eventually, bring about a consensus in favour of admitting some new compositions. Composers would thus be protected, encouraged and guided, as happens in certain dioceses in North America, where native-language compositions are performed in church much more frequently than in western Europe, with the possible exception of Finland.

To some extent the Paris-based Exarchate shares the conservatism and caution of other Orthodox groupings. Nevertheless, I believe that its emphasis on lay participation and the universal priesthood, and its aspiration towards freedom and responsibility provide the most promising (or least unpromising) route to the admission of new melodies. Today the Exarchate is in difficulties, and its future is uncertain. We must nevertheless hope and pray that the freedom and responsibility it espouses will survive and eventually spark a renewal of church music in France and elsewhere.

[1] Déclaration sur l’identité et l’avenir de l’archevêché (prepared for the archdiocesan council in 2012, presented and amended in the archdiocesan pastoral assembly of 1 November 2012), paragraphs 12 and 13. (http://situationarcheveche.blogspot.fr/p/declarationsur-lidentite-et-lavenir-de.html).

[2] On Behr Sigel’s views on female ordination see Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, Woman, Women, and the Priesthood in the Trinitarian Theology of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel (London: Bloomsbury, 2013) and other writings by the same author.

[3] For a comprehensive account of his life and work, see Gillian Crowe, This Holy Man: Impressions of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005.

[4] Georges Florovsky, “The Catholicity of the Church”, in Bible, Church, Tradition [no publication details indicated], quoted in Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, rev. enl. edn, London: Penguin Books, 1993, p. 199.

[5] See Madeleine Kovalevsky, Maxime Kovalevsky : l’homme qui chantait Dieu, Paris: Osmondes, 1994.

[6] His French arrangements can be found at http://www.musique-orthodoxe.fr/. Other Francophone arrangements by various composers can be found at http://orthodoxedenantes.free.fr/doc/partitions/informations.php. Other arrangers of Orthodox liturgical music include Laure Durand-Viel and Matthieu Malinine; the latter was choir director at the Russian Orthodox Church of Geneva (2007-2013) and professor of liturgical chant at the Institute of Sergius (2006-2012).

[7] www.stephanebortoli.tk.

[8] www.francois-gineste.com.

[9] Worklist at www.chantonseneglise.fr/catalogue.php?artiste=88.

#liturgy #liturgicalmusic #translation #music #services #divineservices #liturgicallife #tradition

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