Отправлено с iPhone (Sent from IPhone) – Metropolitan Hilarion (2)

As I hinted in my last post, one of the voices that I have increasingly come to appreciate in recent weeks has been the Vaticanista Robert Moynihan, editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican Magazine, whose regular postings at http://themoynihanletters.com on the dramatic events unfolding in Rome on a daily basis I have found unfailingly captivating. During the run-up to the conclave that elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the Papacy, I found him to be one of the few commentators able to strike a balance between an appropriate respect for Church leaders and straight talking on difficult issues (such as ‘Vatileaks’ and the 300-page dossier on the inner workings of the Holy See compiled by the ‘007 Cardinals’ Herranz, Tomko and De Giorgi which Pope Francis has presumably begun to peruse). In particular, Robert Moynihan has proved an invaluable resource for English-speaking readers who may not be aware that the vast majority of genuinely informative articles on Vatican affairs appear in Italian-only sources – with whose authors he is evidently personally acquainted and whose findings he makes available to a public outside Italy who might otherwise find the world of Catholic HQ utterly opaque.

Inside the Vatican publicity

What makes Dr Moynihan a rare quantity in my estimation is not only the extent of his frequently piquant insider information but an unusual theological depth of analysis (his training is in medieval studies, having written his doctorate at Yale on Joachim de Fiore under the legendary Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan). Nor is it merely a question of theoretical knowledge of ecclesial tradition and doctrine severed from a living spirituality. A good example of this was his letter #43 commenting on Cardinal Sodano’s homily on the eve of the conclave; in it Moynihan respectfully – and with the appropriate caveats – yet boldly expressed his feeling that what had been missing from the former Vatican Secretary of State’s message was ‘an emphasis on the mystical role of the Church in a process which leads ultimately (as Eastern Orthodox theology especially emphasizes) through union with Christ to the very “divinization” of man, the very sharing by man of the divine life’.

This is not the normal language of journalism, which is what makes the Moynihan Letters’ blend of investigative reporting and mystically- inclined reflection so fascinating.

Of particular interest for the current blog is the fact that it transpires from his recent posts that Robert Moynihan has been receiving messages via IPhone from the hero of a relatively recent article on Da stand das Meer, the Russian Orthodox archbishop, prolific theologian and fully paid-up classical composer Hilarion Alfeyev, a.k.a. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, commonly regarded as the ‘foreign secretary’ of the Moscow Patriarchate.

As his quote about the Orthodox doctrine of theosis (divinization) indicates, East-West Christian reconciliation is a subject which Dr Moynihan holds dear. One of his first letters following the election of Pope Francis was a moving (at least for anyone with a heart for ecumenism) account of the new Pontiff’s meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, whom Francis chose to address as ‘My Brother Andrew’, a greeting whose historic significance is hard to over-estimate given the centuries of often painful relations between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Francis Benedict XVI icon

The occasion for the IPhone message of Metropolitan Hilarion was the unprecedented meeting on March 23 of the two living successors of Peter, Francis and Benedict XVI, at which the former presented his predecessor with a Russian icon (the Madonna of Humility) – which it turns out had been given to the Argentinian Pontiff by Metropolitan Hilarion a couple of days previously at a private Papal audience. Rather than taking this as an act of ingratitude (along the lines of offloading an unsolicited box of chocolates when caught short of presents at a family gathering on December 26), the Orthodox Metropolitan was reportedly ‘very pleased and touched’.

Seeking to penetrate beneath the surface of events in characteristic fashion with the kind of intuition which makes his letters compelling reading, Dr Moynihan then offers his speculative interpretation of the symbolic importance in the appearance of the Russian icon – of Mary’s humility – in Rome as a gift from the East:

‘I sense in this a mysterious design, yes, a mystical design, something transcending our ordinary understanding of cause and effect, a design, as I see it, for Christians, for the Christian Church, to return to greater communion, greater unity, East and West, Greek and Latin, Orthodox and Catholic — with one of the great “hinge points” being… Russia.’

This would seem to resonate strongly with Metropolitan Hilarion’s own musico-theological vision, about which I wrote at the time of the Ecumenical Synod in Rome in October 2012. His words expressing his ecumenical understanding of Bach are worth re-quoting in the present context for the indication they offer of his understanding of the universal Church (emphasis mine):

Bach is a universal Christian phenomenon. His music transcends confessional boundaries; it is ecumenical in the original sense of the word, for it belongs to the world as a whole and to each citizen separately. We may call Bach an ‘orthodox’ composer in the original, literal sense of the Greek word ortho-doxos for throughout his life he learnt how to glorify God rightly. Invariably he adorned his musical manuscripts with the words Soli Deo Gloria (‘Glory to the One God’) or Jesu, juva (‘Help, O Jesus’). These expressions were for him not merely verbal formulae but a confession of faith that ran through all of his compositions. For Bach, music was worship of God. He was truly ‘catholic,’ again in the original understanding of the Greek word katholikos, meaning ‘universal,’ or ‘all-embracing,’ for he perceived the Church as a universal organism, as a common doxology directed towards God. Furthermore, he believed his music to be but a single voice in the cosmic choir that praises God’s glory. And of course, throughout his life Bach remained a true son of his native Lutheran Church. Albeit, as Albert Schweitzer noted, Bach’s true religion was not even orthodox Lutheranism but mysticism. His music is deeply mystical because it is based on an experience of prayer and ministry to God which transcends confessional boundaries and is the heritage of all humanity.
(‘Music and Faith in My Life and Vision’, lecture at the Catholic University of America, Washington D.C., February 9, 2011)

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)

One of Hilarion Alfeyev’s latest works is a Stabat Mater which received its première in 2012 and of which video can be viewed online on his YouTube channel(!) MetropolitanHilarion. His musical language may at first strike some Western listeners as puzzlingly traditional, but it should be remembered that Eastern Orthodoxy has never considered innovation for its own sake as a virtue. Indeed it can be said that one of the most striking characteristics of his compositions are their total by-passing of the theoretical issues which so often dominate ‘classical’ contemporary music, despite the fact that the composer is manifestly a man of penetrating intellect whose scores have been promoted by major figures of Russian musical life such as Vladimirs Spivakov and Fedoseyev. Moreover, within his chosen modal/tonal idiom, he demonstrates an enviable fluency in his handling of the musical material and an ability to modulate which surpasses that of some well-known ex-avantgardistas I could mention whose attempted returns to tonal writing have often come to grief for want of the necessary harmonic and contrapuntal toolbox.

'The Conductor', dir. Pavel Lungin

‘The Conductor’, dir. Pavel Lungin

If Metropolitan Hilarion’s commitment to traditional musical means is obvious, this does not mean that he should be viewed as a composer operating in a time-warp. As its fourth section ‘Paradisi Gloria’ demonstrates, Metropolitan Hilarion’s Stabat Mater is not without some intriguingly postmodern populist touches, perhaps showing the influence of his teacher Vladimir Martynov, mixing some updated Vivaldi (à la Philip Glass?) with nods in the direction of Karl Jenkins, a figure for whom he has expressed a surprising degree of admiration. Start around the 15 minute mark and you’ll see what I mean; whatever your aesthetic preferences in terms of contemporary music, one thing is clear –  Hilarion Alfeyev, for all his monastic past, is a composer who is not shy of direct communication with a mass public. His listening audience appears to be considerable within Russia, and increased dramatically last year when his large-scale St Matthew Passion became the basis (and not merely the soundtrack) of the decidedly un-monastic film ‘The Conductor’ by cullt director Pavel Lungin, with whom the Archbishop has since appeared publicly.

Metropolitan Hilarion (not unlike Robert Moynihan) shows an apparently paradoxical blend of a commitment to ancient spirituality with an awareness of the possibilities of new technology and mass communications. At the age of 46 his is a name from whom we will doubtless be hearing a good deal more in the future both as a theologian and composer. And the odds are that it may well be via Twitter.

Robert Moynihan with Pope Benedict XVI and Metropolitan Hilarion

Robert Moynihan with Pope Benedict XVI and Metropolitan Hilarion


A two-part English-language podcast about Archbishop Hilarion which provides an insight into his musical childhood and study at the specialist Gnesin Music School and as a Moscow Conservatory composition student can be downloaded at http://english.ruvr.ru/2009/05/14/258997/ (part 2 focuses on his work as a composer of Church music). Russian speakers can watch an extended conversation between Pavel Lungin and Metropolitan Hilarion at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EzKOfv6mh9c, with the archbishop speaking about his collaboration with the film director at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhjSAubYV3w. A trailer for ‘The Conductor’ can be viewed on-line at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XYB5MKyk5U


Guardians of beauty – James MacMillan in Rome


Opening of Vatican II, October 11, 1962 (photo: Peter Geymayer)

One for the dispatch box – our thoughts today are with regular SDG collaborator and advisory board member James MacMillan, currently in Rome for a very special assignment. At today’s Mass in St Peter’s Square launching the Year of Faith, ‘a pilgrimage in the deserts of today’s world'[1], the Scottish composer received from Pope Benedict XVI a copy on behalf of the world’s artists of a message given by Pope Paul VI on December 8, 1965. Proclaimed during the concluding ceremonies of the Second Vatican Council (whose proceedings opened fifty years ago today), Paul VI’s message contains a passage directly addressed to the artistic community on the role of art in the contemporary world which surely offers as much food for thought in 2012 as in 1965:

To Artists:

We now address you, artists, who are taken up with beauty and work for it: poets and literary men, painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, men devoted to the theater and the cinema. To all of you, the Church of the council declares to you through our voice: if you are friends of genuine art, you are our friends.

The Church has long since joined in alliance with you. You have built and adorned her temples, celebrated her dogmas, enriched her liturgy You have aided her in translating her  divine message in the language of forms and figures, making the invisible world palpable. Today, as yesterday, the Church needs you and turns to you. She tells you through our voice: Do not allow an alliance as fruitful as this to be broken. Do not refuse to put your talents at the service of divine truth. Do not close your mind to the breath of the  Holy Spirit.

This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and is that precious fruit which resists the wear and tear of time, which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration. And all of this is through your hands. May these hands be pure and disinterested. Remember that you are the guardians of beauty in the world. May that suffice to free you from tastes which are passing and have no genuine value, to free you from the search after strange or unbecoming expressions. Be always and everywhere worthy of your ideals and you will be worthy of the Church which, by our voice, addresses to you today her message of friendship, salvation, grace and benediction.

Paul VI, December 8, 1965

For more about James MacMillan’s participation in the ceremony, which was also attended by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (the composer’s theological consultant for his work Parthenogenesis (2000), a collaboration facilitated by another SDG advisory board member, Jeremy Begbie) and Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, see



[1] ‘This, then, is how we can picture the Year of Faith: a pilgrimage in the deserts of today’s world, taking with us only what is necessary: neither staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money, nor two tunics – as the Lord said to those he was sending out on mission (cf. Lk 9:3), but the Gospel and the faith of the Church’ Excerpt from Pope Benedict XVI’s homily, which can be read in full at


Close to the edge

‘It seems that when the church engages at the fringes, it almost always brings life to the center. This says a whole lot about God and gospel, and the church will do well to heed it.’ (Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 30)

The South African-Australian writer Alan Hirsch is a provocative thinker whose work on the mission of the contemporary Church in a post-Christendom context has provided me with much food for thought over the last few months. One of his main theses, as expressed by the quote above, is that the Church needs to return from its status as a pillar of the Western social and political establishment since Constantine to the radical engagement of its early centuries as an illegal movement working at the margins of society (pointing to the example of the unprecedented growth of the Church in China in the teeth of Maoist persecution as a template for Christianity today). The context for Hirsch’s remark quoted above concerning the relationship of the fringes and the centre is primarily socio-economic, but I see an intriguing parallel with what I have been observing for a while now on a geographical level in Europe, an area in which Hirsch has – perhaps a little sweepingly – argued elsewhere that there are no credible signs of Christian witness. On the pages of this blog I have tried to contend on a number of occasions that there are in fact such signs in the area of music, of which one seems to be the emergence of spiritually vital artistic initiatives at the Western and Eastern extremities of the European cultural space. This it seems to me is where signals of a renewal of sacred music currently seem to be the strongest in this continent, signals which just maybe serve as a barometer of a more general spiritual re-awakening. There is an uncanny commonality, it seems to me, between the new sacred art presently emerging from the Western edge of Europe (Britain and Ireland), and from the former Eastern bloc, one which will, given time, ‘bring life to the center’ (to adopt Hirsch’s phrase). It is maybe not surprising that the periphery is often the best place to look for creative innovation, as this is where centralizing bureaucracy – the principal instrument of forces wishing to maintain the status quo – are least capable of surveillance and stifling genuine innovation by the imposition of conformity. I could cite many musical examples in support of this intuition, but let me restrict myself to two recent ones. The first was the discovery of the work of the Slovak composer Vladimir Godar (1956 -) in the form of his haunting and powerful Mater, recorded by ECM in 2005. It made me wonder how much creativity from Central and Eastern Europe’s smaller nations may be going unnoticed at an international level for the lack of exposure in the West, and what the impact may be once figures such as Godar come to broader attention.  The second was a radio broadcast of Roxanna Panufnik’s new large-scale Tallinn Mass, a British-Estonian collaboration whose near-hypnotic conclusion (compellingly performed by Indian-British soprano Patricia Rozario and local Estonian forces) struck me as some of the strongest contemporary choral music I have heard for a long time.

What counts as the ‘fringes’ of Europe is of course a matter of personal opinion, but the question of whether it is to the continent’s apparent backwaters rather than to Europe’s major cultural hubs that we should be looking for signs of renewal did cross my mind this week as I travelled to Sarospatak in Eastern Hungary, a stone’s throw from borders with Rumania, Slovakia and the Ukraine. Technically this is still Mitteleuropa, but the four-hour train ride eastwards from Budapest definitely gave me the feeling of heading out towards some kind of cultural rim. For several years now, the historic Reformed Collegium in Sarospatak has been the scene of the Crescendo Institute, a pioneering venture in combining high-level music-making and Christian spirituality which has become the region’s largest summer musical academy, drawing participants from a wide range of countries from the US to Vietnam and China. Last year my Hermosura de Dios orchestral song-cycle on words of Saint Teresa of Avila was given its first performance at the Institute (twinned with the Zemplen Festival) by the leading Hungarian mezzo-soprano Andrea Melath. The orchestra conducted by fellow Soli Deo Gloria board member Delta David Gier featured both highly talented students coming from everywhere between Lisbon and Moscow as well as members of the Prague Philharmonia, Dallas Symphony and Cleveland Orchestras. This year, as well as making a couple of spoken presentations on music and faith to the students, I had further proof of the talent on view in Sarospatak when acting as one of the judges of the Institute’s Concerto competition, having the privilege of hearing young Eastern European violinists and flutists every bit as accomplished as the leaders and soloists of many a Western European orchestra.

One particularly interesting event at the Institute was an enthralling lecture on the occasion of the bicentenary of the birth of Franz Liszt in 1811 by the Dutch musicologist Marcel Zwitser, dealing with the intriguing question of the apparent contradiction between Liszt as the 19th century’s foremost rock star and Liszt the musical Franciscan, the composer of almost frighteningly stripped-down scores such as the Via Crucis, whose harmony not only seems to anticipate the Grenzwelt of late Reger, early Bartok or Scriabin, but even the ‘spiritual minimalism’ of the late 20th and 21st centuries. What is remarkable – though clearly not to all tastes – in the late Liszt is that he seems to be the first composer (with the notable exception of Schubert in his bleakest songs such as Der Leiermann or Der Doppelgänger, which Liszt significantly transcribed for solo piano) to have grasped that what is left out of a composition can in fact be just as if not more important than the actual notes on the page. Whether in his overtly religious works of his late period or in the existential wanderings of pieces such as Nuages Gris and the Funeral Gondolas, it is clear that Liszt’s primary interest is in the empty and frequently desolate space between the notes. In opening himself up to this space, Liszt effects an astonishing philosophical reversal from the virtuosity of his early compositions. He no longer dominates the musical material through technique but rather allows the silence to speak for itself – a stance which constitutes the very essence of spiritual minimalism. It is in the embrace of this concept that Liszt is a true radical: there is a remarkable coherence between his ‘Franciscan’ ideal of renunciation and the ‘voluntary poverty’ of an Arvo Pärt, embodied in the decision not to use all technical means at the composer’s disposal, but rather to seek artistic truth through an act of what Valentin Silvestrov has referred to as musical ‘disarmament’ [разоружение].[1] In the case of the Via Crucis the correspondence between the extreme frugality of musical means and the subject-matter of the self-emptying of God could not be clearer: what we have here is the equivalent of musical ‘kenotic’ theology, an exploration of the Godforsakenness of the Cross as disturbingly modern in its own way as the expressionism of Jürgen Moltmann’s Crucified God or Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Mysterium Paschale a century later.

This quality in Liszt of the struggle of faith with the apparent absence of God was recently pointed out by Pope Benedict XVI (one of von Balthasar’s collaborators) after a concert of Liszt’s music performed in the Vatican by the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra under Zoltan Kocsis, featuring Liszt’s extended and rarely-heard setting of Psalm 13. Dating from 1855, this 25-minute work is not written in the extreme idiom of the Via Crucis, yet there is a distinct similarity on the level of textual content:

‘This piece dates back to the years in which Liszt stayed in Tivoli and Rome; it was a period when the composer lived his faith intensely, so much so that he almost exclusively wrote sacred music. Let us remember that he took minor orders. The piece which we have heard gives us an idea of the quality and depth of this faith. It is a Psalm in which the praying person is in a difficult situation, the enemy surrounds and besieges him, God seems absent and seems to have forgotten him. And his anguished prayer rises in the face of this situation of abandonment: “How long, O Lord”, the Psalmist repeats four times. The tenor and the choir repeat “Herr, wie lange?”, in an almost incessant way. It is the cry of man and of humanity that feels the weight of evil that is in the world. Liszt’s music conveys to us this sense of heaviness and distress. But God does not abandon. The Psalmist knows this, Liszt does too; as a man of faith, he knows. From the anguish, a cry full of faith leading to joy is born: “My heart shall rejoice in thy salvation. I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me”. Here Liszt’s music transforms itself: the tenor, choir and orchestra raise an anthem full of confidence in God, who never betrays, never forgets, never leaves us by ourselves.'[2]

Pope Benedict’s appeal to Liszt as a composer steeped in prayer is certainly historically grounded, but how does it sit with the near-universal cliché of Liszt as an inveterate womanizer (with his virtuoso piano recitals as domineering acts of seduction), the ‘ultimate Romantic’ in his dealings with the opposite sex? A discussion of the truth of such a view is beyond the scope of this post (and my musicological competence), but what is absolutely undeniable is the passionate eroticism of much of Liszt’s piano music, not excluding works with explicitly religious subject-matter such as the composer’s own favourite piece (and mine), Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. Listening to the work being played eloquently during Marcel Zwitser’s lecture by the highly gifted young Russian pianist Polina Kulikova, I was struck by the proximity of the Bénédiction‘s ecstatic nature mysticism to the harmonic progressions of the Liebestod of Tristan und Isolde (the object of another of Liszt’s transcriptions for solo piano). While Liszt’s Catholicism and the longing for a pantheistic absorption into the Weltall expressed by Wagner are in many respects very different, the fact that the music is so similar gives pause for thought. A powerfully erotic spirituality seems to characterize both these instances, but one which in my opinion is (contrary to the view of many of Liszt’s critics) not reducible to a will to sexual domination. The shared element found both in the Bénédiction and the Liebestod is rather a passionate longing for the ultimate communion, the dissolution of the subject-object dialectic, a desire that has been a mark of mystical thought in many religious traditions (the Song of Songs being a prime example). Already in the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses Liszt seems to want to transcend the self, whether in the ecstasy of Romantic love or in the rapt contemplation of Creation. For Liszt, eros and agape are definitely not polar opposites, but rather two sides of the same coin. If in his late works this urge towards self-transcendence takes a radically pared-down form, this should perhaps not be viewed as such a suprise, being simply a new expression of an intense desire  for self-surrender which had already been present in his earlier music. In this respect Liszt’s spiritual evolution is maybe not so much a reversal as a purification of a basic attitude which remains consistent throughout his life.

'Four Ages of Liszt', Etude magazine, 1913

One composer to have grasped this aspect of Liszt was Olivier Messiaen (whose ‘ecstatic’ use of the key of F sharp major in works such as Le Banquet céleste and Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus is clearly Lisztian), whose work is marked by a very similar juxtaposition of the sacred and the unashamedly erotic. In his book of conversations with Antoine Goléa (1961), Messiaen responded to critics of his own patently sexual pieces such as Cinq Rechants bycomplaining that the notion of Romantic love in the popular imagination is a pitifully debased and misunderstood caricature of a noble spiritual ideal. For Messiaen, the placing of human and divine love in essential contradiction to one another is a fundamental mistake. Great lovers are as rare as great saints in Messiaen’s view, presumably because they share the same quest for self-abandonment (in this context it is interesting to note that, like his Hungarian predecessor, Messiaen found himself irresistibly drawn to Francis as the epitome of human sainthood) in the other. Against the reduction of notions of the erotic to the exploits of Don Giovanni, Messiaen remarked, with typical Gallic vigour:

“I prefer the attitude of Liszt, answering the importunate question of what he thought of Mme d’Agoult: “What do I think of her? But I would throw myself out of the window for her!'[3]

Franz Liszt, am Flügel phantasierend, 1840 (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin). Liszt is depicted between George Sand and Marie d’Agoult (reclining against the piano)


[1] Valentin Silvestrov, To Wait for the Music: conversational lectures (Kiev: Duh i Litera, 2010), 263 ff.

[2] http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2011/may/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20110527_concerto_en.html

[3]  ‘Je préfère l’attitude de Liszt, répondant à un fâcheux qui lui demandait ce qu’il pensait de Mme d’Agoult : « Ce que j’en pense ? Mais je me jetterais pour elle par la fenêtre ! »’ Antoine Goléa, Rencontres avec Olivier Messiaen (Paris: Julliard, 1961), 42.