Guardians of beauty (2) – Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev

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Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk

Our last post took us to Rome and the part played by composer and SDG advisory board member in the launch of the ‘Year of Faith’ celebrated on October 11th in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the Synod on the New Evangelisation.  If James MacMillan is arguably the best-known Catholic musician in the English-speaking world, it may come as a surprise to learn that he is not the only composer of sacred music to be playing an active role in the proceedings in Rome at the moment. One of the most striking features of the Synod is its ecumenical focus; I have already commented on the typically thought-provoking speech offered to the Synod by Archbishop Rowan Williams last week. This week it was the turn of the Eastern Orthodox Church, with an address being given by the Moscow Patriarchate’s head of the department for External Church Relations (read: ‘foreign minister’), Metropolitan Hilarion [Alfeyev] of Volokolamsk. Who at the age of 46 is not only one of the youngest churchmen involved in top-level ecumenical dialogue, but is also a prolific composer.

I would like to emphasize that we are not merely talking about ‘occasional’ works here, even if, given his heavy ecclesial responsibilities, much of Metropolitan Hilarion’s writing apparently happens in airport lounges during his displomatic trips. His catalogue contains a number of major compositions which are gaining increasing international exposure, including a two-hour St Matthew Passion (recorded by Vladimir Fedosseyev), a 75-minute Christmas Oratorio (premièred at the National Shrine in Washington DC) as well as a Divine Liturgy and All-Night Vigil. All these were written in recent years; having received his early training at the Moscow Gnesin School and Conservatory while still contemplating a musical career, Hilarion Alfeyev subsequently abandoned composition when he took monastic vows at the age of 20, only returning to composition in 2006.[1]  Next month the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will give the first performance of his latest choral symphony, Song of Ascent .

Metropolitan Hilarion is also a highly articulate and at times provocative speaker about music and its relation to faith, as you can judge by reading the text of a stimulating lecture he gave at the Catholic University of America in 2011. Although his own work is steeped in his own Orthodox liturgical tradition, pride of place in his musical thinking nonetheless goes to J.S. Bach not only as a compositional ‘colossus’ but also as the ultimate ecumenical composer:

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.

As is perhaps to be expected given his own philosophical and theological training in a tradition known for its trenchant critique of many aspects of Western society, Metropolitan Hilarion’s narrative of art-music after Bach is somewhat negative. Despite his love of the Germanic symphonic repertoire and the achievements of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, he like many Eastern Orthodox views the development of Western culture in terms of increasing individualism and secularization, leading to the evacuation of the sacred in the twentieth century[2]:

During the epochs of Impressionism and the Avant-garde, interest in anything to do with religion seems to have faded altogether. Avant-garde composers renounced the final elements that linked music to faith – the elements of harmony and of beauty as fundamental for musical creativity. Cacophony and disharmony became the constructive fabric with which musical works were built.

With John Cage’s 4:33 we reach the dénouement of this narrative:

The appearance of this work in 1952 bore witness to the fact that the musical Avant-garde had completely exhausted itself – as if it had nothing more to say. Cage’s silence has little in common with the spiritual silence that burgeons from the depths of religious experience: his was simply a soundlessness which testified to the complete spiritual collapse of the musical Avant-garde.

One may of course agree or disagree with this interpretation of the significance of John Cage. The fact that his influence can be detected in ‘spiritual minimalist’ works such as the large-scale Organ and Silence of Tom Johnson (1939 – ) or Valentin Silvestrov’s Hymn 2001 suggests that there may be more common ground between Cage and ‘spiritual silence’ than one might at first suspect. However, Metropolitan Hilarion’s reading of history is certainly not wanting for clarity. Intriguingly, the major exception to his predominantly jaundiced take on modern music is a composer who wrote no overtly ‘sacred music’ whatsoever:

It is my personal view that, in the history of twentieth-century music, there is only one composer who, in terms of talent and depth of inspired searching, comes close to Bach, and that is Shostakovich.

Bach’s music is dedicated to God and permeated by an ecclesiastical spirit. Shostakovich, on the other hand, lived at a different time and in a country where God and the Church were never spoken about openly. Yet at the same time all of his creative work reveals him to have been a believer. While he did not write church music and apparently did not attend Church services, his music nonetheless confirms that he felt deeply the disastrous nature of human existence without God and that he experienced profoundly the tragedy of modern society – a godless society – which had renounced its roots. This yearning for the Absolute, this longing for God, this thirst for truth prevails in all of his works – in his symphonies, quartets, preludes and fugues.

Shostakovich was someone who could not be broken by repression or condemnation by the powers that be. He always served the Truth. I believe that, like Dostoevsky, he was a great spiritual and moral example, whose voice, like that of a prophet, cried out in the wilderness. This voice, however, evoked and continues to evoke a response in the hearts of millions of people.

This retrospective ‘baptism’ of Shostakovich is certainly a bold move on Metropolitan Hilarion’s part, given that his statement that ‘all of his creative work reveals him to have been a believer’ is the last thing that most readers would say on reading the composer’s statements (albeit allowing for a little ‘editorial help’ from Solomon Volkov) in Testimony. However, it is undeniably striking that Shostakovich has haunted many composers of explicitly Christian works – myself included -, of whom Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina and James MacMillan are perhaps the most obvious examples. Indeed, it might not be going too far to say that they have related to a certain intuited spiritual potential in Shostakovich’s music in much the same way as Messiaen related to Debussy’s Pelléas, or Bruckner and Franck to Wagner.

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On the subject of contemporary music, Hilarion Alfeyev- who himself writes in an unashamedly tonal/modal idiom, but in a manner which should not simply be dismissed as derivative – is nothing if not outspoken. As one might predict, he feels an affinity with the work of Arvo Pärt, John Taverner and Henryk Górecki (echoes of whose Symphony n.3 can be heard in Hilarion’s St Matthew Passion). Less expected, however, is his advocacy of Karl Jenkins’ Requiem as a ‘real masterpiece of contemporary music’,[3] or his enthusiasm for Andrew Lloyd Webber:

There are compositions in popular music imbued with high spiritual content and are written skillfully (for instance, the famous rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar). No doubt, this composition is not in keeping with church criteria, but the author did not purport to present the canonical image of Christ. He achieved his objective outstandingly well by telling the story of Christ’s Passion in a language understandable to the youth and through the medium of contemporary music. I appreciate this music more emphatically than I do the works of many avant-garde composers, since the latter sometimes eschew melody, harmony, and inner content.

Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk is clearly a man of strong musical as well as theological convictions. Somewhat reminiscent in his directness of the great Russian Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), a prime contributor to the work of the World Council of Churches in its early years, his constructive engagement with ecumenism cannot be taken as implying any kind of easy-going relativism. Archbishop Hilarion rather operates from the premise that genuine dialogue also needs to make space for robust exchange (or even confrontation) if it is to be meaningful.[4] His views on theology and aesthetics may not be to all tastes, but one thing seems certain – given that he is still only in his mid-40s, this is a name of which we are likely to hear much more in the future, both as a churchman and composer. Watch this space.

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Pdf scores of some of Metropolitan Hilarion’s works can be downloaded at http://hilarion.ru/en/works/scores . An interview in which he talks about his recent meeting with Pope Benedict XVI can be heard on-line at http://www.news.va/en/news/metropolitan-hilarion-on-evangelisation-and-reconc

For video of a Russian TV broadcast of his St Matthew Passion, see http://blip.tv/jesuit/la-passion-selon-saint-matthieu-par-mgr-hilarion-alfeyev-2405257

NOTES

[1] http://english.ruvr.ru/2009/05/14/258997.html

[2] Metropolitan Hilarion’s musical historiography is not dissimilar to those of his composition teacher, the cult figure Vladimir Martynov (1946-), as can be seen from an interview with one of Martynov’s chief advocates in the West, conductor Vladimir Jurowski (who brought Martynov’s controversially polystilistic Dante opera Vita Nuova to London in 2009): http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/feb/13/vladimir-martynov

[3] http://www.crisismagazine.com/2012/an-interview-with-metropolitan-hilarion-alfeyev

[4] While this approach to Church diplomacy on the part of the Moscow Patriarchate may seem abrasive to some, it cannot be denied that it has yielded genuine fruit on terrain where the avoidance of painful historical issues is impossible, most notably in the form of a recent joint declaration by the Moscow Patriarch and the President of Polish Catholic Bishops which has been hailed as a breakthrough document in terms of reconciliation between the two nations. An English translation of this declaration can be found at http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1350310?eng=y

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