Russian Orthodox Music in a Benedictine Monastery
Chorale will sing Solemn Vespers for the Third Sunday in Advent, at Monastery of the Holy Cross, in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, on Sunday, December 10, at 5 PM. Our repertoire will be selections from the Russian Orthodox tradition, some of them chosen from our recent concert program. Attendance is open to the public and without charge (a free-will offering will be taken). Anyone who has visited the monastery’s chapel will have seen a number of Orthodox icons prominently displayed, especially a recently completed and installed altar triptych. And may have wondered at what seems a strange hybrid of Benedictine and Orthodox elements, both in the chapel’s artifacts, and in its liturgical practice. I asked the monastery’s prior, Father Peter Funk, to elaborate on this, and he has written this response:
"In the days when our tiny monastery was just getting started, and the church building was largely barren, the first thing visitors often noticed was the acoustic. Our founders noticed it when they were invited to Chicago by Cardinal Bernadin in 1990. We spend at least three hours a day singing the traditional monastic liturgy. A warm and amplifying acoustic is important.
"The monastic liturgy also benefits from a proper environment, and much of our work in the intervening years has been in refurbishing the church interior, emptied out when the former parish was closed in 1989. Now, when newcomers visit the monastery, they may first notice the deesis, the three traditional icons of the Russian Orthodox church, located above the restored high altar. These icons tend to occasion questions. Why would a Catholic monastery—in the United States—use Russian icons?
"This is the product of a number of providential confluences in our history. Our monastery began as a part of La Communauté de Jerusalem, one of many new religious congregations that began in the wake of Vatican II (1962-1965). “Jerusalem” was an experiment in urban monasticism, monastic life within the cloister of the modern city. Before coming to Chicago, our community’s three founders spent a year in Paris, learning this new form of monastic life, before returning to the States to seek a large city as a permanent location.
"The Jerusalem founders were all French, but like many French Catholics, they had a fascination with Russian Orthodox liturgy. The Franco-Russian cultural axis dates back well into the nineteenth century, when musical idioms in France and Russia were often shared. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Paris became a center of Russian exiles, and many more French Catholics were exposed to Orthodox music and iconography. The typical four-part congregational style of Russian Orthodox music became the model for the music of the Jerusalem community, as a way of separating their style of monasticism from the Benedictine trunk, with its connection to the more specialized music of Gregorian chant.
"The move away from modern Catholic statuary to Byzantine iconography was similarly motivated. There is, however, a more profound link between iconography and monasticism. Christian monasticism, in both East and the West, finds its roots in the earliest centuries of the Faith, at a time when there was no schism between Rome and Constantinople. The universal style of representational art in those centuries was the icon. The Seventh Ecumenical Council (held at Nicaea in 787 A.D.), recognized by Catholics and Orthodox alike, focused on the theology of images, rooting the necessity of representational art in the Incarnation of God’s Son. Thus, monasticism and iconography are institutions related by common antiquity. Even in the West, monks have tended to prefer icons to statues for theological reasons. It forms a part of our ancient culture, a culture that has tended to resist certain forms of modernization.
"Our monastery has gravitated toward Russian iconography because of the particular excellence achieved in this school in the generations following the towering figure of [Saint] Andrei Rublev (1360-1430).
"On a personal note, my first two years as a music student at the University of Chicago were profoundly marked by the policies of glasnost and perestroika, the opening up of the old Soviet Union and its eventual demise in 1989. Suddenly, Russian sacred music that had been hard to get became available in excellent editions. It was clear that there had been a remarkable flowering of liturgical music just before the Revolution. Two generations after the founding of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, Russian music had come into its own. This flourishing continued, uncomfortably for its practitioners, throughout the Soviet years. But we had to wait until the end of this particular socialist experiment for sacred music to reemerge.
"When it did, I was captivated. And so it was a remarkable experience to visit the monastery that I eventually joined, and hear music clearly descended from this tradition.
"A last word on the icons themselves. Our iconographer, Vladislav Andrejev, left the Soviet Union over thirty years ago, when he was suspected of practicing religious art. In upstate New York, he founded the Prosopon School of Iconology, devoted to the development of the techniques and theological insights of the school that has followed Andrei Rublev. The center icon, Christ in glory, depicts both the Ascension of Christ and His Second Coming. He is flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, interceding on behalf of the faithful and the world. Two small medallions in the upper corners depict St. Antony the Great, the Egyptian founder of monasticism, and St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism and patron of Europe. Above the deesis is our newest icon, Our Lady of the Protecting Veil. We requested this image because of our community’s devotion to Mary, and our need to have someone watch out for us in the modern city!
"If monasticism is an institution that witnesses to an earlier age of the faith, one in which the primitive unity is more clearly visible, then monks have a certain charge to point out the contemporary commonalities in later levels of the Christian heritage. Even as our community became Benedictine in 2000, mainstreaming ourselves as it were, we have continued to explore the common elements of Catholic and Orthodox practice. Our long-term goal is to work toward a musical reconciliation of styles of sacred music, particularly chant, Renaissance polyphony, and twenty-century Russian Orthodox. At Solemn Vespers on Sunday, December 11 (5:00 p.m.) guests will hear our Gregorian tradition blended with representatives of the mature Russian sacred music tradition, the music of Rachmaninoff, Chesnokov and Gretchaninoff. We hope that many of you will take note of our icons, but also this splendid, rich music in a worthy acoustic."