St. Matthew Passion

by Andrea Elizabeth

Sunday night my family and I had the privilege of hearing the Dallas debut of St. Matthew Passion by Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was presented at Highland Park Presbyterian Church on their invitation with their excellent choir and orchestra. Apparently one of their elders heard it in Russia and was impressed enough to pay for Metropolitan Hilarion to come here and present it in person. “Signifying the newly established ecumenical friendship between Highland Park Presbyterian Church and leaders in the Orthodox and Catholic communities in New York, Dr. Greg Hobbs conducted the U.S. Premiere in New York City before conducting the Dallas Premiere at Highland Park Presbyterian Church.” (from the program) It was performed in English, but youtube has the Russian version, which is available on CD, accompanied by a 90 page booklet with various translations. Here is the very engaging opening:

Come, let us sing a holy lament to Christ.
Come, let us sing holy laments to Christ. Alleluia.
Lord my God, I will sing to Thee a funeral song.
Thine all-holy Mother weeps for Thee, lamenting.

The beautiful choruses, orchestral fugues, and solos were interspersed with chanted Scripture readings from St. Matthew. The impressive reader, who had a very shiny earring in his left ear, told me afterwards that he had never chanted before. He was given a note, but he had to go to nearby St. Seraphim Cathedral twice to see how it was supposed to be done.

I am very amazed that Presbyterians provided this venue. Apparently they are PCUSA, which is considered the liberal branch from which the conservative PCA split. It is interesting to me that Orthodox are accepted by the more liberal churches. It is the open-minded who accept us, even though we are pretty closed minded about their developments.

+ Hilarion (as he signed my daughter’s program) was also invited to give the Sunday morning sermon, which he did with the title, “No One Has Ever Seen God”. The audio recording is available online. This sermon addresses moral issues most of all. I don’t know how it was received. The concert was received with many tears during “The Holy Virgin’s Lament” towards the end, and a long, enthusiastic standing ovation by the 500 or so attendees, including Metropolitan Jonah, at the closing.

A few thoughts that I had during and since the performance:

During I did not think about the western influence, even though the Metropolitan said it was patterned after J.S. Bach’s Passions. He had also said that it was very influenced by the Orthodox liturgical tradition, and that is what I focused on. I was not resistant at all to the musical style, even though I’ve since become more critical of the style of Handel’s Messiah, which solely uses Scripture verses, but with a certain aim at the end of what salvation is. The chanted pieces in Met. Hilarion’s St. Matthew Passion are all from St. Matthew, but the choral pieces, more gently introduced than Handel’s, include Orthodox hymnography with original music, and prayers. It was a very good preparation for Lent.

This is from the Program Notes,

It is the work of a professional composer, seeking inspiration in the traditions of church music of Eastern and Western Christianity, a composer who has also in many years’ service as a priest, brought the word of God to His people. This composition is unique in the history of contemporary music, in its musicality, its variety and coherence, and its emotional and spiritual depth.

[...] the text of which is mostly taken from the services held by Orthodox Christian during Holy Week.

[...] The choral section, ‘The Master’s hospitality’ (No. 7) and the recitative that follows it ["Glory to Thee, O Lord. Come, ye faithful, let us raise our minds on high and enjoy the Master's hospitality and the table of immortal life; and let us listen to the exalted teaching of the Word whom we magnify."], explore the theme of Communion as a saving mystery, as Christ taught his disciples at the Last Supper. The words of the choir here speak of Christ as the Wisdom of God, who warmly invites all Christians to His table and offers them ‘the cup of happiness’. This text reflects the Orthodox understanding of the Last Supper as the very important event of the New Testament, which marks the beginning of the Church as a community of Christ’s disciples, coming together at the Communion chalice.

[...] There follows the aria ‘I see Thy bridal chamber adorned’ (No. 11 [I see Thy bridal chamber adorned, O my Savior, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter there. Make the robe of my soul to shine, O Giver of Light, and save me.]), which is also dedicated to the theme of the Last Supper. The text contains poetic allusion to Christ’s parable of those invited to the marriage feast (Matt. 22:2-14). The soloist, a mezzo-soprano, can be heard initially unaccompanied, before she is joined by the strings one after another. This string accompaniment is emphatically minimalist and reserved in style.

The notes go on to describe in detail the effect of different styles, keys, instruments, and influences, both western and eastern. I assume these notes are also available with the CD and I would recommend them.

Mostly throughout the work I was wondering how the Protestants present were responding to the Orthodox elements rather than worrying if I was being corrupted by the western elements. Metropolitan is known for his ecumenical efforts, which has made him somewhat controversial among the Orthodox. His main theme was love, friendship, with a mention of things we have in common, but at the same time I think he provides a healthy contrast with uncompromising, but welcoming, Orthodox Christianity.

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