Reflections on Life and Death in Contemporary Orthodox Music

By Ivan Moody

[Spring-Summer, 2001]


"It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me."  (Galatians 2:20)


   If we are to live as Orthodox artists, it is clear that we must, with St Paul, allow Christ to live in us. Whatever this may mean in terms of the expression of a particular Orthodox tradition, this central imperative, of allowing Christ's message to be transmitted through our own art, is something with which we must deal in no uncertain terms.

   Whilst in Orthodox iconography there has been some sense of continuity of tradition (interrupted and corrupted though it may have become at certain points), when we come to consider music the matter becomes more complicated. If such may not seem to be the case to the composer who is used to writing and arranging for liturgical use (the Kapellmeister, the psaltis…), when we come to the professional composer, possibly with a burgeoning career, who finds himself confronted with the necessity of using his art as an expression of Orthodox spirituality, then we are dealing with something quite different.

   This is precisely what happened in the case of Sir John Tavener, and something similar occurred with the Estonian Arvo Pärt. With the former, there was an immediate attempt at integration of Orthodox thought into his musical world, and an initial approach to Orthodoxy from the musical aspect (the results of this may be clearly heard in such works as Kyklike Kinesis and the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, both coeval with his conversion) which achieved an increasing refinement over the years. Pärt, in entirely different circumstances, aimed at a musical expression of ever greater religiosity which bore fruit when he was allowed to leave Estonia, but in the form of settings of Roman Catholic liturgical texts, of which the Passion according to St John is the most famous. Much more recently, Pärt has felt able to go directly to Orthodox sources, frequently writing music to texts in Church Slavonic. In both cases, preoccupation with Orthodox spirituality has meant a radical change in musical terms, though it is also clear that their work up to this point had already prepared the ground in no uncertain terms.

   Absolutely central to this change for both composers has been the way they approach the idea of death. It is obvious that the musical expression of the idea of death will relate, for these composers as for others, very closely to the text being set (or the text used as inspiration, if it is an instrumental work). Thus, Pãrt, in using the established western musical form of the Passion (Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem, 1982), setting the text in Latin and striving for an intentionally impersonal style of declamation (clearly with the sound of Gregorian chant and early polyphony resonating in his memory), halts at the Crucifixion and finishes with a luminous prayer for mercy. Tavener, in tackling the same subject, travels forward directly to the Resurrection (Resurrection, 1988; Fall and Resurrection, 1997), in the spirit of Orthodox hymnology and iconography, even though such a graphic, all-inclusive patchwork is achieved rather at the expense of a unified musical narrative. But the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ are possibly the most difficult subjects to deal with in music, as the present author has also found (Passion and Resurrection, 1992) in that they require an attempt to overcome an exclusively personal response to the death of Christ in the interests of understanding and transmitting the cosmic event that is His Resurrection, if we are to be truly able to invite our listeners to "come and receive the light from the Unwaning Light". The Greek composer Michael Adamis finds another solution, in his astonishing oratorio Tetelestai ("It is finished", 1987), by jumping with the joy of the Resurrection from the Saviour's death to choral shouts of "Death, where is thy victory, grave, where is thy sting?"

   A noteworthy instance of the way in which an approach to the Orthodox way of death came about through personal tragedy is Tavener's Eis Thanaton. This work was written following the death of the composer's mother in 1985, during which time he came to feel that he would write no more music. While in Greece, he read Andreas Kalvos's poem Eis Thanaton and Philip Sherrard's essay upon it; music subsequently came very quickly and resulted in what Tavener has described as an "icon of sorrow" worked through as "part of a whole divine plan, not of death as an isolated cruel imposition." Kalvos (1792-1869) exemplifies a split, in Sherrard's view, which "resulted from an inability to reconcile and integrate the rational and irrational elements of human life on a higher level, on a level of understanding that transcends the purely rational level". Eis Thanaton in particular is a key poem because it "issues from the heart of Kalvos; own personal situation, and second, because it reveals a perennial human situation and one which became particularly acute towards the end of the eighteenth century." [Sherrard 1978:47] Though Kalvos, meeting the ghost of his dead mother, writes

Who is in danger?
Now that I face death with courage
I hold the anchor of salvation.

he negates this, in Sherrard's view (and, indeed in that of Seferis, who compared Kalvos with Hamlet) in the last verse by not seeking to live through his recognition of the world beyond: instead, he "postures, talks of scaling cliffs of virtue or, in another poem, of playing the lyra at the edge of the open tomb". [Ibid., 48-49]

   How does Tavener treat this drawing back? The answer is very simple - he ignores it, or, rather, he transmutes it so that the experience described by the poet is indeed life-giving. The figure of the Mother is transformed into the Mother of God and the Church, which one can perfectly reasonably argue is implicit in Kalvos, but here rendered absolutely explicit with the refrains "Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Glory to Thee, O God" and a musical reference to the (Russian) chant for "Christ is risen" at the end of the work. The change in orchestral colour, with the upper strings and harp ascending to the highest registers used during the course of the work, and the static gloom of the trombones, percussion, 'cellos and double basses changing to a regal (for Tavener, Byzantine) glow.

   Another experience of death, specifically the idea that he himself might be near death, led to the writing of The Last Sleep of the Virgin (1991) for "almost inaudible string quartet and bells". "I think", wrote Tavener, "that this inaudibility reflected my curious spiritual and physical state at the time. I was so weak and was on the threshold of life and death." [Tavener 1999:70] Elsewhere, he has said specifically that it is an eschatological work, a "strange - strange to me - meditation on the Last Things." [Tavener 1992] In terms of musical colour it reflects this strangeness in its use of trills, of sudden explosions of chromatically meandering melody and its constant quasi-silence. Tavener enters more specifically into the last things in his "metaphysical pantomime" The Tollhouses (in progress) and its satellite Diodia, for string quartet (1995); this latter he has described as being "liquid metaphysics", distilled from the former [Tavener 1999:80], which in turn arose from a reading of Fr Seraphim Rose's controversial book on the subject. The "pantomime" actually portrays symbolically a journey through the tollhouses; in dealing so concretely with life after death it may be considered utterly unique.

   It is hard to imagine Arvo Pärt travelling a similar path. Though he and Tavener are often placed together with the Roman Catholic composer Górecki and labelled "holy minimalists," it takes but a short acquaintance to realize that the music of one does not sound like that of the others. They form no school (1). Pärt's music has often been characterized by a sonic austerity which is largely foreign to Tavener, as Passio demonstrates very well. There is no hint of the Mediterranean in his work, and the lushness that has become apparent in his more recent, specifically Orthodox writing arises, I would argue, from the composer's knowledge of the music of the Russian Church. There is no hint at all of the theatrical, as there is with Tavener, though there is certainly monumentality, as Kanon Pokajanen (1997), with a duration of some 84 minutes amply proves. This work is a setting of the Canon of Repentance by St Andrew of Crete, entirely in Church Slavonic. The text takes one tangibly from suffering to salvation, from death to life:

    Rise, wretched man, to God, and, remembering your
        sins, fall down before your Creator,
    weeping and groaning, for He is merciful and will
        grant you to know His will.

[Ode VI]

    O Mother of God, help me who have strong hope in
    implore thy Son that he may place me on His right
    hand, unworthy as I am, when he sitteth to judge the
    living and the dead. Amen.

[Ode IX]

   Pärt accompanies St Andrew's spiritual journey with music linked intimately to the text, imbued with the sound of Russian liturgical singing, though not derived from any actual chant. The composer writes of the composition of this work: "In this composition, as in many of my vocal works, I tried to use language as a point of departure. I wanted the word to be able to find its own sound, to draw its own melodic line. Somewhat to my surprise, the resulting music is entirely immersed in the particular character of Church Slavonic, a language used exclusively in ecclesiastical texts." [Pärt 1998] While the composer's surprise might in itself be surprising to anyone familiar with his works, there is no doubt that what he says it true. There is nothing here of the impersonality for which he strove in Passio (and which in any case was soon to disappear even in other settings of western liturgical texts such as the Magnificat Antiphons and the Magnificat). While it is hieratic and solemn, it is also increasingly luminous as it follows the soul's journey of repentance in St Andrew's text.

   Often death is ritualized, or, more accurately, the artist's own reaction to death is sublimated into musical ritual; this is true of Adamis's To Mirologi tis Panagias (1994) Tavener's Ikon of the Crucifixion (1988) and the present writer's Lament for Christ (1989), all three of which deal specifically with the image of the Mother of God lamenting at the foot of the Cross. The Adamis achieves this by a hypnotic concentration on certain musical phrases and intervals; the Tavener by his favourite device of the repetition of the musical material in different keys, and my own work by the use of a recurring wordless refrain (and one might add Pärt's Stabat Mater as a work on the same theme treating a western liturgical text through the refracting mirror of Orthodox sensibility). In these diverse ways one is able to indicate musically that, though the Theotokos beholds her Son in death, and we in amazement can ask only "O Life, how canst Thou die?", yet there is the underlying knowledge that Christ, the Giver of Life, will rise again. It is not explicitly stated verbally, but is given, so to speak, a musical exegesis. In such a way, then, the composer can indeed begin to say "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me."


Fisk 1994  Fisk, Josiah: "The New Simplicity: The Music of Gorecki, Tavener and Pärt." The Hudson Review 47/1, 1994.

Hillier, Paul:  Arvo Part, Oxford Studies of Composers, 1997.

Pärt 1998  Pärt, Arvo: Note to the recording of Kanon Pokajanen, ECM 1654/55 457 834-2, 1998

Sherrard 1978  Sherrard, Philip: The Wound of Greece: Studies in Neo-Hellenism, London and Athens, 1978

Tavener 1992  Tavener, John: Prefatory note to the score of The Last Sleep of the Virgin, London, 1992

Tavener 1999  Tavener, John: The Music of Silence: A Composer's Testament, London, 1999


Moody: Passion and Resurrection, Hyperion CDA66999

Pärt: Kanon Pokajanen, ECM 1654/55 457 834-2

Pärt: Passio, ECM 1310 837 109-2

Tavener: Eis Thanaton, Theophany, Chandos CHAN 9440

Tavener: The Last Sleep of the Virgin, Virgin 7234 5 45023 2 3


1.  Even in his profoundly negative assessment of the work of Gorecki, Part, and Tavener, Josiah Fisk acknowledges that, "the three composers have very different individual identies."  [Fisk 1994:403]


Ivan Moody studied composition at London University and privately with John Tavener. His work as a composer is centred on the spirituality of the Orthodox Church, of which he is a member. He has composed works for, among others, The Hilliard Ensemble and Fretwork. He has written about early and contemporary music in many magazines worldwide and reviews recordings for Gramophone. He lives with his family in Lisbon, Portugal, working as a professional musician and directing choir at the Church of St. Nektarios and St. Gregory.  He can be reached at:


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