Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD. Lord, hear my prayer…” —King David, Psalm 130.
World Premiere in Moscow
It was called “A Song of Ascents,” and the song did rise, inexorably, from a first, lonely, low note from a single cello to a crescendo of many violins on their highest string with the choir singing: “Give glory to God!”
Those opening low notes from a single cello seemed almost a risk by the composer — too lonely, too stark, too simple. The notes echoed almost eerily in the packed Moscow concert hall. Would they lead anywhere?
“I intended that,” Russian Orthodox Archishop Hilarion Alfeyev, the composer of the piece , told me later that evening. “A song of ascents has to begin low. Then you go up…”
Those first notes reflected the words of the psalm of King David: “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee…”
Out of the depths, “de profundis” in Latin, the well-known first words of Psalm 130. King David prayed, as we often do, “from the depths” — from the depths of darkness and despair, from the depths of suffering.
We too often cry out from the depths of the emptiness which can sometimes cast a shadow over our human lives — an emptiness which seems to have threatened our present age with particular vehemence, as many modern men and women wonder whether they (we humans) are the types of beings who have even enough dignity to be worthy to be damned.
If we have no eternal destiny whatsoever, what are we? A brief flurry of dust, nothing more.
This is the peculiarity of our present cultural predicament. Our culture of scientific knowledge, with its unprecedented annihilation of the transcendent, has also annihilated even the hope of an ascent, for there is nowhere to ascend to. And here, within time, there is only endless flux, then silence.
The notes of Hilarion’s song, accompanied by a hundred splendid, powerful male and female Russian voices, began low, but then they rose, moving ever higher, then still higher, until they seemed to strain the capacity of the violins.
I worried that the strings would break.
The ascent seemed to stretch beyond this earth.
I intended that as well,” Hilarion Alfeyev told me after the concert. “I wished to give the sensation of the ascent that stretches toward the eternal. It was a risk, but I took it.”
This approach, first strings, then horns and bells joining in, then voices, all rising higher and higher, yet always simple, even-paced, like a steady hiker ascending a mountain path, is the opposite of much modern composition, which is atonal and unevenly paced.
And in this sense, the composition I heard tonight is revolutionary.
In the second movement, the cellos, violas and violins echoed one another as if across valleys.
In the third movement, Hilarion reflected on the loneliness of exile, of being far from the Promised Land. It was a reflection on Psalm 137, By the waters of Babylon.
“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hung up our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
Psalm 137 is one of the best known of the Biblical psalms. It is a hymn expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BC. (This would mean it is not by King David. Rabbinical sources attributed the poem to the prophet Jeremiah, and the Septuagint version of the psalm bears the superscription: “For David. By Jeremias, in the Captivity.”)
The first lines of the poem are very well known, as they describe the sadness of the Israelites, asked to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.” They refuse to do this, leaving their harps hanging on trees.
In the Orthodox Church, and those Eastern Catholic Churches which use the Byzantine Rite, Psalm 137 (which is known by its Septuagint numbering as Psalm 136) is read at Matins on Friday mornings throughout the year (except during the week following Easter Sunday, when no psalms at all are read).
Psalm 137 has been set to music by many composers, including Palestrina, Rossi, Verdi and Partch, and now, in part, by Hilarion.
In a sense, the Russian Orthodox Church, like many other Christian communities, persecuted under communism during the 20th century, was “exiled” from its own country, and could no longer conduct its worship, no longer “sing the Lord’s song,” in its own homeland.
But now, with communism in the past, have the Orthodox remembered their song?
Or, during the time of exile, did they forget the song altogether?
This concert prompts these thoughts in my mind, and the choirs singing suggests to me that perhaps the song is beginning to be sung again…
The fourth movement was centered on a single word: “Alleluia,” and the choirs, men and women, sang this word of praise to one another, accompanied by many single-note ancient horns which have not been used in concerts for 200 years, Hilarion told me, and by drums.
Then came the fifth and final movement, in which the choirs sang “Come, let us give glory to the name of God!” The French horns come in to punctuate the phrases, and the hall shakes with the intensity of the sound.
Why give God glory?
Because we are men. And as men, capable of conceiving of the infinite, but not of grasping it, conscious of our universe, so that we not only know, but know that we know, yet nevertheless mortal, we have enormous dignity, contained in an earthen vessel which does not last.
So, becoming realistic, we embrace both our dignity, and our tragedy.
The dignity of a man is to give glory to God, that is, to act and be truthful and loving toward each of our neighbors so that they sense the meaning, the logos, of the universe at the source of our acting and being, which is truth and love, eternal.
So the glory that we give to God is to live as men — not as ants in a hive, not as demons in a cage, not as angels in a choir, but as men, men marred by sin, but mindful of Zion.
Let us rather cut off our right hand, than forget Zion.
The bell rings at the back of the orchestra, the voices rise to a crescendo, strings and bells, both choirs, highest and lowest notes — the bell insists, insists, rings out again and again. Crescendo. Silence. Applause.
A Mother’s Journey
Archbishop’s Hilarion new symphony was performed this evening as part of a “Country of Resurrection” Musical Festival held in the framework of an annual “Orthodox Russia” exhibition. This concert closed the exhibition.
But it was not the music alone which drew me to this concert hall this evening. It was also the chance to meet an extraordinary woman, Valeria Alfeyeva — the mother of Archbishop Hilarion. (His father passed away some years ago.)
“Is it so important to you to meet her?” he asked me. “I will let you sit next to her.”
And so I sat next to her.
I felt privileged, not because I was being seated in a VIP section among a number of wealthy benefactors of the Russian Orthodox Church, but because I had just discovered and started to read a book by Valeria called A Pilgrimage to Dzhvari: A Woman’s Journey of Spiritual Awakening.
The book is a loosely autobiographical account of a Russian woman’s “coming to faith” in the waning days of the Soviet Union, in about the year 1980, and particularly of her pilgrimage to two Orthodox monasteries in Georgia, the first called Dzhvari.
In this story, shortly after the death of her husband, the narrator, a journalist like Alfeyeva, and her teenage son, called Dmitri (“Mitya”) in the book, arrange an unusual visit to a famous monastery — unusual because women are traditionally forbidden entry.
But it was actually a journey this mother made with her 15-year-old son. It was the journey which sparked her own spiritual awakening — and Hilarion’s vocation as a monk, and now an archbishop, in the Orthodox Church.
The monks in the story urge Valeria to abandon her “intellectual” appreciation of Christianity for a more profoundly spiritual faith, while Mitya is encouraged in his desire to become a priest.
Six years later, Mitya becomes a monk.
The fascination of this work comes not only from the depiction of the monks’ human weaknesses and constant spiritual self-testing, but also from Alfeyeva’s thoughtful explanation of the Orthodox faith and her lyrical descriptions of the natural beauty of the Georgian countryside.
“Even at the age of two, I could tell he was special,” Valeria tells me about her son. “Listen carefully to this music tonight: it is all about the psalms, from the ‘de profundis‘ to the sorrow by the rivers of Babylon.”
She tells me how, at the age of 22, she circumnavigated the USSR, traveling northward up the entire Pacific coast of the country, then turning west through the Arctic Ocean along the top of the country.
I realize that Alfeyev’s mother was willing to take risks, as he is. It explains something.
I urge others to read this moving story of her spiritual journey during the Soviet time.