In the 1998 Jude Law film Music from Another Room, the lead character makes an argument for love, describing it as being like “music from another room.” Whether you saw the film or liked it, there is something in the metaphor of music from another room that has stayed with me. There is something about our relationship with God that is like music from another room. In this case I do not mean to infer the “upstairs room” to which secularism would tend to relegate God. Rather, there is a room in which we often find ourselves, where, for whatever reason, we have closed our eyes and ears to God.
It is in such times that “music from another room” occasionally breaks in on our quiet ignorance. Several people have made comments here about the effect that Orthodox hymnography played in their conversion. For me, the first instance occurred during my first year of marriage. We owned very little and confined our evening life to listening to the radio (NPR), or to a record of our small collection, or occasionally a show on our old black-and-white tv.
One particular evening after supper, I turned on the radio and was suddenly greeted with music that was clearly “from another room.” I could not recall having heard such music, such that I could say, “Oh, that’s __________ music.” I said to my wife, “I don’t know what that is, but when we get to heaven this is what will be around the throne of God.” We sat quiet and transfixed as we listened. We were especially quiet waiting for the announcer to tell us the name and author of the music. We were surprised at the end that it was by Rachmaninov. It was his Vespers.
The next day I went on a search for the album. It was published by the old Melodiya label (of the Soviet Union). I bought a copy – a two record set. When I got home it turned out that side three was a misprint. I searched other stores from time to time but never found a copy with the third side. It wasn’t until many years later (with CD technology) that I ever heard the third side – though I’ve never heard a performance that rivaled the old Melodiya recording – perhaps because it was my first listen.
But it was more than music. It was a sound from a world that I could only imagine – a world you only think about in your dreams. I was no stranger to good Western Christian music – but this belonged to another world. Strangely it occurred in the same year that I was introduced to Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church as well as the essays of Solzhnetisyn (it was also the year that I took one year of Russian grammar). I did not know it then, but God was opening windows and doors from another room such that the sounds and the scents, the echoes of words would begin to form something of a solid reality to me. Eventually that reality took on the shape that is its own – Orthodox Christianity.
Not every Sunday has the impact of that first hearing – but many times I hear things from the choir that are indeed from another room, only I now know that I stand inside that very room. It is the antechamber of heaven.
The Photo is of All Saints of Russia Church in Akademgorodok outside of Novosibirsk. It is a fairly new Church, built in a birch forest. I know several families who think of this Church as home.
Ah, Fr. Stephen, now you’ve hit on a subject particularly dear to my heart. Growing up Catholic, I was subjected to the particularly bad music of the 1970s-early 1980s. As an Episcopalian ’97-’02, the music was better. Orthodox chant has captivated me from day one. Being an Antiochian parish, we use both Byzantine and Russian chant. I’ve been a (not very good) chanter and (much better) reader at Matins for more than four years. My parish does almost every hymn congregationally (although we are lead by the choir). We’ve memorized large amounts of hymns as a result. Certain hymns have worked their way into my very being. I’ll be at work and one after another will pop into my mind.
This has worked its way into programs I’ve done for Ancient Faith Radio. I found out last year that lots of Orthodox weren’t aware of the total richness of the Christmas hymnography, so I did a program on the services of Christmas and the Fast, along with the music. I ended up doing the same for pre-Lent, Lent, Holy Week, and Pascha. It was a joy sharing favorite CDs. One of my favorites for Lent and Pascha music is “Attend, O Heaven” by St. Seraphim Orthodox Choir (an OCA parish in California).
Orthodox hymnography is one of the things that held me once I had attended. Byzantine chant is definitely odd sounding, and hard to learn, but now I wouldn’t be without it.
I agree with you on Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers.” It’s a small slice of heaven.
One Sunday morning at matins we sang a traditional Orthodox hymn in a Byzantine tone with the refrain “His mercy endureth forever.” It sounded to me like the somewhat painful-joyful beginning of eternity. However, even beyond its mere sound, I had the distinct impression that there was something more going on. There is something deeper in divine liturgy-hymnography than what meets the eye or ear.
Would you mind suggesting other good recordings of traditional hymns one might commonly encounter in liturgy (e.g., “Angel cried”)? I would love to have such hymns floating through my mind at work.
If you would like to hear that old Melodiya recording in its entirety, it’s available on CD from Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY — ask for the Rachmaninov “All Night Vigil,” or “Всеночная” (I hope that comes through — Cyrillic sometimes doesn’t — it’s pronounced Vsye-NOCH-na-ya). That is THE Alexander Sveshnikov recording. My Choral Methods prof at Jordanville said that Sveshnikov auditioned every single voice in the choir so that he could get the perfect blend of voices to match the music.
The second-best recording is by Matthew Best and the Corydon Singers, available from the Musical Heritage Society. It doesn’t have anywhere near the depth of the Sveshnikov recording, but on the other hand, I like the tempo of some of the pieces better. But the Sveshnikov is still the definitive version for everyone who has heard it, and no, it wasn’t the first version of the Vespers I’d heard.
Meg, you are a wonder! Thank you for this information. It both confirms my long held thought on the subject and opens a door for me to find a treasure. Some of the recent recordings have sounded almost mechanical. One American recording in particular. I shall now go shopping.
“The Angel Cried” is on the “Attend, O Heaven” CD. If you’re in an OCA parish, the CDs recorded by St. Vladimir’s Seminary choir will give you music you’ll likely hear in church. If you’re in an Antiochian parish, look for the CDs by the Boston Byzantine Choir.
An excellent, clearly recorded, Byzantine chant Christmas CD is “Make Ready, O Bethlehem.” For various Byzantine/Russian settings, “Rejoice, O Virgin” by Ss. Peter & Paul Choir (from Conciliar), as well as the Archangel Voices CDs, “With the Voice of the Archangel;” for Christmas, “Christ is Born! Give Glory” and “Pascha.”
http://www.liturgica.com has a large number of chant CDs of various types. You can often hear samples. For “Attend, O Heaven” track samples:
Hope this helps!
You’re welcome, Father. 🙂 There’s one recording by a St. Petersburg choir, of all things, where the music is almost screamed. It’s ghastly.
The first time I ever heard the Vsyenochnaya was the Robert Shaw Chorale, back in 1991. I was debating the move, didn’t really want to make it, and on a cold January day, turned on the car radio just in time to catch the beginning of this piece. My family, which had been out for a walk, returned in the middle of it, and so help me Hannah, we drove home in complete silence, except for the occasional comment: “I can’t make out if this is Rachmaninov or Vaughan Williams” (me) and, “I think I just heard the word ‘Bozhe'” (husband). Can you picture two teenagers remaining silent in the face of an hour-long piece of classical music?! But our son is still Orthodox. (Our daughter became a Catholic after marrying one. I don’t expect that state of affairs to last very long, given her trenchant comments recently about the “music” they have to endure every week.)
With the Sveshnikov version, there’s *no* question of its being *remotely* by Ralph Vaughan Williams. 😉