Musica Deo Sacra – Russian Church Music in an Anglican Context

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Rachmaninov, Vespers:  Musica Deo Sacra, Tewkesbury Abbey, 5.8.2011 (RJ)

For over four decades Musica Deo Sacra have been presenting an annual festival of church music within a liturgical setting. The choir, consisting of ten sopranos, four male altos, four tenors and four basses, is drawn from cathedral choirs and other groups around Britain, and the standard is invariably high. David Ireson has been directing the choir since 1978 having been involved with the choir from its inception in 1969.

Over the years a pattern has established itself, starting with Solemn Evensong on the first evening which is followed by Solemn Eucharist on the following two mornings. Mid-week there is an organ recital followed by Compline and on Thursday the choir takes a day out to sing elsewhere; this year it made an outing to Hereford Cathedral to sing Choral Evensong. On Saturday Solemn Matins is sung and on the final Sunday morning the choir performs a mass (usually by Mozart or Haydn) for the Solemn Eucharist accompanied by an orchestra. The final event of the week is Solemn Evensong followed by Benediction.

Friday evenings usually offer something special, and this Friday had a Russian flavour: Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil (commonly known as Vespers, but actually a setting of the liturgy of Vespers, Matins and Prime – the First Hour). In the Russian Orthodox Church an All-Night Vigil is sung on the eve of major feasts, and coincidentally there was a Christian festival the following day – the Feast of the Tranfiguration.

The English choral tradition differs greatly from the Russian tradition, and having heard some magnificent Russian and Ukrainian choirs in my time I set my expectations low, fearing that Musica Deo Sacra’s singing would be too controlled, sedate and lacking in fervour. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Right from the opening Priidite, poklonismsya (Come, let us worship) there was a feeling of strength, vigour and rawness in the sound the choir produced; it was as if we had been transported to St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. This was followed by a more meditative Blagoslavi, dusha moya (Bless the Lord, O my soul) with a soaring tenor solo. The voices blended seamlessly in Blazhen muzh (Blessed is the man) with its repeated alleluyas and some fine singing from the bass section; and the refrain in Blagosloven esi, Gospodi (Blessed art Thou, O Lord) – a more extended item in celebration of the Resurrection – took on a hypnotic quality.

It seemed strange that the Virgin Mary’s Song, Velichit Dusha moya Gospoda (the Magnificat), should open with the tenors and basses, but the trebles entered soon after and the whole effect was glorious. When it came to Slava v vyshnikh Bogu (the Gloria) I was beginning to suspect that MDS had smuggled in some singers from Moscow, so impeccable was their pronunciation, so spiritual their singing. And this was enhanced by the sonorous acoustic of Tewkesbury Abbey, which can sound muddy in large scale orchestral works but works beautifully with a capella singing. The basses and tenors benefited particularly from its effect which magnifies even the quietest passages.

However to compound the spirituality of the evening there was an attempt to recreate the ceremonial atmosphere of the Russian Orthodox Church which appeals to all the senses. While it would be impossible to replicate the Russian experience entirely, the Vicar of Tewkesbury the Abbey and fellow-clergy made a serious attempt to do so by embedding Rachmaninov’s settings, as it were, within the liturgy of the Anglican Church – or more precisely the Anglo-Catholic tradition – using litanies, prayers and Bible readings).

The visual element was not neglected: the clergy were clothed in sumptuous gold and red vestments, incense was dispensed at various points in the service, and the sacrament and Holy Scriptures were brought down into the nave for veneration during the singing. The lighting varied to mark the lateness of the hour and the approach of dawn as the choir sang Voskres iz groba (Thou didst arise from the tomb) with its flowing passages, and ceremonial lightings of candles took place. The whole evening started and ended in silence, allowing time for reflection.

On other occasions during the week Musica Deo Sacra championed the music of Byrd, Tallis, Munday, Tomkins, Purcell and Parsons as well as 20 th century names such as Ireland, Howells, Tavener, Gowers and Harvey – which served as a reminder of the rich vein of choral music of which this country can be justifiably proud. Mozart, Rossini, Poulenc and Haydn added a cosmopolitan touch. But in terms of spirituality and spectacle this moving performance of one of Rachmaninov’s finest religious works by this superbly versatile choir was unsurpassed.

For more information about Musica Deo Sacra see

Roger Jones