Ivan Moody is an English composer of church music who lives in Portugal. His Passion and Resurrection was commissioned by the Tampere International Choir Festival and first performed in Finland in 1993. The work tells the story of Christ’s birth, Passion and Resurrection in the well-loved English words of the Gospels. The music has a simple and austere beauty befitting this ‘greatest story ever told’.
In his introductory notes to Passion and Resurrection, which appear on the inside cover of the published score, the composer Ivan Moody says: ‘The Passion is, I believe, at once the most difficult and yet the most important subject with which an artist may engage … and, for a composer, one of the central problems is whether it should be seen in largely dramatic terms, or whether, on the other hand, its ritual aspect should be brought to the fore.’ In the western European musical tradition it is the first of these methods that has usually been preferred, as exemplified in the stark and austerely beautiful St Matthew Passion of Heinrich Schütz, and at its height in the great St John and St Matthew Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach with their elaborate arias and distinctive chorales.
However, for a composer who is an Englishman and yet has found his spiritual home in the Russian Orthodox Church, there is an immediate problem in setting religious texts, because the musical tradition of all the ancient Orthodox Churches, whether the language used was Greek, Latin or Syriac, is purely monophonic and unaccompanied (though it is true that in Russia the use of four-part harmony gradually entered Church music in the eighteenth century, and indeed persists to the present day).
In addition, as Ivan Moody himself confesses, there has never been a tradition of dramatic presentation in the Orthodox Church, and during Holy Week the events of Christ’s sufferings unfold through the intensity of the services in a different way and are less obviously ‘dramatic’. These texts are full of references to the events and prophecies of the Old Testament, making echoes in heart and mind, resounding like the massive tolling bells of Russian monasteries and the xylophonic drumming of the semantron in Greece and on the Holy Mountain. But, there are also marked pre-echoes of the Resurrection of Christ on the third day. Indeed it is remarkable that in the Orthodox services, even on Good Friday itself, the faithful, though grieving as at a funeral for the death of Christ, never behave as if the Resurrection had never taken place, for the whole atmosphere is already filled with Resurrection joy. This makes the exact title of this work even more important: the Passion and Resurrection are inseparable. It contains and continues all the ‘bitter-sweet’ paradox of the fast of Great Lent itself.
As Ivan Moody says: ‘One never loses sight of the whole and it is for that reason that I have used the title ‘Passion and Resurrection’, for in Orthodoxy we look forward throughout Holy Week to Easter Day, hence the refrain ‘We worship Thy Passion, O Christ: show us also Thy glorious Resurrection!’.’
After receiving a commission from the Tampere International Choir Festival for a work to be performed at the 1993 festival, Ivan Moody completed his Passion and Resurrection on 21 April 1992, which happened to be the third day of Holy Week in the Orthodox Church. It was a significant and appropriate day because, like other, though older, contemporary composers such as Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, Ivan Moody’s whole being, as a person and as an artist, is rooted in the faith of the Holy Orthodox Church, so that he tries to combine the fruits of modern musical techniques and knowledge with those of the long, ancient and fundamental tradition of Christianity. All this appears at first as something utterly paradoxical, but that itself is typical of the Orthodox faith and life.
The text for this work comes directly from the Gospels and from the Lenten Triodion, a book which contains the Holy Week Services of the Orthodox Church. It also includes a short phrase from a hymn by Saint Ephrem the Syrian (‘The Word of God has taken flesh and blood’). In compiling it, the composer takes as his basis the service of Twelve Gospels, which is the long Matins service of Great Friday. In its liturgical setting in the Orthodox church the gospel readings are at first very long and are interspersed with antiphons which reflect the subject-matter of what is being read; and then very gradually the readings and comments become shorter, so that psychologically the faithful feel a ‘lightening’ as the service progresses.
Ivan Moody also uses the theme of Christ as the Bridegroom, which is emphasized on the first three days of Holy Week, as well as material from the Vespers for Good Friday, when the shroud of Christ is brought out into the middle of the church for veneration, and around which a ‘funeral lamentation’ takes place in the evening. But what is very striking is that in addition to these texts there is also the triumphal proclamation of the Resurrection, which is taken from, and indeed begins, the Pentecostarion, another liturgical book which contains all the services from Pascha (Easter) to Pentecost (Whitsun).
The composer makes use of three languages for his setting: liturgical English of the seventeenth century, Old Slavonic, which is used in the Russian Church, and liturgical Greek. The bulk of the work, however, is in English. Ivan Moody writes: ‘The symbolism of the use of these three languages is important to me, as well as the fact that they represent for me the three elements, liturgical, musical and linguistic, upon which I feel most able to draw in the tradition of the Orthodox Church as it is found in the British Isles.’
The Gospel text is sung as it would be in a church service with fairly simple intoning, except that here another voice is introduced to sing the words of Christ, whereas in the church everything would be sung by the deacon or the priest without differentiation. The remaining text, which consists of hymns and canticles, is sung by the choir, which in turn is supported by a small instrumental ensemble of ‘strings and bells’, as if to echo words from Psalm 150.
In addition to the voice of the Evangelist – a tenor ‘holding the story together’ – and the voice of Christ – sung by a bass as if representing the ‘ground’ of all creation – we also hear the voice of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, whose soprano register indicates that she is, of all mortals, ‘higher than the heavens’ and ‘more honourable than the cherubim and past compare more glorious than the seraphim’ as the church texts point out. These three seem to form a ‘triad’ of voices that are in communion together as one, but also remain distinct as persons – an image which is, in the mind of the composer, a certain reflection of the Holy Trinity.
Although the whole work follows a liturgical order, Ivan Moody has divided it into further sections called ‘ikons’. This is a device which is now fairly familiar but which may benefit from some further explanation. In the Orthodox Churches and in people’s homes the ikons (pictures) of Christ and of His Mother and of His Saints, as well as of scenes from Christ’s earthly life, are painted on the walls or on wooden panels. There is also a wooden screen which divides the sanctuary from the main body of the church, or rather joins it to the nave, as the neck joins the head to the body, depending on which way you choose to view it. This screen, covered with ikons, is called the ikonostasis and it presents to the viewer a series of images for veneration. They are separate and yet intimately joined together.
In a similar way the Passion and Resurrection forms a series of eight ‘ikons’:
I: The Birth of Christ
The Birth of Christ is indicated, not by familiar words from the synoptic narratives, but by the dogmatic statement of St John the Theologian about the Word (Logos) of God becoming flesh. The Last Supper is linked with today, the present, by the use of words spoken by the priest before communion: ‘Receive me today … I will not kiss Thee as did Judas.’ The Agony in the Garden has echoes of waiting for the coming of the Bridegroom, and of the wedding garment needed for the eucharistic feast in God’s Kingdom. The Trial before Pilate is set with great simplicity, and the Crucifixion sequence picks up the connection between the Tree of Life in the middle of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life, which is the Cross, set up in the midst of the world to give life to all.
When Christ’s body is taken down from the Cross we hear a great lamentation as Joseph of Arimathea brings for burial the body of Him Who is a stranger in the flesh, a stranger to sin and evil and a stranger to corruption: and the Mother of God laments because of the fulfilment of the prophecy that ‘a sword shall pierce her heart’. The simple narrative of the Sealing of the Tomb leads directly into the proclamation of the Resurrection, using the words spoken by the priest at Pascha, when he invites all to come to the three-branched candlestick and receive the Light, the Light that has no evening. Then comes the solemn sound of the Slavonic chant at Pascha which accompanies a procession round the church, which now represents the empty tomb. It is the chant both of the angels and of mankind joining together to announce the Resurrection. Finally comes the chant ‘Khristos anesti’ (‘Christ is risen’) which conveys the whole flavour of Greek Pascha: and the work ends, as it began, with an Alleluia proclaiming glory to God.
The ikons of the Orthodox Church are ‘written’ according to ‘strict canons’ – that is to say, they are the fruit of an ascetic struggle that is accompanied by prayer and fasting. Thus they are not the expression of the individual imaginings or of the ‘genius’ of the painter but they rather are intended to serve the whole community, expressing its common faith and underlining this in a manner which is acceptable to all and held by all. They represent, therefore, in a true sense an expression of catholicity, meaning ‘wholeness’, certainly not an ‘option’ or a matter of indifference. The persons depicted in the ikons are seen in their full and God-like nature, sober, grave and unsmiling; they do not ‘challenge’ us, nor do they supplicate our attention after the manner of television personalities, politicians or pop stars. On the contrary, they allow us to be ourselves, to respond or to withhold response, respecting the freedom of the human will. In the same way the Orthodox texts and the music which accompanies them are designed to allow us to respond without due pressure, without dominance. They do not overwhelm us with a volume of sounds from multifarious instruments or operatic voices, however ‘beautiful’ these may be considered to be in an abstract sense.
This is the atmosphere in which Ivan Moody’s Passion and Resurrection was composed. Bearing this in mind, we can see the work as a subtle synthesis of apparently diverse elements in the musical tradition of Christianity, both in the East and in the West: but, if the word ‘pontifex’ does indeed mean ‘a bridge-builder’, then this is in truth a pontifical work.
Philip Steer © 1997