The journey of a nation’s soul through music: The Moscow Sretensky Monastery Choir

22 Oct

The Moscow Sretensky Monastery Choir ( Sretensky Choir) is touring to celebrate the “5th Anniversary of the Reunion” of the Russian Orthodox Church. There is a complex intertwining between history, the Russian Orthodox Church, the military and the Russian people. According to Country Studies:

The Russian Orthodox Church has a thousand-year history of strong political as well as spiritual influence over the inhabitants of the Russian state. After enduring the Soviet era as a state-controlled religious facade, the church quickly regained both membership and political influence in the early 1990s.

Art often conveys in an emotional sense the history of a nation. Guernica by Picasso is not just an artfully done painting, it conveys a point in time in Spanish and world history. So, it is with the Sretensky Choir.

Meany Hall at the University of Washington was the appropriate venue to focus attention of the vocal gifts of the Sretensky Choir. There is a large Russian and Eastern European emigre community in Seattle and the surrounding area. Much in the way Evangelicals are drawn to a Sunday picnic, the emigre community seemed to be drawn to this concert. There were many children in attendance, who were as well-behaved as they were attentive. A couple of Russian Orthodox clergy were spotted in the crowd. Meany was almost full.

Before discussing the concert, a bit of information about the Sretensky Choir:

The Choir of the Moscow Sretensky monastery has existed for over 600 years – since the monastery was founded in 1397. Break of its activity occurred only in the years of persecution of church in Soviet era.

Moscow Sretensky Monastery

Sretensky monastery had been founded in 1937 in memory of a miraculous event of the Meeting of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God, described in chronicles. Tamerlane the Great went towards Moscow after the devastation of Ryazan and Yelets in 1395. Then Cyprian, the Primat of Moscow, ordered to move the great Orthodox Sanctuary, Patroness of the Russian land – Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God from Vladimir to Moscow.

Residents of Moscow met the icon with hope and prayed for deliverance. As the chronicles narrate, Tamerlan, laid siege Moskow, fell asleep in his tent and saw the terrible appearance of the Sovereign Lady, who commanded him to abandon the plan of capturing Moscow. The invincible conqueror, as he had woken up in the morning in horror, went away from the bounds of Moscow, leaving the defenseless city intact.

Sretensky monastery had been found on the spot, where the miraculous icon of Virgin Mary was greeted by the Muskovites (“Meeting” in the Old Church Slavonic language is  “Sretenie”) in memory of the deliverance from the enemy.

The choir gradually started to acquire its modern features in a reviving monastery about 10 years ago.

In 2005, with a blessing of Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), the choir was headed by its current regent — Nikon Stepanovich Zhila, graduate of the Gnesins Russian Academy of Music, son of a priest. Being a child Nikon Zhila sang in the choirs of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra. The choir started to work on recording studio albums and maintain an active concert tours along with the monastery Divine Services.

The basis of the choir is the seminarians, seminary students and graduates of the Moskow Sretensky Seminary and Academy. No less important part of the collective is the  vocalists from the Moscow Academy of Choral Art, Moscow Conservatory, the Gnesins Russian Academy of Music.

There are 30 choir members in the choir, each of them is a real godsend for the creative collective. There are talented composers and arrangers among them: Fedor Stepanov, Alexander Amerkhanov, Andrey Poltorukhin, Roman Maslennikov. First-class soloists: Dmitry Beloselsky, Mikhail Miller, Mikhail Turkin, Ivan Skrilnikov, Petr Gudkov,  Alexander Korogod, Alexey Tatarintsev. Dmitry Beloselsky is often put by critics above other world-famous Russian artists. But each member of the choir is an obedient instrument in the regent Nikon Stepanovich Zhila’s hands, converting the consonance of voices in the living organ.

In adition to regular Divine Services at the Sretensky monastery, the Sretensky monastery choir sings in the most solemn Patriarchal Services in the Moscow Kremlin, participates in international music competitions and missionary journeys of Russian Orthodox Church.

The initial observation of the choir was these guys don’t look like monks. They were sharply dressed in dark gray suits, white shirts, and dark ties. They were all business when when it came to providing a thoroughly enjoyable concert experience.

The program was a mix of sacred music, folk tunes, contemporary songs, and military music. Nikon Zhila conducted with the crispness, precision and control of the former military man that he was. Solo duties were handled by tenor Alexey Tatarintsev and bass Dmitry Belosselskiy. The program was performed in Russian and there was no translation. Both Tatarintsev and Belosselskiy have theatrical training, Tatarintsev at the Kolobov Novaya Opera Theatre and Belosselskiy at the Bolshoi Theatre. The theatrical training is crucial for conveying mood to those in the audience who are not native Russian speakers.

The Sretensky Choir performs a cappella which is in keeping with the cannon of the Byzantine church. Wayne Jackson writes about the importance of a capella music to the church in the article, What Is A Capella Music?

Professor Everett Ferguson, one of the premier historians of church history alive today, has noted that the non-use of the instrument in worship was the “majority tradition of Christian history” until “comparatively recent times” (83).

Between 1708-22, Joseph Bingham, an Anglican cleric, produced his magnificent ten-volume work titled, The Antiquities of the Christian Church, a prodigious effort that required 20 years in composition. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church depicts this work as that which “has not been superseded” (Cross, 173). Regarding the use of instrumental music in church worship, the celebrated English scholar wrote:

Music in churches is as ancient as the apostles, but instrumental music not so: for it is now generally agreed by learned men, that the use of organs came into the church since the time of Thomas Aquinas, anno 1250. For he in his Sums has these words, “Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to judaize” (I.315).He then catalogs considerable testimony from ancient writers of the post-apostolic age to sustain the point.–a-cappella–music

The concert built to a conclusion in the second half.

Many of emigre audience members, sang along and clapped to songs from their childhood or those that they knew as part of their history and tradition. The crowd particularly responded to “The Song of the Volga Boatman,” “White Acacias,” “The Horse,” and “Katyusha.” Because of the skill of the orchestra, the conductor, and the soloists, it was not a handicap to not be a native Russian speaker. There was enough vocal clarity, subtle and effective theatricality and soul to keep one engaged. One expects sacred music to have a certain amount of soul, but what the choir successfully conveyed was the historical journey of the Russian soul through sacred, folk, and military music. The Moscow Sretensky Monastery Choir is emblematic of the intertwined threads of church, military, and populace which run through Russian history.

More Information about the Choir:

The New York Times review

The Wall Street Journal review


Nikon Zhila choir regent bio

Fedor Stepanov choir director bio

Dmitry Beloselskiy soloist bio

Alexey Tatarintsev soloist bio

Dr. Wilda gives a thumbs up to The Moscow Sretensky Monastery Choir . This group is recommended for those who appreciate a capella choral music and for those souls who just appreciate well performed music.

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