Standing room only – Ivan Moody’s Akáthistos Hymn (Interview given in May 2003)



Ancient melodies and a sixth-century poetic meditation form the ground of Ivan Moody’s  setting of The Akáthistos Hymn, one of the most beloved devotional hymns in the Orthodox tradition of Christianity. This world-premiere recording by Cappella Romana under the direction of Alexander Lingas will appeal to listeners interested in chant and early music, as well as to lovers of choral music. The CD booklet includes the full text of the hymn; the cover image is a traditional icon of the Annunciation, from the icon screen of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Portland, Oregon.

The Akáthistos Hymn is a meditation in 24 stanzas (one for each letter of the Greek alphabet) on the cosmic role of the Virgin Mary as mother of the incarnate Word of God. The popularity of the devotion is especially associated with the raising of the siege of Constantinople in the sixth century, a miracle attributed to the intervention of Mary as the protector of the city. In gratitude, the citizens of Constantinople gathered in the Holy Temple of Saint Sofia and sang the hymn while standing (hence the name Akáthistos, which means "not sitting").

Moody's setting makes use of a celebrated contemporary English translation by Bishop Kallistos Ware and Mother Mary; the refrains are sung in Greek to traditional Byzantine chant, with its characteristic microtonal ornaments. Moody is the first to compose music for the entire hymn since the Middle Ages. The companion work on the CD is Moody's setting of the Slavonic-language hymn, O Tebe raduetsya ("In you all creation rejoices"). Moody commented on the piece and the recording for What was the genesis of this composition?

Ivan Moody: Having worked with Cappella Romana in the past - they gave the North American premiere of my oratorio, Passion & Resurrection, for example - I wanted to write a large-scale work especially for them. The Akáthistos Hymn is one of the great poetic compositions of the Orthodox Church, and I see that it is increasingly used in the Roman Catholic Church too. It is full of astounding imagery that just cries out for music.

Much of your music comes out of your interest in the traditions of the Orthodox church.

I'm a practicing Orthodox Christian; when I set words from our liturgical tradition, I'm always keenly aware of the historical riches we have stored up in musical terms. As a performing church and concert musician I've researched a number of Orthodox musical traditions, and feel privileged to be in a position to absorb all this.

However, I'm not Russian, or Greek, or Serbian: I was born in London, England. I think that the challenge for me is to reconcile all those musical traditions, which I love, with my own heritage and my own voice. I don't do this consciously - if I may say this without sounding too pompous, there's a period during the course of composition when one is just "digesting," thinking subconsciously, and then all these things come together really quite spontaneously. If it doesn't work that way, then it's a sure sign that I should throw what I've written away...

How did you go about setting the Akáthistos Hymn? What were some of the special challenges?

Liturgically, nowadays most of this is intoned by a priest or deacon, the choir singing just the opening and closing sections and the refrains ("Rejoice" and "Alleluia"). However, it was not always thus: there are some extant mediaeval settings of the entire hymn in Byzantine chant. So, I bit the bullet and decided to set the whole text. The finished piece lasts for more than 90 minutes, making it the largest piece I'd ever written.

The first and biggest challenge was simply finding musical notes to correspond to the richness of the text! It's so full of images that one can hardly find music for each idea - that would simply become tediously madrigalistic. It was a question of responding, simultaneously, to words, spiritual "ambience" and long-range architecture.

The second was how to structure the piece: it's divided into four sections, and that helped me organize a harmonic scheme, but there are numerous sub-divisions, so one strategy that I adopted right from the beginning was the alternation of three inter-related styles. One was audibly related to Russian mediaeval music, the other was clearly Byzantine, and the third was, well - me. And that "me" is, in part, a result of those other two.

How did the recording come about?

Alex Lingas thought initially that I was nuts to undertake such a project, but once he had the score in his hands, he programmed it for Cappella Romana and made it a real success. I was present at the world premičre, in Portland OR, and it was quite one of the most extraordinarily moving occasions of my life. It was repeated in a subsequent concert season, and enthusiasm was then running at such a high level that the idea of recording it came about. If anyone was going to record it, Cappella was the choir.

This is an enormous work - can you describe the impact this project has had on you?

The Akáthistos Hymn was, in many respects, both a summing-up and a turning point for me, rather as Passion & Resurrection had been in 1992. On the one hand, I was fusing together a whole series of techniques and traditions, methods and manners that I been investigating and experimenting with for something like ten years. On the other, the mere fact of this fusing signalled the end of a phase and the start of another...this is difficult to explain, but my more recent pieces would have sounded very different without the experience of the Akáthistos.

What about the other piece on the CD, O Tebe Raduetsya?

This is a setting of a Lenten hymn to the Virgin, "In thee all creation rejoices", based on a Russian chant. The chant itself is very beautiful, I think. I wanted, in setting it, to amplify the element of cosmic joy present in both the words and the chant. I wrote it for a concert I conducted in London in 1990, and it has proved to be one of my most popular pieces, I'm happy to say.

Do you have more recordings coming out in near future?

Trio Mediaeval, who recorded Words of the Angel for ECM in 2001, are recording a second disc for ECM. This will include more recent music of mine specially written for them. Also, the German group Singer Pur will release a CD this year which includes my Lament of the Mother of God. There are many other plans in the pipeline, as well, so "stay tuned."



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