An Interview with Benedict Sheehan – Vespers, and its Concert Premiere

By Andrew Gould on November 7, 2022

Editor’s Note: Benedict Sheehan’s Astonishing Masterwork Vespers will be performed in a premiere concert series this weekend, November 11th, 12th, and 13th, at locations in New York and Pennsylvania. Full concert and ticket information follows this exclusive interview.

Brad Given: How do you prepare for creating a work like this? Vespers is obviously a large, interconnected work. What kind of preparation goes into the creation?

Benedict Sheehan: The first stage of my process in creating Vespers was to come up with a basic “table of contents” as it were—what elements of the service would I focus on? I knew I couldn’t set absolutely every word of the service to music, but I wanted to use enough of it that it would feel like a complete liturgical arc that had a rhythm of high and low points like a real service. I also knew that I wanted to focus on certain elements that haven’t gotten much attention from composers, especially the resurrectional stikhira. Once I had the texts organized and compiled, I went about selecting the various chants that I would use as the basis for the piece, since the original request from Abbot Sergius was that the work be based on chant—“like Rachmaninoff,” as he said.

Again, I tried to find chants that had either never been arranged before, or that were less well-known in Orthodoxy than those used by Rachmaninoff. Interestingly, it turned out that I was working with our St. Tikhon’s editorial team on our STM Press Great Vespers music book at the same time as I was composing Vespers, and so I actually allowed some of those chants to work their way into my piece. If you compare the Great Vespers book and my own Vespers side by side, you’ll find some interesting points of connection. Working on both at the same time proved to be a very fruitful process for me.

B.G. As anyone who has done a large scale project knows, where you begin often only slightly resembles the finished product. What are some of the ideas that found their way into your work that occurred organically and what are some of the ideas that you had at the conception of your Vespers that wound up on the cutting room floor, so to speak?

Sheehan: The initial idea from Fr. Sergius was actually that I write a whole All-night Vigil, as Rachmaninoff had done. So I started with that assumption in 2016 and wrote three movements of the Vespers portion of the Vigil—the Opening Psalm, Blessed is the Man, and Gladsome Light—with that scope in mind. Later on, though, I ended up scrapping all three of those original movements once it became clear to me that I wanted to focus solely on Vespers. However, even though all of these ended up on the cutting room floor, they also all had a strong influence on the corresponding movements that ended up in the finished work. I think you could definitely call them studies.

Another thing that changed quite a bit over the course of composition was the collection of chants themselves. When I first started composing, I had initially selected chants pretty much entirely from the Slavic musical tradition. But as I got deeper into the piece I realized that I wanted to bring in sounds from other chant traditions as well, especially the Byzantine. Thus were born the fifth and sixth movements (which are both actually based on melodies I invented myself, but which both draw heavily upon the sound-world of Byzantine chant), as well as the seventh (and central) movement, O Gladsome Light, which uses a pre-existing Byzantine melody as a cantus firmus.

B.G. You’ve relayed the story of how you were asked to write this work some years ago and you didn’t get around to it until the COVID pandemic. How do you think working in the more isolated and focused conditions of the early pandemic affected the work? What unexpected roadblocks did it create and have there been any unusual or positive opportunities that have arisen?

Sheehan: As happened with many people when the pandemic first hit, pretty much all my work outside the home disappeared. All the traveling, guest conducting, workshops, teaching, everything. What I was left with was composing, and so I threw myself into it headlong. It ended up being the single most fruitful creative period of my entire life thus far. Between the spring of 2020 and the summer of 2022 I managed to write four major works—Vespers, A Christmas Carol, Liturgy No. 2, and Akathist (a two-hour and forty-minute oratorio for chorus, chamber orchestra, soloists, and narrator)—along with a number of shorter choral pieces and a cycle of songs for soprano, harp, and cello based on the poems of Jane Kenyon that I wrote for my dear friend Fotina Naumenko. I basically wrote music non-stop for two years. I would say, then, that the biggest effect of the pandemic on Vespers was just that I stayed more continuously immersed in the piece instead of moving back and forth between composing and a myriad other things as I had always done before.

Of course, I do think the sense of isolation, uncertainty, fear, and sadness—feelings I think we all experienced—served to make me more reflective. But I also think those feelings served to make me bolder in following my own instincts and in charting my own course. Fear and loss can help you see what’s really important—as well as what isn’t important—and I think Vespers benefitted from that.

 

B.G. Various sources have described your Vespers as “masterwork” in the same light as Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil. What do you think takes music from a pleasant series of notes to a work of influence and acclaim? Is there a consistent criteria, some kind of bar, historically or artistically, for what a masterwork is? Do you think you have achieved that?

Sheehan: The term “masterwork” is hard to define. I suspect it’s something that only gradually becomes clear over time as we start being able to see what influence a piece of music has had on other pieces of music and on culture in general. In this sense, Rachmaninoff’s Vigil is a true masterwork: it has influenced countless other works, including mine. For my own Vespers, it’s definitely too early to see any influence in the proper sense. I’ve absolutely gotten glimpses of my piece having had a profound impact on specific people—and that’s incredibly gratifying to see—but only time will tell whether the piece will serve to inspire other works of art, which I think is the true measure of a masterwork. Of course, I’m flattered for Vespers to be called a masterwork—who doesn’t like praise?—but I guess for myself I can only say, maybe? I honestly don’t really think about it like that, or at least I try not to. I usually just look at the work I did and say, “yes, this part is good, but this other part could definitely be better,” or even, “how on earth did I ever come up with that?” And then I try not to think about it anymore.

When I first started writing music in my teens and early twenties, I used to agonize over every measure, every note, wondering whether it was good enough, whether it was sophisticated enough, and so I hardly ever finished anything. Now, thankfully, with a little more experience and few more life lessons under my belt, I just try to write what it occurs to me write, silence the inner critic, and keep moving until I get to the end of whatever it is I’m working on. And then I start another piece! That’s basically my goal: just to keep going. I’m quite content to let other people decide what the significance of my work is, or what to call it.

B.G. Is this church music? What context do you think this work needs? Do you think that it is equally accessible without any context beyond what is presented?

Sheehan: I definitely conceived Vespers as a concert work, not as a liturgical work. However, it’s a concert work that partakes deeply of the rhythms and shapes of Orthodox worship. I guess you could say then that as a concert work it creates a sort of liturgical context of its own. At least that’s my hope. That said, I certainly think that any concert presentation of Vespers could benefit from a liturgical approach, if you will, perhaps interspersing readings and prayers between some of the movements (I’ll be doing some of this for the premiere performances), or having processions and choral movement, or even using candles and incense in some way. When Conspirare did my Liturgy last winter in Austin, they brought in Camilla Tassi, a fabulous stage and lighting designer, who created a series of absolutely stunning projections that ran behind the choir during the performances. I thought it worked extremely well, and I would be thrilled to see something like this happen with Vespers as well.

B.G. What are some of the non-obvious things that differentiate the utility of works like that of William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, a work used regularly Anglican and Catholic liturgical contexts, versus that of Benjamin Britten’s Missa Brevis, used mostly in concert settings? Where does your work fall within those considerations?

Sheehan: It’s interesting you bring up Byrd and Britten. On the face of it, I would say that my work in general might be more easily compared with Byrd’s insofar as I am, like him, an active church musician creating music within a living, everyday kind of worship setting. Certainly that describes much of what I routinely do at St. Tikhon’s. However, when I sit down to write a piece like Vespers, I find myself perhaps standing a little outside of, or beyond, the tradition, commenting on it and even struggling with it at least as much as I am being steered by it. In this way, then, perhaps Vespers is more like Britten’s sacred music than it is like Byrd’s, though it could be argued that Byrd did the same thing in his work. Britten was certainly an artist who loved the religious tradition he found himself in, but he also struggled with that tradition and even suffered from it in many ways. While my own path and experience has been different from his, I can also definitely see similarities in terms of where I stand in relation to my own religious context.

As to whether I can imagine my Vespers actually being sung in an Orthodox church as liturgical music for Vespers, probably not. For starters, there are a number of movements in which the piece doesn’t conform with the order of service as normally celebrated. There are also numerous other factors—wide vocal and dynamic ranges, complex textures and dense sonorities, an overall sense of musical virtuosity—that make it inaccessible for most church choirs. That said, I’d love for a day to come when Orthodox services might be more varied in terms of hymnographic content and style, and when Orthodox choirs might have developed to a level capable of singing my piece liturgically.

I certainly tried to write this piece in a “liturgy-adjacent” manner—that is, in a style that I think still “sounds like church” to people to who go to Orthodox churches today. But this was never my primary goal. My goal was to take the rich and deep beauty that can be found in Orthodox services and bring it out into a broader space so that more people might partake of that beauty, regardless of background or belief.

B.G. Your work makes use of a variety of chant motifs, building and expanding upon them. Is there a reason that you have chosen specific types of chant as a vehicle? Do you see what you have done as a kind of “updating” of these forms, or does your work represent something completely different that uses them as a vehicle? Do you feel some kind of tension between maintaining fidelity to the old forms while creating modern expressions of them?

Sheehan: As I mentioned earlier, I tried to use chant melodies that hadn’t been arranged before, at least not in large-scale choral textures. I also gravitated towards melodies that were either rhythmically irregular or in some way, or that had distinctive melodic motifs that could be drawn out and developed. I think both of these things lend themselves well to my particular compositional style. In this way, then, my Vespers is definitely more than just a series of chant arrangements. The chants serve as a sort of raw material for composition, undergoing extensive transformation and variation over the course of each movement. A good example of this is the last movement, The Closing Psalm, which starts out with motifs from Valaam Chant (as in the first movement), but these motifs gradually evolve into melodic figures reminiscent of American or British Isles folk music, and then finally into a kind of ecstatic dance melody in the final section. I like to think of this movement as demonstrating how Slavic chant can one day become “American chant,” which can in its turn inspire new American music more generally.

I guess, then, that yes, I do see myself as “updating” these forms. But I also am cognizant of the strength that old forms can lend to new ones, just as tree roots send nutrients to the branches. Old and new will always exist in tension as long as they stay connected to one another. That tension is only resolved when the old and new become divorced, but the result of that divorce is a catastrophic collapse of both. This is something I always try to keep in mind, as a composer and as a person.

B.G. Creation is a deeply personal experience. There are many clearly religious influences in your work, but what else resonates with your experience? Are there narrative currents from your own personal life within that are both fundamental to it and not necessarily derived from a specifically religious place?

Sheehan: For me, composing music is about communication. Every composer writes for someone, whether that someone is themselves, their audience (real or imagined), their performers, other composers, their critics (real or imagined), future historians (always imagined), or simply other people in their lives. Often it’s a complex of all of the above and more besides. And then there’s religious music, ostensibly written for God, or “for the glory of God” (though I confess I’m not entirely sure what that phrase means—more on that in a moment). If I’m being perfectly honest, most of the music I write is either for the actual people that I know will be performing it, or for the actual people that I know will be listening to it. In most cases, the best representative of both of these groups is my wife Talia. She is almost always the first listener to anything I write; and, insofar as she can be both the harshest critic and the most adoring fan of the music I compose, she is usually the best listener as well.

As for religious influences and the question of writing music “for the glory of God,” I will say that composing for me is definitely a kind of spiritual work. It invariably involves a great deal of inner struggle—struggle with self-criticism, self-doubt, distraction, laziness, despair—and in this way it does perhaps bear some resemblance to the work of prayer as taught in the Eastern Christian tradition. Composing is also a kind of self-care for me, though, a sort of “mental hygiene” to use a phrase Talia likes to use. In this sense it’s something I do for myself, because I know it helps me to be a better person, to be a better version of myself. And isn’t that essentially the point of any religious or spiritual work? To become truly yourself?

By struggling with my weaknesses and deficiencies, and learning to trust in the mysterious and often irrational creative process, I find myself able to delve ever deeper into the dark recesses of things—into the dark recesses of myself—and then to find that there is light and meaning and beauty there in the darkness. That’s a pretty marvelous thing, I think. But I think that possibility exists for everyone.

B.G. Any final thoughts?

Sheehan: I guess I’m just really excited to share this piece with a live audience. I know the recording is out there, and I’m immensely proud of it. But it will be a different thing to perform Vespers in front of real people. The last couple years of pandemic have taught us how special a real, living gathering of people actually is. I hope I never again take that for granted. As I said, composing is communication for me, and so getting to finally communicate with an audience in real time is going to be incredibly exciting. And I hope this isn’t the last time either. I hope we, and many others, get to perform this music for years to come.

Vespers is available here from Capella Records, or on your favorite streaming service.

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Benedict Sheehan

Press Release – World Premiere Fall Concert Series of Benedict Sheehan’s Vespers

[South Canaan, PA] – The Saint Tikhon Choir is pleased to announce the world premiere concert series for Benedict Sheehan’s modern masterwork Vespers. Two-time GRAMMY®-nominated conductor and composer Benedict Sheehan will lead the professional choristers of The Saint Tikhon’ Choir in this unique and powerful musical exploration that has been called “luminous and uplifting” (Choir & Organ) and a work of “unique musical genius” (Fanfare Magazine).

Inspired by Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, Sheehan’s unique musical and linguistic expression expands the genre. Sheehan sets full-length psalmody and hymnography from the historical liturgical service, with a deep understanding of the spiritual beauty, while infusing the repertoire with refreshingly modern influences. The performances will feature solos by some of the country’s leading vocal artists, including celebrated American basso profundo Glenn Miller, who will performThe Song of Simeoncomposed by Sheehan specifically for him. The movement boasts some of the lowest notes ever written for a soloist  in the choral repertoire. Additional featured soloists include Timothy Parsons, Fotina Naumenko, Enrico Lagasca, Michael Hawes, Zackery Morris, and Tynan Davis.

Concert Series Information

November 11, 2022, at the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York at 7:30pm.

This concert is a production of Great Music Under a Byzantine Dome, in association with the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity and the Orthodox Church in America.

For NYC tickets and information, click here

November 12, 2022, at St. Stephen’s Pro-Cathedral in Wilkes-Barre, PA at 7:30pm

This special world premiere concert event is being held in honor of His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon, Primate of the Orthodox Church in America, who this year celebrates his 10th anniversary as Metropolitan. To mark this historic occasion, Sheehan has composed a piece in honor of His Beatitude, and the work will be unveiled only at this special performance.

For Wilkes-Barre, PA  tickets and information, click here

November 13, 2022, at the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem at 4:00pm

The professional choristers of the Saint Tikhon Choir will be joined by specially selected students from the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts, along with their director David Macbeth, who is also organist and music director at First Presbyterian in Bethlehem.

For Bethlehem, PA  tickets and information, click here

For more information about tickets and the Saint Tikhon Choir, visit www.sainttikhonchoir.org

Benedict Sheehan

Two-time GRAMMY® nominee and American Prize-winner Benedict Sheehan has been called “a choral conductor and composer to watch in the 21st century” (ConcertoNet) and “a remarkable musician” (Choral Journal). He is Artistic Director of the Saint Tikhon Choir and Artefact Ensemble, as well as the Director of Music at St. Tikhon’s Monastery and Seminary in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. His works are published by Oxford University Press and others. His award-winning choral recordings and performances have received widespread critical acclaim. Learn more at www.benedictsheehanmusic.com

The Saint Tikhon Choir

Founded with a mission to foster and build up the American Orthodox choral tradition at the highest artistic level, the twice GRAMMY®-Nominated Saint Tikhon Choir has been steadily breaking new ground since its inception in 2015. Vespers is the fourth recording released by the Saint Tikhon Choir. Past recordings include the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which garnered a GRAMMY® nomination in 2022 for Best Choral Performance, and Kastalsky’s Requiem for Fallen Brothers, in conjunction with the Kansas City Chorale, The Clarion Choir, the Cathedral Choral Society, soloists Anna Dennis and Joseph Beutel, and the Orchestra of Saint Luke’s under the leadership of conductor Leonard Slatkin, which also received a GRAMMY® nomination in 2020 for Best Choral Performance. The Saint Tikhon Choir is the first professional ensemble associated with an Orthodox monastery in America. Learn more at www.sainttikhonchoir.org

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