Russia and the West: Artistic Unity in Christ—A Reflection on Kastalsky’s Requiem

By Hieromonk Herman (Majkrzak) on October 7, 2020

‘Gassed’ by John Singer Sargent, 1918–1919.

In Babel long ago they wanted to build a tower that would reach heaven, and in Belfast in 1912 they wanted to build a ship that nothing could sink. When, in April of that year, the Titanic did sink, the aspirations and pride of the late Victorian era sank with it. I like to think of this event as the prelude or overture to the long and bloody drama of the twentieth century. And if Titanic was the overture, the First World War was scene one. It set the path of history, thought, and even faith for the next hundred years.

Half a generation of Europe’s brightest and best young men were sent to the slaughter for a cause that was hard to identify and which few in subsequent history would have considered worth dying for. Thus World War I has fueled a deep and chronic cynicism that now characterizes much modern thought and rhetoric. The soldier-poet Wilfred Owen, who fell in battle at age 25 in November 1918—just one week before the signing of the armistice—gave voice to this cynicism in biblical proportions:

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.[1]

The nightmarish horror of the “war to end all wars” inspired the founding of the League of Nations and, later, the United Nations, with the goal of fostering peace and unity among all the nations of men. But Christians may well have asked: is it within man’s power to undo the curse of Babel? The confusion of the tongues and the consequent division of humankind into nations that hold each other in suspicion: isn’t this a state of affairs sent by God Himself as punishment for a pride that would seek to displace Him, a pride that would seek to reunite heaven and earth without reference to the One whose very throne is heaven and whose footstool is the earth? If there were those who had such misgivings, subsequent scenes in the drama of the twentieth century have only confirmed them.

But long before the Holocaust and World War II; before the Gulag and the Cold War and Vietnam; before the legalized and lionized slaughter of unborn infants; and, indeed, even before the end of World War I itself, there was in Russia an Orthodox composer writing music to honor the allies who were then dying in battle. The composer was Alexander Kastalsky (1856–1926), and his piece, Requiem for Fallen Brothers, was debuted in St. Petersburg in 1917 with chorus, soloists, and full orchestra.

That first performance was also to be its last—thanks to Soviet restrictions on sacred music—until it was resurrected in 2018 by a group of American musicians and performed in concert in Washington, D.C., to mark the hundredth anniversary of the armistice. Among the Americans involved were musicologist Vladimir Morosan and composer Benedict Sheehan, along with St. Tikhon’s Monastery’s professional choral ensemble, which Sheehan directs. The St. Tikhon Choir came together with several other professional choirs and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, all conducted by Leonard Slatkin. In August, a recording of the 2018 performance was released by Naxos, and in early September it debuted as the #1 traditional classical album on the Billboard charts.

At its premiere in 1917, the composition was praised as “a uniquely Russian Requiem, which [at the same time] gave musical voice to the tears of many nations.”[2] The phrase “Russian Requiem” is sometimes used by analogy for the Russian memorial service for the departed, usually called a panikhida. This loose application of a Western liturgical term to an Eastern liturgical form is not, however, what Kastalsky was doing with his “uniquely Russian Requiem.” It’s Russian because he was a Russian composer and his piece includes several Russian texts and melodic themes, but it’s a requiem because its overarching framework is that of the Latin requiem mass, which is named for its opening words, “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine…”—“Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord…” The Requiem for Fallen Brothers thus opens with the standard introit text of the mass for the departed, followed by the Kyrie, some selections from the Dies Irae, the offertory, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei, and the concluding absolution.

But Kastalsky didn’t need to adhere to this structure strictly, since his music was not meant for liturgical use. Thus he had the flexibility needed to give “musical voice to the tears of many nations.” In addition to the standard requiem texts in Latin, the piece includes a short preamble in Italian, Orthodox liturgical texts in Slavonic and Russian, English and French translations of parts of the Latin text, and a few Protestant hymns sung in English. This textual eclecticism is matched by a diversity of musical elements: Romanian and Serbian themes; Latin texts sung to Russian chant melodies; Slavonic texts sung to Latin chant melodies; English and American hymn melodies taken wholesale; two movements incorporating Japanese and Indian elements, and—in the piece’s most memorable movement—an extensive quotation from Chopin’s Funeral March!

I can’t think of any other classical composition that encompasses texts, themes, and styles from so diverse a group of cultures and faiths. That this came from the pen of a Russian Orthodox composer may at first seem surprising. As one of the leading composers of the Synodal School of Russian liturgical singing, Kastalsky was dedicated to revitalizing the tradition of native Russian chant for church use. The Synodal School was part of a broader artistic and intellectual movement at the turn of the century that sought to reestablish Russia’s own cultural identity after three centuries of successive transformations in Western European guises. An identity crisis, whether personal or, as here, cultural, breeds insecurity. It breeds the nationalism that beleaguered not just Russia but so many European countries before the War. That Kastalsky was able to compose a memorial dedicated not just to his own countrymen but to all the allies, giving each nation a voice in that composition, indicates a mind and heart unencumbered by such insecurity: here is a composer enough at home in his own Russianness that he could make ample room for other nations and confessions.

‘Russian Cavalry on the Attack in East Prussia’, by Alexander Yuriyevich, 1914.

The amount of space the Requiem allots to each faith is worth comment. Foremost is not Orthodoxy, as one might expect, but Catholicism. The Orthodox tradition has the second most prominent place (as well as the piece’s final word), but the entire framework of the composition, with the lion’s share of the libretto, derives from the Catholic liturgy, which serves to represent the French and Italian allies. After Catholicism and Orthodoxy, third place is given to English and American Protestantism. And finally, two of the (traditionally) non-Christian allies, Japan and India, are each given brief musical interludes, without, however, any verbal contribution.

Perhaps Kastalsky felt justified in giving the primary spotlight to Catholicism instead of Orthodoxy because he also composed a specifically Orthodox memorial for fallen soldiers, Memory Eternal, which is a setting of the Orthodox panikhida service for unaccompanied choir. (That piece too was recently performed and released as a recording by the Clarion Choir, directed by Steven Fox.) The Requiem and Memory Eternal are, however, connected compositions: they share not only the same occasion, but much thematic material as well. In fact in at least two places the panikhida sets Orthodox liturgical texts to Gregorian Chant themes from the requiem mass: the Kyrie is quoted in the great litany, and the Dies Irae in both the great litany and the ikos of the kontakion.

In neither composition, then, is Orthodoxy presented in isolation from a broader religious and cultural network. That this is so in the Requiem makes sense, given its dedication to the memory of the war dead of all the allies. But that Catholic chant themes should have found their way into the Memory Eternal is harder to explain—and some Orthodox might find it objectionable in principle. And yet the Requiem does the same thing but in the opposite direction: it sets Catholic liturgical texts, e.g., the opening words of the introit, to Russian chant themes, in this case the melody for the kontakion of the departed, “With the saints give rest…” In these examples, we see not simply cultural and ecclesiastical diversity for its own sake; postmodern multiculturalism would, I believe, be the wrong lens through which to interpret what Kastalsky is doing. Instead, we see certain elements of Eastern and Western Christianity presented not simply on their own terms and in their own context, but brought together and referred to one another other.

Is this wedding of text and music from East and West anything more than a fanciful mashup? Was Kastalsky just showing off? I believe there is something deeper going on, something related to, but more authentic than, the impetus towards worldwide unity that inspired the post-war League of Nations. Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky (1893–1979) can help us explore this. As secure as Kastalsky was in his Russianness, so was Florovsky in his Orthodoxy, which he firmly believed to be “in very truth the Church, i.e. the true Church and the only true Church.” But he noted also that “the true church is not yet the perfect Church.”[3] And even if the Great Schism did not divide the Church herself, it did rend apart Christian society and culture. “Christendom,” he wrote, “is divided.” And yet:

the divided parts still belong together, since they are just “parts” and “fragments.” Accordingly, they are intelligible only when taken together, in the context and against the background of the original Christian unity which had been broken. The recovery of the comprehensive Christian vision, of common Christian perspective, is by no means an easy task after so many centuries of estrangement and tension. But it is an impending task. The inveterate illusion of self-sufficiency must be broken down.[4]

An impending task indeed! Kastalsky may not have been able to articulate an analysis of divided Christendom as full as Florovsky’s, but his Requiem suggests that he would have intuitively agreed with Florovsky that

the name of Christ connects Russia and Europe, no matter how distorted and even profaned it may be in the West. There is a deep and enduring religious fissure between Russia and the West, but this does not negate their inner mystical and metaphysical bond and their mutual Christian responsibility.[5]

And here the mutual incomprehension of the nations, their mutual suspicion and antagonism, finds its only solution: the Name of Christ. The League of Nations was powerless against the curse of Babel, but on the day of Pentecost Christ sent down the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and caused their preaching to be understood by every nation and language. But it’s important to note that the Pentecost miracle was not a sidestepping of the variety of languages—this was no divinely-wrought Esperanto!—but rather an inner gift of mutual comprehension: “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11).

In Christ, the middle wall of partition—the “inveterate illusion of self-sufficiency” as Florovsky put it—is broken down (cf. Eph. 2:14). To “those who are far off and those who are near” Christ has proclaimed peace, so that both groups “may have access in one Spirit to God the Father” (cf. Eph. 2:17–18). St. Paul was discussing the fraught relationship of Jewish and Gentile Christians within the Church, but his words have much wider application. St. Maximus the Confessor (Ambiguum 41) discusses the five cosmic divisions that are reunited in Christ: the uncreated and the created; intelligible and sensory creation; heaven and earth; paradise and the fallen world; and man and woman. In each case it is evident that while in Christ the division is overcome, still the distinction itself remains. Hence man and woman unite in holy Matrimony and can rightly be called “one flesh,” yet they remain man and woman. Christ and his Bride unite in the Church and can rightly be called “one Body”—the “whole Christ” of St. Augustine—yet they remain Creator and creature. Even in the Person of Christ himself, divine and human natures are united, and yet, as Chalcedon teaches, “the difference of the Natures is in no way removed because of the Union.”

I think it may prove the same with the union of the two broken halves of Christendom. East and West, we must hope and pray, will be reunited again in Christ’s one Church, the pillar and ground of the truth. And if, by God’s grace, this occurs, the distinction between them will remain. East will remain East; West will remain West—each secure and at home in its own identity. But they will become mutually intelligible, each reflecting the other and revealing in the other depths that lay hidden for a thousand years. To quote Florovsky one last time:

All reaches of the Orthodox tradition can be disclosed and consummated only in a standing intercourse with the whole of the Christian world. The East must meet and face the challenge of the West, and the West perhaps has to pay more attention to the legacy of the East, which after all was always meant to be an ecumenical and catholic message.[6]

Though Kastalsky’s Requiem predates these comments by some thirty years, it partakes of the same spirit. And the East-West encounter of that era went in both directions: the West was indeed beginning to “pay more attention” to the East. Evidence of this can be found in the English Hymnal of 1906. This monumental work of musical scholarship was edited by none other than Ralph Vaughan Williams, and among its hundreds of Western hymns, it also included the “Russian Contakion of the Departed”—the same melody so prominent in Kastalsky’s work. It contained as well a dozen or so Eastern hymns by Saints John Damascene, Andrew of Crete, and others, Englished and metered by John Mason Neale.[7]

Thus the “ecumenical and catholic message” Florovsky encouraged among theologians was already in evidence in composers like Vaughan Williams and Kastalsky. And these qualities were highly appropriate for a work commemorating those who died in World War I. The titanic pride of the Victorian era that preceded the great war, and the cynicism and despair that followed it, are both still with us today. But neither is found in this Requiem. Instead, we encounter the bitter anguish of the grief of many nations, but also genuine hope and humble supplication to Almighty God.

In more ways than one, Kastalsky’s Requiem for Fallen Brothers invites comparison with Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (1962), another masterpiece that uses the texts of the requiem mass as a framework for other materials, in this case the war poetry of Wilfred Owen, such as the lines I quoted earlier. Britten’s Requiem is certainly darker than Kastalsky’s, and one might be tempted to juxtapose the two pieces as expressing devastating cynicism and bright hope respectively. But this would be unfair: both pieces are complex and multilayered, both pieces depict in their own ways the reality of the fallen human condition, and in both pieces light shines through from another realm. If Kastalsky’s piece is on the whole brighter and more hopeful, it must be remembered that he was writing decades earlier than Britten, decades before blow after crushing blow of new traumas had fallen on a world still reeling from “the war to end all wars.” In the 1910s there may still have been some natural cause for hope—in the early 60s, only supernatural hope would suffice.

And today, sixty years on from Britten and a hundred years after Kastalsky, hope may seem even more remote. The blows to human flourishing have not relented, and how many towers of Babel have been attempted and knocked down? In the West, in particular, a kind of cultural self-annihilation has set in. This cultural despair detaches us from the secure foundation that alone would embolden us to go out for a true encounter with the other—whether another nation or culture, another person, or with the ultimate Other: God himself. Kastalsky was secure in his Russianness, but we are not secure in our Westernness, and sometimes it may look like our culture is as good as dead. If that is so, then we must be like Abraham (as depicted in Genesis, not in Owen), who, though himself old and as good as dead, yet “hoped against hope” that God would fulfill His promises (cf. Rom. 4:18–19).

What was the foundation of Abraham’s hope? It was precisely this: that God can raise the dead.[8] The general resurrection was surely the foundation of Kastalsky’s hope as well and the reason he concluded his great Requiem with a Russian Easter melody. We look with expectation for the resurrection of the dead whenever we remember and pray for the departed. Whether they died in an incomprehensible war or because of a baffling disease, with the glory of a martyr’s crown or peacefully in their own bed, their deaths remind us that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). Where Babel failed, that City will succeed: the tower of old could not reach heaven, but the New Jerusalem will bring heaven down to earth. And into that City, Scripture tells us, the kings of the earth will carry “the glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev. 21:2, 26). For whatever work was accomplished with God’s blessing here will become an everlasting adornment there.

‘The Threshold of Paradise’, by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1885–1886.

Hieromonk Herman teaches at St. Tikhon’s Seminary. Related articles of his on OAJ include “On Pronouncing Saints’ Names in English” and “Sing Ye Carols.”


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[1] “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”

[2] Boris Asafyev, “A prologue, rather than a conclusion,” in Selected Works, vol. 5, Moscow, 1957: p. 96, as quoted in CD liner notes by Vladimir Morosan.

[3] “Confessional Loyalty in the Ecumenical Movement,” in Georges Florovsky, The Patristic Witness of Georges Florovsky: Essential Theological Writings (Brandon Gallaher and Paul Ladouceur, eds.), pp. 279–288, at p. 285. For more on Florovsky and the West, see Matthew Baker, “Neopatristic Synthesis and Ecumenism: Toward the ‘Reintegration’ of Christian Tradition,” in Krawchuk A., Bremer T. (eds.) Eastern Orthodox Encounters of Identity and Otherness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

[4] Florovsky, “The Problem of Ecumenical Encounter,” in E.J.B. Fry and A.H. Armstrong, Rediscovering Eastern Christendom: Essays in Memory of Dom Bede Winslow (London: Dartman, Longman and Todd, 1963), pp. 63–76, at p. 67.

[5] Florovsky, “Evraziskii soblazn,” Iz proshlogo russkoi mysli, 332–33.

[6] Florovsky, “The Legacy and Task of Orthodox Theology,” in The Patristic Witness of Georges Florovsky: Essential Theological Writings, p. 191.

[7] See The English Hymnal, Nos. 72, 131, 137, 138, and 744.

[8] cf. Heb. 11:19


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  1. Andrew Gould on October 8, 2020 at 10:01 am

    Thank you, Father Herman, for this beautiful reflection. I suspect Kastalsky’s project feels somewhat personal for you, as it does for me. Providence has led both of us to professional lives that by necessity straddle the east-west cultural and ecclesiastical divide. As an artist, I am truly grateful for this. I feel that I am doing a certain work of healing when I create beauty that re-marries our divided heritage.

    Ecumenism (in the usual sense of dialogue among church leaders) often seems vacuous, and I have never been much concerned with it. But glorifying God through a universal, catholic, liturgical beauty – that is work worth doing. It is the mark of any true icon of the Heavenly Kingdom.

  2. Abbot Theodore (Phillips) on October 9, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    Praised be Jesus Christ!

    Father, this is a beautiful and heart-warming article, so much more than a mere “review” of an artistic work! “…glorifying God through a universal, catholic, liturgical beauty – that is work worth doing. It is the mark of any true icon of the Heavenly Kingdom.”

    I don’t know either Kastalsky’s Requiem or Panikhida, but I will certainly listen to them now and be especially attentive to his juxtaposition of Latin and Slavonic texts to the chants of the opposite tradition. In a way, it leads me to reflect on how it may have been Divine Providence working through the gradual marriage of Western musical forms to Byzantine/Slavic liturgical texts in the time following Tsar Peter the Great: their union went a long ways towards making the riches of the Eastern Church accessible to people of western Europe and North America. I know it was influential in my own conversion to Holy Orthodoxy since it manifested not only Truth as a set of facts, but Truth as a living communion between the Transcendant and the immanent, expressing itself in a form that I could perceive as beautiful and, therefore, as illuminative.

    Thanks be to God who, in the midst of so much ugliness and chaos, still shines within our hearts through the beauty that he has created in order to draw us towards himself, the highest, most serene, and awe-inspiring Beauty of all.

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