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One Equal Music 9

Written by James Potter, posted on Sunday, June 7, 2020

Music manuscriptThe Cherubic Hymn - Gretchaninov

Soundcloud icon The Cherubic Hymn 

Иже херѹвимы тайнѡ ѡбразѹюще,

и животворѧщей Троицѣ трисвѧтую пѣснь припѣвающе,

Всѧкое нынѣ житейское отложимъ попеченіе.

Ꙗкѡ да Царѧ всѣхъ подъимемъ,

аггельскими невидимѡ дорѵносима чинми.



We who mystically represent the Cherubim,

and who sing to the Life-Giving Trinity the thrice-holy hymn,

let us now lay aside all earthly cares

that we may receive the King of all,

escorted invisibly by the angelic orders.


Trinity Sunday is an apt occasion to reflect on The Cherubic Hymn, a text associated with the Orthodox tradition in which the singers ‘mystically represent’ the singing of the angels in heaven. Like the Sanctus, it unites the song of earth with that of heaven, and presents the triune God with a ‘thrice-holy’ hymn. Accordingly, in musical settings it is generally garbed in all the glories which Orthodox composers can bring to bear, and this setting, by the Russian Alexander Gretchaninov, is no exception.

The Cherubic Hymn belongs to the Great Entrance, which occupies a position in Orthodox liturgy roughly equivalent to that of the Offertory in Western Christianity. Orthodox theology holds that the angels, invoked by the accompanying prayer, enter into the sanctuary along with the priestly retinue as they prepare for communion.

Gretchaninov belonged to the generation of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, and like them he was inspired by the 19th-century revival of interest in Orthodox church music and its language, Church Slavonic. Indeed, his setting of the All-Night Vigil anticipated Rachmaninov’s celebrated Vespers by three years.

Gretchaninov’s musical setting of the Cherubikon, this one taken from his second, 1902 setting of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, seems initially to gently float upwards like clouds of incense, gathering into impassioned climaxes and subsiding in turn. Chant fragments, in octaves in the lower voices, are accompanied by slower-moving upper parts, perhaps in representation of the angelic ‘invisible escorts’ accompanying the priests as they ascend to the sanctuary. The final alleluia is passionately radiant, employing the doubling of parts at the octave which gives Russian Orthodox music its wholly distinctive and rooted sonority. Finally, the dust settles, and the music comes to rest in a spacious D major.

The chant which customarily intersperses the music in liturgical performance is omitted in this live concert recording, made a few years ago in Merton College Chapel by a consort including several then Christ Church Lay Clerks.

The Cherubim are but one of the nine orders of spiritual beings, according to the hierarchy codified in the 6th century by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (roughly the same time as the Cherubic Hymn entered the still-evolving Christian liturgy). They belong to the highest order, along with the Seraphim and Thrones. Contrary to the contemporary understanding of a chubby, winged infant, Ezekiel describes them as having four faces: man, lion, ox, and eagle. They have four wings, and calves’ feet which shine like brass. It is comforting, thrilling, and more than a little unsettling, to consider that we may be invisibly accompanied through life by beings of such awesome majesty.