Roman Hurko's Divine Work

Latest musical setting of the Divine Liturgy, now in English, brings beauty of Eastern Christianity to a new generation: 'Epiphanies of the Awesome.'

Roman Hurko after conducting his latest setting of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy in New York City.
Roman Hurko after conducting his latest setting of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy in New York City. (photo: Carlos Martin)

Roman Hurko is a Ukrainian Canadian who has just composed and recorded his third Divine Liturgy. Like all his work, it is divine indeed.

The Byzantine Eucharistic celebration is called “divine” because it is the work of the God-man, Jesus Christ. But Hurko arguably has been deemed worthy to become — musically — a partaker of the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:4).

Hurko’s Liturgy No. 3 premiered over two evenings in November, Nov. 12-13, at St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church and St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in New York City. I was able to attend the former, and, like St. Vladimir’s 10th-century emissaries to Constantinople, I knew not whether I was in heaven or on earth, “for on earth there is no such beauty.”

Before sitting down to write this article, I decided to test my impressions by listening to the CD recording. The music is every bit as glorious as I remember it from St. Francis Xavier. Fortunately, it is even available on iTunes.

It is the fifth major work by Hurko in 11 years. Since 2000, he has composed and recorded two other settings of the Divine Liturgy, along with a memorial service for the victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine and a vespers service.

But his latest composition, while every bit as beautiful as its predecessors, is different. While his previous works were sung in Ukrainian or Slavonic, Liturgy No. 3 is entirely in English. Hurko writes in the liner notes: “The impetus for this particular setting of the Divine Liturgy was twofold: First, to accommodate those Anglophone Eastern Christians who are no longer as familiar as were their ancestors with the languages used in their services … [and] also to help those who have married into the Eastern Church by allowing them to take part in the service using their native English language.”

Of course, there is a third category: adults who have chosen to be baptized or otherwise received into one of the Eastern Churches.

The clergy’s parts, both on the recording and at the New York premiere, were sung by Father Edward Evanko of British Columbia and Jesuit Father George Drance of New York. Father Evanko, a Broadway actor and singer who became a Ukrainian Catholic priest just a few years ago, does not disappoint. The resonance, diction and power of his voice are outstanding. Father Drance sang the parts of the deacon, which play a major role in the Eastern liturgy.

Rooted in Tradition

Hurko’s composition is a monumental work, sung, as is all music of the Byzantine Church, a cappella. From the very first “Amen,” one knows that the Kingdom has come in power (see Mark 9: 1). And by the fourth “Lord, have mercy,” one realizes that, like all of Hurko’s work, not only will this be impeccably professional, it will also be rooted in tradition — yet fully contemporary.

Hurko’s approach to tradition is profound. It is not a matter of repeating melodic phrases or particular chords, but conveying the deep sense of mystery that characterizes all authentic worship — Eastern worship in particular. The composer likes to point out that Eastern Church music should correspond to the environment in which it is performed. Byzantine icons, architecture and liturgical gestures are not the expression of casual or “popular” sentiment; they are epiphanies of the Awesome.

But Hurko never allows his appreciation for the “terrifying mystery” to turn dour. Just when one begins to fear that the composition may be headed towards the ponderous, Hurko injects an exhilarating phrase with unexpected — and more contemporary — chords or tempo. And the transition is flawless. One notes in particular the transition to the third verse of Psalm 102 and 145 (in the Liturgy of the Word), respectively.

Like any great liturgy, this one is punctuated with masterpieces — selections that will enter “the canon.” Among these are Hurko’s cherubicon (“Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim … now lay aside all earthly cares”) and the anaphora (Eucharistic prayer). Thus, just as most Ukrainian choirs sooner or later learn Bortniansky’s cherubicon No. 7, for example, future choirs will surely learn these and other pieces from Hurko’s liturgy. Of course, the fact that these works are in English means that one can expect to hear them sooner or later in other churches — from Greek to Anglican to Roman Catholic.

Liturgical, Not Concert, Music

Another masterpiece which probably, however, will not enter “the canon,” is the “Alleluia,” sung before the Gospel and appended to the cherubicon. With its complexity, the average choir will have trouble rendering its ethereal chords and rhythm. Questions of reception aside, this “Alleluia” is simply stunning. It elevates one into the fluidity of angelic motion.

Hurko’s attention to the distinctiveness of such pieces is indicative of his broader appreciation for the structure and meaning of the Divine Liturgy. For example, unlike many Baroque or Romantic compositions that, ignoring the text, approach the Monogenes (“only begotten Son”) as a backdrop for melodic virtuosity, Hurko employs a simpler, chord-based chant, bringing to focus the words of this profession of faith.

Among the elements that give this Divine Liturgy a modern feel is the occasional use of mild dissonance. Parts of the Creed immediately come to mind. But again, Hurko understands that he is composing liturgical, not concert, music. Consequently, while the dissonant chords function to connect us with contemporaneity, they never overtake the work. One is reminded of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, where the composer occasionally transcends “convention” without becoming idiosyncratically “original.” Indeed, Hurko knows that liturgy is a corporate act. Individual impulses are to be harmonized with the communal — and not because the community is a “collectivity” that stifles creativity, but because the communal requires an amenable idiom for communication. And this Divine Liturgy communicates.

While worshippers at St. Francis Xavier had the privilege of seeing Hurko himself conduct his music, J. Michael Thompson, who also provides an insightful introduction to the liner notes, conducted the recording, sung by the Schola Cantorum of St. Peter and guest artists. Thompson is a hero for Christians of the Slavonic tradition. I stopped counting several years ago, but I suspect he has surpassed the 50 mark for recordings of Galician, Carpathian and other Slavic chant (not to mention Western music). These CDs are a kind of living archive for a tradition that may have fallen on hard times, but like all great traditions is bound to revive. Ukrainians and Byzantine-Ruthenians owe this Irish-American a special debt of gratitude.

The CD includes a stunning, additional surprise. In 2004, for the launch of The Divine Liturgy: An Anthology for Worship, published by the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies in Ottawa, Hurko produced an exquisite setting of the irmos for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. For years I had hoped that Hurko would someday make available a recording of that arrangement. That day has come. Quite frankly, this one piece alone is worth the price of the CD. Hurko takes the standard, traditional melody from the 1904 Lviv Irmolohion (the canonical collection that contains the melody line for many of the Ukrainian Catholic Church’s chants), and weaves a breathtaking tapestry of ethereal “heavenscapes” using innovative polyphony. The CD provides the original, unison version found in the Irmolohion, immediately followed by Hurko’s arrangement. One is able to hear plainly what is involved in the process.

This, incidentally, indicates a possible focus for Hurko’s next project. Unbeknownst to most listeners, the vast majority of Rachmaninoff’s immensely popular Vespers, for example, is simply an arrangement of traditional monadic chants (many of them rooted in the Kievan tradition, by the way.) I cannot even begin to imagine the splendor that Hurko could spawn were he to arrange other selections of traditional Ukrainian chant.

Finally, Hurko’s sense of initiative deserves praise. Hurko did not wait to be asked to do this work. He does not seek hierarchical approval — though he is obviously not “a loner.” He and his wife, Carmen, themselves sought out and provided the financial resources. And the world is the better for it.

Archpriest Peter Galadza is Kule Family Professor of Liturgy at the Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies, Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Ontario.