‘Sing to the life-giving Trinity’

Posted on: 6 June 2020, by :

After Pentecost, on Trinity Sunday the Christian Church globally celebrates the Holy Trinity: the belief in one God in three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is the central tenet that unites all the orthodox Christian denominations across both Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity: first adopted at the fourth-century councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, the doctrine of Trinitarianism has ever since been affirmed in the Nicene Creed and other statements of faith. Trinitarian theology is particularly emphasized in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, which since the fifth century has remained the principal liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the ordinary used on most occasions when the Eucharist is celebrated. Some of the 15 sections, notably the Creed, the Sanctus and the Lord’s Prayer, are familiar to us in the West from the Mass and Holy Communion, while others — including the Cherubikon (Hymn of the Cherubim) — are not.

Normally sung to traditional chants in the Church Slavonic language, the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom was for many centuries hardly ever set to special, composed music in multiple vocal parts; in Russia, that required the approval of the Imperial Chapel, rarely given. The setting of 1878 by Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky circumvented that rule and thereby instigated a whole new tradition in Russian sacred music. He composed and published it without permission, causing it to be banned at first, sparking off a legal dispute that was finally resolved in the publisher’s favour. Since then many settings have been composed, from Rimsky-Korsakov’s of 1883 onwards.

Here we sample two of the most loved sections of Tchaikovsky’s setting: the Cherubikon (equivalent to the Western Offertorium) that precedes the Eucharistic Prayer and the ‘Our Father’ that follows it.

6. Hymn of the Cherubim

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.

The National Academic Choir of Ukraine ‘Dumka’, conducted by Yevhen Savchuk (CD recording, 2009)

13. Our Father

Отче нашъ, иже еси на небесѣхъ,
Да свѧтитсѧ имѧ Твое,
Да прїидетъ царствїе Твое,
Да бѹдет волѧ твоѧ,
Якω на небеси и на земли.
Хлѣбъ нашъ насѹщный даждь намъ днесь,
И ωстави намъ долги наша,
якоже и мы ωставлѧемъ должникωмъ нашимъ,
И не введи нас во искѹшенїе,
Но избави нас ѿ лѹкавагω.


Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive them that trespass against us,
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.


Tchaikovsky’s music here is quite unlike his modern, inventive music for his operas and instrumental compositions. Instead it is rooted, fittingly, in eighteenth-century harmonic practice and the spirit of the chanted music of the church that he admired. In a letter of 1877 he had written: ‘it is impossible not to be profoundly moved by the liturgy of our own Orthodox Church … to be startled from one’s trance by a burst from the choir; to be carried away by the poetry of this music; … all this is infinitely precious to me!’

The Our Father performed by the Konevets Quartet in a concert in Loviisa, Finland, March 2014.