Archbishop Gavriil (Chepur, d. March 1933) of Chelyabinsk as a Church Musician

The purpose of this article 1 is to present the work of Archbishop Gavr­iil (Chepur) of Chelyabinsk. There may be some in the Diaspora who are familiar with his name and even with the music he composed. But most probably only few know much about the man and his work. And yet this is indeed regrettable, as Bishop Gavriil was one of our highly revered, respected, and beloved hierarchs, a devoted and devout member of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). At the same time he was an erudite theologian, notably in liturgies, and an eminent master of the typikon (ustavshchik), but most importantly for our purpose a professionally trained historian and admirer of Russian Orthodox authentic liturgical chants.

As a church musician he applied his musical genius to arrangements of hymns based on ancient chants, the znamenny chant in all its variations (stolpovoi, putevoi, Kievan, Greek as well as later on in emigration the Serbian chant). Unfortunately, only few of those arrangements have survived the tragic and chaotic circumstances of the twentieth century; now they are scattered all over the dioceses of the Zarubezhnaia Tserkov’. I suspect, though, that most of them are still in Los Angeles among the archives of the late Archbishop Antonii (Sinkevich). It is known that Archbishop Gavriil gave a collection of his church compositions to a publishing house in Crimea shortly before the evacuation by the White Army at the end of 1920, together with Metropolitan Antonii (Khrapovitskii), the clergy and several bishops.

I have been looking for information about Bishop Gavriil for about the past four years. I have written to our convents and monasteries, consulted persons in the field and researched libraries in the West. I have gratefully received some needed information. But I have also made in­quiries in Russia mobilizing my contacts in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Crimea, Yalta specifically. The result was throughout negative. Suppos­edly nothing substantive was found, only some fleeting mention of Bishop Gavriil’s appointments and participations in sobors, meetings etc.

And then, by some miracle, I received an email message from Father Peter Perekrestov, The Holy Virgin Protection Cathedral in San Fran­cisco, about five weeks ago informing me that one of his spiritual daugh­ters has sent him from Moscow a booklet of Memoirs by Archimandrite Kiprian (Kern) about Metropolitan Antonii (Khrapovitskii) and Bishop Gavriil (Chepur), published by the Orthodox St. Tikhon’s Theological Institute in Moscow, 2002. My muscovite contacts have made repeatedly their inquiries precisely at that very institute and even quite recently. The answer was again the same: “No, we have nothing of substance about Bishop Gavriil,” (clearly, the previous Soviet spirit still prevails in the so-called academic circles).

Father Peter kindly sent me those Memoirs. They are detailed and fascinating. They confirm all my findings, but regrettably there is no information about his musical heritage, about that lost Collection of Litur­gical Music. The memoirs enabled me to favorably amend my presentation and I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Father Peter for his kindness and generous thoughtfulness.

A biographical sketch is important to evaluate Bishop Gavriil’s significance and heritage. His life span was relatively short. He was born Grigorii Markellovich Chepur on December 19/31, 1874 in Kherson and died at the Panchevo Monastery in Yugoslavia on March 1/14, 1933 at the age of 58. He descended from a military family. His father, Markell Fedorovich, was a professional army officer, an uhlan, whose rank necessitated many moves within the Russian Empire. He was a participant in the Balkan campaign against the Turks in 1877, and retired in the rank of major. His mother, Liudmila Ivanovna Ossovskaia, a deeply devout woman, was originally of Polish background, but her father, treasurer of the Kishinev district, was already a convert to Orthodoxy. Young Grigorii spent his early years with his mother in Kishinev at his grandparents’ home. His remarkable mathematical talent became evident at the local gymnasium and his math teacher predicted a brilliant academic career for the gifted boy.

But young Grigorii felt deep love and devotion for the Orthodox Church from his early years. After completing his secondary education at a gymnasium in Kiev he followed the call of his heart and enrolled in the Kiev Academy of Theology in 1892, together with Mikhail Nikolaevich Skaballanovich, future professor at the same Academy, illustrious liturgist and author of the Tolkovyi Typikon (Interpreting the Typikon) and Khristianskie Prazdniki (Christian Feasts). Close friendship bonded those two distinguished students. Grigorii Chepur graduated from the Kiev Academy in 1896, with the degree of ‘Candidate in Theology’ (this degree corresponds approximately to a Master’s Degree in Divin­ity). He was twenty-two years old. Simultaneously he was tonsured and soon ordained hieromonk at the Kiev Cave Monastery. Years of teaching liturgical theology and homiletics, first as Inspector and later as Rector, followed at different Divinity Schools in Russia.

In 1910 he was ordained Bishop of Izmail and in this connection I would like to quote a remarkable excerpt (with cuts from his sermon delivered at that consecration:

“As a boy of seven I went with my mother on Holy and Great Tuesday to one of the majestic churches in my hometown. The service was celebrated in a modest side Chapel. […] In rever­ence for that Great Day [the Holy Sacrifice] was substituted by the lifting of hands (vozdeianiem ruk) and by the moving sacrifice of singing (umilitetnoiu zhertvoiu peniia). At those soft sounds whose waves were blending with the waves of sweet smelling incense [I] penetrated for the first time into the Holy of Holies, into my innermost sanctuary [created] in the image of God — there I discovered my God and felt for the first time God’s love, how close God was [to me]. Oh, then I understood once and forever what great treasures were hidden in those tall buildings adorned with beautiful domes and crosses that seemed to disappear in heaven itself.”

The entire homily is recorded in Archimandrite Kiprian’s Memoirs. It is a stunning piece of the most exquisite and edifying sacred poetry and theology, rarely found in homiletic literature. Archimandrite Kiprian states that Bishop Gavriil expressed his extraordinary knowledge of liturgies and his poetic talent in his sermons, all exceptionally beautiful, poetical and brilliant.

In later life Bishop Gavriil called the precentor whose admirable chanting had touched his heart so deeply “his first teacher of sacred studies in general and of church music in particular.” That precentor taught the young boy the basic chants and the eight tones. Another memorable trait of his early life is worth quoting: His awakened love for church services was so profound that he used his pocket money exclusively for the acquisition of Divine Service Books. Eventually he collected a complete set of Service Books. Vladyka Gavriil claimed that the poetic beauty of those sacred texts had provided him with profound knowledge of dogmatic and moral theology. In all extant articles, including Archimandrite Kiprian’s Memoirs, devoted to Vladyka‘s life and career it is stated re­peatedly how exact and succinct his manner of teaching liturgical theology was, always enriched by relevant quotations from church services.

His students of the last period of his life in Yugoslavia fondly recall how he could clarify immediately the most muddled problems of liturgics, the Typikon and formulate precise, short explanations of any complex theological question even while walking among the hustle and bustle of Belgrade’s street noise. (Doesn’t this manner remind one of Plato?) His remarks and enlightening discussions were always original and brilliant and at the same time incomparable in depth, brevity and lucidity. Vladyka’s independent thinking was greatly valued by the Most Reverend Metropolitan Antonii Khrapovitskii who himself was an eminent theologian and a highly venerated expert in liturgies and the Typikon. Sincere devotion and brotherly love in Christ linked those two extraordinary hierarchs. In spite of their full mutual agreement and respect there were sometimes differences of opinion about some principal questions. It is attested that when such an instance occurred and students approached Bishop Gavriil for an explanation, he would infallibly and humbly reply: “If there is a difference of opinion between me and Metropolitan Antonii, be certain that he is always right, not I, because he has more thoroughly studied and explored the Holy Scriptures than I have […] and because he is a genius.” (Interestingly, one of those who had recoded Bishop Gavriil’s remarks was Georgii Pavlovich Grabbe, later Bishop Grigorii). Metropolitan Antonii, on the other hand, would always insist that there was no more knowledgeable connoisseur of the Typikon than Bishop Gavriil even among the famous Old Believers’ “ustavshchiki” (liturgists). Metropolitan Antonii considered Bishop Gavriil an “unsurpassable liturgist.”

As already noted, liturgical singing and the poetry of sacred texts drew Bishop Gavriil to dedicate his life to the service and glory of the Russian Orthodox Church. For this task he was endowed with exceptional musical and intellectual talents and a phenomenal memory. At his passing he was mourned by the eminent musicologist Johann von Gardner as “a serious, distinguished and original church musicians and composer by God’s grace as well as an erudite specialist in liturgical theology. This combination,” Gardner continued, “is extraordinary because liturgical theologians most of the time are not composers, and composers of sacred music rarely concern themselves deeply with the mysteries of the Typikon, its history and especially with the asceticism of Church services.”

Furthermore, in his obituary Gardner insists on the thorough training of church music composers and conductors in the study of the Typikon and especially of the Typikon’s ascetic principles in order to understand and find the right tone for the musical part of the Divine Services. The rare combination of composer and thoughtful master of liturgies illuminated Bishop Gavriil’s entire musical activity that started in Russia and continued in emigration.

Bishop Gavriil’s striking explanation of the significance and privilege of singing on the kliros should serve as a guideline for all who love to sing and conduct at the beautiful Orthodox Church services. Here are his words: “The knowledge of Christ’s genuine life and the communion with it in Church constitutes the bliss of our life. This bliss is almost inexpressible. But spiritually attuned people sense it in each other and this mutual sensation fills their hearts with quite, gentle and unending joy — the joy of Christian relationship and unity. To some degree that [Christian joy] finds expression in church singing. The Lord is Truth, Goodness and Beauty and this reveals itself in singing. God’s Beauty reveals itself in church singing, of course in veritable, authentic church singing, not in those ‘concert pieces’ (by Bortnianskii, Arkhangelskii, Lomakin and others) that, to our shame, are performed all too often in our parishes to please the mediocrity of sentimental people who are lacking true spirituality, pieces like, e.g., ‘repentance’ by Vedel. Some people adore that piece, but for the ear of a genuine church musician it is almost unbearable. And yet there exists singing that is indeed liturgical. Persons who know how to absorb its delicate spiritual beauty and in whom it can evoke the rare gift of tender emotion (not ‘sentimental’ tears) — the souls of such prayerful listeners genuinely touch on God’s life. Church singing is the expression of the highest spiritual experience and is in harmony with God. No wonder,” continues Bishop Gavriil, “that such Church singing only a few chosen ones can understand and appreciate. A special disposition of the soul is required for that understanding and usually our ladies prefer ‘concerts’ [a la Vedel…. and yet,] one must insist on authentic [ascetic] singing. One should not condescend to the level of pious, but spiritually uncultivated people. The Divine Services by its content, its ideas, is above their understanding, but attracts them, it lifts them up, while not fully understanding it in all its power [as spiritually cultivated people do] they begin to love the lofty life, it ennobles them and gradually they can associate with such heights of contemplation of Truth which accustoms the soul to life in Paradise, because the Holy Liturgy is indeed life in Paradise itself as far as people can comprehend and assimilate it.”

Metropolitan Antonii fully shared Bishop Gavriil’s view concerning choral liturgical singing. On one unhappy occasion Vedel’s “repentance” prompted him to exclaim in full voice and with extreme indignation: “Erotic singing. Abomination (or trash)! [Eroticheskoe penie. Gadost”!]”

Bishop Gavriil’s extensive studies of Russian Orthodox chants began in Russia while he was active at the Kiev Cave Monastery and especially in Moscow when he was appointed member of the Holy Synod in 1906, and where he served as Archimandrite at The Twelve Apostles Church. At that church he supposedly organized an exemplary monastic choir using only chants. During his various appointments in the province he would explore the local monastic chants as well as the Old Believers’ chants. His emphasis always remained on the right tone, the appropriate frame of mind when singing on the kliros. While recognizing the significance of vocal technique for choir singers, he considered it the least important aspect of performance during liturgical services. In his view, attention and reverent participation in the sacred service itself was the first and most important requisite to be observed by each choir member, including the choirmaster, of course. Only then, he would argue, a meaningful choral performance could be expected. “Ascetic faithfulness” to the sanctity of all holy services should prevail over the so-called “artistic execution” of choral singing.

In 1919 he was nominated Bishop of Chelyabinsk but due to constant Bolshevik attacks in the region, he was unable to reach his dio­cese. In December 1920 he joined Metropolitan Antonii Khrapovitskii in the evacuation from Crimea with the remainder of the White Army and reached hospitable Yugoslavia in February of 1921. His activity in Yugoslavia included primarily his permanent membership in the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia and presiding over various administrative and academic committees. He also taught religion (Law of God — Zakon Bozhii) at two girls’ schools (first at the Kharkov Institute for Girls in the town Novy Bechei and subsequently at the Russian-Serbian Gymnasium for Girls in Velikaia Kikinda; both schools were not too far from Belgrade).

He continued to teach and kept his appointment as long as his health permitted it. Simultaneously, Bishop Gavriil gave a lot of his time to lectures and discussions to diverse theological disciplines. They took place in Belgrade at the Fraternity of St. Seraphim, a group of young people, mostly students of theology at Belgrade University. At the same time, he shared his phenomenal broad knowledge of Russian Orthodox Church music with a special group of church musicians including the future Archbishop Antonii (Sinkevich), Ivan Alekseevich von Gardner, the future priest Vasilii Taras’ev (his son and grandson are presently priests in Bel­grade), a Mr. Maslich, and Valeria Konstantinovna Gubanova by mar­riage Hoecke, and some other lovers of Russian Orthodox Church under the inspiration of Bishop Gavriil.

In Gardner’s words, he handed down to them the best, noblest traditions of the stolpovoi and znamenny singing and composed for them arrangements of the same chants for Lenten, Paschal and other services of exquisite expressiveness and simplicity at the same time. Likewise, he wrote several pieces for women’s voices for his pupils at the aforemen­tioned schools.

In Yugoslavia Vladyka Gavriil studied the various Serbian chants, which he rated very highly and used in some of his arrangements. Many Serbian priests and theologians marveled at his thorough knowledge and understanding of their chants.

A few words should be said about the sad story of the loss of his work. His arrangements of chants composed in Russia were already at the printing press before his evacuation, but that collection was probably lost during the turbulent years that followed. Some of them he might have rewritten in Yugoslavia. Gardner has compiled a pretty complete list of Vladyka‘s compositions that he has attached to his obituary (Tserkovnaia Zhizn, No. 4, March 1933). But as mentioned earlier, only a few of them could be found until now. Gardner seems to have possessed all of them, yet they went up in flames with the rest of Gardner’s collections of mss and compositions where Berlin was bombarded during WWII. I have been able to collect some 25 pieces, but have not lost hope of find­ing more with the help of lovers of authentic Russian Orthodox liturgical singing.

According to Gardner, Bishop Gavriil’s technique of arrangement greatly differs from the usual harmonization of ancient chants. He does not use counterpoint and yet, as an experienced arranger, he knows how to exploit the different voice parts to add independent vivid color to some special trait of the piece’s mood. At the same time he is far from religious lyricism. In his arrangements no subjective feeling will be found. Instead, the voice and the feeling of the Church will be heard in them, not his per­sonal sentiments. This seems to be the secret of composing or arranging authentic sacred music and only few musicians-composers are blessed with it.

Vladyka Gavriil is also fondly remembered for his tender kindness, extraordinary spirituality and exceptional cheerfulness. He apparently was always good company with a wonderful sense of humor and even jovial­ity; he was also something of a gourmet who enjoyed refined cuisine and good wine. One of his student-admirers states that one could not imagine a more gracious, amusing, interesting and convivial conversationalist, al­ways ready to crack a joke and to entertain.

Up to the end of his life he remained a faithful servant of his beloved Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. Because of his declining health and waning strength he stayed in the Panchevo Monastery, but always came to Belgrade to attend all sessions of the Synod of Bishops and even to deliver lectures to his students. The Russian Orthodox chants comforted him up to his last breath. He frequently would sing to himself when in pain and was involved up to his last days in the singing of the Panchevo Russian choir. So strong was his influence that all those attending his funeral service at Panchevo were amazed at the beauty of the choir’s per­formance. It was Bishop Gavriil’s guidance up to his last breath that made such an unforgettable funeral service possible.

A strange occurrence at the passing of Bishop Gavriil is worth men­tioning. According to Archimandrite Kiprian’s Memoirs, Metropolitan Antonii did not acknowledge any kind of “mysticism,” visions, prophetic dreams and that sort of popular belief. Yet, Metropolitan Antonii woke up in the middle of the night at Karlovtsy while Bishop Gavriil was on his deathbed at Panchevo Monastery. He called his cell-attendant Fedia because he was amazed by an extraordinary sweet-scenting fragrance of some wonderful incense filling his cell. Fedia was also amazed by the same sensation. They could not figure out whence the fragrance came because there was no censer anywhere close by. By noon of the next day they were informed that Bishop Gavriil had passed precisely at the time when they were sensing that fragrance.

Bishop Gavriil was elevated to the rank of Archbishop of Chelyabinsk by the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia for his invaluable contribution to the cultivation of Russian Orthodox chants and the deepening understanding of liturgical theology. His example should remain our standing goal in our own service as choir directors and choir singers. He should be remembered and esteemed as one of the luminaries in the history of our church music.

Eternal memory and gratitude to Vladyka Gavriil!

(Russian Liturgical Music Revival in the Diaspora=vol. 4 Readings in Russian Religious Culture, Marina Ledkovsky and Vladimir von Tsurikov, eds. published by Foundation of Russian History, 2012)

Footnotes

  1. This article was presented as a paper at the 15th Annual Russian Orthodox Church Musician’s Conference, Chicago, IL, October 5, 2002. In preparing this article, the following sources were used: Arkhimandrit Kiprian (Kern). Vospominaniia o mitropolite Antonii (Kharpovitskom) i episkope Gavriile (Chepure) (Moskva: Pravoslavnyi Sviato-Tikhonovskii Bogoslovskii Institut, 2002); Ieromonakh Filipp (Johann von Gardner). ‘dukhovno-muzykal”naia deiatel”nost” Arkhiepiskopa Gavriila v emigrat-sii,” Tserkovnaia Zhizn , No. 4 (Belgrad, 1933) 63-65; Grabbe, gr. Iurii Pavlovich. ‘vysokopreosviashchennyi Gavriil, Arkhiepiskop Cheliabinskii i Troitskii,” Tserkovnaia Zhizn , No. 4 (Belgrad, 1933) 58-63; Lopukhin, P. S. Besedy s Episkopom Gavriilom (Monreal”: Tipograhia Bratstva Prepodobnogo lova Pochaevskogo, 1984); Seide, Germot. Geschichte der Russischen Orthodoxen Kirche im Ausland von der Gruend-ungbis in die Gegenwart (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassovitz, 1983) 10, 19, 29, 49, 405.

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