Centenary of the Archdiocese of Orthodox Churches of Russian Tradition in Western Europe

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Peter Spassky

Peter Spassky

© Photo famille Spassky


“The Russian Orthodox community of Paris, which in the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral preserves and supports Eastern Rite choral music, has raised the passionate and sad voice of the silent Russian Church and of millions of believers from beyond the curtain of iron. There is something mystical about Russian choral singing, which forces us to compare this group of singers ... with the frescoes by Fra Angelico ”. Thus in 1962, the newspaper "L’Avvenire d'Italia" featured the first concert in Italy of the choir of Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral under the direction of Pierre Vassilievitch Spassky.

Russian songs, wrote the Roman "Fiere Letteraria", "express joy, tenderness, gentleness, and faith in the promise of the Savior, who gazes with a gentle smile from the silence of the golden icons ... During the performance, the Maestro P. Spassky directed the singers only by the power of his hands: white, thin, nervous, sometimes hard and harsh, sometimes soothing ... low, high, soft and deep voices, which in the end merge into a whole, persistent and precise ... In this supplication, in this pain and this complaint, resonates the soul of those who are "in a foreign land" ... "

This performance by the choir of St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral took place in the fall of 1962 as part of the great musical festival of religious song organized in Italy in the context of the "Ecumenical Year". The concert took place in the famous 15th century church of Malatestiano, where Giotto's famous fresco "The Crucifixion" is located. The concert brought together Italian Catholic and Austrian Protestant choirs, which included more than 100 singers, and a Russian choir of 23 people, conducted for many years by Pierre Vassilievitch Spassky.


Pierre Vassilievitch Spassky was born in 1896 on the Don, in the village of Karaichev of the Gundorovskaya stanitsa. He was the eldest son in the family of a deacon, and from an early age he received a religious education. From his father he acquired a love for song and liturgical celebration. Pierre Vassilievich studied at the theological school of Novocherkassk, then at the theological seminary, where one of his teachers was the religious composer Archimandrite Michael Erkhan. At 16, Pierre Spassky was already conducting the left kliros choir and organizing choirs in his native village. The First World War then broke out, then the Civil War. Here are his service records: 16th "Sotnia", student battalion, 2nd Don machine gun regiment, Don and Atamanskoe military schools, serious commotions, cross of St. George.

After the exodus, Pierre Spassky first went to the island of Lemnos, then to Bulgaria, where he created a regimental choir. During his studies at the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics of the University of Sofia, he was elected president of the council of the Cossack student community. Then in 1924 Pierre Spassky received a scholarship at the Catholic University of Milan, where he followed a 3-year Law course. There he participated in the creation of a Russian Orthodox parish and there, at the world center of bel canto, he studied singing. Together with students, Peter Spassky traveled to Rome and attended a reception by Pope Pius XI, who greeted him with kindness and declared that he prayed daily for the suffering Russian people. In 1927 Pierre Spassky was elected delegate of the parish of Milan to the diocesan assembly of Paris and soon settled permanently in the French capital, where he was appointed choirmaster and principal reader of the church of Saint-Nicolas in Boulogne- Billancourt.

It was in Paris that his church and choral singing activities flourished, to which he devoted the rest of his life. The Saint-Nicolas de Billancourt church was built in 1927 thanks to donations from Russian workers at the Renault factory who lived in this suburb. Archpriest Yakov Ktitarev was appointed first rector of the parish. Thanks to him, active educational work was carried out in the parish, sacred music concerts were organized as well as religious song lessons and a children's school. In addition to the choir of his parish, Pierre Spassky conducted the children's choir of the children's school of the Saint-Alexandre-Nevsky cathedral in rue Daru and participated in many cultural, musical and educational events in Russian Paris. .

In 1931, Pierre Vassilievitch married Taïssia Vassilievna, whose maident name was Petrova. Their marriage was celebrated by Metropolitan Euloge who was their spiritual father. The Spassky couple worked together in the parish schools of Boulogne and the Cathedral, organizing concerts, Christmas trees for children, charity evenings with the participation of famous artists. Pierre Spassky was a principal teacher and taught catechism at the Russian high school and at the parish school of the Cathedral. An excellent storyteller, he enchanted his students by telling the history of Russia, Russian customs and Russian antiquity. In the year of the centenary of Pushkin's death, "Pushkin Day" was organized in the parish of St. Nicholas, a day in which prof. N. Kuhlmann, writers B. Zaitsev and I. Shmelev and other personalities. P.V. Spassky also participated in all the "Russian Culture Days" for young people, organized under the chairmanship of E. Kovalevsky, as well as the "Orthodox Russia Days" at the St. Sergius Institute under the patronage of Metropolitan Euloge.

In 1936, Father Alexandre Tchekan was appointed rector of the church of Boulogne. It was with Father Alexander that Spassky would later serve at St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. In the difficult times of the war, in 1940, when many people were evacuated from Paris, Metropolitan Euloge brought together representatives of the clergy and the laity and set up the organization of charity for the hungry in Russian parishes. Among those present were Bishop John (Leontchoukoff), Archpriest Nicholas Sakharov, Archpriest Yakov Ktitarev, Archimandrite Nikon (de Greve), Higoumene Method (Kulhmann), Hieromonk Savva (Shymkevich), Father Dmitry Klépinine, Mother Marie, churchwardens and delegates from different parishes. P. Spassky reported on fundraising and the organization of meals in his parish.

In 1943, the church of Saint-Nicolas in Boulogne was destroyed by a bombardment, and the parish had to find itself for a long time in a private apartment, then temporarily - in a Protestant church. In 1947, Pierre Vassilievitch Spassky was appointed principal reader at the Saint-Alexandre Nevsky cathedral and became choir director of the crypt. In 1949, he became conductor of the cathedral choir.

The Spassky Choir at the Russian Cathedral

The work of Pierre Vassilievich Spassky at the cathedral

The work was not easy. It was necessary to bring the choir back to the highest level, to unite the old and new singers, to preserve the traditions. The protodeacon Nicholas Tikhomirov helped Spassky in this area, and his own spiritual training was of great help to him as well.

There was an incredible number of books at Pierre Spassky's home. He read a lot and had an incredible memory. He had studied Christian and non-Christian religions and philosophies in detail, which enabled him to be an experienced witness to Orthodoxy, the ministry of church cantor having a very high missionary character. This side of Pierre Spassky's personality undoubtedly influenced his work in religious song. He carefully chose the repertoire, was attentive to the requests of the parishioners, trying not to go against their spirit of prayer. He attached particular importance to the words of the prayer, trying to ensure that the musical atmosphere obtained by the song was in full accord with the text. With equal attention, he performed many services: baptisms, weddings, moleben, funeral services. After these services, he often spoke with people to rejoice with them or to console them.

Pierre Spassky conducted the Choir of the Russian Cathedral in Paris for 20 years. The repertoire of the choir was very extensive and due to the inevitable changes in the composition of the choir (the choir having been completely renewed more than three times) it had to be relearned or modified.

Easter songs performed by the Spassky choir in 1966

Recordings and radio broadcasts

In 1953, the Philips company asked the choirmaster to create a record with Russian church songs. Spassky decided - and then kept this principle for all his subsequent recordings - that the record should preserve order and liturgical meaning, and not be a mere collection of beautiful but unrelated songs. He chose the songs of the Eucharistic liturgy in the order in which they are performed. The protodeacon Nicholas Tikhomirov participated in the recording, wowing the audience with his magnificent voice, especially during the Great Litany and the "Mnogaia leta". The protodeacon N. Tikhomirov was then 72 years old, and this record has remained a musical memory of the extraordinary and highly cultured protodeacon that had graced the divine services of the cathedral for more than forty years.

The Divine Liturgy record was released in 1954 and received the highest distinction from the Charles Cros Academy. The French press reported "the unusually colorful voices of Eternal Russia" and "the strict discipline of the choir". The Russian press, meanwhile, stressed that the awarding of this prize should be seen as a great victory for Russian culture and Russian religious music, which is increasingly attracting the attention of cultural circles in Western Europe.

Two years later, the same company released a new record, which Pierre Spassky devoted to the hymns of Great Lent and Holy Week. This record ended with the song "Christ is risen from the dead" ... The two discs were then combined into one album, which also received the highest distinction. These discs were walled in the walls of the Comédie-Française theater. This solemn ceremony was then described by the newspaper "La Pensée Russe".

In the 1960s, the American company "Monitor" recorded five more records, including songs of the liturgy and vigils, Easter and Christmas carols, carols to the Mother of God and an office for the dead, to which he must add a disc of Christmas carols (koliadki). The recording was made with the participation of the protodiacer Michel Storojenko (future Bishop Michael) and with a new composition of the choir.


In addition to records and radio broadcasts, the Cathedral Choir participated in numerous concerts. The development of ecumenism and interest in Orthodoxy was reflected in the interest in Orthodox singing. The choir was invited to Catholic and Protestant churches and sang in the best halls of Paris. In 1962, as we noted above, "he won the hearts of the Italians".

Another significant performance by the choir under the direction of Pierre Spassky took place in 1966 on the occasion of the Millennium celebration of the founding of the Abbey of Mont Saint Michel. The choir was invited to give two concerts with different programs. Both evenings the abbey church at the top of the mountain was packed. The program for this concert included around 40 different hymns, thus giving an overview of the entire Orthodox liturgical cycle. Le Figaro newspaper wrote: “The public will particularly remember the two unforgettable evenings, where the choir of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Paris under the direction of Pierre Spassky transported the public through the song of Holy Russia to the gates of the paradise ”.

Shortly before, in 1965, in St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Pierre Spassky was celebrated on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his activity as choir director. The Divine Liturgy and the service of thanksgiving were celebrated by Archbishop George (Tarassov), the clergy of the cathedral as well as the protodiacer Vassily Degtiarev. Two choirs sang: the episcopal choir, under the direction of the hero of the day, who was replaced during the moleben by Eugene Evetz, and the Finnish choir from Joensuu Cathedral, who came especially for the occasion. The hero of the day received an Ascension icon from the Union Cossack, the Knights of Saint George and the Atamantsy, as well as an icon of Saints Sergius and Germain of Valaam from the Finnish choir. Fr. Pierre Struve read a long series of letters and telegrams received for the occasion from various corners of the world, from members of the clergy, organizations, choirs, choir directors, artists, composers and mere individuals.

The Spassky choir

The call to God

In 1968 P.V. Spassky suffered from heart disease, but hid it and continued to serve zealously in the kliros. In April, Holy Wednesday, after the divine service, during which he sang for the last time the song "I see Your palace, O my Savior", he felt bad, was taken to a clinic and a month later , in a convalescent home near the town of Dreux, he died on May 30, the feast of the Ascension of Christ.

Due to the events of "May 68", entry into Paris was prohibited and there was no transportation. The funeral was celebrated in the church of the cemetery of the Dormition in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois and the burial in the adjacent Russian cemetery. The funeral service was presided over by Bishop Method (Kuhlmann) surrounded by Archpriests Alexander Tchekan, Alexander Erguine, Nicolas Obolensky and the protodeacon Michael Storojenko. Sung a choir of 26 singers under the direction of Eugene Evetz. Before the funeral, Father Tchekan delivered a tribute to the deceased in front of many faithful who, in these difficult days, having used all kinds of means of transport, had come to accompany the newly deceased reader Pierre with their prayers and their songs. Eternal memory!