The Clerks: Qudduson


Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah…

I arrived at St George’s Hall Concert Room for this event soaked by the rain and battered by the wind on a stormy night. The music presented by the Clerks and their collaborators was, however, serene and transcendent. The concert was the opening event of this year’s Arabic Weekender.

Qudduson – Sanctus – Holy: the word reverberates through the sacred music of East and West. In this new programme, The Clerks joined three singers from Syria, each a virtuoso in the music of their own community.

Exploring music within very different faith traditions, Qudduson set aside the boundaries between cultures and religions. ‘It is a conversation between Eastern and Western musical genres and techniques. What unites these traditions is the power and transcendence of the human voice’. Edward Wickham, the artistic director of The Clerks, read a short poem by Ibn Arabi, (1165 – 1240, born in Spain, settled in Damascus) Sufi mystic and philosopher, that Wickham said encapsulates the impulse behind this project:

A garden among the flames!
My heart can take on any form:
A meadow for gazelles,
A cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka’ba for the circling pilgrim,
The tables of the Torah,
The scrolls of the Quran.
My creed is Love;
Wherever its caravan turns along the way,
That is my belief,
My faith.

The programme has evolved from musical director Edward Wickham’s work with choirs in the Middle East, and consisted of the following sequences:

  • Sequence One: Quddus -including Sanctus from Missa pro defunctis by Pierre de Ia Rue, Qadishat (Syriac), The Beautiful names of God
  • Sequence Two: for Holy Week – including The Passion Narrative (Gregorian chant), Vexilla regis by Pierre de la Rue, extracts from the liturgy for Holy Week (Syriac), Kyries (Byzantine)
  • Interlude: Alleluia -various Alleluias from both western and Byzantine traditions, including pieces by Perotin and Alleluia in Syriac Fifth Mode.
  • Sequence Three: A Lament for the Children of Gaza -this sequence, compiled for an event at the Barbican in March in aid of the Save the Children Gaza Appeal, included Vax in Rama by Giaches de Wert and Hymn for the Holy Martyrs (Syriac).
  • Sequence Four: Secular Songs of East and West -including Arabic inuwashah and songs by John Dowland

From the programme notes:

In truth the primary impulse behind Qudduson is far more basic: a fascination with two different sound worlds which are linked by a fundamental ambition to worship through the medium of the voice. The juxtaposition of vocal timbres and melodic modes, of harmonic as opposed to melodic approaches to the elaboration of traditional chants, and of ‘composed’ and ‘improvised’ performance techniques: these are the tensions, the disjunctions that have made this project so stimulating. A further impulse — which one might describe as ideological with a very modest ‘i’ — is to create an aural analogy to the sound-world of many Middle Eastern cities, but in particular Damascus and Aleppo, where the Call to Prayer might receive an unwitting harmonisation from the pealing of Christian bells. Each musical tradition has its own discrete, proud identity and Qudduson is not intended as a reductive fusion of these distinct elements, nor of the faith traditions that inspire them; but rather as a celebration of the diverse and transcendent qualities of the human voice.

More from The Clerks website:

Qudduson presents Middle Eastern chant and Western polyphony side-by-side. The ancient Syriac liturgy of Aleppo – thought to be the oldest Christian chant repertoire in the world, the Islamic music of Sufism and songs from the Armenian community based in Syria are set alongside chant and polyphony from the Cathedral repertories of the Western Middle Ages and Renaissance.

East meets West

Melody is paramount in the sound-world of Middle Eastern vocal music, with its rich quarter-tones and virtuoso ornamentation. Musical forms are shaped out of the sophisticated elaboration of familiar melodies. Western church music likewise uses exuberant flourishes in the ecstatic jubilations of the Alleluia and other chants.

This fascination with melody and its elaboration lies at the heart of Qudduson. It reveals some astonishing parallels between East and West – between the improvisatory songs of Sufism and the highly decorative songs of late 14th-century France; between the formalised liturgical chants of the Syriac Orthodox Church and the structured cantus firmus mass settings of the 15th century; between the emotive songs of Armenia and the simple, declamatory power of the Renaissance anthem.

Religion and Music in Modern Syria

Contemporary Syria is an elaborate patchwork of religious communities and musical traditions. The chant of Greek and Syriac Orthodox churches can be traced back to the 3rd century AD. That of the Church of Hayy Surian in Aleppo – which traces its origins to the Church in Edessa (in modern Turkey) – is arguably the oldest continuous Christian chant tradition in the world. Its musical connection to medieval Sufi repertoire mirrors the close relations between Christians and Muslims in the region.

Syria is rightly proud of the way in which its religious communities, so antagonistic in many parts of the world, have sustained a long history of toleration. As 20th-century Armenian refugees have arrived with their own musical repertoires, the heady mix of influences on Syrian music continues to grow.

The performers:

Abdul Salam Kheir oud and baritone
George Qas-Barsoum baritone
Merit Ariane Stephanos soprano

The Clerks:
Lucy Ballard, Kim Porter altos
Roy Rashbrook, Nicholas Todd tenors
Ed Grint, Edward Wickham basses
Director: Edward Wickham

George Qas-Barsoum is a medical doctor and surgeon and bass soloist at the Church of Hayy Surian in Aleppo, which was built by refugees fleeing Edessa in the 1920s. His experience and knowledge of singing the Syriac Orthodox liturgy of this ancient community, some of the oldest Christian chant in the world, is unsurpassed.

Merit Ariane Stephanos is a Coptic Egyptian/German singer and composer, who draws on Arabic and Western classical contemporary influences in her music. She is particularly interested in exploring dialogue between people and musicians from different cultures. She sings regularly with medieval group Joglaresa, classical Arabic ensemble Al Farabi, her own Arabic/Jewish ensemble Jaljala, her duo Hjaz with pianist Alcyona Mick, contemporary modal group Troja Nova and as a guest singer with virtuoso string Trio Kosmos.

Abdul Salam Kheir studied music at the Lebanese Conservatoire, specialising in Muwashahat (classical Arab song) as a singer and oud player. There he also focused on composing in various musical idioms, which has enabled him to travel all over the world performing and promoting Arab music in live concerts and with ensembles of many nationalities.

The Clerks Qudduson Part 1

The Clerks Qudduson Part 2

Syriac choir of Nouri Iskander, Aleppo

Syriac Christian Orthodox sacred chant performed by the Choir of Nouri Iskander from Aleppo: an extract from a French documentary Le Silence des Anges – Terres et Voix de l’Orient Orthodoxe, by Olivier Mille and Jean-François Colosimo (France – Belgium, 1999). Nouri Iskandar was born in Aleppo in 1938. He has composed Syriac folk music since the early sixties.


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