"The Standing Hymn"
In 426 AD the two most important women in the Roman Empire were deeply concerned that bishops and theologians were strangling the life out of the Christian faith. Pulcheria, sister to the Emperor, and Eudocia his young wife teamed up with their great friend Melania in Jerusalem and found the Icon of the Mother of God, painted by St Luke. They brought it to Constantinople, built a church for it and wrote this hymn. The Akathistos is the most revered hymn in the Eastern Orthodox Church; it tells the story of the Mother of God. It is strikingly feminist, and it has History woven into it!
In 626 AD Constantinople was in great danger. Abandoned to its fate by Emperor Heraclius, it had no protection other than its famous walls. All troops had left. The Persians and the Avars had the city surrounded, and launched a seaborne attack on the Golden Horn. So the Patriarch, in a desperate defence, led the clergy and the people around inside those walls throughout the night singing this hymn, literally for their lives. Miraculously, a thunderstorm blew up and smashed the enemy fleet. The city was saved!
Nick & Tony Bicât's treatment of the hymn follows its stanzaic form but seeks to reproduce the robust tone and plain speaking of the original Greek, as if hearing the voices of its creators afresh today. Pulcheria leads Eudocia and Melania in the sacred chant, to be joined by first their sister nuns then gradually all the citizens of Constantinople. The barbarians seek to intervene from outside the walls, and the piece reaches its climax in a great storm. An awestruck silence is followed by a growing and profound realisation that the City has been saved by the Mother of God, the Virgin, the Theotokos.
The premiere of Akathistos was given in St Stephen Walbrook, City of London in January 2019.