The Art of Interpretation: Music as a Reading Model in Chexov's "Holy Night" and "Rothschild's Fiddle"

Martha Kelly, Stanford University

Performance and interpretation of the Orthodox liturgy resonate at the crux of Chexov's "Holy Night." The narrative centers on the visit of a writer to a river-bound monastery for the Easter Eve Eucharist and celebrations. But while the Easter Eucharist represents the high point of the Orthodox calendar, the key celebration of the Orthodox community, the writer-narrator encounters monks who live in exclusion from the defining rites of the liturgy. Ironically, these monks display a deeper understanding of the liturgy--its music, text and images--than the rest of the community which excludes them.

My paper seeks to explore the significance of community and liturgy in "Holy Night" and to understand why the characters with whom the narrator most sympathizes live on the margins of their own monastic community. Interpretation of the liturgy in "Holy Night" both sets in relief and undermines the boundaries of the religious community and the individual alike. I will examine the renditions made by individual characters of liturgical text, music and icon and will read them in relation to the dogma of liturgy, with the aim of sounding out the authenticity of interpretation in the religious community which Chexov depicts.

The central irony of the religious community which excludes the devoted individual seems to undermine the claim of the liturgy to create eschatological or any other type of community. Nevertheless, the capacity of the individual to interpret or render aspects of the liturgy suggests that liturgical art retains potential for signification beyond social custom. In May It Fill Your Soul: Experiencing Bulgarian Music, musician and ethnologist Timothy Rice discusses the rapprochement of individual and community by means of musical interpretation, arguing that music--and, by extension, art--bears a model of truth which overcomes the disintegration of meaning in a fragmented culture. I will discuss individual interpretation of the liturgy in "Holy Night" as a means of reading Chexov's own depictions of the religious community.