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Undertaking a year-long, intensive study of Orthodox Church choral music and its composers is much more than an academic exercise for Danielle Fecso ’04 (Metuchen, N.J.) – it’s a chance to learn more about her passion and inspiration.

Fecso is a cantor and choir member in her home parish, and describes herself as among the Carpatho-Russian Orthodox, a group with ancestral homelands in southeastern Poland, southwestern Ukraine, and eastern Slovakia.

“I have been singing and enjoying our beautiful hymns since I was young, and have always wanted to learn more about them,” says Fecso, who is considering taking music courses at an Orthodox seminary after graduation.

A biology major and music minor, she is working under the guidance of Nina Gilbert, director of choral activities. Gilbert has numerous choral arrangements and editions in print and is associate editor of Choral Journal. She offers commentaries on choral topics for “Performance Today” on National Public Radio.

“Dr. Gilbert has a wealth of knowledge about all aspects of music, including theory, the composers, and the history, and she is guiding me in the right directions in my research,” says Fecso. “Because Lafayette is a small campus, the students and professors have the chance to get to know each other well. Many of my professors take the time to learn their students’ interests, like Dr. Gilbert, who makes herself familiar with each of us personally.”

Gilbert describes Fecso as a student with an enhanced awareness of her role in the world along with a sense of dedication and responsibility.

“Since Danielle is impassioned and inspired by the music of her church, she wants to find out what it means on a larger scale,” says Gilbert. “She wants to find out who has written and sung this music throughout the history of her church and who are the people who played her role in earlier times and places. She wants to teach this music in the future.”

Fecso is studying and comparing the sacred works of Orthodox composers hailing from Russia and Eastern Europe, such as Rachmaninov, Bortiansky, Kedrov, and Rimsky-Korsakov, to each other and to traditional Orthodox plainchant, which is without strict meter and traditionally sung without accompaniment. She intends to identify how compositions were influenced by where and when composers lived and studied, as well as by the associations they made. She will also explore what influence the original church plainchant may have had on their works.

“We’re focusing on settings of the Lord’s Prayer, or ‘Otche nash’ in Church Slavonic,” says Gilbert. “Among other things, we look for evidence of whether a setting was composed for use in a service or a concert, and whether it would have been sung or chanted by a choir or a congregation. It’s also interesting to see what words composers choose to highlight. If a composer puts a big emphasis on ‘our daily bread,’ we wonder if there was a special reason for that at the time. Today we found one with elaborate melodies for ‘temptation’ that made [it] sound like a very appealing thing!”

Gilbert says that Fecso’s greatest challenge will be to come up with scholarly anlyses of the music she has experienced in a practical context.

“If you’ve sung a particular song all your life, it’s hard to look at it objectively,” she explains. “Danielle may feel that a particular phrase ‘sounds Russian’ because she’s heard it in her church, and now we have to dissect it and figure out that what makes it sound Russian is some technical aspect of the composition.”

The research for this project is an added challenge. Much of the material is available only from individuals who happen to have copies, so in addition to using library resources, Fecso has to do some personal networking.

“We called a friend of mine who’s a major expert on Russian music, and he sent us a handful of unpublished pieces,” says Gilbert. “When we asked him if he knew anything about the life of composer Nicolai Kedroff, who doesn’t seem to be in any of our sources, he referred us to Kedroff’s grandson, who leads an Orthodox cathedral in Paris. Danielle wrote him a letter, I translated it into French, and we recently received a response. While it’s a little frustrating to search in many places and find nothing about this composer, it’s also exciting to feel as if we’ve struck gold when we unearth something rare and obscure. I’m sure that the letter Danielle got back in French from Paris will be a souvenir she will treasure forever.”

Kedroff’s grandson sent Fecso a copy of his grandfather’s composition of “Otche Nash” in the original Russian, a photo of Nicolai Kedroff, and further information, including the name of another person whom she can contact.

Fecso has been discussing this independent study with Gilbert since her first year at Lafayette.

“Dr. Gilbert has really helped me to understand and analyze the information and music I’ve found. She is terrific to work with — she has been key to all of my searches.”

Fecso is a member of the varsity softball team, Concert Choir, and Madrigal Singers.

Categorized in: Academic News