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You Are the Light of the World: Antiochian Byzantine Hymnody in Toledo, Ohio ca. 1940s

by Archbishop Samuel David



“And then, all music silences itself into duration, measures duration; like duration, it is irreversible succession. Thus the music, whatever else it may be, is concretized time; it is audible time. This precious vehicle permits one to grasp inaccessible time.”
Rene Daumal, “On Indian Music,” 1931. Translated by Louise Landes-Levi in Rasa or Knowledge of the Self (New Directions, 1982)

Unlike most of the immigrant musicians we present, many of whose lives can hardly be constructed into the bare frame of a biography even, in the best cases, with the participation of their descendants, there is a wealth of information on Archbishop Samuel David available because of his role for three decades as an eminence of the Orthodox Christian church in the U.S.

He was born John David Husson on August 26, 1893 to David and Gazaly Haddad in a mountain village now called Aita el Foukhar, Lebanon (then Aitha, Greater Syria). The youngest of 6 children, he completed secondary school and was sent to seminary at Balamand Monestary, 5 miles south of Tripoli, Lebanon, based in part on early recognition of his exceptional singing voice.

Supplemental to his theological training, he was taught ecclesiastic Byzantine hymnody from the age of 13 by the singer and composer Mitri el Murr (b. Tripoli 1880; d. 1969). El Murr taught music to at least a dozen bishops, sang for and was decorated by the Romanov family in Russia, and recorded for the Baidaphon company in Beirut in the 1920s.

Having ascended several levels through the church hierarchy and having survived the destruction and famine that killed about half of the population of Lebanon during the First World War, by the age of 27 John David had been given the name Samuel and was ordained as a Deacon in 1908. In 1921 he was sent by the church to Toledo, Ohio, where Syrians had begun settling forty years earlier, as a senior celibate priest, an archimandrite. His music teacher visited in 1930, and three of his brothers immigrated to Ohio and Massachusetts. In 1936, Fr. Samuel David ascended to the role of bishop of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdioceses of Toledo and Dependencies, a territory that extended from Canada to Mexico, but under controversial circumstances riddled with problems inside the patriarchy of the church as a result of the Russian Revolution and the death of the former U.S. archbishop.

Suffice it to say that there was a split in the leaders of the church patriarchy regarding who would be in charge of North America. One faction, those closest aligned with the Russian Orthodox church and New York City sided with Antony (Bashir). The other, closest aligned with Zahle, Lebanon and Antioch went with Samuel (David). Samuel David, meanwhile, traveled and gave communion through Boston, Ottawa, Cedar Rapids, and Lexington in 1936, but in August 1938, was excommunicated in a manifesto by Alexander III, who instructed the laity not to celebrate communion with him. Samuel David immediately responded that the excommunication had no standing, not having been issued by the Holy Synod (the church’s governing body) and without hearings. Two years later the decision was reversed, so that by November 1940 Samuel David was given full and official recognition of his status as Archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Antiochian Church of the Toledo Diocese and its Dependencies by decree of Patriarch Alexander of Damascus, Syria, spiritual head of the church after action taken by the Holy Synod of Antioch. The schism between the New York City and Toledo factions remained unresolved until the mid-1970s, when they were finally united. A much more detailed account given by Prof. Richard Breaux, a historian specializing in the Syrian / Lebanese diaspora of the midwestern U.S., can be read at syrianlebanesediasporasound.blogspot.com/2018/11/metropolitan-samuel-david-metropolitan.html .

1940-41, Archbishop Samuel David began once again to visit various parishes: Ironwood, Michigan; Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; Ottawa, Ontario; Austin, Texas; Mexico City; Cedar Rapids, Iowa, etc. Between 1945 and 1953, he published at least seven prayer books, made available for free to any Arabic-speaking congregation in North America, and it was likely during that period that he privately published two albums of a total of eight 78rpm discs of his singing, made available to church members with proceeds in benefit of the church.

It’s clear that the sixteen sides he recorded were made at at least two separate sessions. Harvard’s archivists have made a data point of the recordings having been cut at Gennett studios in Richmond, Indiana. While this may be true (although their dating of the recordings to the 1930s certainly is not), I cannot say for sure. The red vinyl discs themselves have, to me, the feel of a post-WWII RCA production, but this is admittedly reckless speculation on my part. Among the repertoire he performed are hymns and doxologies on the subjects of the Day of Judgement (track 1), the angel Gabriel (track 2), Epiphany (track 8), and Christ’s miracle at the wedding at Cana (tracks 9-10).

The lyrics for "'Al-Youm 'Uliq 'Ala Khashaba" (track 3), a poem derived from the services for Holy Thursday, were translated in Christopher Witulski and Michael Ibrahim's recent paper "Performing Arab-America: The Archbishop Samuel David's Legacy, Memory, and Liturgy":

Today he who hung the earth on the waters is hung on the tree.
The King of Angels is arrayed with a crown of thorns.
He who dressed the heavens with clouds is dressed with a false purple.
He who in Jordan set Adam free, received slaps.
The bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails.
The son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear.
We fall down before thy passion, O Christ.
Show us thy glorious resurrection.

I would be grateful to learn the composers; Mitri el Murr would appear to be among them. Similarly, the accompanists are unclear. The quanun throughout has been speculated to have been by played by Samuel David himself. We do not at present know who the drone-singing accompanists on the first session (tracks 1-8) or the violinist on the second session, recorded through a spring reverb (a novel invention in the 40s) in emulation of a large space, (tracks 9-18) are.

In 1955 Samuel David was elevated to the status of one of the Orthodox Church’s fifteen metropolitans. He was found dead at his home on 523 Bush St. in Toledo from an apparent heart attack on August 12, 1958 at the age of 63. Newspapers reported that he was discovered “slumped in a chair, holding an open Bible.” His open casket funeral was attended by high-ranking church officials from Ottawa, Brooklyn, Cambridge MA, Charleston WV, Wichita, Omaha, Grand Rapids, Glens Falls, Louisville, Phoenix, Buffalo, Lowell, and Chicago as well a full house and as many as five hundred others who were forced to listen outside on loudspeakers to the rites performed in Arabic, Albanian, and English.


released February 28, 2021

Transfers, restoration, and notes by Ian Nagoski
Thanks to Prof. Richard Breaux, Mike Khoury, Hilda Tarazi, and Fr. Boulos Khoury.

Further listening:
Christopher Witulski and Michael Ibrahim: "Performing Arab-America: The Archbishop Samuel David's Legacy, Memory, and Liturgy"

Titles are given as simplifications of the transliterations appearing on the original disc labels followed by transliterations given by Harvard's archive (one disc lacking).


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