Victor Alexandrovich Pokrovsky was choir director, translator, and music arranger for Metropolitan Sergius of Japan, serving in that position at the Holy Resurrection Cathedral (Tokyo, Japan) from 1924 until 1962, except for the World War II years and some of the decade following the war. He followed in the tradition of Russian missionaries of bringing the Gospel to new people in their language. In Japan, he was in the footsteps of Ss Innocent of Moscow and Nicholas of Japan and of Nicholas’ successor Sergius of Japan. In regard liturgical music of the Japanese Orthodox Church, Victor Pokrovsky was to Metropolitan Sergius as Yakov Tikhai was to St Nicholas of Japan. Victor’s success was bring the Russian liturgical music masters to the Japanese in their own language. Metropolitan Sergius invited Victor, an emigree of the Russian Civil War, to Tokyo to introduce to the Japanese Church the Russian Church liturgical masterpieces of 19th and 20th century, in Japanese. Their association and close collaboration continued until events associated with World War II brought it to an end.
Victor was born on February 13, 1897, as a first son of Priest Alexander Andreivich and Nadezhda Petrovna (nee Ismailov). His father was the priest at a church in the Suhaya Rika district near Kazan, Russia. The Pokrovskys were a priestly family. Their family name was Gremashkin, but during the time of Tsar Paul I of Russia, Victor’s priestly ancestor was given the family name of Pokrovsky by his bishop who visited his parish on the day of the Protection of the Theotokos (Pokrov).
Victor studied for four years at the Kazan Ecclesiastical Seminary before entering Kazan University in 1914. As a university student he sang with the Morreff Choir, which Mr. Koltchin (later choir director of Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco) also joined, and attended the conductor class at Kazan Hummert Music School. After two years of student life, he was called into the Army as an officer, but was released after the February Revolution. He then returned to the Kazan University for his third year.
After the Bolshevik coup of 1917, he was recalled to army service in 1918 into the White Army, to advance eventual to the rank of Captain. As the Red Army advanced, he was forced to leave Kazan and retreat with the White Army across Siberia. With the end of the Civil War, he ended up in Manchuria and was discharged on May 12, 1923. Having lost everything including his family, he set to organizing a choir to earn a living. As Manchuria included a large Russian population prior to the war that supported and operated the Trans-Siberian Railway short cuts to Vladivostok, a Russian based life style was available for his choir to work in. Indeed, the Harbin Archdiocese was active, as the situation in Russia deteriorated, including supporting the Church of Japan.
After the Great Kanto Earthquake of September 1, 1923 severely damaged the Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Tokyo, the then Archbishop Sergius often visited Harbin to obtain support for restoring the Cathedral. Amongst his activities, Archbishop Sergius was looking for a capable leader for the choir at the Cathedral. Among the candidates that the Archbishop interviewed he liked the music of Victor Pokrovsky who was directing the choir at the Holy Theotokos Church in Harbin. Invited by the Archbishop, Victor moved to Japan in 1924 to form a full-scale choir at the Holy Resurrection Cathedral and to introduce the new Russian masterpieces, such as those by Arkhangelsky and Kastasky.
For the next sixteen years Victor was deeply engaged in developing a first class choir and learning Japanese so as to translate and arrange the new masterpieces for the choir. During this time he found time to marry a Russian young lady, but again suffered tragedy when she died in child birth, leaving him a baby son to raise. A couple years later he again married a young lady from Harbin who was to give him two daughters.
He and the Archbishop, later named Metropolitan of All Japan, worked closely as the choir developed and the Cathedral was restored, until in 1941 the militaristic government, championing extreme nationalism, forced the non-Japanese in the Church of Japan to ‘retire.’ Now, Victor searched for a new position. He was invited to a position in San Francisco, but the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred before their ship could leave Japan. Thus, he and his family spent the war in Japan, first living in Yokohoma and then later during and after the war in Karuizawa in the Japanese Alps. The last time they saw Metropolitan Sergius was when he came to Yokohoma during the summer of 1943 to baptize their second daughter. But, in the chaos of the war Victor was able to travel from Karuizawa to attend Metropolitan Sergius’ funeral.
The war years proved to be very difficult, often living a starvation diet and, for Victor, an arrest on spying charges. It was many years before the family could return to Tokyo, but after returning Victor was invited by the new ruling bishop, Bishop Ireney, to resume his position directing the Holy Resurrection Cathedral choir. He re-stored the choir and again continued the work that was interrupted in 1941. Then, 1962, Victor with his wife and youngest daughter emigrated to the United States where he led choirs in a number of parishes before retiring in 1972 in Vienna, Virginia. He died on February 12, 1990 and is buried at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Monastery (South Canaan, Pennsylvania), a place that he said reminded him of the Russia he left so many year before.
Much of the following is based upon a study of Victor Pokrovsky’s musical work by Maria Junko Matsushima, of the Holy Annunciation Church in Nagoya, Japan.
Victor Pokrovsky was 27 years old when he assumed his duties under Metropolitan Sergius. As with the earlier Russian missionaries, St. Nicholas of Japan and Metropolitan Sergius, he began his work first learning the Japanese language as the grammatical and syllablical differences between Japanese and Slavonic made difficult translating and fitting words to the musical notes. This was hard work, and in accomplishing this task he was assisted for many years by Father Job Hibi and a seminary student Jacob who later was ordained Father Jacob. He would frequently work until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning.
He also worked hard developing the Cathedral choir. And, in this work he also had the full support of Metropolitan Sergius. He was very strict in his rehearsals, sometime bringing some of the young women singers to tears, but he did this for the love of the music and a loving integrity of the choir and choir members as a superior singing group. Rehearsals were held twice a week, Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons. Often Metropolitan Sergius would sit in back listening to their singing, and even chide some lazy choir member
In time the choir recognized this discipline and personally came to Victor to acknowledge their understanding of his intent. Victor worked carefully on the timing and the flow of the services. He would coordinate tones with the clergy so that they and the choir would be in harmony. Yet, during the service he would quickly adjust the choir’s pitch to fit the intonation of the clergy when necessary. For Victor, the services were a whole, not a bunch of pieces. And, in this even Metropolitan Sergius was careful, often heard coordinating on which Cherubic hymn version Victor would be singing that day so that he could decide his pitch.
The choir’s repertory expanded quickly. They sang the music of Tchaikovsky, Smolensky, Strokin, Chesnokov, Arkhangelsky, and Kastolsky. Some years later, thanks to his pupil Tito Kato, Victor’s music was published in Osaka. There were some 75 titles, and many of them, for example, Smolensky