Father Michael Fortounatto 19th May 1931 – 19th February 2022
Father Michael was born in Paris, the eldest of three sons of Russian émigré parents whose caring, spiritual home reflected the fervent parish life of their local Church of Christ the Saviour, an important centre of Russian spirituality.
The young Michael developed a strong faith and a love of church music – without lacking a natural exuberance. ‘We boys played football in our flat!’ he admitted, with his customary twinkle in his eyes. At the age of ten he entered the School of Russian Cadets in Versailles, where his musical talent came to the fore. Meanwhile he continued to be involved in the life of his parish, attending its school on Thursdays where he learnt not only the tenets of his faith but also Russian language and culture. By the age of fifteen he was singing in the church choir and directing a children’s choir.
His church life was enhanced by participating in the Orthodox children’s summer camps that played such a large part in the life of the Russian émigré families in France.
In 1951 he enrolled in the St. Serge Theological Institute in Paris, where he studied theology under some of the foremost theologians of the Russian Emigration and church music under Nicholas Osorgin. The young student drank in not only the deep theological atmosphere at St. Serge but also the unique purity of the singing, which preserved the liturgical traditions of Russia’s pre-revolutionary seminaries and monasteries. He had never encountered such depth before, and he began to see how it was inseparable from the prayer and life of the Church. His affection for the Institute was to remain with him all his life.
However, as an émigré whose family had lost everything in the Revolution his life, spiritually rich, was poor on the material level. He remembered that for four years of his life he went to bed hungry every night.
On leaving St. Serge he was called up for national service in the French army. Once back in the civilian world he began visiting the renowned choirmaster of the Russian Cathedral in London, Mikhail Theokritoff, to continue his study of church music. There he met one of the choirmaster’s daughters, Mariamna, and they married in 1960. Mariamna studied iconography under Ouspensky in Paris and she became an accomplished icon painter. Two years later at the invitation of Bishop (later Metropolitan) Anthony they moved to England and Michael became assistant choirmaster to his father-in-law, taking over as choirmaster on his death.
Father Michael was ordained priest on 28th December 1969, while continuing as choirmaster. As Metropolitan Anthony’s popularity as a speaker and his open vision of Orthodoxy began to attract English converts, the use of some English in Cathedral services became necessary. Father Michael was part of the committee tasked with making translations, and he began setting them to music. He had a gift for making the music marry with the words to flow easily and beautifully.
Father Michael and Mariamna had no children of their own, but they took a great interest in the children of the parish and diocese. A children’s camp, based on the ones in France, had been set up a number of years earlier, but had ceased to operate. Father Michael and Mariamna set up a new one, with a team of helpers who had been campers themselves. It was to become and remain one of the most inspiring features of diocesan life – ‘the truth heart of the church’ as one parent later described it. Daily worship took place in a tent converted for its purpose, and Father Michael taught the children to sing. There were classes for them to learn about their Orthodox faith, with Mariamna as one of the teachers. Games, treks, camp fires and at the Welsh campsite caving were some of the activities everyone enjoyed. The children became an Orthodox family. Father Michael summed up the success : ‘The Holy Spirit is there’. On their return home the children began phoning each other from all over the country. They talked of nothing but Camp for weeks on end.
A further initiative on Father Michael’s part was the instigation of monthly Family Liturgies at Parish House, where the London campers could keep their friendships alive throughout the year and younger children could feel less inhibited than at the Cathedral. Both English and Slavonic were used in the Liturgy. A communal meal followed in the basement, then a lesson, and games in Holland Park.
Father Michael also organised occasional education days, diocesan-wide or pan-Orthodox, and for some years held a Saturday school at the Cathedral. He cared for the children with affection, understanding, much patience and with a twinkle in his bright blue eyes.
From 1991 Father Michael began annual visits to Russia to teach in the theological academies and seminaries, as well as in some secular music schools. His vast knowledge of Church chant and experience of choir directing played an important part in revitalising the Russian Church’s musical heritage. For ten years from 2004 he organised seminars on church chant at the Moscow Theological Academy; he headed the Commission on Liturgical Chant in the Education Committee of the Holy Synod; and published books on the history and theory of liturgical chant.
Back in London he continued his work as choirmaster. But he was also a caring, sympathetic priest, always understanding and approachable, with an appealing sense of humour: a much-loved father to all who came to him.
In 2005 Father Michael and Mariamna retired to France to the village of Chargueraud, near to his two brothers. He joined his brother Father Andre serving in the Church of Christ the Saviour and the Dormition in Vichy and from 2009 he began lecturing on liturgical chant at his beloved St. Serge Institute, inspiring another generation of students. This continued during his retirement in France while his health allowed.
At the same time he organised courses on church chant in the French language, and translated the texts into French This was considerable and very important task.
By 2014, because of poor health, he was no longer able to travel to Paris but he continued to work writing essays, articles and studies of Scripture, theology and liturgical musicology. Some of these have been published and it is hoped others will follow. He has donated his archive to the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire in Moscow.
Father Michael departed this life on 19th February, and his funeral took place in Vichy on 26th February. Our thoughts are with Mariamna, who has lost a devoted, loving husband. We have lost a dedicated, much-loved father. And one suspects the angelic host has gained a new choirmaster.