A Community of Song

Mathematician Boris Hasselblatt takes his love of music every week to the Trinity Church choir
Boris Hasselblatt at Trinity Church
“The choir is not just a musical community, but a real community,” says Boris Hasselblatt. Photo: Alonso Nichols
September 18, 2013

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In the second of an occasional series, Tufts Now highlights the hidden talents of Tufts faculty and staff.

Each weekend before Christmas, crowds line up in Boston’s Copley Square in hopes of attending services at Trinity Church, the historic landmark that anchors the city’s Back Bay neighborhood. Toward the end of the service, when the nave is bathed in soft candlelight, the audience joins the Trinity Church choir in singing “Silent Night,” sharing in the peace and serenity of the moment.

Singing first tenor in the choir, as he has for a dozen years, is Boris Hasselblatt, professor of mathematics in the School of Arts and Sciences. Trinity’s music director, Richard Webster, says he is one of the mainstays of the program. “Boris is a very fine musician and dedicated to the choir,” he says.

Hasselblatt, who has written or edited seven mathematics books, primarily about chaos theory, will serve from this November through April 2014 as the Jean Morlet Chair in Mathematics at Aix-Marseille University, a prestigious position co-sponsored by the French National Science Foundation and the French Mathematical Society. Starting in September 2014, Hasselblatt will begin a five-year term as associate provost of the university. Other than his time in France, every Thursday night at 6:30 sharp, he joins the Trinity choir for a rigorous two-hour rehearsal for that Sunday’s service. 

Born in Germany to a father who was a Lutheran pastor, Hasselblatt says there was always music in his family, either at home or at church. “Two of my siblings play the organ, and as a child I played recorder and trombone, and we all sang,” he says.

At age eight, Hasselblatt and his family moved to Ethiopia, where his father, who held a doctoral degree in Arab studies and comparative religion, worked for the World Council of Churches on a project to help improve relations between Christians and Muslims in Africa. When Hasselblatt was heading to high school, the family left Ethiopia because of civil war and moved to Berlin, where his father did relief work.

After studying physics at the University of Berlin, Hasselblatt came to the United States at age 20. He switched to mathematics for a master’s degree at the University of Maryland, and later earned a doctorate at the California Institute of Technology.

The music always followed: he continued to sing with local choral groups. “There have been minor gaps,” he says, “but I always sang.” Soon after coming to Tufts in 1989, Hasselblatt sang with the Dedham Choral Society; he joined the Trinity choir in 2000.

A Community Based on Music

Trinity Church is known for its music, and has released a handful of CDs. There are three choirs: one for children and two for adults. Auditions are required to assess vocal ability, range and sight-reading skills. Each choir sings at one of the three Sunday services, and is an integral part of worship, which is important to Hasselblatt.

“The Episcopal church has a sense of service that really involves the soul—lifting the congregation up to the divine. That involves a sense of drama as well,” he says. “The liturgy has a tradition of bringing people closer to God through an experience that enriches their world.”

Hasselblatt says there is a clear connection between the music he loves and the mathematics that fill his days. Each is creative, but must adhere to clear rules.

Music, he says, plays an important role in creating that experience. “The service is not punctuated by musical performance. The mission of the choir is to lead the service, together with the clergy, and to be visible in its presence. There’s a real sense that we are Christians and part of the parish and not just musicians who are called in.”

For Hasselblatt, the choral groups serve another purpose. “The choir is not just a musical community but a real community. This is a commitment I’ve made, and no matter how busy things get, I don’t say, ‘I’m not going this time.’ It guarantees a balance in my life, because no matter how much else is going on, I will be in the choir.”

Rehearsals, he says, are “about making the best music you possibly can, and it’s the same on Sunday. You show up on time, and it’s an intense time to get ready and be in the service.” Singing with the choir, he says, has broadened his musical knowledge. “I pay close attention to the music. There is a difference between singing notes and making music.”

Despite the hard work, there is time for fun. Choir members often go out to dinner after rehearsals, and there are banquets as well as a Christmas party. Each year the group tours Europe; they’re heading to England this year for a residency at two churches.

And there are lighter moments. Webster, the music director, notes there is an ongoing competition between him and Hasselblatt for the best (or worst) puns, sometimes tossed out during a rehearsal. Asked for an example, Webster suggests taking a look at Hasselblatt’s out-of-office email message, which offers a multitude of musical puns: To be Franck, I am Orff on a Fauré and Messiaen around elsewhere…I will be Bach from my Ravels and out of Haydn on January 26.

Singing isn’t Hasselblatt’s only role at the church. He’s been entrusted with the delicate job of serving as choir treasurer, and not just because of his facility with numbers. He provides confidential counsel and help to choir members who need financial assistance to participate in the choral tours. “We appointed him as the go-to person, and that tells you how highly regarded he is,” Webster says. “He handles it beautifully and gracefully and does this out of the generosity of his heart.”

Hasselblatt says there is a clear connection between the music he loves and the mathematics that fills his days. Each is creative, but must adhere to clear rules. “Just putting random notes together doesn’t make music,” he says. “There’s an artistic intention: a composer works within a framework of things that have been proven to work. It’s true for mathematics, too.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.