Psalterion as Pulpit: The Privilege, Craft, and Discipline of Orthodox Liturgical Song
March 08, 2012 Length: 57:44The Byzantine rite provides a unique opportunity for the church singer to preach the Orthodox Christian faith in its fullness. In this talk, the practical and spiritual implications for the cantor and choir director are discussed, exploring how liturgical music is a responsibility to be honored, a skill to be learned, and a calling to be respected.
Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick: It is my very great privilege to present to you my friend, Mr. Richard Barrett, who is an Orthodox Church musician, a choral singer, and scholar, as well as the artistic director of the St. John of Damascus Society, which supports the performance and dissemination of Orthodox liturgical and para-liturgical music. He’s been the cantor and choir director at All Saints Orthodox Church in Bloomington, Indiana, since 2005, and he has served as an invited clinician and singer in parishes throughout the Midwest, also singing regularly with several prestigious choral and operatic ensembles, which I’m sure, if you listened to him sing at the Liturgy this morning, you could definitely imagine him doing opera as well.
He’s has presented papers at the International Conference on Patristic Studies at the University of Oxford, and the Patristics Symposium of the Georges Florovsky Society at Princeton University and Seminary. He holds a bachelor’s in music in vocal performance and a master’s of arts and ancient history from Indiana University, where he is also completing his Ph.D., focusing on civic devotions to the Mother of God in the late antique Roman world, and an additional concentration in modern Greek studies. He happens to also speak Greek fluently and read Syriac.
He studied voice with Dennis Kruse, Erich Parce, and Dale Moore, and pursued specialized study of Byzantine chant with Ioannis Arvanitis and John Michael Boyer. Publications include essays on Orthodox musical topics in AGAIN Magazine, scholarly articles in journals such as the Greek Orthodox Theological Review that’s forthcoming, and The Journal of Early Christian Studies, also forthcoming. And he has been married to Megan Barrett since 2001, and I’d also like to note that they have one child, who is also forthcoming. So with that, please give a warm welcome to Mr. Richard Barrett.
Mr. Richard Barrett: Ladies and gentlemen, Reverend Father, good afternoon and thank you very much for inviting me to your lovely community. Your hospitality has been wonderful, and I am thankful to have had this opportunity, first and foremost to worship with you and have a discussion with you about things that are truly near and dear to my heart.
Just for a moment, I’d like to briefly elaborate on a point that Fr. Andrew mentioned. I am involved with the newly established organization called the St. John of Damascus Society. We are incorporated as a non-profit in the state of Indiana as of last July. We’re waiting for our tax-exempt status to come back, but we exist, and we’re brand-spanking-new.
The mission statement of the St. John of Damascus Society is very simple: revealing Orthodox Christianity through music. What does that mean? It means that we promote ways that the received idioms of Orthodox liturgical and para-liturgical music, regardless of ethnic heritage, can serve as outreach, both locally at the parish level as well as on a broader scale. The fundamental idea that we are trying to spread is that our music should be sung both as well as we are able as well as as prayerfully as we are able, but this does not constitute a dichotomy, and that by doing both, our music can serve as a powerful witness to those around us.
We have a number of people from many backgrounds and disciplines of musical paradigms involved with the steering of the St. John of Damascus Society. People such as John Michael Boyer, a cantor in the Greek Archdiocese who is one of the top singers of Byzantine music in this country as well as a member of Capella Romana; Dr. Alexander Khalil, an ethnomusicologist of Palestinian heritage who was instrumental in the editing and publication of this book, The Divine Hymnal, published by the Antiochian Archdiocese of Los Angeles; Dr. Kurt Sander, perhaps the most important composer of Orthodox liturgical music in the Russian idiom working in the United States, and he recently released a recording of his work, As Far as the East is from the West, which also contains music by a contemporary Russian composer named Gennady Lepaev; and Dr. Richard Toensing, a nationally recognized composer of modern art music as well as of Orthodox liturgical music that is perhaps described best as a synthesis of several musical dialects.
And this is an example of Richard’s work, the kontakion on the Nativity of Christ [“What Shall We Call You”], which is just a beautiful piece. There will be much, much more that you will be hearing in the near future about the activities of the St. John of Damascus Society, and if you’re interested in hearing more, I would be more than thrilled to talk about it and answer any questions you may have.
One thing that I would like to emphasize today is that I am a historian and a musician; I am not a theologian. As a historian, I am going to have a particular method of looking at evidence. As a musician, there’s a particular kind of evidence I’m going to be looking at and a particular inclination in terms of how I look at it. What I’m not at all qualified to do is to explain or evaluate theological reasons for anything. I can tell you practical things that happen, and I can tell you who said what when about those things, but I’m not going to be the guy who can tell you how it all relates to the hypostatic union of the Persons of the Trinity.
I like narrative and characters. My general rule as a historian is that as soon as somebody mentions the nous or the hypostasis, I bow out of the conversation. I’m a historian because, well, I’m just not that bright.
But on to the topic at hand. Fr. John Finley, author of the Sacred Meals cookbook, tireless mission priest for the Department of Missions and Evangelism for the Antiochian Archdiocese and frequent presenter on musical topics at the annual Sacred Music Institute at Antiochian Village, said during a homily at last year’s Sacred Music Institute that he once had visited an Orthodox parish that had a converted Baptist church as its building. The community, he said, kept some of the old liturgical furniture and converted the huge, old-style pulpit into a chanter’s stand.
Now, Fr. John went in one particular direction with the image of the chanter as the proclaimer of the word and thus of the truth, and that’s a great image, but I’d like to give it a different spin today. If we as Church singers are proclaimers of the Word, then I would like to suggest that there is a responsibility that places on our shoulders, that we need to consider that there is, as my title suggests, a privilege, a craft, and a discipline to proclaiming the faith in music.
Let’s deal with these one by one.
When I describe singing in church as a privilege, I choose that word specifically to distinguish it from being an entitlement. Just so we’re all clear, that’s not me making things up. There is a historical precedent as far back as the fourth-century Council of Laodicea, which saw singing in church enough in terms of privilege to, in its fifteenth canon, clearly define a difference between appointed cantors and everybody else.
Discussing singing in church as a privilege can be, as I think probably most of us know, a rather tricky proposition. The basic narrative one tends to hear about singing in church, even from Orthodox sources, especially from American Orthodox sources, it seems, is one of decline. It goes something like this: Once upon a time, everybody sang everything, and there was a clear simplicity about how singing in church was approached that made the Liturgy the authentic song at the heart of the people, acting in sincere dialogue with the clergy at the altar. As Christianity became the public religion of the Roman empire and certain functions were professionalized, singing in church became hijacked by cantors who wanted to silence the people’s prayer for their own benefit, and they sang increasingly complex and elaborate music that obscured the text and excluded the participation of the people.
When Orthodoxy in Greece, Asia Minor, and the Middle East fell under Ottoman rule, it was then that what little purity and authenticity was left in their liturgical singing was further corrupted by Turkish musical influences, and so today we have the impossibly complex and foreign-sounding system of chanting that is an indisputable stumbling block for American Orthodox Christians everywhere. American Orthodox Christians who have the opportunity to chuck all the encrustation and restore the proper prayerful sung dialogue between altar and nave.
If you buy that narrative, then as soon as you hear somebody like me talking about singing in church as a privilege and not an entitlement, the hairs are probably starting to stand straight up on your neck. So let me say a bit more about what I mean about singing in church being a privilege, first in theoretical terms and then in practical terms.
First, why do we sing in church? I mean, really. Our services are about 90% sung, more or less, and wouldn’t we be able to get it done in less than an hour if we had the equivalent of a Low Mass, where everything was spoken? The short answer I can give to this question is that our tradition is one of sung worship, but let’s look at that a little more closely. The Old Testament, in particular the Psalter, certainly gives us a portrait of a fully developed culture of liturgical music in the Temple. The New Testament essentially appears to simply assume that we do sing in our assemblies. Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19, for example: these reference singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.
But the Gospels and epistles can hardly be said to give us a fully realized context for this singing. One of the earliest pagan witnesses to Christianity, the letter of Pliny the Younger, a governor in what is now northern Turkey, to the Emperor Trajan, around 113, specifically names as a defining characteristic of Christians the singing of a hymn to Christ as to a god in their secret gatherings. So, great! Historically it’s clear that we’re singing in church from pretty early on, but why?
The why seems to start getting articulated along with some specificity of form in the fourth century. In his homily on the first psalm, St. Basil the Great says:
For when the Holy Spirit saw that mankind was ill-inclined toward virtue and that we were heedless of the righteous life because of our inclination to pleasure, what did he do? He blended the delight of melody with doctrine in order that, through the pleasantness and softness of the sound, we might unawares receive what was useful in the words according to the practice of wise physicians who, when they give the more bitter drafts to the sick, often smear the rim of the cup with honey. For this purpose, these harmonious melodies of the psalms have been designed for us, that those who are of boyish age or wholly youthful in their character, while in appearance they sing, may in reality be educating their souls.
Something that the English translation does not quite capture is the interplay of certain Greek words. Our being heedless of the righteous life is expressed as being, in Greek, amelountas, that is, not being melountas or heedful. The word for “melody” is melōdia, and then the word for “honey” is melē. In other words, because we are amelountas, God gave us melōdia, much as a doctor would give us melē. The point, ultimately, being that God gave us music in order to trick us into wanting to worship him.
There’s another aspect to this, however, that St. Basil hints at a little later in the text: “A psalm is the work of the angels, the ordinance of heaven, the incense of the Spirit.” Here we start to get a sense of singing in our worship as a way of imitating the heavenly worship. St. John Chrysostom rearticulates some of this a few decades later in his Exposition on Psalm 42 (“As the deer pants for water”), he says the following:
Because God, seeing that many of the men were being lazy and were coming to the reading of spiritual things with ill-temper and not joyfully putting up with the effort of it, and wanting to make the work more desirable and to guard against the perception of it as work, God mingled prophecy with melody in order that everybody, being deceived by the form of the melody, might send up the sacred hymns to God with great zeal.
Here again is the idea that God gives us music as a palliative, something to make the effort of worshiping him both bearable and desirable. In his Exposition on Psalm 150, while not mentioning singing specifically, he develops the idea of our earthly worship being a reflection of the heavenly liturgy:
So let us praise God without interruption. Let us not cease giving thanks (in Greek, evcharistountes) on behalf of all, both through words and through deeds, for this our sacrifice and offering seems the best public service (in Greek, leitourgia, liturgy) for the angelic citizenry.
This “angelic citizenry,” angeliki politia, is also discussed by Chrysostom in his treatise On the Priesthood as being present with the celebrating priest at the altar during a Divine Liturgy. The Church historian Socrates winds up saving this relationship in so many words in the mid-fifth century. As he is recounting Chrysostom’s life, he inserts an account of St. Ignatius of Antioch having
a vision of angels singing hymns antiphonally to the Holy Trinity. Accordingly, St. Ignatius introduced the mode of singing he had observed in the vision into the church at Antioch, whence it was transmitted by tradition to all the other churches.
Here is a clear statement of not only singing in the abstract being an intentional imitation of heavenly worship, but also a specific form of singing: antiphonal singing, that is, two choirs singing responsorially to one another. It’s also worth mentioning that if you open The Prologue of Ochrid to the entry for St. Ignatius on the 20th of December, you will see that this reference to his vision of antiphonal choirs of heaven makes it into the summary of his life. So this is so important that it even makes it into some versions of the Synaxarion.
Antiphonal singing made a brief appearance in the letter of Pliny the Younger just referenced [Book 10, Letter 96]: The Christians are described as singing their hymns, in Latin, invicem, one to another or responsorially. “Invicem,” I suppose, if there are any classical scholars listening. But here it is laid out in concrete terms.
We’ll now jump ahead to the eighth century and St. Germanus of Constantinople’s commentary On the Divine Liturgy, particularly his description of the Great Entrance and the singing of the Cherubic Hymn.
By means of the procession of the deacons and the representation of the fans which are in the likeness of the seraphim, the Cherubic Hymn signifies the entrance of all the saints and the righteous ahead of the cherubic powers and the angelic hosts, who run invisibly in advance of the great king, Christ, who is proceeding to the mystical sacrifice, borne aloft by material hands.
Together with them comes the Holy Spirit in the unbloody and rational sacrifice. The Spirit is seen spiritually in the fire, incense, smoke, and fragrant air, for the fire points to his divinity and the fragrant smoke to his coming invisibly and filling us with good fragrance through the mystical, living, and unbloody service and sacrifice of burnt offering.
In addition, the spiritual powers and the choirs of angels who have seen his dispensation fulfilled through the cross and death of Christ, the victory over death which has taken place, the descent into hell, and the resurrection on the third day, with us exclaim: Alleluia!
Here, in St. Germanus’ description, the ideas that Ss. Basil and John Chrysostom were hinting at are not only glossed and expanded, but they spill out of the altar into the entire church building. St. Germanus goes on to note that, in the Divine Liturgy, “earthly things imitate the heavenly, transcendent, and spiritual order of things,” making the singing of the Cheruvikon the moment in which the fullness of the liturgical action joins heaven and earth in a manner witnessed two centuries later by the Kievan emissaries from Prince St. Vladimir who, after attending services in Agia Sophia, said that they “knew not whether they were in heaven or on earth.”
Now, since I’m mostly a late-antique historian, I should probably stop there with the ancient witnesses and start talking about what all of that actually means for us now. To put it really simply, singing in church is the privilege of being the designated imitators of the angels. We produce a vital component of the beauty that blurs the line between heaven and earth, and in so doing, we are not only singing but also teaching and preaching: again, the psalterion as a pulpit.
For me, the question I constantly have to ask myself is: Do I treat it as the privilege that it is? Well, I obviously can’t answer that question for anybody else. It seems like a question that all of us who serve liturgically in one form or another could fruitfully ask ourselves. And, yes, contributing one’s voice at the psalterion is liturgical service. It may or may not be ordained service, but it is service regardless, one way or the other.
There are, I think, some relatively simple ways that we Church singers can treat what we do as a privilege. First and foremost, thinking on what Chrysostom says, I think that we can come to the choir with good temper and to joyfully undertake the effort. In short, we can treat it like a priority and be thankful that we get to do it. I am somebody, truthfully, for whom this is incredibly difficult. I am not by nature the kind of person who just shows up in the morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, so I am generally not a happy camper when the alarm goes off on Sunday morning, and I have to imagine that to anybody who sees me when I shuffle into church at 8:30 in the morning, I probably don’t look terribly angelic, unless it’s the Angel of Death you have in mind.
There is only so much I can do about that, but what I can do is, once I’m in place at my klēros, rather than grumpily flipping books open and looking visibly annoyed that nobody else has shown up yet, I can take a deep breath—she knows—make the sign of the cross, and say the prayer one finds in some prayer books before the starting of work:
O Lord Jesus Christ, only-begotten Son of the eternal Father, thou hast said with thy most holy lips, “Without me you can do nothing.” My Lord and my God, in faith I embrace thy words with my heart and soul and bow before thy goodness. Help me, a sinner, to do in union with thee this work which I am about to begin, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Or, if that’s too much of a mouthful, some short prayer in which I thank God he has allowed me to come and worship him with such talents as I have. Or, if I’m having the kind or morning where even that’s a tall order, something like, “Lord, I am thankful. Help thou my unthankfulness!”
In a way, I’m trying to be less preachy here than practical. It’s not that we need to paste on a smile that’s not genuine when we’re singing a service. We don’t really want to be overly and overtly emotive, one way or the other, right? The Divine Liturgy is not an episode of Glee. At the same time, we don’t want to be visibly in a state that’s not fitting for worship, if for no other reason than it’s going to have a severe impact on how we sing.
[Gloomily] God is the Lord who has shown us light. Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.
To be clear, if you’re directing your choir, then there are going to be moments when you have to make sure that you have the reins, and sometimes the need to communicate clearly to your singers, in a setting where you have limited means and limited time by which to get your point across, is going to look, perhaps, more negative and combative than you might like. But I’m not talking about that, really. Those are specific instances where things have to be accomplished in a group dynamic. I’m talking about simply being mentally and spiritually prepared somehow to carry out the ministry of our sung worship and to do so joyfully if not necessarily happily.
Something even more basic than that, in terms of treating singing in church as a priority and a privilege, is just showing up and showing up on time. We all love to joke about “Orthodox time,” right? But there actually is a serious and relevant issue there, but it’s not quite what you think. Did you know that our Liturgy actually assumes a different kind of time during services? It’s true. In Greek, our liturgical texts use two different words: chronos, which is the world’s time, and kairos, which is God’s time.
The deacon’s first words in the Divine Liturgy to the priest are: “Kairos tou poiēsai tō Kyriō—It is time for the Lord to act,” is how we usually say it, I think. More literally: “it is the time of acting for the Lord” or “it’s is the Lord’s time of action.” We are on God’s time during our services, something that is demonstrated by the oft pointed-out fact that if you follow the Typikon exactly and fully, all of the services for a single day take longer than a 24-hour period to serve. I think some people call that an icon of time, and they do so because they know full well that nobody is ever going to do that, so it must reflect a heavenly reality.
For our purposes, though, what it actually means to be on God’s time is we don’t have any place better to be, quite literally, and in every sense of the phrase. If I’m singing in church and thus serving a liturgical function, then it becomes all the more important that I’m not only there on time, but that I get there with a sufficient buffer of time beforehand to prepare myself and to joyfully undertake the effort.
But it’s not just a matter of getting there on time Sunday morning. If I’m serious about taking on the ministry of singing our services, then do I make the time to actually be there for our services? Do I make it to Matins, to Saturday Vespers, for other services that might be on the calendar? Now, to be completely honest, I have to answer that question, “No.” In my situation, my parish has served Wednesday Vespers for the last five years, along with Wednesday Presanctifieds during Lent, and my program has a really bad habit of scheduling classes that I’m supposed to take on Wednesday evenings. I’m also active in my profession discipline in terms of conferences and so on, plus, every so often, somebody asks if I might be able to visit their parish. So, no, I can’t be there for everything; I have to have substitutes. But what I have worked very hard to do, nonetheless, is to make it clear that my parish can count on [my] being there as the norm, and I am there far more often than I am not. That, I can tell you, is because, on the long view of the time-line, I absolutely want to be there, even if at specific points on the time-line, I struggle.
What about rehearsal? That’s another aspect of showing up and being prepared. At my parish, when I inherited my choir, one of the first things I did was to say, “Okay, we’re going to start having a regular rehearsal at which I’m going to expect you to be in attendance more often than not,” and immediately half the choir quit. It has taken seven years of doing what I say I’m going to do at least far more often than not, if not perfectly, and training those who stayed with me to understand why rehearsal is necessary, and why it’s a positive thing for everybody, to start to get back to some of those folks who couldn’t comprehend what I was talking about.
Rehearsal is, from what I’ve seen, a word that isn’t well understood or well-loved in the world of Orthodox music in this country, and I remain not quite clear on why, but the practical point is that we have a more-or-less 96% sung Liturgy, give or take, and perhaps the richest, most complex traditions of vocal music in Christendom. I don’t see how the average parish choir can manage to not rehearse, quite frankly. Every parish situation is going to be different, of course. Some choirs may rehearse once a week; some twice a month; some once a month, whatever. But whatever the rehearsal schedule is, that should be considered part of showing up.
There is a monk-priest, one Fr. Joseph Mores, the abbot of St. Gregory Palamas Monastery in Ohio, who for years was the parish priest of Ss. Constantine and Elena Church in Indianapolis. I once heard him give a talk about some of these things, and he put it very bluntly: If you’re singing for Divine Liturgy, then he expects you to have been there for Vespers and at least most of Matins. And, as he put it—I can still hear him in my head—“If you can’t show up on time, go stand with the faithful. You are not a bishop.” A priest can do that. A monk-priest can really do that.
Obviously, practical reality can intrude into our nice, safe, theoretical world. It may very well be that the rehearsal schedule and the liturgical schedule, in the context of the lives that people actually have to live, have to be, at least to begin with, an icon of time. But even if that’s the case, starting off with what one has, and then striving toward embodying that icon is what our goal should ideally be. Again, this is a privilege, the privilege of being the angelic liturgy, and if that’s at the forefront of my mind, I know that I can do no less, at least.
So much for singing in church as a privilege. On to the craft of sacred music.
Again, if one assumes a narrative of decline with respect to our music, then craft again becomes a tricky concept to talk about. Isn’t that another word for “elite” or “professional” or “virtuoso” or some other word that means “not the people”? It should come as no surprise by now that my answer is: “No, that’s not what it means.”
First of all, I’m using the word “craft” as opposed to “art.” “Art,” meaning more specifically “art for art’s sake,” and “craft” having an artistic dimension, to be sure, but in the service of a higher objective. What I’d like to suggest is that the notion of craft is an organic outgrowth of considering liturgical singing a privilege. Because we have the privilege of imitating the angelic choirs, then it is incumbent on us to learn how we may best carry out that imitation and make it our own. We learn this, as we learn many things in Orthodox Christianity, by means of tradition, by means of what is passed down by our forebears in the faith.
Here in this country, we run into some problems of cultural concepts when talking about this. Orthodox Christianity emerged in a world where, frankly, beauty and ceremony and ornamentation mattered. They functioned as a way of expressing common societal concepts and beliefs. To put it one way, Orthodox Christianity historically is practiced by people who have the cultural instinct of gilding the things they love. To again return to the image of the Church singer as a preacher, nowhere was this more true in the ancient Roman world that gave birth to the Church than in public speaking. Rhetorical education was a must for the educated gentleman, and to make this connection even more concrete, music notation emerged from the prosodic signs used in rhetoric.
Still, that’s not really our cultural instinct in the 21st century, is it? How many times do we hear somebody say, or how many times do we ourselves say, “Just give me the basics”? How often do we say about public speakers that we prefer the guy who doesn’t sound so polished? We want to strip the things we love down to the bare essentials, to chip off all the unnecessary accretions that well-meaning but ignorant people have laid on things over the centuries and boil it down to its essence.
Not to sound crass, but the Orthodox approach is to take something we love and give it beautiful adornments. The approach of our modern culture is to take what we love and tear off all its clothes.
Now, with respect to the craft of Orthodox liturgical singing, let me now say that mostly what I’m going to be referencing in a concrete fashion is Byzantine music. This is not, I assure you, because I think Byzantine music is somehow fundamentally better or “more Orthodox,” whatever that means, than Slavic music, but it’s simply the one about which I know the most, and it’s also the easiest one for me to discuss without a multimedia system or a full choir to sing musical examples. There’s also the added bonus of Byzantine chant being the authentic musical heritage of the Patriarchate of Antioch, and here we are in an Antiochian parish, so there you go.
Obviously, the craft of liturgical singing is a musical craft, where the instrument used is the voice. Dr. Grammenos Karanos, the new professor of Byzantine chant at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological Seminary, writes that Orthodox music is “strictly vocal.
This means that it is a form of music always performed a cappella. Instruments were excluded from worship from early Christian times because they were associated with pagan rites, but also because the voice was regarded as the most pure and perfect instrument. Additionally, instrumental music was believed to excite the senses and was consequently considered unsuitable for worship.
So some irregularities in certain American parishes resulting from the overall historical weirdness of Orthodox Christianity in North America aside, organs, to say nothing of guitars and drum kits, are right out.
So there’s using the voice that’s a component of the craft: we have to know how to sing. There’s also the component of the craft that involves how to learn our hymnody, either through learning things by heart or learning things off of a page of musical notation of some kind. There is also the component to the craft that consists of knowing how to compose our hymnody.
Again, all of this is rooted in tradition. There is a tradition of how we sing, there is a tradition of how we know what we sing, and there is a tradition of how new things are composed for us to sing. This is really true across the board in Orthodox Christianity. There is a tradition in how we transmit the faith, a tradition in how we know what to transmit, and a tradition of how we re-articulate the faith. And it’s cyclical: each stage leads to another one across the generations. Like language, it evolves, but tradition ultimately means preservation via continuity within the worshiping community, not fossilization. What I learned from my teachers and by experience in church over time, I will have to figure out how to communicate to the next generation, and so on.
Let me give you an example of how this is working itself out in real time, as it were, in our country right now. You have the third mode Resurrectional theotokion that’s sung at Vespers and Matins. Here’s the Greek version, just for reference.
[Sung] Se tēn mesitevsasan tēn sōtērian tou genous ēmōn, anymnoumen Theotoke Parthene; en tē sarki gar tē ek sou proslēphtheisē, o Yios sou kai Theos ēmōn, to dia Stavrou katadexamenos pathos, elytrōsato ēmas, ek phthoras ōs philanthrōpos.
So that’s the Greek version. Now, here’s Kazan’s transcription of the Arabic version of the melody, adapted to the translation found in the five-pounder, in Nassar’s text.
[Sung] Thee, who art the mediatrix for the salvation of our race, we praise, O Virgin Theotokos, for in the flesh assumed from thee, after that he had suffered the passion of the cross, thy Son and our God delivered us from corruption because He is the lover of mankind.
Something’s not quite right there, right? “Thee who art the mediatrix…” That’s weird from a textual standpoint… So the first word there is “thee,” right? Do we normally start sentences with “thee,” even in early modern English? Right. So that’s an object pronoun, right? We’re praising thee, but because of where it is, it just sounds wrong. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve seen just instinctively correct it to “Thou who art the medatrix,” but that’s not quite right, because we’re praising and magnifying “thou”? Doesn’t work.
We can do it, but… and Nassar here is actually preserving the Greek word order, but at first blush it really sounds like a mistake. And it’s also a little weird musically, putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable, if you follow me. And this is frequently the charge made against Byzantine chant in English, that the melodic patterns don’t work with English, that you wind up with weird stresses, melismas on unimportant syllables, awkward transitions, so on and so forth.
All of this can be true, to use Kazan as a working example. Kazan transcribed what he knew, and he transcribed the text he was told to use, and what he did was unheard of in his day. But Byzantine chant and Kazan are not synonymous. What is in fact the case is that if you recompose melodies for the English text using the principles of Byzantine composition, doing your best to preserve what you can of the familiar melody, it works a heck of a lot better. Here is one attempt using the Holy Transfiguration Monastery translation of the text.
[Sung] We praise thee, the Mediatress, for the salvation of our race, O Virgin Theotokos; for in the flesh taken from thee, thy Son and our God hath deigned to endure the Passion through the Cross, and hath redeemed us from corruption, since He is the Friend of man.
Works better, right? Now, there’s another problem here, and that’s one of traditional style. I’m a trained Western singer, and if I look at a staff-notation version of this with no other information, then I might be very much inclined to sing it this way:
[Sung, pompously] Thee, who art the mediatrix for the salvation of our race, we praise, O Virgin Theotokos…
Wrong on so many levels! I’m not down stage center at the Met—thank God—I’m in a church, and there’s a style that’s more appropriate to this kind of music, even with Kazan:
[Sung, simply] Thee, who art the mediatrix for the salvation of our race…
More text-based and less… and less… You don’t have to live in the vibrato with this kind of music. Again, God forbid. But you don’t find that out if you’re just given the Kazan Matins and Vespers books and told, “Okay, you’re up.”
Something that may be, hopefully, unnecessary for me to point out, but seems relevant here, is that this is not an acceptable solution:
[Sung, to the tune of “Amazing Grace”] Thee, who art the mediatrix for the salvation of our race…
Not acceptable. I’m not going to explain why right this second, because if I did it would eliminate the need for you to come tonight, but maybe there can be some discussion of that following this talk.
Okay. Some of you might be thinking, “Fascinating, but isn’t this all a little obscure for the average person? What we do isn’t an early music concert. It’s worship, not performance.” I agree that an Orthodox church choir is not an early music ensemble. However, I’d like to suggest that we’re rather more than that, not less than that, and that in my experience, if one sacrifices performance for worship, then you wind up doing neither well.
It has at times been argued that “virtuosic” music should be avoided in our worship because it calls attention to itself for the wrong reasons, but I would point out that St. John Koukouzelis was the Bach of Byzantine chant. He helped to develop a highly virtuosic style of the Byzantine repertoire called kalophonic chant or beautiful voice chant, and it is his musical accomplishments that are why he was glorified as a saint. He was not remembered as a narcissitic cantor who was just attention-grabbing. I would also point out that our Archdiocese’s own Bishop Basil once noted that “music sung badly in our services also calls attention to itself for the wrong reasons.”
The craft of Orthodox sacred music is multi-dimensional. It interacts with other liturgical crafts. Architecture, for example: acoustics are an obvious way that music interacts with architecture, but also the placement of the choir is significant. If you’ve got a choir that stands in a loft or stands to the side up front, then frankly the singers are either not seen or they are outliers. They sort of exist in a way that either doesn’t relate to the congregation or to the church building, so what the choir is doing might well simply be factored out by the congregation.
Along similar lines, if it’s a church building where the acoustic does not support the singing at all, and the choir can’t be heard from ten feet away—and I’m very, very happy to say that that’s not the case in your building: thank you! Once again, if that’s the case, the congregation instinctively just factor them out.
Traditional Orthodox church architecture and arrangement of singers actually solves this problem. A live, resonant acoustic is a given, but what you also traditionally have is actually two choirs: a right choir and a left choir, who stand on opposite sides at the front of the church. These two choirs sing antiphonally, as we’ve seen, imitating the angelic choirs in heaven. It’s a practice that we don’t often see here in this country for various historical reasons—at least not yet—but there are plenty of places in our rubrics where the antiphonal choir set-up is assumed and referenced.
If you look at the layout of a traditionally designed church and look at where the clergy, choirs, and congregation are placed in that layout, what emerges is a cruciform arrangement of the participants, and when it is experienced in action, it is a beautiful, non-linear dance of who sings what when, a dance that is unfortunately somewhat obscured in many American parishes that either only have one choir or who have adopted as a model of congregational participation “everybody sings everything,” often including the priest’s parts.
Music also interacts with iconography. That is to say, our hymnody often discusses what we see in our icons. The Paschal apolytikion is a great example: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life.” That’s exactly what we see in the Paschal icon, isn’t it?
And architecture and iconography also serve as interesting parallels to music in terms of how they are treated as a craft. In each case, what one does and how one does it is governed by tradition, and these are traditions that contribute significantly to the beauty of our worship. An iconographer follows models and employs particular techniques and materials in painting icons. An architect does the same thing when building churches. Singing in church is, for all intents and purposes, the aural equivalent of these skills.
Something else that all of these skills have in common is the need for discipline which is where I now turn. So, discipline. If the narrative of decline makes it difficult to discuss the liturgical singing of the Orthodox Christian churches as a privilege or a craft, then discipline sure isn’t going to be much easier. It’s hard enough for me to grasp sometimes: Okay, I need to remember that I’m part of how the Church images the heavenly worship, and I need to remember that I can’t just sing whatever the heck I want, but there’s a tradition that I need to learn and that I need to follow, but I also have to be disciplined about it!? What the heck does that even mean?
First of all, there’s something very Christian about discipline. Obviously, it’s a form of the same Latin word that gives us “disciple”: discere, which, just as in Greek, mathētēs, literally means “learner.” Going back to the Chrysostom quote I discussed earlier, part of the point of God giving us music in church is so that we might worship him with great zeal. So as we talked about it, we treat it as a privilege and a priority, and we treat it as a craft. That’s a big chunk of treating it like a discipline right there: something that takes regular effort and care.
But to come back to the learner part, something that is significant in terms of treating something as a discipline is taking on the mindset—I’m told we Orthodox like the word “phronema”—of it being less important where we begin with the craft than where we are trying to go, how we are trying to get there, and being faithful in that effort. For me, what this means is that I am always looking for ways that I can do better. I tell my choir, “Yes, I expect you to come to rehearsal. Yes, I expect you to put in time and work. And yes, I expect you to try to learn what I’m going to try to teach you. But I don’t expect anything of you that I am not also expecting of myself.”
The thing is, being a learner implies that you have a teacher, and that can be tricky in this country as well, for practical and cultural reasons. First of all, we have this tremendous do-it-yourself impulse in this country, don’t we? We would rather figure out how to synthesize water from hydrogen and oxygen than go look for a stream. I can remember in my younger, wanna-be rock-star days being looked down upon by other guitarists because I actually had a guitar teacher. “C’mon. If you want to be taken seriously, then you teach yourself, right? If you want to learn how to do something, DIY, baby. Look it up online, go to the library, find a TV show, or just start tinkering on your own.”
Eventually you may figure out a working method to do what you wanted, and this impulse could certainly make one very resourceful with information, but it can also tend to make one very idiosyncratic when they have to communicate with others about what they’re doing. You may understand what you’re doing if you’re self-taught, but if you then have to teach somebody else, or interact with others who are doing the same thing, it may be challenging. Not impossible, but challenging.
Concrete example: Byzantine chant pedagogy uses a system of solfège similar to do-re-mi, but with its own note names. Instead of [sung] do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do, it uses [sung] ni-pa-vou-ga-di-ke-zo-ni—there will be a quiz later. I was once talking to a self-taught cantor who had simply ignored all of that, and did everything as do-re-mi. He was able to get the job done, but there wound up being some unnecessary miscommunication because we simply weren’t using the same terms. He complained that using ni-pa-vou when there’s a perfectly functional system of pitch-names that Westerns all know already made Byzantine chant less accessible.
But the thing of it is, the vast majority of people who know what a Westerner interested in chant wants to know are speaking in ni-pa-vou, not do-re-mi. You’re committing yourself to idiosyncrasy if you just say, “I’m self-taught, I know my own way to do it, and that’s good enough.” This also applies to the issue of notation, but I won’t go there right now.
I will also note that there seems to be something peculiar about how this do-it-yourself impulse interacts with Orthodoxy in this country. It’s not all that uncommon, for example, to go to various non-Orthodox churches and find church musicians who have terminal, professional degrees in church music, and who actually do it for a living. We Orthodox have perhaps the richest, most diverse sung heritage in all of Christendom, and some of us struggle to convince ourselves that it’s sufficiently doing well to even go to rehearsal.
The practical reason being a learner in this country can be tricky—well, one of them, anyway—is that it can seem like teachers can be very hard to come by. As I briefly alluded to earlier, if you want to learn to chant in the Antiochian Archdiocese, you’re essentially handed the Kazan Byzantine [Music] Project and the five-pounder and told, “Have fun.” Living in Bloomington, Indiana, ironically home to one of the best schools of music in the country—just ask them—(did I say that?)—there was nobody within a five-hour drive who could really tell me what I wanted to know. I had to drive to the Antiochian Village to attend the Sacred Music Institute to even start to get an idea of just what the bigger world looked like. And eventually, I just had to go to Greece for a summer to study with a teacher there. I even had this very discussion with my teacher, who said, simply, “Yes, the problem in America is that you need teachers there.”
As it turns out, there are more solutions to the teacher problem than there were, say, ten years ago, at least with respect to Byzantine chant. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has an archdiocesan school of Byzantine music. Right here in Pennsylvania is the American Society for Byzantine Music and Hymnography. There is John Michael Boyer and the Koukouzelis Institute, and so on. Holy Cross Seminary in Boston has a new professor of Byzantine music, Grammenos Karanos, who is doing some great work.
The Antiochian Archdiocese doesn’t yet have its own Byzantine chant program, but a lot of our seminarians are learning from Dr. Karanos at Holy Cross, and there have been a few others like me who have had opportunities to go to Greece. With respect to Russian music, Kurt Sander is trying to be part of the solution by teaching every summer at Jordanville, for example. So the resources are out there for people to take advantage of, and as more people take advantage of them, presumably, the more they will be able to multiply. We have an ever-decreasing stock of excuses to not be learners, to not be disciplined.
If hearing me say all this, you think I’m telling you, “Either drop everything, go to Greece, and study with a Byzantine chant teacher there, or get out!” well, no, that’s not exactly what I mean. My point is we always need to seek to be learning to be doing what we do as Church musicians better. If the ultimate object of what we’re doing is God, then there is no “good enough” as such. That doesn’t mean we’re all going to get to a level where we can sing with Cappella Romana; what it means is that there’s always a next level worth striving for, and that goes for all of us.
One other aspect of the discipline of singing in church I’ll mention. I haven’t really talked about the prayer life of the Church musician much today, since, ultimately, that’s between the individual and the spiritual father—but it’s vital, and it’s oft overlooked. The reason why it is oft overlooked is, quite simply, we’re at more services than we’re not, so that’s our prayer life, right? Oh! If only! That doesn’t work, and I think we all know why, right?
As much as we hear about congregational singing supposedly being a must for the active participation of the people, those of us who sing in the choir are honestly sacrificing aspects of our own participation in the service of our own liturgical function. This is part of what I mean when I say that, if we look at the psalterion as a pulpit, as opposed to another place where one might choose to stand and look on with a bigger book, it becomes a responsibility rather than something that we’re doing for our own gratification.
This is also part of what I mean when I say that worship and performance cannot be compartmentalized apart from one another. You have to do both. If you’re in the choir, it really does matter that everything be done decently and in order in a way that isn’t necessarily apparent from the congregation. You have to pay attention to page turning, having the right book in the right spot at the right time. You have to pay attention to notes and words. You have to pay attention to the altar. And, as I’ve suggested before, you have to pay attention to your own attitude and comportment during the service.
In general, your sense of what’s going on within and without has to be heightened, and that means that you don’t have the luxury that the person out in the congregation does to simply bliss out in the middle of the Divine Liturgy in your own personal spiritual moment. You are functioning in position of liturgical leadership, and while the role of the cantor is a high calling, with its own joys and its own spiritual benefits, you have to take extra care to be mindful of your spiritual life and prayer life because that greater responsibility is on your shoulders.
As Chrysostom said, music was given to us in church so that we would be of better temper in worship,” but if we’re not careful, it can also make us bitter and jaded, which I don’t think is exactly what was envisioned as the solution. Just to put that in perspective, if that’s the burden that you have just by being one of the singers, think about how much bigger of a burden the celebrating priest then has, relative to you.
I’ll wrap this up with a few additional thoughts. The image of the psalterion as a pulpit, of the cantor as a preacher, is good as far as it goes, but I think it’s necessary to point out that it becomes a bit of a limiting image. In a way, we do a lot more than any homilist, to the extent that our faith is expressed liturgically, then the cantor really does, over the course of the liturgical cycle, preach the faith in its unchanging fullness in a way that could never be done with a homily.
And while of course we sing in words, what we do goes beyond adornment of a text. Music can be seen as a style of rhetoric, but it’s so much more than just that. The Russians have an expression that they use to describe how our services should be celebrated: so slavoyu, with glory. We find this idea in places like Ezekiel 43:1-5:
Afterward, he brought me to the gate, even the gate that looketh toward the East, and behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the East, and his voice was like a noise of many waters, and the earth shined with his glory. And it was according to the appearance of the vision which I saw, even the vision that I saw when I came to destroy the city, and the visions were like the vision that I saw by the river Kebar, and I fell upon my face. And the glory of the Lord came into the house by the way of the gate whose prospect is towards the East. So the spirit took me up and brought me into the inner court, and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the house.
Celebrating “with glory.” I wouldn’t say that music adds glory, however; music reveals the glory. It reveals the angelic worship. This is something we get to do as singers in church, but it is also something that we should do well and is worth learning to do better.
A question I hear a lot is: “Does this matter? I mean, this is church. Does it really make a difference? Most of us just do what we’re able to do. It’s good enough. Most people just enjoy what they hear. What does it actually mean, and whom does it actually edify to spend all of this time and energy to talk about ideals that most of us normal people aren’t ever going to have the first clue of how to reach or care about?” It’s a valid question, a valid series of questions.
I was at a workshop once that John Michael Boyer was giving, and having just the previous week heard from the Orthodox architect Andrew Gould, the best answer I’d ever heard to the question, “Why do we need beautiful churches?” I was eager to hear how John would answer a similar question about music: “Why do we need beautiful music in church?” I asked him. I have to say, I wasn’t completely prepared for this answer, but he said, “Because it isn’t boring that way,” and said that music helped to make worship “entertaining.”
There was some negotiating back and forth with the audience a bit over the word “entertaining.” Would “engaging” be a better word?, etc. But John pretty much stuck to his guns, and offered precisely the passage from Chrysostom I gave you earlier to back up the point. Ultimately, he said, beautiful singing is part of what gives us joy in church.
Regardless of whether one likes the word “entertaining” or not, according to both Sts. Basil and Chrysostom, God gave us music in church into trick us into coming more willingly and worshiping with it. As said earlier, we gild everything we use in our worship, and God gives us various ways of doing that because he knows we will enjoy using it, and therefore we will enjoy worshiping more that way. We do everything with glory because our hearts will be more gladdened that way.
One last point: I mentioned earlier that singing in church is a high calling, and whenever I say that, there’s usually somebody who’s thinking to themselves, “Wow. I’m willing to bet you just made that up. Pretty self-serving for a choir director to say that.” Well, I’ll close by reading you a letter that is attributed to no less a figure than St. John Maximovitch, according to a Greek-language biography of his called The Man of God, St. John Maximovitch. It is a notice which is said to have been addressed to clerics and cantors.
It is necessary to know and to remember always that the hymns of the Church are a prayer and that the prayers should be chanted with reverence so that the faithful who are found in the church are encouraged to pray. The Psalms and the hymns that simply gratify the ear, but on account of this gratification or the manner of the performance, do not inspire somebody to pray, are not accepted. The same applies both to those Psalms and hymns that are not related to a particular church service, memorial prayer, or some ecclesiastical canon.
Moreover, the attitude of cantors should be reverent and should correspond to their high calling, just as they join their voices with those of the angels. It is the daily responsibility of the choir director to attend to this, and the instructions of the priest should be implemented without any discussion.
That pretty much sums up in less than a minute everything it took me close to an hour to say. I guess when you’re a bishop you can afford to be terse. In any event, thank you very much for your time. I look forward to your questions and comments.
"I am a college student raised in the Roman Catholic faith. I am currently a catechumen preparing to receive chrismation in the OCA. Ancient Faith Radio has been such a guide to me in my studies as I continue on the path toward full communion in the Orthodox Church. I look forward each day to utilizing your recorded podcasts as supplements to the great fullness of what we all receive in the Liturgy. As someone who was first drawn to Orthodoxy by its incomparable music, I'd like to express my deep sense of gratitude to you for providing such rich selections from the music of the Church. Truly, it speaks to the soul!"