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The implications of music in the liturgical life of the Church

November 10th, 2011 by Fr. Vasile

I will praise the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.(Ps 146:2)

Like with any of the other arts employed by the Orthodox Church in its worship the music does not serve a purpose in itself. Once used in Church the music drops its role as simply embellishing the services and it is elevated to convey on a deeper level the meaning of the prayer contained in the hymns of the church and make them resonate with our souls through its melodies. Great saints of the Church like John Damascene Ephraim the Syrian Roman the Melodios Andrew of Crete Joseph the Hymnographer Kosmas the Poet John Koukouzelis and many others have carefully matched the meter of their poetry with the music so they could complement each other in an inexpressible experience of worship.St. Joseph the Hymnographer

The efforts of these great hymnographers led to the creation of the eight Byzantine modes the Octoechos  that allowed the music to convey in a uniform manner the specific atmosphere corresponding to the periods of the Church liturgical cycles. Organically developed within the body of the Church Byzantine music prevailed throughout the Greek Orthodox world and many of its sister Orthodox Churches.

In the Orthodox world today however there are some notable musical differences the most prominent being the Orthodox Church of Russia. When the Slavic lands adopted Christianity they also initially adopted Byzantine chant following in the footsteps of the Orthodox missionaries Cyril and Methodius that bought with them the liturgical beauty of Constantinople. Over time the influence of the Slavic cultural elements led to the development of a unique liturgical tradition. The Znamenny chant is such an example of Byzantine inspired music. The most notable changes in Russian Orthodox chant came with the reforms of Peter the Great who undertook a major change in the musical form of Russian liturgical music by importing musicians from Western Europe. The result today is the unique ambience and feeling of Russian Orthodox music. [i]

Despite its notation or type of chant music still has to fulfill its role of companion and facilitator of prayer. Musical instruments are not allowed into church because church music is not just art but an enhanced form of prayer. Instruments cannot pray only human voices can create the synergy between the words of worship and the melody of the hymns. Through music the liturgical life of the church is lifted at celestial heights.

This synergy is best expressed in the liturgical services of the church where music and words meet for the glory of God. During the services the priest is the one that through the grace he received at ordination leads the congregation in prayer. The congregation responds and participates in this prayer by singing the hymns and the responses. Through joining in music it is not just the priest who prays to God while the others watch as spectators it is the entire community that plays an integral role in the services.  The priest cannot serve without the community giving the answers and vice-versa the people cannot accomplish the full services without the priest leading. It is a relationship of codependence in which everyone knows their assigned role and function together like a unit.

In the old days the entire congregation would participate in the singing as the people were interested in the hymns and they knew how to chant them. In time due to many historical factors (Turkish domination communist regime etc.) the interest for the music has diminished to the point that in many churches of the cradle orthodox countries the responses are given by one or two chanters and not by the entire congregation.

An effort to increase the participation of the people in prayer at least in the United States was the introduction of church choirs. The advantage of using a choir is that instead of having one or two people giving the answers you now have 15-20 maybe more so now at least a larger number of people from the congregation actively participate in prayer. The only problem remained training the choirs in the tradition of Byzantine music which employs a different notation than the Western music and has intricacies that need years of training in order to be fully mastered. On top of this having a 20 members choir at all church service including services during the week was deemed virtually impossible.

Due to this challenges the choir involvement became limited to almost exclusively Sunday Divine Liturgies (when most of the people are attending) and the traditional Byzantine music had to be adapted for harmonized choirs using Western notation.

The adaptation of the traditional Orthodox Church music has proved to be a two edged sword. On one hand it allowed more people to participate in the singing and to be engaged in a musical ministry that was more familiar to them in a society dominated by Western sound. On the other hand for obvious practical reasons has ventured off from the traditional ethos of the Orthodox music  (at least in what the Divine Liturgy is concerned) and ended up with a more secular sound not unique to the Church anymore but now shared with the world around. As a consequence the Church maybe at risk to lose at least in what music is concerned her unique character of being “out of this world”.  We have seen the same trend in iconography with the introduction of icons that resemble more the Western religious paintings than the traditional Byzantine icons.

Even bearing these shortcomings the much larger accessibility of the choir music has allowed it to spread wide among the American Orthodox Churches and nowadays is it largely used in the majority of our churches. Several composers have made great efforts to rewrite the traditional melodies in harmonized choir settings and their works are now available through the various choir federations across the countries.

Overall the introduction of choirs has been positive. It has allowed more people that are musically gifted to use their talents in the service of the church; it made church music more accessible and increased the participation of the congregation in the Sunday worship.

With the choirs in place for Divine Liturgy still remains the issue of all the other services that are at the core of our Orthodox worship: Vespers Orthros Holy Week services weekday Liturgies etc. These services are still chanted by the psalti. The complexity of these services requires a thorough understanding of Byzantine Music and of the Church Typicon in order to accommodate for the various cycles of prayer of the Church. Managing the complex music and the changes within the order of services is a daunting task and not many are willing to walk this road and become chanters. Add to this the lack of chanting schools or other training resources in North America and one can understand the shortage of chanters faced by virtually every parish.

Sts. Peter and PaulThe choirs and the chanters are not however two separate entities; they complement each other and are equally important for the liturgical life of the Church. At any given services the people who give the answers choir or chanters represent the entire congregation and actually lead the congregation in prayer. There are a great number of possibilities to increase the collaboration between them. A number of the Sunday Liturgies throughout the ecclesiastical year contain hymns that are less familiar for the choirs and the chanters can step up and help. Choir members with an interest in byzantine music can help chant some of the weekday services when there is a shortage of chanters etc.  There is a place for everyone in the church and no one who wants to serve should be turned back.

A common pitfall for any musical ministry however has to do with the selection and the interpretation of music. For example if the music that the chanters sing is too intricate and contains too many embellishments it would make it difficult for the people to understand the words and will prevent them from fully participating into worship. In the same way if the choir music becomes too complex using for instance too many levels of harmonization or borrowing musical citations from classical Western music can fail also on its role of leading the people in prayer. Both of these extremes are detrimental because the role of the music ministry is to increase participation of the congregation not to perform for the congregation therefore musically segregating the pulpit or the choir loft from the people praying in the church.

Several recent choir conferences have focused on the type of church music one should employ during the Sunday Divine Liturgies. With composition varying from the purest Byzantine ethos to the most Western sound one has to find the balance between the two. The tradition of the Orthodox Church is not ours to change we are here to preserve it and hand it down to our children unharmed. We have the duty therefore to lay a self-critical eye on the way we do certain things and keep all that is good while carefully and gently phasing down the influences that can lead us away from what we have received at our turn.

Things get perfected by constantly scrutinizing all we do as God says “be perfect as your Father in heavens perfect is”. Self-analysis is useful in any aspect of our personal and church life. At the parish level the initiator and the keeper of this process is the priest that needs to constantly work with his choir director and psalti to make sure that the objectives of Church music are met. Evaluating music and interpretation coordinating changes is an everyday team effort that leads to a fabulous bonding in the congregation.

There are several aspects I would like to address as areas of improvement for choir members and chanters as well:

  1. Practice: without practice and rehearsals even the best music can sound really bad. Both choir and chanters should strive for musical excellence.
  2. Punctuality: the greatest chanter or choir is of no use if not in attendance. There should also exist a collaboration back-up plan for the situations where either of the two parties May not be capable of performing their duties.
  3. Collaboration with the priest: The priest is the leader of the congregation therefore he is responsible for all the aspects of parish life but especially for what concerns worship. Music is an integral part of worship therefore the priest has to provide direction to all the people involved in music ministry in the parish in order to make sure that the overall objective is maintained in focus. The priest should be involved in music selection interpretation order of services choir and chanters membership allocation of resources for music ministry etc.
  4. Collaboration chanters-choir: The choir and the chanters have a great deal in common and therefore should collaborate and cherish each other like brothers in unity.
  5. Exposing the Sunday congregation to Byzantine chant: One of the problems faced by American Orthodox communities is the fact that most of the people only attend Sunday Services therefore their musical exposure is limited to the more Western sounding Sunday liturgy music. An idea would be to periodically serve Byzantine chanting Liturgies on Sundays in order to familiarize the Sunday congregation to the Traditional sound of the Orthodox Church.

The American Orthodoxy is fortunate to have a number of wonderful choir directors with great choirs that lead thousands of people in worship every Sunday. We are also blessed with dedicated chanters that strive preserve the Byzantine Tradition throughout the Ecclesiastical Year. All of them have chosen to offer their time and talent to glorify God through music. We should thank them all for their faithful ministry. It is my hope that this article today will contribute to an even greater collaboration in the future so we could always praise the Lord with one unique voice.


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  • It is past time to ditch the organ and the Western melodies and use the original church music written by the saints. I love the weekday liturgies and Vespers at St Johns but on Sundays I go to St. Barbaras and still hear traditional Russian melodies a capella in an Orthodox tradition.

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    • There is plenty of Western music in the Russian Church also I think at St Barbara they use the popular plain chant called Prostopinije. It is inspired by Znameny chant one of the closest forms of chant to Byzantine music. The beauty of the Byzantine chant is not only in the music itself but mostly in the fact that over centuries the music closely matches the intent of the words of the hymns in a great synergy. The more modern renditions of liturgies Greek or Russian or even Romanian lack this polishing of centuries of usage and only reflect the individual opinion of one composer and not the collective wisdom of the entire Church. There are some good compositions among them one has to find them and use them as appropriate keeping the ethos and the intent of church music as unaltered as possible.

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      • Yes and I would prefer Znamenny but Prostopinije and even Polyphonic Russian chant is still much better IMO than organ music. Prostopinijeor Polyphonic Slavonic May be western copared to Byzantine chant but Organ music is much farther away than that gradual deviation. I personally feel that an organ has no place with Orthodox chanting and we should use the ancient saint-written chants and steer away from attempts to modernize and make our music more worldly or like the heterodox.

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  • I am a relative neophyte when it comes to this information but as a musician and a choir member I have a great deal of interest in it. I had always assumed that the eight church modes were more or less taken from secular Greek music which also used a collection of modes. But you say here that they were created by the efforts of these great saints and hymnographers of the church. Which is the case and where can I find out more?

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