On Church Singing

"The aesthetic element in the liturgy: in liturgical poetry, music and rite is not accidental but essential; ...when deprived of it, liturgy ceases properly to fulfill its very function, which is not simply to communicate ideas about God, but to reveal 'heaven on earth.' In our liturgical tradition this aesthetic structure of worship is absolutely essential ... beauty is its very content and means of communication ... Two thirds of all liturgical texts in our tradition are hymns -- i.e., poetry: meant to be sung." ["Problems of Orthodoxy in America", Alexander Schmemann, St. Vladimir's Seminary Quarterly, Volume 8, Number 4, 1964, pp. 166-7.]

Father Alexander Schmemann's words quoted above are from "The Liturgical Problem," part II of the larger work, in which that most beloved late teacher philosophizes on a wide range of topics (including one of his betes noires, the "Western" rite) and provides us a most intelligent characterization of the state of the Church's liturgies in the sixties of this century. Earlier, just after World War II, the Moscow Patriarch Alexis addressed the same topic, in not so much a philosophical as a pastoral way, is a Paschal message to the pastors of the churches of Moscow:

"The majority of the faithful are not experts on singing. But ask this majority what it expects from church singing and what kind of singing it wishes, and the majority will answer: give us such singing as will touch the heart; as will move us to tears of emotion; as will lift up our spirit and help us to pray. The people understand perfectly the true Spirit and the appropriate tone and spirit of church singing. Why impose upon them that which their praying spirit rejects?"

The pastors of our churches in the Diocese of the West that invite me to celebrate in their temples often ask if I have instructions I would deem necessary for this or that aspect of the Divine Services. Sometimes I do, indeed, have such instructions. I also am no stranger to the telephone or the word processor. Taking these factors into consideration, I am beginning, after over seven years as the ruling bishop, to form a clearer concept of what may be needed in general, in our diocesan liturgical life. If asked, I would come up with a list like this:

1. We sorely lack a good translation of our Orthodox Typikon. By this I mean the Typikon titled: "THE TYPIKON, i.e., THE FORMAT OF CHURCH SERVICES IN THE HOLY JERUSALEM LAVRA OF OUR VENERABLE AND GOD-BEARING FATHER SAVVAS." I've long felt that the inaccessibility of this document to English speakers made very problematic the preparation of our clergy to fulfill its inspired requirements. Strangely, there seems to be no shortage of those who have no difficulty characterizing the Typikon without ever having had a copy of it in their hands, let alone having read it. This is not auspicious for the order in our church life enjoined upon us by the Apostle Paul. However, the translation and publication of this noble and essential work is being now undertaken by a zealous and competent member of our Diocesan community.

2. We sorely lack, as an autocephalous Church, almost all our own traditional and essential Liturgical Books.

One might ask, "Well, then, Your Grace, how is it that we are serving in English at all without needed materials?" There are two answers. Number one, we are, in fact, able to serve, because most of the material in the first list is available (but not as our official publications), especially the following, all in an acceptable and consistent style; namely:

The Festal Menaion (Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware)

The Psalter (Holy Transfiguration Monastery)

The Menaion (St. John of Kronstadt Press)

The Lenten Triodion (Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware)

The Pentecostarion (Holy Transfiguration Monastery)

The Priest's Service Book (Holy Synod of the OCA)

The Bible (King James's translators)

Number two, it is odd but true that many are willing to serve not so much in accordance with the historical consensus, the historic conciliar piety, namely the Typikon, as according to what is available appropriate or inappropriate. Here we see the dark side of American pragmatism which, with psychologism, and the general anti-ascetic (and anti-aesthetic) bias that underlies most American piety, is so pernicious in Church life here.

All that has been written so far in this letter is by way of a long introduction to a discussion of the state of Church singing in our Church, a discussion which I hope will begin at our Diocesan Assembly in October in Las Vegas. I appointed Archdeacon Vincent to present a project for delegates' consideration which would address the diocese's (i.e., the parishes') needs in the area of music to form and fund a Department of Music. He presented such a project at a recent Diocesan Council meeting.

Church singing is, we must remember, the singing (and thereby the enhancement) of all the various texts listed above. One of the factors in the notoriously lacking production of suitable music for our churches is the uncertainty of the availability and viability of this or that text to our composer/arrangers. One must also admit that the debate over "what kind of English?" is an ongoing one. A rather hurried decision of the Holy Synod in an earlier period to impose the plural version of the second person personal pronoun throughout has proved not to be as widely acceptable to clergy and Faithful as had been hoped. Those who had advocated that fiat have not, for their part, been able to produce acceptable texts. White the production of anything without their imprimatur has been blocked.

What is overlooked in all this is that we need to get our liturgical life in order, so that we can devote our full attention to realizing the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and not be constantly distracted by methodological problems: problems of language, structure, administration, canonicity, and so forth. We actually have available now the entire body of textual Liturgical material in a consistent and eminently acceptable format, as I've indicated above. Moreover, we have, especially in our God-beloved Diocese a vast amount of the musical talent and experience needed as well as the necessary technology, to produce material which will benefit all our parishes and, more importantly, the entire body of Orthodox in America.

The foundation of any viable music program in the Diocese of the West must be, it's my own deep conviction, the music of the Russian Orthodox Church, and that means, of course, music belonging to our own American musical tradition. As Americans, we have incorporated all the main European musical traditions into our own, thus we consider not only Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein to be part of our tradition, but also, Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Strauss, Elgar, etc., and Rachmaninoff, Tschaikovsky, (yes, and even Bortniansky see almost any American Protestant hymnal) all as part of our great musical tradition. Its idiom is immediately recognizable as our own. Four part harmony, especially in the style of the nineteenth century [Anyone who doubts this should sit in on any gathering for community singing (as opposed to choir gatherings), college or church.] is also basic a to our American singing life. I mentioned to one of our Church musicians from another diocese at a recent All-America Council that the only truly and exclusively American music (i.e., minus all German, French, Italian, Russian influence), might be the music of the Barbershop Quartet and music commonly called "Country and Western." This man was horrified, since he thought I was advocating the introduction of such in our Churches. I meant only to try and provide a little focus to the often expressed (but little understood) advocacy of a specifically American music for our Churches. Good music, I believe, is almost universal or international. The effort to have an exclusive music of one's own race is a pipe dream.

There is, however, one aspect of "Western" music, or, more accurately nineteenth century Protestant American church music which need not, and probably should not be considered part of our Orthodox singing life: that is metered verse. While the atticized and poetic-literary language of the Byzantine liturgical corpus probably cannot be fully translated as poetry at all, to put it into the strait jacket of the metered rhythms of the Roman and North African threshing floors would be to do violence to the spirit of that entire poetic corpus. Such music was probably, finally, never completely acceptable even in Western European church usage. Frequently, for example, one had to compress words in a rather ugly, banal way to fit them into the meter. One comes across such twisted words as "flow'r", "glor-yus," "hon'rable", "heav'nly", "o'er", "e'en", and their use is mandated by having to squeeze words into a regular meter. Orthodox music, however, and this is an essential and canonical principle, is driven by the text. The text is not driven by the music, and certainly, by analogy, not by any meter.

What is needed first of all, in my opinion, is an American Obikhod. I believe the much-maligned (especially by connoisseurs) Bachmetoff Obikhod tonal system would provide excellent and most practical settings for all the tonal music of the textual liturgical corpus. It can be learned quickly and it is extremely effective in giving spirit to while not distorting the sense of our texts. One need only think of "O heavenly King" which we all sing, I believe, with great devotion and piety and compunction, to Bachmetoff's Obikhod harmonization of (Kievan) tone six. Bachmetoff's tone one is also widely sung and loved, as in "O Lord save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance," and frequently in the Typical Psalms and the Beatitudes. And so forth. To produce such an Obikhod would provide the foundation for everything else. No doubt Father Vincent's program or any future diocesan program would include it on the agenda. Besides the basic tonal complex, there is a large group of non-tonal music, or texts customarily sung to melodies and harmonies outside the 8-tone system, such as the Cherubim Hymn, the responses of the Anaphora, all the Litanies. Probably the harmonized music going under the nomenclature of "Monastery Chant," (not to be confused with the artificially revived monadic Znameny Chant and others) is also quite suitable and accessible to the less and less professionally trained singers of our parish choirs. It also has the advantage (for the Orthodox perspective) of being anonymous, which makes it, like unsigned icons, less susceptible to individualistic treatment.

I ask all the revered and hardworking choir directors and rectors to consider and discuss all these things and, especially if called upon to do so by Father Archdeacon Vincent, to be willing to assist enthusiastically in this very important work for our life together on the way to the eternal life.


The Orthodox West. The Journal of the Diocese of the West/Autocephalous Orthodox Church in America. Spring/Summer 1994, p.1:1

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