Review: Angelic Light: Music from Eastern Cathedrals, aka Cappella Romana Greatest Hits Volume II (1453-2012)

I joke, but Volume I has in fact been out for a few years now. (And Music of Byzantium is a compilation that could be considered along the same lines, except that it has a lot of otherwise-unreleased stuff on it.)

A point I made in the talks I gave at St. Paul’s in Emmaus is that harmonizing Byzantine chant makes it something other than Byzantine chant. If you are exceptionally skilled, you can use melodic material to compose really gorgeous-sounding Western music that calls to mind Byzantine chant, but it won’t be Byzantine chant. If you are, well, not exceptionally skilled, and you just sit down and try to harmonize a Byzantine melody the way you’d harmonize anything in a first-year music theory class, you will come up with something that not only isn’t Byzantine chant, but it isn’t very good Western music, either.

The compilation Angelic Light: Music from Eastern Cathedrals is partially a demonstration of the first part of this principle, but also partially a demonstration that you actually can just write gorgeous-sounding Western music for Orthodox texts and not worry about the Byzantine chant part of the equation. The disc principally represents contemporary composers; alas, the copy I have only has track names and does not credit specific individuals for the settings, but I recognized the music of Fr. Sergei Glagolev, Rev. Dr. Ivan Moody, Richard Toensing (another member of the St. John of Damascus Society Advisory Board), and Peter Michaelides; the press release also mentions Tikey Zes. There’s really only one chant selection here, the medieval version of the Proemium of the Akathistos Hymn (aka the “Kontakion” of the Akathist or the Kontakion of the Five Sundays of Great Lent), Τῇ ὑπερμάχῳ στρατηγῷ/”To you, champion leader”.

There’s an awful lot to like about this recording; it’s a great sampling of Cappella Romana‘s polyphonic efforts, as well as of contemporary Orthodox composers in the Western world. I’ve heard some really overblown polyphonic Orthodox music; much of what’s present here is quite lush while still being reasonably restrained. Standouts include track 1, a setting of the Greek text of the anti-Trisagion “As many as have been baptized” — I think perhaps by Zes — as well as Glagolev’s Cherubic Hymn (sounding considerably more cleaned-up  than it did on its original disc — I assume it was remastered?), Moody’s “O Tébe Ráduyetsia” from the The Akathistos Hymn release, and Toensing’s carol “What shall we call you, Mary?” (very nice to see his vastly-underappreciated “Orthodox Christmas carols” included among such other works). Fr. Ivan Moody’s work I particularly appreciate because I think it does a nice job of showing how incorporating Byzantine melodic material can be an intentional compositional choice in the context of a broader work — that said, it seems highly unlikely to me that his Akathistos will get much use in an actual liturgical setting, and more’s the pity; as a result it’s harder to make the case that it’s representative of what can be done with English-language liturgical music.

And, I suppose, that gets to the one real criticism I have of the disc, which is that the title is misleading. With the possible exception of the medieval Kontakion, this isn’t music from “Eastern Cathedrals”. Most of this is by composers who are living and working in the United States; I think Peter Michaelides was born in Greece and Fr. Ivan Moody is English (and lives in Portugal!), but Richard Toensing, Tikey Zes, and Fr. Sergei Glagolev were all born in the States. Besides that, I seriously doubt any “old country” parish, let alone cathedral, would ever use this music liturgically, and at least here in the Midwest, I know of precious few American parishes that would even give this music a second look. Whether or not they should or could is a different question — I would dearly love to be a member of any parish choir that could handle this music in a liturgical context — but ultimately this recording is more representative of what Cappella Romana’s musical objectives are and what it tries to champion than what one is actually likely to hear in an Orthodox church. It’s the double-edged sword of works like the Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil — there was a community chorus that performed that piece here in Bloomington a few years ago; Fr. Peter and I gave a brief presentation to the group to talk about the liturgical context, and then Fr. Peter also talked to a group of audience members before the concert. Good opportunity for outreach, but then there were a couple of people who showed up at All Saints thinking that they were going to get to hear Rachmaninoff. Nope, sorry. Thank God that an ensemble like Cappella does what it does to try to get these ideals of sound into actual ears, but let’s make sure we’re not over-representing what’s going on.

Arguably, I’m taking the title too literally; I know that, and it frankly amounts to a seriously minor criticism, but it seems to me to be something worth discussing. The contents of the disc itself are excellent, and one hopes that hearing music like this sung at this level will inspire Orthodox church musicians and members of the congregation to wonder to themselves, “What if…?” rather than just shaking their heads and saying “If only…”

6 Responses to “Review: <i>Angelic Light: Music from Eastern Cathedrals</i>, aka <i>Cappella Romana Greatest Hits Volume II (1453-2012)</i>”


  1. 1 Owen White 14 March 2012 at 7:11 am

    Richard, I have a question that is slightly off topic but corresponds to the chant/polyphony distinction you raise here and the observations you’ve made concerning the (decidedly non-cathartic) aesthetic of Byzantine chant vs. the (cathartic) harmonization styles typical in Western sacred music in other posts of yours.

    I just read this quote by Gregory of Nyssa in which St. Gregory speaks of “musical harmony” and the “harmonious” – you can read the quote (it is not too long) here: http://caelumetterra.wordpress.com/2012/03/14/music-and-the-microcosm/

    And that got me thinking, in light of some of the things you’ve written, what on earth did Gregory mean by “harmony?” I’m now assuming that my modern Western understanding of that word is not the same thing that Gregory meant. Is that the case? What do you think that St. Gregory means by the term “harmony” – in terms of musical form?

    Grant it, the translation used there seems somewhat ‘popular’ which made me wonder if he used the Greek equivalent of “harmony” at all….

    • 2 Richard Barrett 14 March 2012 at 9:41 am

      Good question. ἁρμονία in a classical sense means “agreement”, and can also mean a “framework” or a “covenant”. Musically, the idea seems to be ways that notes agree with each other systematically, not how notes sound when articulated simultaneously. It doesn’t seem to be until the middle ages that the word appears to refer to multiple notes sounding at the same time the way we understand “harmony”. St. Ignatius of Antioch demonstrates the difference in his letter to the Ephesians — “And each of you should join the chorus, that by being symphonic in your harmony, taking up God’s pitch in unison, you may sing in one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father…” Does that make sense?

      • 3 Owen White 14 March 2012 at 1:07 pm

        Perfect sense. Thanks. Have you ever read Augustine’s On Music? It deals mostly with rhythm and not melody, but I get the sense from that work and his discussion of music in the Confessions that he also feared catharsis in Church music (or any music listened to by a Christian) and he is quite clear that overt beauty in music is dangerous and, as he puts it, led him to sin as he loved the beauty of the music so much. As I recall he relates at one point how Athanasius encouraged a ‘chanting’ that was ‘very near to speaking’ in delivery, in fear that any ornamentation would distract people from the texts if they were overwhelmed by the beauty of the chanting.

      • 4 Richard Barrett 14 March 2012 at 1:22 pm

        Parts of it. Augustine’s own clearly mixed feelings about liturgical music make him somebody about whom one must be careful; in his commentary on Ps. 99/100 he says,

        The one who sings a jubilus/The one who jubilates* does not speak with words, but it is a certain sound of joy without words: it is the voice indeed of a soul exhilarated with joy, expressing to the extent possible love but not encompassing sentiment. A man rejoicing in his own exultation, after certain words which are not able to be spoken or understood, bursts forth into such a voice of exultation without words; so that it appears that he indeed rejoices with his own voice, but as though filled with too much joy, he is not able to express with words that in which he rejoices.

        * qui iubilat — some musicologists understand this as a reference to the jubilus, the melismatic extension of the last syllable of the Alleluia; others say it’s just a reference to “being jubilant”; either way, this passage does seem to lend itself to an understanding of singing being able to have some kind of a joyful ecstatic function that is nonetheless not sentimental. With Augustine, I sometimes wonder if he isn’t telling us more about himself and his neuroses than what should actually be considered normative, but there we are.


  1. 1 Follow up on Angelic Light « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 14 March 2012 at 10:59 pm
  2. 2 Leitourgeia ka Qurbana review of Angelic Light: Music from Eastern Cathedrals - Trackback on 3 April 2014 at 6:51 pm

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