Posts Tagged 'sacred music'

CD Review: Cappella Romana, Arctic Light: Finnish Orthodox Music

arctic_light_finnish_orthodox_import-cappella_romana-26407367-859743431-frntSo, occasionally I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I think I’m going to have to learn Finnish. I have this harebrained research idea about analyzing the Byzantine liturgical cycle as a national epic (I would still need to figure out the “for whom”, “where”, and “when” aspects of the matter), and since the Kalevala is the prototypical national epic, I’d have to be able to read Finnish to be able to do it properly.

Then my wife and my advisor both take turns in slapping me, yelling, “YOU HAVE ENOUGH TO DO!”

Still, I find the case of Finland fascinating. To break out a couple of academic buzz words, it’s an oddly liminal and contested place; the language, of course, is not Indo-European but rather Finno-Ugric (as the joke goes, Finnish and Hungarian used to married, and when they got a divorce, Finnish got all the vowels), and it’s right smack dab in middle between Russia and Scandinavia, with whom there are contentious histories, as well as contentious identity issues. The Finns are decidedly not Scandinavians or Russians — there is much more affinity with Estonia, which of course has its own issues with respect to contested identity — but the cultural contact happened, and there are imprints of both them to be found in Finland. They are not Russian, they are not Scandinavian (or Germanic at all) — they are Finnish.

Religion is a part of this strange mix; Karelia is the part of Finland that is traditionally Orthodox (so I’m told), which is also the homeland of the Kalevala poetry, in which we see odd references to Orthodoxy, like “standing in front of the icons” being used as a description of a wedding service. It’s enough of a part of the cultural fabric that it’s one of the two state religions of Finland; at the same time, there’s a cultural Protestantism that is also enshrined into law with the Lutheran church being the other state religion. I’m reminded, vaguely, of Germany’s religious schizophrenia as the birthplace of Lutheranism but also home to some fierce cultural Catholicism depending on geography. That’s got an entirely different history than Finland’s religious culture, but it’s the only comparandum I can really call to mind.

Where there is an intriguing religious culture, one hopes there will also be an intriguing culture of religious music, and Fr. Ivan Moody, conducting Cappella Romana, makes the case for the music of the Orthodox Church of Finland on the disc Arctic Light: Finnish Orthodox Music. Finland represents an Orthodox musical culture still very much in its infancy, far moreso than the United States; it has been an independent state only since 1917, with the Church having been granted autonomy in 1921, subsequently coming under the wing of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1923. The transition to Finnish from Slavonic as the liturgical language then helped a unique Finnish musical voice begin to emerge. Basic parish repertoire, I am told, remains St. Petersburg Court Chant sung in Finnish, but over the last century a variety of composers have written music for the Church, contributing to a rich, beautiful body of repertoire. If it’s a bit “anything goes” still, well, they have some top-tier composers writing for them while they figure it out.

Fr. Ivan and Cappella Romana present a survey of the 20th/early 21st century Finnish repertory, starting with early experiments by Pekka Attinen (1885-1956) and Boris Jakubov (1894-1923), followed by Paschal music from the present-day “elder statesman” Leonid Bashmakov (1927-), a Psalm 103 excerpt and Trisagion from Timo Ruottinen (1947-), a Cherubikon from a young Finnish composer, Mikko Sorodoff (1985-), and then festal hymns from the Dormition of the Virgin from Peter Mirolybov (1918-2004), who is presented as the composer in the group most connected to the Finnish Church’s Russian musical inheritance, as well as perhaps the one most attentive to this music’s liturgical context. In addition, Fr. Ivan himself (1964-) contributes a concert setting of the Exaposteilarion for Dormition.

I have to say, this has been a very difficult recording for me to figure out how to review, for many of the same reasons that Tikey Zes’ Divine Liturgy recording required an entire blog post’s worth of a prologue before I could talk about how I evaluate its musical merits. The problem is, of course, is that it’s not just a matter of evaluating musical merit; it’s also a matter of talking about how it functions as liturgical music, which is a sensitive conversation for Anglophone, North American Orthodox. This recording, much as with the Zes disc, is largely unconcerned with the categories of that conversation (although Fr. Ivan’s excellent liner notes touch on them briefly) while seeking to maximize the musical quality of the compositions performed. That’s a touchy thing to address when one is an American writing about an American composer in an American context, as with Tikey Zes; I’m writing as much more of an outsider in this case.

Still, there was something I realized while reading Fr. Ivan’s notes, particularly concerning the biographies of the composers. The American anxieties about the categories of “art music” and “liturgical music” overlapping are, frankly, minority concerns borne out of poverty — poverty when it comes to our music, who writes it in many cases, how we’re used to hearing it sung, and how our musicians and composers interact with the outside world, so to speak. There are notable exceptions, of course, but even some of those notable exceptions have to be a bit self-conscious because they’re the exceptions. Plus, there is something of a discourse about “Orthodoxy doesn’t do art”, problematizing concert pieces and such, meaning that when Orthodox Christians here do in fact do art, there’s some way in which they have to apologize for it, defend it, explain it, etc. In terms of how it presents Orthodoxy, this “Orthodoxy doesn’t do art” position is a defensive stance, culturally speaking, and it has consequences. I know composers who are Orthodox, very good composers who are renowned in secular music circles in fact, who absolutely refuse to pick up their pen to write music that could be sung in church; there’s simply too much baggage.

In the case of Finland, however, what the music on the recording suggests — and what the biographical notes in the booklet confirm — is that we’re talking about “real” composers, as it were, for whom there’s nothing necessarily self-conscious about writing Orthodox church music; it’s just one of the things you do if you’re a composer who happens to be Orthodox in Finland. Attinen, for example, taught in conservatories, wrote film music, and taught at the Orthodox seminary in Helsinki; his Cherubikon sounds very much like it is in dialogue with late 19th/early 20th century Romanticism, while still being a Cherubic Hymn meant to be sung in a Divine Liturgy (although it is evidently difficult enough that this is a rare occurrence). In any event, the hard and fast distinctions we want enforced here about “liturgical” vs. “concert” music don’t really apply; it’s a question of “good” vs. “bad” music, and that’s informed by tradition and liturgical function, but it’s also informed by musical education and exposure to the broader artistic conversation.

So, from that perspective, Arctic Light then becomes a relatively easy recording to review; it’s an aural treat in every way, with the vowel-rich language sparkling in the voices of Cappella’s singers. One can hear the Finnish language “in dialogue” with the ecclesiastical past of its country; fragments of Russian chant melodies echo in Bashmakov’s Paschal Ikos, for example, but they are transformed by the needs of the language and augmented by a harmonic vocabulary employed by an expert composer, and the result is something that “sounds Orthodox” (whatever that means — more to come on that later), but that also sounds like something new, and that could be as easily at home on the concert stage as well as in the choir loft. Sidoroff’s Cherubikon is a highlight, being perhaps a bit more conservative in terms of the sonorities he’s willing to use, but his use of different vocal textures — such as moving back and forth from men only, women only, and the full choir — makes it a rich contribution. Ruottinen is the most experimental of the group; he makes the least effort when it comes to invoking a chant foundation (he uses bits of the same melody as Rachmaninoff used for Psalm 103 in the All-Night Vigil), and at times he writes chords that sound like vocal jazz. The result is not unpleasant by any means, but it does stand out as one of the aesthetic oddities on the disc, and underscores that even within a musical culture that doesn’t feel the need to be self-conscious, perhaps some boundaries need to be kept in mind.

Fr. Ivan’s own contribution is noteworthy for multiple reasons; he is a non-native speaker of the language, and he uses the third mode Byzantine melody for the basis of his setting of the Exaposteilarion for the Dormition (“O you Apostles…”). The result is something that is clearly not operating in the same context as the rest of the repertoire on the disc, but the irony is that it is also the centerpiece of the program. It was written as a concert work, and despite using a different melodic vocabulary than that of the other composers presented, he is able to manipulate the Byzantine melody and build harmonies around it so that it sounds very much of a piece with Attinen and Bashmakov.

Fr. Ivan as the conductor gets Cappella Romana singing this kind of polyphonic repertoire as well as they have in years; the choir sounds bright, clear, and musical. At times the clarity and power of individual voices comes at the cost of blend — particularly in some of the higher voices — but it’s a tradeoff that allows the ensemble to play to their strengths.

If there’s something curious that I find in this collection — well, I should say it’s more about what I don’t find. There doesn’t seem to be a connection to a vernacular kind of singing in this music (although, ironically enough, elements of Ruottinen’s “vocal jazz”-ish choices sound somewhat like stereotypically Balkan folk music), and to the extent that there’s a musical conversation going on here about Finnish national and religious identity, that strikes me as strange. There is Finnish folk singing that has played what I would describe as an archetypal role in the building of national identity (such as what got compiled into the Kalevala); why would such elements be absent from this other project of identity-building? I may misunderstand the issues so much as to have come up with a meaningless question, but in any event, I am left curious about the interaction of Finnish Orthodoxy with Finnish folk culture.

In sum — Arctic Light is a complicated program. Finland, Finnish Orthodoxy, and Finnish Orthodox music have a complex history, and this disc is, in its own way, a document of some of that history. The result is that Fr. Ivan and Cappella Romana are able make some beautiful, engaging music within that context, and provide a fascinating snapshot of an Orthodox musical culture that is developing its own very strong voice. Recommended.

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CD Review: Cappella Romana — Robert Kyr: A Time for Life: An Environmental Oratorio

Robert-Kyr_A-Time-For-LifeI am not otherwise familiar with the work of Robert Kyr, but this intriguing collaboration with Cappella Romana and the Third Angle New Music String Quartet (actually a trio) makes me very curious to become so. As performed on Cappella’s new CD release, A Time for Life: An Environmental Oratorio is a moving musical dialogue between Judeo-Christian and Native American prayer texts about the created order and our relationship to it.

Kyr here has constructed a libretto that brings together portions of two different Orthodox texts, the Akathist in Praise of God’s Creation and the Office for the Environment (observed on 1 September by the Ecumenical Patriarchate), as well as selections from the Psalms, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, the United Nations Environmental Sabbath Service, and prayers and hymns from the Sioux, Navaho, Pawnee, Ojibway, Chinook, and Netsilik Inuit tribes. It is in three parts: Creation, Forgetting, and Remembering. Kyr’s structure seems to express the idea of our present-day ecological concerns being a function of the fall of mankind; we were created first in right relationship with God and creation, but in our hubris we chose our own way over God’s, harming our relationship to both. Parts II and III express this right relationship in terms of memory; “We forget who we are; help us to remember” is the refrain throughout Part II. Part III weaves together the different ways all of the texts use the idea of remembering. “O Lord, help me to remember who I am”, says the Orthodox Office for the Environment; “Remember, remember the circle of the sky,” replies a Pawnee/Osage/Omaha song. If we can but remember, we will be able to repent; “Restore my mind for me,” the words of a Navaho chant plead. Repentance, as Kyr’s own words then tell us at the end of the peace, will then allow us to understand, to rejoice, and to appreciate the beauty of God’s created order.

Kyr does a very nice job of arranging these texts so that the dialogue never seems forced; he seems to want them all to speak on their own terms, in their own spirit. I am familiar with similar attempts to interweave religious texts from different traditions that do not give them the same respect; Giles Swayne’s Stabat mater, for example, is principally interested in using other texts to marginalize the particularity of the Virgin Mary’s lament at the cross. Musically, Kyr’s language here is not the angry, mushy, ambient noise that so much contemporary music can be; rather, the interplay with the voices and his adeptness at sung musical phrases reminds one more of Britten (and, often, Britten’s own invocation of Purcell). His music is restrained and tasteful, allowing the texts and ideas to be front and center. The “We forget who we are” refrain in Part II is particularly haunting, as I suppose it should be.

For Cappella, this CD is something of a departure; while concert works informed by Orthodox liturgical music are nothing new for the ensemble (see, for instance, Richard Toensing’s Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ and Fr. Ivan Moody’s Akathistos Hymn), this is not really a choral piece but rather a piece for a solo octet, and while they have recorded with orchestra before as well as with organ, this seems to be their first time on record with a chamber music ensemble. It is nice to see Cappella championing repertoire like this; it demonstrates an impressive artistic vision.

Happily, the performance on the disc demonstrates a very real breadth of ability that is equal to that vision. All of the soloists do marvelously with the score; in particular, Mark Powell and LeaAnne DenBeste — who was excellent as the Mother of God soloist in the Toensing Kontakion — are excellent, with crispness of diction and clarity of voice that serves Kyr’s music very well. The Third Angle New Music string trio accompanies the solo octet with a lot of sensitivity, but they are also present enough to never sound like they’re holding back in order to be a “pit band”.

The booklet contains the complete libretto of the oratorio, as well as essays from Dn. Dr. John Chryssavgis, Kyr, and Cappella’s Artistic Director Alexander Lingas. The essays are very much worth reading; they provide useful context for Kyr’s composition, Cappella’s own involvement with its performance and recording, and the interest and theological perspective of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as regards environmental concerns.

I’ll close this review with Kyr’s own words. He closes his own essay with the following:

I believe that music and the arts have a crucial role to play in the transformation of the current energy of cynicism and destruction into the life-sustaining attitude and energy of creativity.

Indeed. Go and do likewise.

CD Review: Archangel Voices, Panagia: Orthodox Hymns to the Mother of God

I-112Archangel Voices is an Orthodox vocal ensemble that specializes in liturgical choral repertoire by present-day composer, particularly focusing on English-language settings (either composed for English texts or adaptations of existing settings for English). Their Artistic Director is Dr. Vladimir Morosan, a scholar of Russian Orthodox choral music in particular (he is the translator of Johann von Gardner’s venerable series Russian Church Singing, volume 1 and volume 2, he has his own monograph on Russian church choirs right before the Revolution, and he has published several critical and performing editions of Russian choral repertoire), and an advocate of Orthodox liturgical music more generally.

Archangel Voices is one of the outlets for Morosan’s advocacy, and Panagia: Orthodox Hymns to the Mother of God is their sixth release on disc. The intent of the recording is to represent the vast diversity of Orthodox hymnody about the Mother of God — hymns from the daily cycle of services as well as the Marian feasts, special services, and also para-liturgical compositions. There is not only a rich collection of hymns but also composers; there are many Slavic composers such as Chesnokov and Bortniansky presented here, as well as composers active in present-day North America, such as Benedict Sheehan, Morosan himself, and Psalm 103 project composers Richard Toensing and Kurt Sander.

This CD is a different kind of aesthetic than that of some of the other recordings of Orthodox music that are out there. Cappella Romana’s approach is to do a variety of repertoire, make informed stylistic choices for the performance, and be as consistent with those stylistic choices as it can — an “early music” approach, if you like. Kurt Sander’s As Far as the East is from the West sought to reproduce the aesthetic of a large parish choir in a Russian choir loft. Holy Cross’ recent release was simply the sound of their chapel services transferred to disc. Samir Cohlmia’s recording of Dormition chants captures the aural experience of the Byzantine cantor as soloist. And so on. Archangel Voices does something a little different; rather than model themselves on a particular existing Orthodox musical aesthetic or attempt to be stylistic chameleons, they are more along the lines of a Western-style chamber chorale, made up of well-trained musicians who are flexible enough to sing pretty much whatever is put in front of them and make it sound good with a consistent, well-blended, shimmery, warm sound. Perhaps one could argue that Archangel Voices represents one model of what a good American parish choir could be; good enough musicians to sing virtually anything as themselves instead of trying to sound like something else.

It’s an approach that certainly does sufficient justice to most of the repertoire on this disc; particularly nice from the Slavic selections are Chesnokov’s general canon to the Mother of God, Nikolsky’s Megalynarion for Pascha (I am thankful to Morosan and co. that they opted for something less overdone than Balakirev’s setting, which is generally treated out here in the Midwest as the national anthem of American Orthodoxy), and Lvovsky’s Exaposteilarion for the Dormition. In general, I will say that the North American composers who are writing for the English language tend to stand out a little better; perhaps it is not surprising that music written for and sung in the same language sounds better than adaptations. Among this group, Morosan’s Koinonikon for Marian feasts, Nazo Zakkak’s setting of “I have thee as a fountain” from the Paraklesis service, Sander’s Megalynarion for the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, and Toensing’s setting of “Awed by the beauty” from the Third Mode kathismata are all particularly lovely.

The recording isn’t completely flawless; there are a handful of moments that are a touch rough-feeling, where the ensemble doesn’t quite shimmer as much as they normally do. The ornaments on the ubiquitous paraliturgical Georgian hymn “O Vineyard, fair and new” don’t work as sung; they’re a mismatch with the style the choir employs otherwise, and as a result they sound like mistakes and baubles rather than specific ornamentation choices. To the extent that there’s a pastoral model here for choirs, I would suggest that the lesson here is, ornaments need to be treated as organic parts of a chosen style, not merely additional notes to be sung; if that’s not a practical or pastoral possibility, then it is an acceptable choice to leave the ornaments out. Also, given the ensemble’s stated objective in the booklet “to embrace various traditions and styles of Orthodox church music as they are manifest in the practice of parishes in North America”, it seems like something of a missed opportunity to not include any of the Greek-American composers who have written Orthodox choral music in English, or to use any of the growing library of settings of Byzantine chant composed for English (polyphonic adaptations of what are already themselves adaptations of Byzantine melodies aren’t really the same thing). Sometimes “pan-Orthodox” appears to mean, in practice, “everybody but the Greeks”, and opportunities like this would seem to be appropriate settings for trying to combat that. Alas; I’m sure there are reasons for such choices.

These are minor issues; Panagia is a high-quality effort overall from a high-quality ensemble, and very much worth checking out.

Byzantine chant at Holy Cross and CD Review — All Creation Trembled: Orthodox Hymns of the Passion Service

This has been a ridiculous semester on multiple fronts. I have been assisting with a course where there has been a constant cascade of homework to be graded pouring on top of my head, plus I’ve been trying to write a dissertation, plus I have a child I’m trying to rear, plus I’ve had extracurricular activities, plus I’ve got a 1:15 commute to church on Sunday I didn’t have a year ago, plus I have a spouse dealing with all of exactly the same things. Too much fun.

It is an exciting time for Byzantine chant in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese; the Archdiocesan School of Byzantine Music just performed an invited concert at Agia Irini Church in Constantinople, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology recently unveiled their Certificate in Byzantine Music, and they also released a new CD, All Creation Trembled: Orthodox Hymns of the Passion Service, recorded by their new full-time professor of Byzantine music Dr. Grammenos Karanos and his students.

As somebody who has been fortunate enough on a small handful of occasions to attend services in the Holy Cross chapel, I can happily tell you that All Creation Trembled is a pretty accurate snapshot of at least the aural experience of the chapel. The students chant in antiphonal choirs, often divided by language (while not represented on this disc, Thursday evenings have of late been dubbed “Antiochian night”, where the Antiochian seminarians get the right choir and chant in Arabic, while the left choir gets Greek.) They do so from classically composed scores in Byzantine notation, in both Greek and English, and they do so under the expert direction of Dr. Karanos, who functions as the protopsaltis (first cantor) of the chapel. At the same time, they have also in the last few years had a group of particularly strong students to help, especially John Michael Boyer, who has been the lampadarios (director of the left choir) of the chapel for the last couple of years, and Rassem El Massih, a Lebanese-born seminarian who studied Byzantine chant with Fr. Nicholas Malek at the Balamand before emigrating to the United States. Other standouts, at least when I’ve been there, have included Niko Tzetzis, Gabe Cremeens, Andreas Houpos, and Peter Kostakis (and others — forgive me if I’m blanking on a couple of names).

The disc’s repertoire is hymnody from Holy Week, specifically from the Matins for Holy Friday (sung on the evening of Holy Thursday), and it is about 50/50 Greek and English. The English scores, composed by Boyer, employ the translations of Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash), occasionally modified by Boyer for metrical purposes. The recording quality is very clean, and the singing is robust and clear throughout, with an ensemble sound never dominated by one voice. This in particular is a point I want to praise; the recording could have very easily become “The Karanos/Boyer/El Massih Liturgical Variety Hour”, and it never goes there; even Karanos himself is only heard a couple of times as a soloist. A sense of the chapel choir as, above all, a liturgical ensemble is always maintained, with everything they sing and how they sing it dictated by liturgical concerns. The result is well-balanced and it sounds wonderful. If it is not quite professional-level — some background noise creeps in, and sometimes it sounds like the microphones are not quite optimally placed — well, it’s still an excellent entry in the category of American recordings of Byzantine chant, and it still captures the moment very well, a moment that represents a revitalized program in its early days, one that is starting to have an impact elsewhere — El Massih is now teaching Byzantine chant at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, for example, and that can only be for the good. If this can be taken as a statement of intent on Dr. Karanos’ part, then the future is encouraging.

The Certificate program also suggests an encouraging future; it’s intended to be the equivalent of a conservatory program in Greece, and it looks like it’s pretty comprehensive. I know one person who was going through a try-out version of it, and it sounds like it would be well worth the two years. One hopes that eventually there might be some financial assistance available for students who would want to go through such a program but aren’t there for M.Div. work. I would also very much like to see the program replicated elsewhere (I’ve discussed my own curriculum proposal elsewhere); if I have any particular critique of all of these efforts, it is that they are ultimately inaccessible for those of us not in the Northeast. I would have no problem with the Northeast functioning as a central location for a network of programs, but access to this training and to these kinds of opportunities needs to be geographically more spread out than it is. In the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese alone, there’s no reason there couldn’t be a formal training program and Byzantine choir in every Metropolis (although color me skeptical about attempts to do this kind of thing online as a normative approach — I can’t imagine any of my voice lessons from the old days going well if done that way).

I leave you with the video of the Archdiocesan School’s concert at Agia Irini. Enjoy.

The foreword for Ta Prosomoia

As promised, here is my draft translation of the foreword for George Chatzichronoglou’s book Ta Prosomoia. I have tried to make it readable while keeping Chatzichronoglou’s word order and syntax as much as possible; I have occasionally paraphrased to solve “English problems”, as my first Greek teacher liked to put it. Occasional notes are in parentheses; feedback and questions are more than welcome.

Foreword

Acknowledging that you don’t “bring coals to Newcastle” (Greek: “κομίζω γλαύκας εἰς Ἀθήνας”, lit. “bring owls to Athens”), I am undertaking the edition of the present book, with an eye towards helping my brother cantors in the important and pious task which they perform, and to bring love and instruction to those who are today’s students and tomorrow’s brother cantors, and finally to contribute to the good order of the worshipping life of our Church.

The necessity of the existence of a comprehensive edition which will include all of the original melodies and model hymns in brief and slow irmologic versions and also include most of them recorded on a compact disc, is great. There are equivalent editions. However, I want to believe that in the present edition, recording all of the familiar model hymns, while adding on the one hand the common apolytikia of the Saints and the slow festal apolytikia, and on the other hand the compact disc, we come closer to the desire and the need.

The model hymns and the Anastasimatarion (the chant book containing the weekend resurrectional hymnody for all eight modes) constitute the original and prerequisite knowledge for the cantor to endure with dignity in his many duties.

With the term “prosomoia” we mean that hymn which is chanted precisely with the music of some other model hymn (that is, it copies it (προσομοιάζει σ’αὐτόν), so to speak) which we call a “Πρόλογος” (model hymn), since it is said for (προλέγεται) the prosomoion. In other words, above the text of the prosomoion there is an ascription: Mode I (ἦχος Α) “O all-lauded martyrs” (“Πανεύφημοι μάρτυρες”). We chant thus the prosomoion that follows according to the melody of “O all-lauded martyrs”. The music of the model hymns belongs to them exclusively; for this they are named, in addition to Πρόλογοι, also “Αὐτόμελα” (roughly, “the very melody”, “the famous melody”, “THAT melody”, “its own melody”, “the original melody”, etc.). There are a lot of original melodies and they are classified as “Ἰδιόμελα” (“unique melodies”). The original melodies, the automela, are a distinct category of unique melodies which “loan” their music to other hymns (prosomoia) while the unique melodies, the idiomela, we would say, keep their music for their own use.

Our age, the Information Age, the age of superficiality, the age of short-term thinking, the age of terrible haste, in which the ring of words has been lost, did not leave even our music unaffected. There are endless reasons for musical performances, for research efforts, for musicological opinions and such other important things, but at the same time there is a shortage of effective cantors. There is consideration for music as a noble craft but not as the noble craft of music. Our acoustic aesthetic has been disturbed by “crooners” (? φάλτσα) who are clothed in the legitimacy of science and by arbitrary personal musical interpretations, which lead outside of ecclesiastical boundaries. We are bombed by hymns of Holy Week, which singers (as opposed to cantors) and actors chant on TV, with the style of the “street” and the morals of the gang and we look at all of these things, helpless to respond and to express the view of the competent cantor, because all of the doors are closed. Thus “we pick at our scab” , as our wise people say, smugly self-identified as “traditional people”, as if somebody asked us that, as if they dοn’t hear what we’re saying, as if that’s what was asked. However, outside of titles and boasts, errors and omissions, our goal is and remains one. The service of the cantor, as conscious practice, towards the believer who steps over the threshold of the Church and enters into the midst of it in order for his soul to find peace with the fear of God. I am trying to “put in order” musically this fear of God and the service to the fullness of the Church, with this book, which whereby does the following:

1) Address the so-called “practical” cantors, who are the pillars of the services of Orthodox worship, embattled in all of the remote areas of the Greek countryside and in the whole Greek community. Helpless, without support, forgotten by all of us, we who haggle between ourselves for a treasure which is not rightly our and which we ought properly to serve with respect. The scope and objective of musical study is the “high and mighty” work of the cantor who appears at the analogion (cantor’s music book stand), with knowledge and faith as support.

My sympathy and my brotherly love is given for these cantors; it is a well-worn theme in my radio broadcasts for the Church of Greece. The moment has come, then, that I should do something for them.

2) Involve the teachers and the students of Byzantine music. On the hand, to the teachers [this book] is offered as a helpful tool, to the students on the other hand as a breath between boring paralaggi (Byzantine solfegge) exercises. These breaths, however, are so necessary for them to continue their lessons with new energy, as necessary as it is for the swimmer to lift his head out of the water and to breathe.

The interposed teaching of the model hymns for the duration of many years of lessons relieves and frees the student, offering at the same time useful knowledge of Byzantine music.

3) Address the proficient brother cantors who, chiefly in the slow versions of model melodies, are finding a way to brighten the sacred feasts of their parishes and to give something different and majestic. I did not put the slow versions of the model melodies on the CD, because if and when somebody wants to use them, he should substitute the hymn of the prosomoion of the feast in the already recorded melodic line of the model hymn. (Editor’s note: I don’t completely understand what he means here. The Greek text here is πρέπει νά ἀνακαταστήσει τήν ὑμνολογία τοῦ προσομοίου τῆς πανηγύρεως, στην ἤδη καταγεγραμμένη μελωδική γραμμή τοῦ Προλόγου. If somebody can clarify, that would be most appreciated.)

And finally:

4) I think that this book is useful for priests, who, apart from the spiritual task they perform in their parishes, they also have the obligation to chant correctly. For the most part, I am referring to kontakia and apolytikia, but also all of the prosomoia which are included, mainly in the Menaion. Let us not forget that enough cantors start their training in Byzantine music prompted by the priest. Therefore, as the first teachers, apart from the customary practice of the Church, which they know best, they should be the living example even in the study of prosomoia and of Byzantine music in general.

The novelty in this book is the recording of a sufficient number of apolytikia in slow irmologic melodic style. There are enough of them scattered about in older editions, but mainly they are personal compositions appropriate for sacred feasts.

Holding the conviction that with this book, which is my first, I am helping the cantors and the Church, I ask your indulgence for any errors and omissions, and I pray that the Triune God give us strength to continue to struggle for the best.

Athens, 22 August 2010

George Epam. Chatzichronoglou

Archon Ymnodos (“Chief Singer”) of the Great Church of Christ

Book review: Ta Prosomoia by Georgios Chatzichronoglou

One of the things that is at once intended to make Byzantine chant easier for the cantor and yet paradoxically also makes it seem impossibly difficult for the student in an Anglophone context is the use of model hymns for much of the hymnody. There are multiple factors that make it complex; in a Greek context, you see the incipit of the model melody and the mode, you look it up in the Prosomoia section of the Irmologion if you don’t know it (or in the otherwise appropriate section of the Irmologion based on liturgical function), and that’s that. And while yes, there are over 100 model melodies, from a practical perspective there are about 10 that you can get by for a good while starting out with.

However, if you can’t read Greek, then you have to rely on English incipits, and you probably have to know three or four possible incipits because we don’t have a standard English text (and some incipits may refer to hymns that a particular jurisdiction’s “greatest hits” liturgical book might not include). Then there’s the matter of metrical translations, which some translators don’t bother with (Nassar, Lash, etc.), making the use of model melodies basically impossible, and which some translators do (Holy Transfiguration Monastery in most instances, Fr. Seraphim Dedes). Still, even if, say, you’re going with all HTM texts all the time, what about the melodies themselves? HTM has a model melody book, but it’s all staff notation, so you’re getting one person’s interpretation of the melody, and some of what they include is a little idiosyncratic. Fr. Seraphim Dedes also has a model melody book that is theoretically available in both staff and Byzantine notation, where there is a traditional melody and a “popular” variation (as with, for example, the melody for the Kontakion of the Nativity of Christ) he includes both, and he’s even done the very nice thing of indexing his incipits to Holy Transfiguration’s, so that’s probably the best option in English, at least at this stage of the game.

Τὰ Προσόμοια: Πρόλογοι-Αὐτόμελα σε ἀργὸ και σύντομο εἱρμολογικό μέλος (Athens, 2010) “Prosomoia: Model Hymns and Original Melodies in Slow and Brief Irmologic Versions” by Archon Protopsaltis Georgios Chatzichronoglou is a single volume, Greek-language reference to all the model melodies (in both “brief” and “slow” versions where such exist), and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan School of Byzantine Music has just recently started distributing it in the United States. It simplifies the process only somewhat for the learner in an Anglophone context — a traditional Irmologion is a little difficult to find here, although you can find pdfs if you know where to look and whom to ask. Also, this arranges all the melodies in a format similar to Dedes’ with a nice index of incipits, and there’s a lovely CD of Chatzichronoglou demonstrating 69 of the melodies. Obviously this is going to be a difficult reference to navigate for somebody with no facility with Greek, but it could well be a good reference for a teacher who does have some Greek and who can help the student understand what they’re seeing.

I will say that one of the virtues of this book, besides its organization, is a very clean, readable presentation; with some of the classical books the plates are clearly a bit worse for wear, so it’s nice to see Byzantine music publishers taking advantage of digital typesetting. At the same time, what this reveals is that Chatzichronoglou has taken an analytic approach in presenting these melodies, writing out certain standard ornamental choices instead of reproducing the melody as it is written out in the classical books and leaving it to the teacher to tell the student what ornaments are traditional. Lest anybody see this as an arcane matter only impacting practitioners of Byzantine chant in Greece, there is a similar issue when it comes to publishing standard works in the Western classical repertoire such as Handel’s Messiah; one can buy scores where none of the performance tradition is written out and it is up to the performer to mark in what they’re choosing to do (or what the conductor directs them to do), and one can buy scores where a certain strain of ornamental tradition is written in. For example, here’s the last page of the opening recitative, “Comfort ye my people”, in the Kaplan edition, a fairly standard practical score:

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As somebody who has sung this probably hundreds of times in my former mode of existence, I can tell you that while that’s what’s on the page, just about nobody sings it that way. Your teacher or your coach or your conductor will have suggestions for what to do with it.

By contrast, this is the same page from the Carus-Verlag score, and you’ll see at the bottom possibilities of how to ornament certain parts.

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Those possibilities represent but one performance tradition; there are others, and your teacher, coach, or conductor will have their own ideas about what you should do. The point is, these sorts of variants in printed scores represent a point of similarity with Western music, not a point of departure from.

To show how this works in the Chatzichronoglou book, here is one of the most frequently-used model melodies, “ὡς γενναῖον ἐν μάρτυσιν”, itself the first troparion at “O Lord, I have cried” for the Feast of St. George (23 April), and commonly used as the model melody for troparia at “O Lord, I have cried” as well as at Lauds for martyrs. This is how it appears in the Irmologion of Ioannis Protopsaltis, one of the standard classical books:

os gennaion

And then this is how it appears in Chatzichronoglou:


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Much of what’s different consists of editorial choices that are aids to the singer; bar lines have been written in, isokratima has been added (although your protospaltis may well want you to do something else than what is written here), and breaths have been written in, in some cases rewriting signs that are held for two beats in the Irmologion to one beat plus a breath, in other cases adding a catch breath in time. All of these things are very similar to editorial choices that might be made in a Western choral score or hymnal (although I have had music directors at times say that such editorial decisions should be unnecessary for people who are actually good musicians).

At the same time, Chatzichronoglou has made choices in how he’s written this out that are more akin to the ornaments at the bottom of the page in the Carus-Verlag Messiah score above. One of the more obvious places where he does this is καὶ ἐδέξω ἐκ Θεοῦ, τὸν τῆς νίκης σου στέφανον, ὃν ἱκέτευε (third line picking up into the fourth line in the Irmologion score, fourth line into the beginning of the fifth line in Chatzichronoglou). I realize not everybody here is going to be able to read psaltic notation, so here’s a quick and dirty transcription of the first version:

kai edexw irmologion_0001

Which, as with Handel, probably isn’t how anybody would sing it, depending on one’s context; your teacher and your protopsaltis will tell you how they learned it.

Here’s how Chatzichronoglou analyzes it, more or less:

kai edexw chatzichronoglou_0001

Which is closer to how it usually gets sung, particularly at “ὃν ἱκέτευε”. One can see that the second one is an ornamentation of the structure of the first; it just comes down to a question of how you write it down, and that comes down to questions of pedagogy and tradition. Classical scores (in Western music as well, as we saw) tend to rely on the performance tradition being passed on by a teacher, whereas some modern editors are including (some might argue imposing) a layer of performance tradition in their scores. Your mileage may vary, but it’s important to be aware of the difference, to know which approach a given score is taking and what’s informing it. I should note that Chatzichronoglou gives a list of sources, for example, at the top of which is the Irmologion of Petros Peloponnesios, not that of Ioannis Protopsaltis, which doesn’t in fact make the list (but other books of Ioannis’ do). Petros’ Irmologion contains a version of this melody which is very different from Ioannis’, and which is also very different from what’s in Chatzichronoglou, reflecting a fairly wide variety of performance traditions where prosomoia are concerned (not entirely surprising for a practice that is largely an oral phenomenon — you’re not usually going to be looking at a score when you sing these). As with Western music, a teacher will help you navigate what kinds of choices to make where this is concerned.

Chatzichronoglou includes an introduction outlining his objectives for the volume that I will also translate, but as I’m already verging on 1500 words for the review, I’ll put that in a separate post.

Another contribution elsewhere

Just FYI — Fr. Andrew Damick invited me to contribute an essay to the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy blog considering the points raised by this piece, and my essay was published this morning. Should you be coming here from Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, welcome. There’s a decent amount to read in the archives; oral exam prep and fatherhood have slowed my output down somewhat, but I still treat this blog as a going concern, so do please stick around.


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