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Bp. Hilarion (Alfeyev) on the relative merits of different kinds of Orthodox liturgical music

With a tip of the hat to Subdn. Lucas the Blogless, an excerpt from a 2002 lecture entitled “Orthodox Worship as a School of Theology“:

Permit me to say a few words about church singing. Recently I visited the Valaam Monastery of the Transfiguration, where I served an all-night vigil and Divine Liturgy in the monastery’s main church. The services there struck me by their prayerfulness, harmony, simplicity and grandeur. The monastic singing and Valaam chant used during the services made an especially strong impression. I suddenly recalled the words of St Ignatius (Brianchaninov), who visited Valaam one and a half centuries ago and was also taken by the monastery’s chant:

The tones of this chant are majestic and protracted…they depict the groans of the repentant soul, sighing and longing in the land of its exile for the blessed, desired country of eternal rejoicing and pure, holy delights…These tones now drag on lugubriously, melancholically, drearily, like a wind through the wilderness, now gradually disappear like an echo among cliffs and gorges, now thunder suddenly…The majestic “Lord, have mercy” is like a wind through a desolate place, so sorrowful, moving and drawn out. The troparion “We hymn thee” ends with a protracted, shimmering, overflowing sound, gradually abating and imperceptibly fading under the vaults of the church, just as an echo dies out under a church’s arches. And when the brethren sing at vespers “Lord, I have cried unto Thee, hearken unto me”, the sounds emanate as if from a deep abyss, are quickly and thunderously wrested therefrom and rise to heaven like lightning, taking with them the thoughts and wishes of those at prayer. Everything here is full of significance and majesty, and anything merry, light-hearted of playful would simply seem strange and ugly.

Valaam chant is a form of ancient Russian Znamenny chant, which itself absorbed the main characteristics of Byzantine church music. It is known that Byzantine chant was brought to Kievan Rus’ already during the time of Yaroslav the Wise. The “Book of Degrees” (Stepennaya Kniga, 1563) mentions that it was during this time that three Greek chanters came to Rus’ from Constantinople, bringing with them “special eight-tone, sweet, three-component, and most beautiful extended singing to praise and glorify God”. The word “three-component” has been subject to various interpretations by musicologists and theologians. In any case, it refers not to three-voiced, but unison singing. One could suppose that the word “three-component” points to the three dimensions of ancient church chant: the musical, verbal and spiritual, through which it differed from secular singing, which had only two: verbal and musical.

Being comprised of these three aspects, both Russian Znamenny chant and Byzantine singing are phenomena of the same order. They are characterized by a spirituality that is lacking not only in many works of secular music, but also in the contemporary western-style church singing, which is composed according to principles totally different from those of ancient chant. It is no secret that the concert-like, “Italianate” singing performed in many churches does not correspond to the spirit of the traditional liturgical texts to which they were written. The main aim of such music is to give pleasure to the ear, while the aim of true church singing is to help the faithful immerse themselves in the prayerful experience of the mysteries of the faith.

The structure and musical characteristics of ancient Russian singing are also diametrically opposed to those of Western-style singing. Znamenny chant was not written by composers but rather compiled from an already existing collection of canonical musical fragments, just like ancient mosaics were pieced together from a collection of stones of various colours. It is not easy for modern man to appreciate ancient chant, and just as difficult to “lay aside all earthly cares” and enter the depths of prayerful contemplation. But only this and similar singing is truly canonical and corresponds best to the spirit of Orthodox divine services.

Bishop Porfiry (Uspensky), the well-known 19th-century church archaeologist, wrote the following regarding the mystical “three-component” singing of the ancient Russian Church: “We have forgotten this mystery of music, but it was known to our ancestors. The history of our Church shows that at one time Greek chanters from Constantinople brought to Russia angelic three-component singing, that is, singing comprised of three intonations corresponding to the three faculties of the soul. It seems that it would not be too difficult to revive this singing”. It is indeed possible to revive it by returning to the ancient, time-tested models of Znamenny chant, as has already taken place in Valaam and several other monasteries.

At present, the monuments of ancient Russian chant are becoming better and better known. Just as ancient Russian icons, once-forgotten but relatively recently (at the beginning of the 20th century) restored to their original splendour once cleaned of centuries of accumulated soil, Znamenny chant is now being revived by masters skillful at reading its “hook notation”. In my opinion, the restoration of Orthodox liturgical culture to its original beauty, grandeur and instructiveness is unthinkable without the revival of canonical Church singing, which for the Russian Church is Znamenny chant. Concerts of Church music by Bortnyansky and Vedel, and Cherubic hymns by Kastalsky and Archangelsky may be beautiful and moving in certain respects, but their music does not teach us anything, since it only creates a kind of background that is more or less neutral with respect to the words of the service. On the other hand, Znamenny chant possesses enormous edifying power since it was created for prayer, fosters prayer and is irrelevant outside of the context of prayer.

Even the so-called “popevki” (canonical musical fragments), the main building components of Znamenny chant, are nothing other than a musical reflection of various prayerful movements of the soul. Moreover, each musical fragment has its own theological basis. If ancient Russian icons are said to be “theology in colours”, then ancient Russian chant can be considered theology in music. And if western-style church singing, like the Russian “academic” paintings on religious themes are at best a school of piety, then monophonic Znamenny chant can be regarded as a school of prayer and theology.

I may have more to say about this later, but in the meantime, how do we start a fan club for this man?

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1 Response to “Bp. Hilarion (Alfeyev) on the relative merits of different kinds of Orthodox liturgical music”


  1. 1 Sbdn. Lucas 25 July 2008 at 6:53 am

    I must give a tip o’ the hat as well to Matthew the Elder for pointing me to the full article. My reply on reading it? Simply: “Yes.”


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