The Divine Liturgy in English by Cappella Romana: the review and other thoughts

As someone who has sung in church at a more-or-less professional level for many years and who always had a deep love and appreciation for, shall we say, more historic forms of liturgical music, when I first became aware of Orthodox Christianity it was a very natural instinct for me to seek out this aspect of the faith. The trick here, of course, is that when you don’t know what you’re looking for it’s a bit difficult to find it, but eventually what I found was the Boston Byzantine Choir‘s recording of the Divine Liturgy, called Mystical Supper: Byzantine Chant in English. I was quite struck at how similar the approach on this recording sounded to something like Shapenote/Sacred Harp singing, to say nothing just how much of the service was sung rather than spoken. When I told my friend Mark Powell about this, he said simply, “Listen to the Greek Byzantine Choir’s recording of the Divine Liturgy in Greek. Then we’ll talk.” It was not an easy recording to find in the States in 2003; I wound up having to order it from a Canada-based Hellenic specialist, as I recall. (It’s much easier to find these days, at least for the moment. Amazon seems to no longer sell it directly — which has changed from a month ago — which suggests to me that the current pressing is gone, the distributor is out of stock, and whoever has it, has it, whoever doesn’t, doesn’t.) This recording really blew the lid off of my nice, safe, clean world of church singing, and redefined a lot of my expectations. Between that and getting to hear Cappella Romana‘s Fall of Constantinople program in the summer of 2004, I began to develop a strong affinity for the Byzantine repertoire.

What I didn’t learn, and what I wouldn’t fully appreciate until I was leading an Orthodox parish choir myself for the first time, from these exposures to Byzantine music — which are, admittedly, highly-idealized “best case scenario” presentations; as one musicologist told me, “Field recordings made at monasteries in Greece don’t sound anywhere close to the Greek Byzantine Choir” — is how divisive the repertoire can be for some people. It is clear that for certain ears, the otherworldly musical characteristics are, to say the least, less transcendent than foreign — “music to whip camels by” and “the nasal-sounding stuff the old man sings before the Divine Liturgy” being among the characterizations I’ve heard. I’ve even heard somebody say that Byzantine music “sounds more like the Muslim call to prayer than Christian singing.” The common assertion appears to be that there’s no way to make Byzantine music sound “friendly” to Western ears — it’s always going to sound like an ethnic import, “too Arabic” or “too Greek” or too something. A related concern is that it’s unison singing (save for the ison, the drone underneath), and Western ears expect four-part harmony as a non-negotiable given, period. It is certainly fair to say that Byzantine music is not appropriate for harmonization; this is for the simple reason that the conventions of four-part harmony are based on a tonal system, and Byzantine music is modal. You can’t harmonize a modal melody according to tonal conventions (i. e., “What Would Bach Do?”) without largely eliminating the distinctives of the given mode (as can be made clear when a new cantor instinctively, but erroneously, assumes that the ison for Byzantine Modes 2 and 4 is supposed to be C/Ne instead of G/Dhi and E/Vou, respectively).

There’s also the more specific complaint that Byzantine music doesn’t play well with English. This is a view shared by some rather visible and influential people; for example, the Preface of Mother Mary and Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware)’s edition of The Festal Menaion (St. Tikhon’s Press, 1969) says the following:

In course of time English-speaking Orthodox will doubtless evolve a musical tradition of their own, which will takes its place alongside those of Greece, Russia, and the other Orthodox nations. As yet, no such tradition has had time to develop: and Orthodox of English language must therefore draw for the present upon some existing musical heritage within Orthodoxy. The best adapted for this purpose seems to be that of Russia. Byzantine chant is too intricate: if it is to be used, then the stress and rhythm of the Greek original must be preserved almost exactly in English translation, and this raises insuperable difficulties. But Russian music is far more flexible; and in particular the simpler Russian monastic chants can easily be adapted to an English text. (p. 13, emphasis mine)

I have to be honest and say that I find this to be an odd claim (and yet one which seems to have influenced the assumptions and thinking of many people since its publication); it seems to me that Byzantine music is far more extensible and expressive when it comes to being adapted to English texts, where many forms of Russian chant, at least as presently used in English adaptation, tend to utterly disrespect the needs and conventions of English. It’s true that in many of the attempts to adapt the Byzantine repertoire to English — Kazan’s Byzantine Project, for example, being the one I use week in, week out — it seems like one winds up with melismas on odd words or emphases on the wrong syllables and so on, but I’d argue only that this means we haven’t perfected the system of adaptation yet (or perfected the English version of the text, for that matter), not that it fundamentally can’t work or that somehow we need to “file the corners off” of Byzantine chant, or in general make it something it isn’t, in order to make it work for English-speakers.

But nonetheless, the assumption is held by many that Byzantine chant fundamentally won’t work for English-language, Western Orthodox folks. The lengths to which some marginalize Byzantine music as being merely one of those pesky, overly ethnic, “little-t traditions” which drive away people who are culturally Western is demonstrated by a recent discussion on the PSALM Yahoo! group which involved speculation as to whether or not use of Byzantine chant might contribute to a decline in attendance in parishes.

Which brings me, at last, to Cappella Romana’s masterful, ground-breaking new release, The Divine Liturgy in English, which serves as the definitive response to all of these concerns, providing a fantastic model to emulate, transparency enough in the process to make it replicable, and, for the foreseeable future, the standard to meet for liturgical singing.

This is the recording of Byzantine chant in English which says, “Yes, we can.” This is the CD which you will see wearing black body armor and fighting off Rottweilers on an IMAX screen and telling Michael Caine, “Byzantine chant in English has no limits.”

Several years in the making and part of Cappella Romana’s “Excellence in Orthodox Liturgical Music in English” project — which includes the delightful Lay Aside All Earthly Cares, a collection of the liturgical music of Fr. Sergei Glagolev, which I’ll say more about shortly, and a future release of a Divine Liturgy setting by Peter Michaelides — this 2-disc set represents the monumental effort of adapting the traditional Byzantine repertoire so that it fits the English language idiomatically, often recomposing melodies from scratch in order to match the text. Conducted by Artistic Director Alexander Lingas, these settings are presented in a natural church acoustic, using native English speakers, and in their proper liturgical context, with Archimandrite Meletios (Webber) and Dn. John Chryssavgis serving as the clergy. The result is at once prayerful and phenomenally well-sung, full, rich, and in tune, and entirely Byzantine in character while never straying from understandable, natural-sounding English. It is ecclesiastical ensemble singing of the highest order, easily ranking with the recordings of Lycourgos Angelopoulos and the Greek Byzantine Choir, as well as with the best of English-language recordings of liturgical music such as those by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Because it is a Divine Liturgy entirely sung in one musical idiom, and therefore comes across as a seamless garment of whole cloth as it were, it is difficult, if not inappropriate, to make critiques of particular sections, so I’m not going to do that. I would say that the best way to get a sense of exactly what has been accomplished with this recording is to become familiar with a recording of the traditional Greek repertoire such as Angelopoulos’, getting a sense for the function and aesthetic which govern hymns such as the Trisagion or the Cherubikon, and then to listen to this recording and hear how those principles are maintained in the English language adaptation. The exact notes of the Greek versions are not preserved because they’ve applied the Byzantine compositional process to the English text, not simply slapped the existing Byzantine melody over the English text and then figured out how to make the syllables fit. The result is a new melody which is completely faithful to the spirit of the model and the conventions of Byzantine music, and fits the English text like a glove at the same time. These adaptations — which Cappella Romana are publishing on their website in both Byzantine and Western notation — range from simple and syllabic (such as the troparia and the Anaphora) to florid and melismatic (the Dynamis of the Trisagion, the Cherubic Hymn), according to the rubrics and intended liturgical function. The booklet credits John Boyer, Protopsaltis of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco, with much of the work of adapting of the chants, and his sensitivity to the English text while maintaining the Byzantine ethos is to be highly commended.

Let’s be clear — The Divine Liturgy in English is not intended as a musicological curiosity for specialists, but rather as a practical liturgical model for the wider Church. In other words, this is meant to be a clear demonstration of how we can do things now, not an obscure example of how some people used to do it. As such, the set presents a complete Divine Liturgy as would be found on a typical, non-festal Sunday after Pentecost (a “vanilla Sunday” as some choir directors jokingly call it). This includes the celebrant’s spoken prayers, the Epistle and the Gospel, as well as the full Alleluia and Prokeimenon with verses — only a homily is omitted. (An argument can be made that the way they’ve harmonized the various Typika, they’ve in fact left some things out such as the Beatitudes, but this is addressed in the liner notes.)

Among the many delights of this recording is the text. The official translation of the Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain is used, the product of a panel involving scholars and clergy such as Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash), Metropolitan Kallistos, and Fr. Andrew Louth. Certain renderings are initially unfamiliar — in particular, the use of “Mother of God” instead of Theotokos, and “Holy Strong” in the Trisagion — but It is nonetheless a wonderful translation which adheres quite closely to the Greek text. The booklet includes a helpful essay by Archimandrite Ephrem about the methodology and pastoral principles guiding the Thyateira translation. “Holy Strong” is arguably closer to the actual meaning of the Greek text than “Holy Mighty,” despite the English tradition of the text; see this paper for a thorough look at translating the hymn. I would have liked the “Mother of God” usage to have been addressed in the liner notes; as it is, it is unclear why the Greek word Theotokos, surely standard usage for English-speaking Orthodox by now, is not retained when Greek words such as Dynamis are. Such questions aside, the Thyateira text is an incredible effort which would ideally influence future undertakings of the translation of liturgical texts. 

I will admit to being somewhat puzzled as to why, given the clearly considerable vocal resources Cappella Romana has at its disposal, antiphonal choirs were not used; the liner notes say that “some elements of of the traditional interchange between two choirs are preserved through the use of alternating soloists”, but this strikes me as an unnecessary reduction given everything else they go out of their way to achieve on the recording.

Another major plus of this recording is something which actually isn’t sung — it includes the entire ensemble speaking the Creed and Lord’s Prayer with conviction. This is sadly lacking on the Mount Lebanon Choir recording, where one guy limply reading the prayers into a microphone is too-obviously spliced in after the fact.

Can the musical level achieved on this set, and/or the acoustic in which it was recorded, truly be seen as practical or normative? To be sure, the kind of training needed to meet this standard is not yet widely available in the United States, and many parishes do not have the resources to either provide such musical instruction or to give attention to proper acoustics in their building design. Nonetheless, The Divine Liturgy in English should be understood as a presentation of the “best-case scenario” to which liturgical singers may aspire. As well, Lingas opts for an all-male ensemble — the traditional arrangement, certainly, but unlikely to be the pastoral reality in most places.

The Divine Liturgy in English also shows the way for future adaptations of other Orthodox liturgical music into English, not just Byzantine. To slavishly preserve music written for a different language when adapting it to English is to miss the point of adaptation; that approach does violence to the language and, eventually, the music as well. Rather, those who would adapt the chants for use in a different language must understand the principles which guided the composition in the first place, and then apply those to the new text, while preserving the spirit of the original as much as possible. The music on the previously-mentioned disc of Fr. Sergei Glagolev’s liturgical settings — I said I’d get back to him, didn’t I? — demonstrates his own mastery of how this works for music in a Russian idiom; it is identifiably Slavic in terms of musical character, while still being sung, and sung well, in natural-sounding English in a way which does not obscure the meaning of the text. Perhaps with both the Glagolev settings as well these Byzantine adaptations, one inevitably runs into the objection, “Nobody knows them!” That will simply take time to overcome.

Cappella Romana’s recording is no less than a gift to the English-speaking Orthodox world which will inspire and instruct. Thyateira’s Archbishop Gregorios writes in the liner notes that The Divine Liturgy in English is intended to “increase the understanding and appreciation of both the spirituality of Orthodox worship and the heights of musical expression to which its chanting aspires”; this it does stunningly well. Highly recommended (in case that wasn’t clear by now).

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6 Responses to “<i>The Divine Liturgy in English</i> by Cappella Romana: the review and other thoughts”


  1. 1 Eric Jobe 11 August 2008 at 8:37 am

    Regarding the translation “strong” for “ἰσχυρός”, I wonder if there is enough synonymy between “strong” and “mighty” in English and “ἰσχυρός” and “κραταίος” in Greek that a preference for one or the other based on semantics alone is moot. I can see a slight narrowing of the semantic domain of “strong” to indicate personal, even physical strength, whereas “mighty” is the more general or abstract term. Can the same be said of the Greek terms? A quick glance at LSJ doesn’t resolve the issue much at all.

    Taking the discussion to more a more “aesthetic” level, my personal preference for “mighty”, beyond being what is familiar to me, is that “strong” strikes me as being too vulgar and consequentially poor style. “Mighty” is not a word that enters into common, every-day, speech of your average English speaker. We prefer to use “strong” even for abstract entities such as governments, militaries, etc. In fact, “mighty” has lost so much of it’s semantic force that in many parts of the US, it has taken on a role similar to “pretty” in the phrase “pretty good” as in “mighty fine.” Given such a loss of semantic force in colloquial English, “mighty” is increasingly becoming a term restricted to more artful forms of language where it retains its semantic force. Some, including myself, would argue that this fact makes it more appropriate for liturgical language where a higher register of language is desired. For example, one would not translate “πρόσχωμεν” as “Let us pay attention”, which is far too vulgar. “Let us attend” is a much better fit aesthetically. Therefore, in general, it could be said, we should avoid too much vulgarity in liturgical language.

    If, in English, there is enough synonymy between “strong” and “mighty”, and giving the aesthetic preference for the less vulgar term, I maintain that “mighty” is the best choice for the translation.

  2. 2 Richard Barrett 11 August 2008 at 9:00 am

    I’m not sure I entirely agree; there is enough of a distinction, even in English, that we say the Lord is “strong and mighty” (Ps. 23/24:8), although this doesn’t exactly clarify the matter of the Trisagion, since here it’s κραταιός being translated as “strong” and a different word altogether, δυνατός, being rendered as “mighty”. I’m also not totally sure I’m with you on “strong” seeming more vulgar — but the Thyateira translation certainly agrees with your assessment of πρόσχωμεν.

    At any rate, the essay by Boyer in the booklet says the following about “Strong”/”Mighty”:

    The Trisagion was not as easily adapted, primarily because there are 25 syllables in the original Greek text compared to 16 in the translation. This was a challenge, especially with so familiar a hymn. However, the Thyateira Trisagion helps to solve this problem by retaining, as does the Greek original, a parallel syllabic structure for the first two phrases: ‘Ho-ly God, Ho-ly Strong’. This lends itself perfectly to AAB phrase structure, found in virtually every
    traditional setting of the Trisagion, but lost in the more familiar translation ‘Ho-ly God, Ho-ly Migh-ty’.[2]

    [2] In the Thyateira Translation, ‘mighty’ is reserved for the Greek ‘κραταιός’, whereas ‘strong’ (‘крепкий’ in Slavonic and ‘fortis’ in Latin) is used for ‘ἰσχυρός’. See http://www.anastasis.org.uk/the_trisagion.htm

    (Boyer, J. M., “On Byzantine Chant in English,” The Divine Liturgy in English booklet (Portland, 2008), p. 16)

  3. 4 Sean 2 August 2010 at 11:07 am

    To be completely honest, I was not very particular to byzantine chant being performed in english, but it was mainly this recording that showed me that I could be wrong. The CR performance is powerful and in general quite faithful to the spirit of byzantine music.
    That having been said, I will admit that, in my humble opinion, russian liturgical music can be more easily tolerated by western ears due to its very nature and its affinity with western music.
    When I read that comment, that byzantine music “sounds more like the Muslim call to prayer than Christian singing”, I goggled, then frowned, then laughed out loud. It becomes clear that to an average western person, who lives in a cultural environment formed by centuries-old traditions, some things will always sound foreign: the power of distinction and discernment is a gift for those lucky few who have had the chance to delve into hidden knowledge (same goes for an average eastern person correspondingly).
    The best solution for american orthodoxy is to find its own liturgical expression. Anything else I think will be ejected as a foreign body, ultimately. That’s not to say byzantine music is not proper or nice: to me it’s the most transcendent, heavenly music ever composed. But it’s not for everyone. Although I may be wrong.

  4. 5 Nikos 17 October 2015 at 3:11 am

    A superb recording and one not for concert but for the parish choir loft and kliros.
    So much positive stuff to say that already said but I guess worth repeating is that it gives the lie to the assumed belief that byzantine music like or dislike, but is not for westerners or English speakers.
    Unlike the complex polyphonic Greek American compositions ( which I do not entirely disparage in acapella context) this also brings the congregation into the worship in a way the choir loft organ and polyphony never did,
    Regarding the Russian chant argument, I have long believed that byzantine chant is better suited to English than a anglicanism type reproduction of Russian chant with the original energy removed!

    Arguments on how to adapt are all answered in the positive
    It is a very well done recording and totally practically liturgical. Superb


  1. 1 A word about Cappella Romana’s Tikey Zes: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom before I review it | Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 14 December 2013 at 12:42 am

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