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Posts Tagged 'byzantine christmas'

Review: Sweet Song: A Story of Saint Romanos the Melodist by Jane G. Meyer

sweetsongAncient Faith Publishing was kind enough to send me a review copy of their new children’s book, Sweet Song: A Story of Saint Romanos the Melodist, written by children’s author Jane G. Meyer and with full color illustrations throughout by artist Dorrie Papademetriou.

Sweet Song adapts for the genre of illustrated storybook the defining moment in St. Romanos’ vita — when, unable to sing in church without drawing the ridicule of his fellow readers, he dreamed that the Mother of God gave him a scroll to eat. He did so, and when he awoke, he was able to sing and compose hymns, chanting ἡ Παρθένος σήμερον (“The Virgin comes today”) — what we today sing as the Kontakion for the Nativity of Christ — at the Nativity Vigil. In particular, Meyer emphasizes the personal conflict between St. Romanos and the readers who ridiculed him, concluding with a moment of forgiveness after the demonstration of his new gift during the service.

Orthodox liturgy and music have seemed to me for some time to be rich material for a children’s book, and Meyer/Papademetriou have done a nice job of employing them for younger readers (I’m guessing preschool to kindergarten). Ms. Meyer’s text is easy to read as well as charming, presenting the saint as something of an awkward teenager; earnest but all arms and legs, and alas! no voice. She uses the text of the Kontakion to appropriate effect at the story’s climax, which is a nice touch, and if St. Romanos’ entreaties at the icon of the Mother of God are a little heavy-handed, it’s smoothed over by being well in line with his teenager-y earnestness.

Ms. Papademetriou has done some beautifully detailed work for the book. St. Romanos as painted by her brush is not just an awkward teenager but a bit of a gangly awkward teenager as well, with mussed up hair to boot. While the story may ostensibly be set in sixth century Constantinople, there is an element of anachronism to her visualization, with later, medieval icons, eighth century Communion spoons, and Ottoman vestments interacting freely in her imaginary Constantinopolitan landscape. Ms. Papademetriou’s depiction of the church in which St. Romanos serves is lovely, bright, and colorful; a Byzantine church in all of its late antique glory (and even with a real ambo!). There is nothing of the stereotypical dark, dank medieval church building in her illustrations.

At just shy of eighteen months, my toddler Theodore is still a bit young for this book, but he understands a lot of what is said to him at this stage of the game, and he has developed a very real interest in icons and service books. When he sees a book with a cross on it, he picks it up and says (sometimes chants) “Allya!” (“Alleluia!”) When he sees an icon, he says “Durts!” (“Church!”). When he puts an “Allya!” book down, he says “Amen!” So, Flesh of My Flesh read it to him, showing and explaining to him the pictures as she went. His running commentary throughout: “Allya! Durts!” And then, at the end of the book, he said, quite definitively, “Amen!” So, I guess the book gets a thumbs up from Theodore, too.

Also appreciated is a nice one-page explanation of St. Romanos’ life and historical context at the end of the book.

If I have a quibble, it’s the use of Western staff notation as part of the visual language of the book, featured as it is on the cover, the fly-leaves, and in the body of the story. Granted, as long as Ms. Papademetriou is freely using anachronism, there really should be no problem, and psaltic notation would be just as anachronistic. Still, everything else in the book is identifiably Byzantine; the Western-style notes look out of sync with the rest of the imagery. A reproduction of an icon of St. Romanos at the end that does use psaltic notation shows how visually striking it can be; it seems a missed opportunity here.

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Kanon of St. Kosmas for the Nativity of Christ by Jessica Suchy-Pilalis

Happy new year! Christ is baptized! For those of you on the Old Calendar — well, hope Nativity Eve is treating you well and you get all the All-Night Vigil you’re able to handle. Theophany falls on Sunday next year on the New Calendar, and I’ve suggested to the priest here that we do a full All-Night Vigil for it. I’m not sure how seriously he took it, and I’m not sure how seriously I meant it, but we’ll see. I figure if you start at 9pm, you’re done by 5am, and then you just sleep all day. What’s the problem?

It is a bit late, and I have been somewhat otherwise occupied to give this the full attention it deserved before Christmas, but in all fairness it didn’t come to my attention until rather late in the game in the first place. Dr. Jessica Suchy-Pilalis — herself an IU alumna — has published her setting of the first Nativity canon using Archimandrite Ephrem Lash’s translation, having recomposed the melodies by applying the Byzantine compositional principles to the English text. While I’m not enough of an expert in the formulae to be able to evaluate the setting at that level, I can say that it is very singable — certainly much more singable than the Kazan equivalent. Be aware that there is a small handful of typographical errors in the psaltic notation — I believe it will be shipping with an errata sheet in the future — but they are quite minor and if you follow the line where you think it’s going rather than what the notation says in these cases, you’ll wind up in the right spot.

One person made the comment to me that they found it odd that Lash’s translation doesn’t include the Nativity greeting in its customary English form, “Christ is born, glorify him!” and that as a result, strictly from a textual standpoint, they found Dr. Suchy-Pilalis’ setting unusable, even if it may be a more accurate rendering of the Greek. “Christ is born, give glory” is how Lash translates Χριστὸς γεννᾶται, δοξάσατε, and yes, it’s closer to the Greek. Lash’s translations are excellent renderings into modern English, but he does tend to disregard established ways of saying things in English when he thinks they’re wrong. As has been discussed here before, he makes an excellent argument for why the Trisagion is better translated as “Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us”, but it still apparently sounds wrong to a lot of people. He also translates Χριστὸς ἀνέστη as “Christ HAS risen,” which better conveys the past tense of ἀνέστη (more literally, “Christ rose” or “Christ stood up”). “Christ is risen” is an archaic form of the perfect tense in English (think “Joy to the world! The Lord is come” or “Spring is sprung, the grass is ris”), but we don’t use it that way anymore, so there’s some shift of meaning. For me, the more “traditional” English translations can be quite awkward from time to time (Nasser’s Mode III Resurrectional Theotokion, for example — “Thee, who art the Mediatrix for the salvation of our race, we praise, O Virgin Theotokos” etc.), and I tend to find that Lash knows what he’s talking about, so I’m happy enough to use his translations when I have the chance.

Anyway, I got this in time to sing it at our Nativity Matins — the katabasiae, anyway, since we don’t do full canons at All Saints — and it worked well, even if the second canon was in pseudo-Jacobean (or “hieratic”, as my godson Lucas puts it) English. The pronouns didn’t match, but nobody died. Nobody has ever complained about pronouns not matching (at All Saints, we don’t have a uniform English approach in our Sunday morning Divine Liturgy to begin with, let alone the rest of our liturgical practice) but if anybody ever does complain, I want to find a nice way of saying, “This is the current state of Orthodox liturgical translation in English. If you don’t like it, please send a note with your suggested solutions to the bishop along with a check that says ‘Translation Fund’ in the memo. No? Then you can live with the pronouns not matching.”

There are a couple of little things I might criticize — I’ve had English rules of choral diction hammered into my head enough over the years that I really don’t like it when people set diphthongs as two syllables. It might make sense from a standpoint of compositional principles, but to sing it that way sounds terribly strange to my ears. I also wish she had included slow katabasiae. Still, these are quibbles that don’t take away from the excellent work Dr. Suchy-Pilalis has done. It’s too late for this year, but do keep it in mind for next year. It’s the kind of effort that needs to be encouraged and rewarded, and most importantly, actually sung in parishes.

(hack) Thanksgiving leftovers (koff)

It’s the first day of December. How the heck did that happen?

On the way out to New Mexico last week, I sat between a married couple who were both sick and kept coughing across me. It was Southwest Airlines, so seating was first come first serve, and they made it clear they would rather have me in the crossfire than give up either an aisle or a window seat. It must have been clear how this came across, because as we were getting off the plane, the wife said to me, “Don’t worry, you won’t catch anything from us — we’ve had this for the last four weeks.”

My stepfather was sick when I got to New Mexico. Flesh of My Flesh was sick on Thanksgiving day. My mom was getting sick over the weekend as we were preparing to leave.

So, perhaps it was inevitable, but Sunday evening I started developing a sore throat on the flight home, yesterday it was getting worse, and today I’m staying home trying to keep from getting worse or giving it to lots of people. I hate to be “that guy” who suspiciously gets sick immediately following a break, but here we are.

As I drink my gallon of Throat Coat tea, there are a few things upon which to muse:

  • My review copy of Cappella Romana’s recording of the Michaelides Divine Liturgy arrived in my absence, as did the Ensemble Organum disc I mentioned earlier. A full review will come shortly; for the moment, I will say only that both are worth your time and represent, in an odd way, flip sides of the same coin.
  • If you do iTunes, Lycourgos Angelopoulos’ 1993 album of Byzantine hymnody for Christmas has been rereleased in that format. It has been out of print for years as an actual disc, although there seem to be some used copies on Amazon. (Note that the iTunes release has a slightly different title: The Glory of Byzantium: Christmas Hymns.)
  • Rod Dreher is leaving the Dallas Morning News to become director of publications for the John Templeton Foundation. Close to four years ago, I started hearing various grumpy old men murmuring about “crunchy cons”. My godson Lucas at some point started reading the book and recommended I read it. It resonated quite a bit with me as somebody who looks more to Russell Kirk than Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin as a model of what conservatism should look like, and the point of the book seemed to me to be to ask how conservatives might, y’know, actually conserve something other than money or power or status. I gave copies of it to a lot of people, and I’m reasonably sure I know everybody in Bloomington who has read it (I’ll let you decide if I’m joking). I’ll fess up that, while a lot of Dreher’s critics had no patience for how he discussed food, I really appreciated what he had to say about a sacramental approach to it, and even if Michael Pollan isn’t using the word “sacramental”, his work and Dreher’s demonstrate that it can be a topic where liberals and conservatives can make common cause (and of course, Dreher interviewed Pollan for The American Conservative last year). Since the book came out, it has seemed as though he was searching unsuccessfully for a way to follow up what should have served as a strong statement of purpose; what he touted as a “sensibility” never quite materialized as a movement, exactly, eventually Crunchy Cons went out of print, and the hinted-at sequel about “the Benedict Option” never materialized, presumably because (as he kept saying in his blog) his newspaper job had become an exercise in self-preservation. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge in the last four years; Dreher converted to Orthodox Christianity, and right now conservatism seems to be floundering on the very cultural essentials the importance of which he was trying to stress, consequently lurching even more towards negativity and hostility. My hope is that a break from political commentary will allow Dreher to follow up on the issues discussed in Crunchy Cons from a more purely cultural perspective, because I think that’s where his heart has wanted to go with it anyway.
  • There was an interesting article in the New York Times this last Sunday about the traditional Latin Mass. Even more interesting has been the discussion of it in places like The New Liturgical Movement and Commonweal. I’m really not sure what a “liturgist” is — a liturgical scholar? a liturgical composer? a person who interprets rubrics? — but what I find striking is how for many modern Catholics, it seems like the rupture from tradition is in fact a selling point. I was in a large, old stone Catholic church once where they were doing a lot of work to restore the interior. The high altar was still in place, and I asked somebody if it ever got used; the person I asked looked highly offended that I would even dare to mention the high altar’s existence, and said, “No, Vatican II turned the altars around and returned the focus of the Mass to the people,” and made it clear that was the end of the conversation. Sometimes it seems like the majority of Westerners truly and actively yearn for their worship to be sentimental, banal, and tacky. At any rate, I don’t have a dog in this fight (except insofar as I strongly disagree with certain parties who think Orthodoxy needs its own Vatican II), but it seems to me that the traditionalist and modernist narratives are irreconcilable, as the comments on Wolfe’s article indicate. What I will say is that the invocation by a commenter at Commonweal of C. S. Lewis (“The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual”) seems quite apt, and the apparent need, not just for the 1970 Missal to be embraced but for anything that ever came before it to be wiped from the face of the earth, is very telling — at least to me. At the risk of elevating aesthetics over all other concerns, I’ll point out that the Mass of St. Gregory inspired people like Josquin and Palestrina; the kinds of composers the Novus Ordo appears to have inspired are, shall we say, not even close.

Okay. I need more tea.

Χριστὸς γεννᾶται, δοξάσατε!

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Christmas Eve found me singing the services of the Royal Hours of the Nativity, as well as the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil, in the morning. We only started doing the Liturgy in the last couple of years, and last year I had to leave right after the Hours, so this marks the first time I’ve sung this particular service.

The idea of the Royal Hours of the Nativity is one of my favorite services; it is, so far as I can tell, a Christmas service that is entirely ours and for which no other communion has an equivalent. I’ve always thought of it as a service that, in theory, could be a wonderful outreach if done really beautifully (of course, the same could be said of all of our services). Also the parallel of the hymn from Ninth Hour, “Today is born of the Virgin Him who holdest all creation in the hollow of His hand,” to the Fifteenth Antiphon from the Matins of Holy Friday, “Today is suspended upon the tree He who suspended the earth upon the waters,” is also one of those liturgical moments that reveals how carefully our ecclesiastical year is constructed.

The execution of the Royal Hours tends to stress me out, however. The last couple of years in particular have always had little gotchas (or big gotchas, as sometimes is the case) — two years ago, for example, my priest forwarded me an e-mail from our bishop saying, “This is how we’re going to do the Royal Hours throughout the entire diocese this year; please make a note of it.” I dutifully prepared to do the service exactly that way, I made a verbal attempt to verify Fr. Peter and I were on the same page before the service, and I reached the end of the Royal Hours as outlined by the bishop only to have the priest continuing on with exactly the portion of the service I had not brought with me for the morning. He asked me afterwards what happened; I told him I was following the bishop’s e-mail that he had forwarded me. Without going into messy details, we’ll just say that the decision had been made to not change anything in consideration of it being Fr. Peter’s first year at the parish, and that this not being conveyed to me was, one way or the other, an oversight. Last year, the Vesperal Liturgy was added to the schedule immediately following the Hours; unfortunately, for whatever reason the Liturgy was scheduled for an hour following the Hours, and the Hours take somewhere close to two hours if sung as written. We sped through as much as we possibly could, cutting repeats, and it was still about an hour and forty-five minutes. This incident was unfortunately forgotten, and the same mistake was made on this year’s calendar. The solution this time was to sing the troparion and kontakion at each hour, then read rather than sing the stichera leading up to the prokeimenon. This got us down to an hour and a half. Then there’s the matter of our Kazan Menaion for December being in horrible disarray with a lot of things having been lost or removed over the years. I will replace that, with my own money if need be, shortly (assuming they still exist). Hopefully, one way or the other, all of these issues can be addressed for next year.

Following the services for the morning, there was much goose-preparing, present-wrapping, cleaning and decorating to do before we returned to church for a chrismation, Nativity Matins, and Divine Liturgy at 8:30pm.

Goose, as it turns out, is on the expensive side. Being married to me has evidently done horrible things to Megan’s math, and/or her approach to thinking about food, and when she was asked how many people she was feeding when she ordered the goose, she added one plus one (her and me), and came up with the number seven. The resulting ten pound goose was, as you can see, not cheap. Ah well — if it had turned out terribly, it would have been a tragedy. As it is, we’re just fine with a few days’ worth of leftovers.

I mentioned earlier the matter of brining the goose. This involved cleaning the bird and soaking it overnight in five gallons of water with lots of salt, sugar, peppercorns, bay leaves, cardamom, and so on. The exact recipe may be found here. It was not terribly difficult, but all the ready-making was time-consuming, and I found myself wrapping Megan’s presents just minutes before we had to head back to church.

Matins and Liturgy were a good deal less stressful than the morning’s services, and set the Feast off well, I thought. Christmas is always a strange-feeling time at All Saints; college town that Bloomington is, a lot of people are gone, and even some people who are in town often stay home. To some extent, this underscores for me how Easter really is the main holy day on our calendar, and as much as the Nativity is a major feast, it just still isn’t as big of deal. Nonetheless, the Nativity Liturgy is the best-attended non-Sunday major feast at All Saints, even if it doesn’t pack the house the way Pascha does. We did have the nine-member family of a catechumen — which included a Pentecostal preacher. I was asked, seconds before we were about to start Matins, if there was anything with which he could follow along — having to think quickly, I handed the requestor an extra copy of both the Nassar book of liturgical texts (aka “the Five Pounder”) and the Antiochian service book. I still have no idea if that wound up being useful.

Another part of why it’s strange, though, is that there is nothing in the Byzantine celebration of the Nativity that corresponds to what is done at the popular level in American society. We sing totally different hymns, we don’t do a “living Christmas tree,” and incense, candles and whatnot are normative parts of every service for us, not just for high holy days. All Saints has sung Christmas carols in the church following the dismissal, but in the last 2-3 years that’s fallen out of practice because we’ve started reading the post-Communion prayers at that point, so there’s not really a logistically clean point anymore where that might work. For my own part, I can say that the last thing in the world I want to do after singing Nativity Matins and Divine Liturgy is to start singing Christmas carols, for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which being that I’m vocally exhausted, and also that aesthetically it seems like it would be the most jarring transition possible. Still, I know it’s difficult for some people, that to some extent it doesn’t feel like the same Christmas everybody else is celebrating. I’m not sure what the solution is, if there even really is one.

A nightcap of eggnog with bourbon found me before we hit the sack, and then that was that for the night.

I think we finally rolled out of bed around 10:30am on Christmas morning. We opened presents — some festal icons for us, a couple of reference works Megan wanted, and then for me home coffee roasting supplies — and then what I was really waiting for: eggs benedict from scratch, with biscuits made from the buttermilk that Megan’s butter-making efforts from a couple of days before had yielded.

Then it was time to start roasting a goose.

Roasting a goose is less tricky than some might have you believe, but the incontrovertible truth is that there is a lot of fat. You have to prick a lot of holes in the skin so that the fat can drain out while the bird is cooking, and then you have to be immensely careful when pulling it in and out of the oven lest all of the drippings splash over the side of the roasting pan. The plus of this is that goose fat is supposed to make fantastic mashed potatoes.

We followed this recipe and liked it a lot; the one caveat I might mention is that the way the steps are organized, it is not made clear that the stock is a vital ingredient of the gravy until it is too late to go back and rectify the matter if you skipped over it. We were able to improvise so that all was not lost, and the stock made a really tasty soup a couple of days later, but do be aware of this. Also, the recipe assumes a thirteen pound bird; ours was a ten-pounder, and by the time we got to the last 50 minutes of roasting as called for in the recipe, our meat thermometer told us that it was already done. Next time we will attempt to recalibrate the cooking times to match up with the goose’s size.

Anyway, one way or the other, the fowl was not foul in the least. My impression of how goose tastes is that it’s similar to roast beef as well as good dark meat on a turkey. We also had mashed potatoes, collard greens, and spinach, served with a very nice Lebanese red wine. Dessert was homemade pound cake.

I also decided I was in the mood to read the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” aloud and in character; my reading of this story when I was seven or eight, after all, is the whole reason I ever had any idea there was such a thing as a Christmas goose in the first place, so it seemed appropriate. It was fun; we’ll see if this particular practice lasts.

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday have, of course, seen us feeding a lot of people with goose leftovers. You can do all the same things with it as turkey; sandwiches, soup, and so on. As well as that’s gone over, maybe it was a good thing that Megan’s math was faulty — I look forward to doing it again.

All Saints served the Divine Liturgy of St. James again yesterday, the Sunday after Nativity being the other day when it is customary (at least in some places) to celebrate it; I hope to be able to post pictures soon. It really is a beautiful Liturgy, I’m finding it very enriching to become more familiar with it, and far more people in the parish got to be part of it than did in October. I’m only sad that it’s going to be almost ten months before the next time we do it.

And a new year is almost upon us. Thank God for that, for so many reasons.


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