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Posts Tagged 'fr. sergei glagolev'

Reminiscences from PSALM, Chicago, 2-5 August 2006

A comment prompted me to look up a series of e-mail I sent to the members of my choir from the thus far one-and-only PSALM national conference held back in August of 2006. This was back in the days before I had a blog. I sent these to my choir partially because I wanted them to engage some of the things I was hearing while I was there; truth be told, I’m not sure they all understood why they were getting long e-mails from me. Such is life.

Reading through them, it seemed perhaps worthwhile to share some of those notes here. My perception — and someone can correct me if I’m wrong — is that PSALM peaked with this event; I think there was talk back then about trying to set up regional PSALM identities and events and then do a regular national conference every other year, but none of that ever happened, for better or for worse. My experience with the PSALM Yahoo! group in its present form is that the ideals expressed five and a half years ago are by no means universally held these days, or even necessarily approved of. I can’t really say for sure I understand what’s going on there, but there we go.

Anyway, without further ado —

Day 1: Hello from Chicago! Day 1 has been packed with a lot of stuff that hopefully will be useful for all of us in the long run, and the days to come look similarly stuffed. The Indiana representation has been significant: the opening remarks were from Fr. Sergei Glagolev, an Indiana native; Vicki Pappas and Fr. Joseph Morris (from Ss. Constantine & Elena in Indy) were both part of a panel discussion; the Paraklesis service was sung by IU alum Jessica Suchy-Pilalis; and I finally had the occasion to meet Lori Branch, about whom I have heard so much over the years. She sends along her love and best wishes to all who might remember her.

We had a rehearsal for the Divine Liturgy Saturday morning, and about two-thirds of the conference participants are making up the choir–that is, probably somewhere around 100 people. It’s like the Sunday of Orthodoxy choir, only about four times the size. In the enormous nave that St. George in Cicero has, one is bathing in the sound when all of sing. It’s quite something. Mark Bailey, one of the instructors in liturgical music at St. Vladimir’s, is conducting the conference choir–and it might be worth mentioning that, when we looked at the “Lord, have mercy” sections, the first thing he did was tell us to drop the r in the word “Lord” so that it came out “Lohd”. Just so you know that it’s not that I’m crazy. (Well, not just that I’m crazy, anyway.)

The Paraklesis service was lovely–unison women’s chant from Dr. Suchy-Pilalis and one other. Really very beautiful.

I’ll have a full account of all the goings-on later, but there are a number of things panelists and clergy said which I’m chewing on already. Some of them are pretty challenging and clear-cut in terms of communicating a strong point of view and expectation:

“There is no such thing as a quick fix, only hard work… We have to have the ability to change, because when things don’t change, they’re dead.”–Fr. Sergei Glagolev. Fr. Sergei also challenged us to think about what we want to pass on to the next generation in terms of singing in church.

Fr. Joseph stressed the need for the choir to be dignified and sober, and to have a servant mentality–that we come on time, and we are prepared. “If you can’t make it on time, you can’t make it on time,” he said. “Better to sing with the faithful in that case. You’re not a bishop.” He also noted that, in his parish, there is the expectation that the singers treat Vespers, Matins, and Divine Liturgy as one piece–that is, if someone is singing in the choir for Divine Liturgy, he expects them to have been there for Vespers and Matins as well. “My expectation is that my singers are Orthodox in practice as well as name,” he said.

Valerie Yova, PSALM president, observed that, in general, there is a lack of effective musical leadership in the Church in this country, and noted the following symptoms/factors:

  • Choirs are shrinking and aging
  • People are living further and further away from where they go to church
  • School music programs are dying
  • Parishes are falling into financial trouble
  • There are an almost impossibly small number of places to be trained as an Orthodox church musician
  • The old chanting masters are dying and not being replaced
  • The musical element of worship is being devalued

The panel discussion (David Drillock, Fr. Joseph, Fr. John Rallis, Fr. Lawrence Margitich, Fr. John Finley, Alice Hughes, Carol Wetmore, Rachel Troy, and Vicki) observed that synergy between choir director, singers, and clergy requires time and regular effort, and e-mail cannot be all there is. To that end, not only are regular rehearsals vital, but clerical involvement in rehearsals on some regular basis is also important. Vicki Pappas made the point that volunteerism cannot be an obstacle to excellence, that church musicians have a sacred role, that of being responsible for leading the people’s worship, and that this should inspire us to better things. Fr. Joseph followed this up by saying, cf. St. John Climacus, “If it is possible for one, it is possible for all.” One priest (Fr. Lawrence Margitich, I think) put it this way: we shouldn’t confuse volunteerism with stewardship. As church singers, we are stewards of God’s talents, not mere volunteers, and we should act and think of ourselves accordingly. David Drillock, choirmaster emeritus at St. Vladimir’s expressed this by saying that being in the choir should be a “high calling”.

Other nuggets from the panel: if we as singers are truly connected to the text we’re singing, it will be communicated to the congregation naturally. Also that the church school should be excellent recruiting ground for the choir. Fr. Joseph also suggested that congregational singing should not drag the Liturgy down; it should appropriately done and led. Dovetailing onto that, Vicki suggested a clear intent with respect to which sections we should encourage the congregation to sing, and those which we intend the choir to sing. Having said that, the panel followed that up by saying that it is foolish to replace something people love unless one knows it’s being replaced with something they’ll love at least as much.

Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s, minced no words: “I disagree that dead things don’t change. Rather, dead things become more rotten, corrupted and stinky.” He also issued a rather direct challenge: “The Orthodox Church seems to be the only place on earth where you don’t have to be competent to be asked to do something. How does this come about? What happened? Why will people join a community choir, not miss a rehearsal, pay attention to the choir director, and then then not do the same in their parish choir? If we’re not taking church and everything we do in it seriously, then we’re just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. You can’t raise the bar when you still have to convince people that there’s a bar to be raised in the first place.”

In aid of this sentiment, he told the following story: a parish started talking about buying a new chandelier. It came to the parish council, and one person stood up and said, “I am absolutely against this. We don’t need a chandelier, we don’t want a chandelier, and we can’t pay for a chandelier.” The priest asked, well, what do you mean? “It’s too expensive,” the man said, “and we don’t even know where to buy one.” (Scattered laughter from the audience.) He went on: “Plus, there’s nobody in the parish who can play one, and it’s not even part of our tradition anyway.” (More laughter from the audience.) He finished by saying, “I just can’t understand why we’re talking about buying a chandelier when what we really need is more light!” (Peals of laughter from the audience.)

Like I said, all very challenging stuff, but there was a truly remarkable consistency to the message I heard today. It’s going to take me a while to process all of it, but there was one more thing that was stressed today, and I’ll close with that for now–

Fr. Thomas Hopko also said that, as church musicians, in terms of purpose and practice, we must start no other place than Christ crucified and glorified, that it is only by starting there we will end up in the right place. In the same vein, the panel also reminded us of Metropolitan +ANTHONY Bashir’s insistence that, once love is manifested, all things are possible.

All of these things are worth thinking about, and I encourage you all to do so as well.

More to come on Day 2.

Day 2: Again, too much to summarize in one e-mail, but a small handful of highlights:

First two presentations this morning were from Fr. Ephrem Lash, who looks and sounds like Gandalf as portrayed by Ian McKellen (and who has a wonderful website, http://www.anastasis.org.uk), who is also a scholar from England (I believe he is a colleague of Bp. KALLISTOS Ware, but I could be mistaken) who has quite a bit to say about translations of the Bible and liturgical texts into English, and Mark Bailey, instructor of liturgical music at St. Vladimir’s. The topic for both was the fittingness of English as a liturgical language, the necessary approach to translating texts, and then how best to set these texts to music so that a) the meaning is communicated and b) the musical tradition is carried on. Both had wonderful things to say about the necessary principles to make these things work. Before the first presentation, we sang “O Heavenly King”, and Fr. Ephrem noted that the setting took the word “impurity” and placed the stress on the last syllable, making it “impuriTEE”. “In the language I speak, English, it’s pronounced ‘imPURity’,” he observed. Mark Bailey had all kinds of fantastic practical examples of good text-setting and bad text-setting, and further suggested, “We’ve gotten our parishioners and singers too used to bad settings, and they’ve become attached to them as a result.” Fr. Thomas Hopko then commented, “Most of our churches are just copying what they’ve heard on recordings. Can we put out new recordings that do it the way you’re talking about?” Something to think about.

The second morning session consisted of presentations from the various heads of jurisdictional sacred music departments as to what they’re up to–Chris Holwey from the Antiochian Archdiocese, David Drillock from the OCA, and Vicki Pappas from the Greek Archdiocese. While interesting, I found it fascinatingly unnecessary to have such redundancy. All three of them are essentially doing the exact same job, providing the exact same resources in exactly the same manner. One fervently hopes that eventually there will be no need for multiple separate departments of sacred music.

The afternoon panel I attended was on the topic, “Educating Liturgical Musicians in the 21st Century.” Vladimir Morosan, a musicologist who specializes in the Russian repertoire, was the moderator. He framed the panel discussion by asking, “How do we explain that the oldest and richest singing tradition in Christendom does so little to formally prepare liturgical musicians? What do we do about it?”

Anne Schoepp, a choir director in the OCA in California, argued passionately that Orthodoxy is a singing culture, and we need to do everything we can at the parish level to start our kids singing and to get them used to singing and loving singing. Fr. John Finley of our own Archdiocese suggested that the model of the Classical School that is starting to pop up in Orthodox circles could be a way to disseminate this kind of curriculum; I suggested that there’s an even more obvious answer, the tradition of the choir school as it still survives in England and even some places here in the US like the St. Thomas Choir School in New York and the Cathedral Choir School at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. “Let’s talk,” Fr. John said.

However we do it, the panel continued, people need to be immersed in good liturgy in order to be able to do good liturgy–it must be soaked in, the liturgical aesthetic must be ingrained in us. To this end, one panelist said, the power of the priest cannot be underestimated in terms of cultivating potential–kids as well as adults need to come to events like this, for example.

After the afternoon panel was choir rehearsal; Mark Bailey is very exact, and it’s a real learning experience to watch him conduct. It continues to be something else having a 100-voice choir singing in a church where the acoustics are as favorable as they are here. Then Vespers, where a small ensemble sang the stichera and whatnot, not dissimilar from what usually happens at All Saints.

After dinner was a concert performed by a group called the St. Romanos Cappella (as opposed to Cappella Romana, a completely different ensemble), singing a program entirely of music by modern Orthodox composers–all but one of whom were in the audience. Tikey Zes (who composed our All Saints troparion), Ivan Moody, Kurt Sander (formerly of Indiana University Southeast), James Green (the one not in attendance), Mark Bailey (man, the guy is everywhere), and Fr. Sergei Glagolev. Each one of them brings something different to the table, but it was all wonderful. It would be nice to learn several of these (particularly the Glagolev, Sander, and Bailey material), because it would be a shame to have all of this beautiful music out there representing a living continuation of the tradition and then have it never actually be sung in our churches. It would also be especially nice to finish learning Fr. Sergei’s setting of Psalm 103/104 for Vespers; now having heard what it actually sounds like in a church and not just on a recording, I’m more convinced of this. (And Bp. MARK already approved it back in December, which is handy.) Besides Psalm 103/104, they also sang one of his settings of the Cherubic Hymn, the Anaphora, the Megalynarion, and the Alleluia before the Gospel (including the refrains), and it was made very evident what a treasure trove his liturgical music actually is. He received a standing ovation at the end of it–surely every composer there deserved one, but he was quite appropriately the man of the hour. It was very moving.

After a looooooooooooooooooong, far-reaching conversation with Dn. Kevin Smith, choirmaster at St. Vlad’s, we managed to miss the shuttle back to the hotel and had to get a ride back from a Bulgarian woman named Danielle. And now it’s time for me to fall over and go to sleep. More to come tomorrow.

Day 3: There was a lot of theoretical stuff talked about today. I found it fascinating, but there’s little I can just summarize into an anecdote. Mark Bailey again had interesting things to say on a variety of topics; one issue he described was that of a common faith not necessarily uniting the Orthodox into a common sense of heritage. In terms of what that means musically–well, for many of us who are converts, “all Orthodox music is music for all Orthodox”, but that’s a very unique attitude to some (by no means all) American converts. He noted that in Russia right now there’s an argument over what kind of liturgical music from their various indigenous traditions (common chant, znamenny, etc.) will adequately represent the Russian culture. In this country, we have the opposite problem–we as yet have no indigenous Orthodox musical tradition, and so are trying to determine what bits and pieces from other national practices will best express Orthodoxy as it exists in America. Do we do a little bit of everything and make it a “checklist”-style approach? Do we pick one thing–Byzantine chant, Russian 4-part chant, whatever–and try to make it our own?

Mark Bailey is really big on liturgical singing doing no more and no less than supporting the liturgical action. That is, that liturgical singing either prepares for, accompanies, or is a liturgical action or rite. To do something other than one of these three things is, therefore, not liturgical and therefore spurious as far as this context is concerned. To that end, he says, musical form should elaborate on, and therefore draw the member of the congregation in to, a sacred action. At the same time, David Drillock two days ago reminded us that a large part of what we do is “proclamatory”–the exact opposite of drawing somebody in. I’m coming to the conclusion after hearing all of this discussed for two days that, as is so often the case in Orthodoxy, it cannot be “either/or”–it must be “both/and”. Part of its musical beauty come from the way in which the liturgical event is supported, and part of its ability to support the liturgical event must come from its beauty.

See what I mean about a lot of theoretical stuff?

One really practical thing he said with which I really agree is the idea that we need to not turn antiphons into anthemic pieces–they are a liturgical dialogue, not a big choral moment. What does that mean for us at All Saints? I don’t know yet; as it is we have a soloist sing the verse followed by the choir singing the refrain. What about this–rather than soloist plus choir, maybe it’s something like having the men intone one verse, the choir sings the refrain, the women intone the next verse, choir sings the refrain, etc.? We will play with possibilities at future rehearsals.

The afternoon panel, “Where do we go from here?” was interesting. People talked about a number of things, from PSALM formally getting behind issues like jurisdictional unity and a standardized English translation, to spearheading an English musical setting of the entire Octoechos (using, of course, this as-yet nonexistent “American chant” as the medium), to devising a music curriculum for use in parish schools. I think there are all kinds of things we can accomplish, we just need to think big. One of the issues, of course, is that in the past it has been possible for these issues to be solved in a “top-down” manner; the patriarchate or synod or whatever ruling body standardizes the practice/text/chant/whatever and promulgates it. The reality in this country, however, is that we’re having to solve many of these problems from the grassroots level on up. There’s a lot of “rolling our own” that takes place (as I found out earlier this week when I thought I needed a hierarchical “Before Thy Cross” and couldn’t find one to save my life), simply by necessity, because if we don’t do it, nobody else will.

Vespers was lovely. The large conference choir sang everything, and it was something. Being able to worship together (and commune together, tomorrow morning) is what makes this more than just a conference.

The evening panel, on composing liturgical settings for the English language, was made up of Ivan Moody, Fr. John Finley, Fr. Ephrem Lash, Mark Bailey, Fr. Sergei Glagolev, Vladimir Morosan, Tikey Zes, and Nicolas Resanovic. All I can say is–to have all of these people in one room was simply stunning. Not just their brilliance and talent, but their clear love for God and the Church as well. Ivan Moody provided a deft touch of dry, droll Englishness as the moderator. He provided a wonderful quote from St. John Chrysostom: “The tongue is made holy by the words when spoken by a ready and eager mind.”

There was a question where somebody described the situation of somebody coming up to the kliros or into the choir and being told, “Here’s the music for this service. We don’t actually do it that way, but here’s the music.” Big understanding laugh from the audience.

There was a fascinating moment where someone stood up and said, “You know, I’m from the Deep South. The South is a ripe field for Orthodox evangelism–the people there are crying out for the truth. Culturally, however, if we don’t bring it to them in English, their English, they are not going to care what we have to say.” This prompted Mark Bailey to remind us that, in this country, we are a missionary church with a missionary imperative, and that must inform what we do musically.

And then that, as they say, was that.

Day 4: Day 4 was short and sweet. With a 7:30am Matins service, I had to wake up at 6 to check out of the hotel. They did Matins and Liturgy as separate services, as opposed to Matins running right into Liturgy. There was a pause of a few minutes as Mark Bailey got set up to conduct the conference choir, and as the octet (into which I was roped) got into our places.

I may quibble with some (but by no means all) of the settings that were selected (I’ll be honest–the Russian chant in English is very jarring to my ear), but I have to say, having that 150 piece choir singing most of it and getting to sing in the octet that did the rest, in that church, with that conductor, was absolutely something else. I wish you all could have been there to take part, and my hope is that when this happens again, perhaps more of us can go. Fr. John Finley celebrated and homilized; it being the Pre-Feast of the Transfiguration, that was his topic. He started out with the quote from the Gospel reading, “It is good to be here.” It was quite apt. He exhorted us to “embrace the struggle” that we have adopted over the last few days, which was well-taken.

And that was that, more or less. There were some parting remarks at breakfast, and I think a lot of people are coming away from this event feeling like it was something seminal, that there has been good seed sown. Time will tell how God’s hand is in all of this, but one way or the other, it seems that the conference has exceeded everybody’s expectations.

A funny anecdote and a really cool thing: I went up to Fr. Ephrem Lash (the priest who looked and sounded like Ian McKellen’s Gandalf) and asked for a blessing. He sized me up and said (you’ll have to imagine the Ian McKellen-like voice), “Young man, did you receive Holy Communion this morning?”

“Yes, Father.”

“You never ask for the priest’s blessing after receiving Communion. You never ask for a blessing or kiss an icon. You have the Lord inside of you, so what can they possibly add? The Russians and the Arabs have gotten very bad about this.” I took it in stride, because I’m aware that it is an issue where there is not uniformity of practice or opinion. It was funny nonetheless. I then told him that I found his talk very edifying and he said, “Ah, ‘edifying.’ I never mean to edify, my boy; I only wish to make people laugh.”

So there we have it. Thanks for reading my ramblings; I just wanted to make sure that you all knew for sure I was where I said I was going to be, and hadn’t just taken off for Hawaii or something for a few days. If anybody wants to know more about anything I’ve talked about (or anything I haven’t, for that matter), let me know, I’d love to talk about it, particularly now while the memories are all still fresh.

In Christ,

Richard

 

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Follow up on Angelic Light

I mentioned in my review of Angelic Light: Music from Eastern Cathedrals that the copy I had provided no information other than track names, and I was left to guess names of composers based on my own familiarity with the recordings. Mark Powell, Cappella Romana’s executive director, was kind enough to pass along the complete track listing:

1. As many of you as have been baptised (I) 3:07
Composer: Frank Desby (died 1992)
CD: When Augustus Reigned
Taken from Dr. Desby’s 1951 “Divine Liturgy”…is an arrangement of Sakellarides’ simplified version of the traditional chant. (Sakellarides: 1853–1938)

2. O Great and most sacred Pascha 1:38
Composer: Hieronymos Tragodistes of Cyprus (fl. 1550–60)
CD: Music of Byzantium

3. Cherubic Hymn, Mode Plagal IV 3:56
Composer: Tikey Zes (Born 1927)
CD: Tikey Zes Choral Works
A setting for mixed chorus of one of Sakellarides’ simplified melodies for the Byzantine Eucharist’s ordinary offertory chant. (Sakellarides: 1853–1938)

4. Communion Verse for Sundays 3:59
Composer: Peter Michaelides (born 1930)
CD: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrystostom

5. Cherubic Hymn (Opening section) 3:49
Composer: Peter Michaelides (born 1930)
CD: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrystostom

6. Offertory and Communion Hymn for Holy Thursday, Mode Plagal IV 2:58
Composer: Tikey Zes (Born 1927)
CD: Tikey Zes Choral Works
English setting of a melody by Sakellarides (Sakellarides: 1853–1938)

7. Communion Verse for Sundays, Mode Plagal I
Composer: Tikey Zes (Born 1927) 4:24
CD: Tikey Zes Choral Works
An intricate arrangement of a chant by Sakellarides (Sakellarides: 1853–1938)

8. Now the Powers of heaven 3:43
Composer: Father Sergei Glagolev (born 1927)
CD: Lay Aside All Earthly Cares – Orthodox Choral Works in English

9. Cherubic Hymn – Special Melody, The thief beheld 4:25
Composer: Father Sergei Glagolev (born 1927)
CD: Lay Aside All Earthly Cares – Orthodox Choral Works in English

10. Let all mortal flesh 3:20
Composer: Father Sergei Glagolev (born 1927)
CD: Lay Aside All Earthly Cares – Orthodox Choral Works in English

11. Megalynarion for Nativity (from Three Christmas Hymns) 1:47
Composer: Peter Michaelides (born 1930)
CD: When Augustus Reigned
“Megalynarion” is a Marian hymn from the Ninth Ode of the Christmas Kanon by St. Kosmas the Melodist

12. Ikos Six 2:18 (new piece–replaces “Kontakion for Mother of God”, since KMG duplicates “Hierarchichal Entrance”)
Composer: Ivan Moody (born 1964)
CD: The Akathistos Hymn
COPYRIGHTS: The Akathistos Hymn, O Tebe raduetsya
c Vanderbeek and Imrie Ltd,1999,1990

13. Hierarchical Entrance Rite for a Byzantine Divine Liturgy: V. Kontakion of the Mother of God, Mode Plagal 4 4:06
Composer: Anonymous (c. 1450)
CD: The Fall of Constantinople
Musical edition from medieval Byzantine sources c. Alexander Lingas

14. O Tebe raduetsya 4:02
Composer: Ivan Moody (born 1964)
CD: The Akathistos Hymn
COPYRIGHTS: The Akathistos Hymn, O Tebe raduetsya
c Vanderbeek and Imrie Ltd,1999,1990

15. What Shall We Call You Full of Grace 2:04
Composer: Richard Toensing (born 1940)
CD: Kontakion for the Nativity of Christ, New Orthodox Christmas Carols

16. Cherubic Hymn, Mode Plagal IV 5:52
Composer: Tikey Zes (Born 1927)
CD: When Augustus Reigned
A setting for mixed chorus of one of Sakellarides’ simplified melodies for the Byzantine Eucharist’s ordinary offertory chant. (Sakellarides: 1853–1938)

The comment was also made that, pace my remarks, the subtitle “Music from Eastern Cathedrals” is accurate because much of this music was composed for GOA cathedrals (and one Antiochian cathedral) in this country. Yes, fine, I get that the idea is that they’re “Eastern Cathedrals” because of communion, not because of geography (and I wonder if the booklet makes that explicit — the copy I was sent came with an temporary insert  that consisted of a listing of track names and the cover rather than the booklet I was assured accompanies the final product). As I said, I know I’m taking the title too literally, and it’s a minor point — I just wonder if the average person who doesn’t know anything about this repertoire who just sees the title of the album will understand what’s actually intended. If I were picking the title, it would have been something like “Eastern Cathedrals in the New World” or something like that (and I’m sure somebody would have instantly shot it down as being too wordy). For my part, I can think of instances where somebody has bought a CD based on my recommendation, then come back to me and been upset because they didn’t realize the recording was in English. “I don’t want to understand it!” they tell me. “If I can actually understand the words, I feel wrong somehow if I’m listening to it while doing the dishes!” Anyway, it still seems to me to be a point worth bringing up; I could be wrong.

As a side note, recordings seem to have a curious impact on musical practice in the American Orthodox world; my own impression, at least from my informal survey of parishes in the Midwest over the last several years, is that the most influential recording to have been released for English-speakers is the St. Vladimir’s Divine Liturgy disc, in terms of repertoire chosen and how that repertoire is sung. And, I have to say, it is a middle-of-the-road disc at best in terms of recording quality, repertoire, and performance, even taking into account the fact that it’s live and an actual service. Maybe the problem is one of expectation; the SVS folks picked repertoire that seems attainable and sang it in a way that doesn’t represent the material so perfectly that the average listener assumes that their choir couldn’t do it. By contrast, I can think of times when I’ve played more polished recordings with better repertoire for people and gotten the response, “Well, that sounds great, but who’s ever going to actually be able to sing it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sander/Lapaev sessions, 1-4 August 2010

About six years ago or so maybe, while I, then a catechumen (sort of), was poking around the Internet in a reasonably ill-advised attempt to give myself an online crash course in Orthodox liturgical music, I discovered the website of a composer named Kurt Sander. His dissertation, The Musical Icon, sounded fascinating, but most importantly, he was working on a song cycle for tenor. At the time, I was hoping to put together a recital of song cycles by Orthodox composers — my godfather had written one for me, my friend Jonathan Wey was working on something, and John Muehleisen also had a cycle he had written for high baritone he thought he could rework for tenor for me. (The recital never happened, by the way, but it was a nice thought.)

Then I started reading through some of the scores of choral music posted on Kurt’s website. I didn’t exactly have a wide range of Orthodox musical experience with which to compare it, but it seemed like really nice, sensitively-set, singable music and the kind of thing that would be worth looking at more if I ever were conducting my own choir. Being who I am, I sent him an unsolicited e-mail asking where I might be able to find a copy of his dissertation and when his song cycle might be done.

I think I probably pestered him for about a year before he finally sent me a copy of his dissertation, and he also said that he would let me know when the song cycle was finished. I would have just bought a copy from ProQuest, except they didn’t (and still don’t) appear to have access to it to distribute.

In June of 2005, four months after my chrismation, the St. Vlad’s touring ensemble was coming through the Midwest. At the time, I was seriously considering trying to enroll at SVS for fall of 2006 for sacred music, and it seemed like a good idea to catch one of their stops. The closest they were coming to Bloomington was Cincinnati, however, and I found this out on the day of the concert. Well, turned out Cincinnati was a lot closer to Bloomington than I had realized, all of two and a half hours, and so I, Megan, the previously-mentioned Jonathan Wey, and our friend Paul Bauer all hopped in the car at the last minute and headed off to Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Cincinnati.

While there, somebody walked in who looked really familiar, and I realized — hey! That’s Kurt Sander! After the evening’s proceedings were over, I went up and introduced myself. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Richard Barrett, the guy who was bugging you for a copy of your dissertation.” He looked blank for a moment, and then laughed. “Oh, yeah, I know who you are,” he said. “Nice to meet you.” We chatted a little bit, but before long we needed to get back on the road, so that was that.

A little over a year later, I was at the PSALM national conference in Chicago, and part of the program was a concert sung by the St. Romanos Cappella, including the music of Fr. Ivan Moody, Fr. Sergei Glagolev, Mark Bailey, and — what do you know — Kurt Sander. Hearing his settings actually sung by a choir and not just in the limitations of my own head, I started to get a sense of just what he had actually accomplished — they easily stood with the best of what was presented. He was actually there for the performance and the conference, and I made a point of saying hello.

That was the summer that Fr. Athanasius got his knees replaced so he could go start another mission retired from All Saints, and while I was planning the music for the dinner in his honor, I decided that doing Kurt’s settings of “O Gladsome Light” and the Prayer of St. Symeon would be nice to do with a quartet. This meant leaving some divisi out, unfortunately, but I had learned enough to know by this point that more than 4 parts was quite beyond where my full choir was for the moment. They turned out really beautifully even with the missing parts, and while things being what they were there was no way I would ever be able to use them liturgically at All Saints without big things changing, I made a mental note that this really was The Good Stuff. Even if it wasn’t “what everybody knows” (a very peculiar category of music I’m always hearing about, but which always seems to refer to different music depending on who’s talking), it probably should be, and this is where I was coming from in my brief mention of Kurt in the review of Cappella Romana’s Richard Toensing disc a couple of years ago.

In March of this year, I got an e-mail from Kurt, saying that in August he was moving ahead with a recording project of his music as well as that of Russian composer Gennadiy Lapaev, had funding to bring singers out for it, and would I be interested in participating? Well, that was a no-brainer. Once I knew for sure I was going to be in the States over the summer, I sent him my commitment letter. (Incidentally, this also opened the door for something else, which I hope to able to talk about here very shortly.)

On Sunday after Divine Liturgy, I hopped in the car and headed off to Northern Kentucky University, with no real idea what to expect beyond making music. Except for Kurt, I didn’t know if I was going to know anybody there — I had an idea of a few people who might be there, but I was going into unfamiliar territory, one way or the other.

As I walked into the NKU dorm to check in, the fire alarm went off. This involved standing out in the hot sun for 20 minutes while firefighters determined that somebody had burned popcorn. There were others standing outside who were chatting as though they knew each other and looked like they could plausibly be there to record Russian Orthodox choral music, but it was sort of the wrong context to try to insert myself.

Dinner, on the other hand, where there was air conditioning, food, and wine, was a much better context, and while as it worked out I really didn’t know anybody else there besides Kurt, by the end of the meal I had met several people. Gregg Staples from St. Andrew’s Cathedral (MP) in Philadelphia, Nicholas Androsoff from St. Nicholas Cathedral (ROCOR) in Montreal, Zhenya Temidis and Maria Greendyk from Holy Virgin Protection Church (ROCOR) in New York — and this was just for starters. There was also a non-Orthodox contingent, made up of NKU students and singers from the Cincinnati scene — Anna Egan, Will Huffer, Tim Oliver, and Tim Bruno were people I met from amongst this group.

A pattern perhaps emerges from the above paragraph, and it was clear pretty fast that amongst the Orthodox contingent, I was the only Antiochian (in the sense of AOCNA being my “home jurisdiction” — there was a Bulgarian woman there, Sasha Rascia, whose husband directs the choir at an AOCNA parish in Chicago), I was one of two New Calendar people (the other was a guy from an OCA parish in Cleveland), and everybody else was MP or ROCOR — I’m also pretty sure I was the only person whose principal exposure with the liturgical texts has been in English rather than Slavonic.

And you know what? I had a ball. The four days I spent singing, eating, and drinking with the crazy Old Calendar Russians were absolutely great, even if I couldn’t sing along with the 100 Greatest Russian Drinking Songs.

The music was glorious, and singing it with a 40-piece (well, 39) underscored for many of us just how glorious it was. Lapaev’s and Kurt’s music complemented each other well, and Lapaev even went so far as to say, at our last dinner together, that “Kurt Sander is the most talented composer in the Russian Orthodox Church.” Not “Russian Orthodox Church in America” or “Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia,” but “Russian Orthodox Church.” Even for people who have known Kurt for years, there was an oft-expressed reaction of “I never knew what your music really sounded like before now!”

We got everything recorded in the 24 hours of recording time we had, which was a major accomplishment — we had received an e-mail from the conductor a week or so beforehand that told us cuts were likely, it was extremely ambitious to think we could get through all twenty selections in so little time, and if we didn’t already know our music by the time we arrived we were going to be sunk. Nevertheless, despite some pieces taking some more time than others, we still got through everything with a half hour left on the schedule. It remains to be seen if everything winds up on the finished product, but I felt like we were in pretty good shape at the end of the last session.

The conductor was Dr. Peter Jermihov, the conductor of the aforementioned St. Romanos Cappella, to whom I had been introduced once in passing at PSALM. He has a personal history with Kurt and his wife Larissa, but Kurt also made it clear from the get-go that musically, there was nobody else to whom he would want to entrust the direction of this project, and I can see why. Dr. Jermihov brought a lifetime of experience with the Russian choral idiom to the table, and was a fantastic, expressive conductor. He had some crazy ways of getting things across, but they worked.

The tenor section was a real joy to sing with; behind me was Gregg, the choir director from Philadelphia, a big man with a big beautiful voice. We got to know each other a bit; he had a goal to visit all fifty states by the age of fifty, and since Cincinnati is so close to the Indiana border I drove him to St. Leon, just a few miles across the state line. There wasn’t much to see there (particularly at 10:30 at night), and the picture didn’t exactly turn out so that the sign that said “Hoosier Liquor” was readable, but it was one more state for him and good company regardless. To my right was Nicky Kotar from the ROCOR cathedral in San Francisco (who is also the nephew of the priest at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Seattle, the very first Orthodox church in which I ever set foot). Nicholas Androsoff, the Montreal choir director, also sang in the tenor section, as did Scott Wyatt, a member of the NKU voice faculty who had a rather illustrious career on the operatic stage before becoming a voice teacher and a pastor. A lot of different kinds of voices, but I think we were able to sing together well.

I’ll also note that the bass section, between one Vadim Gan (apparently the protodeacon at the ROCOR cathedral in Chicago, and who sang the petitions in the Great Litany for the recording), Will, my suitemate Joseph Milos of Chicago, Kurt himself, and others, was a singularity. How is it that you can have a section where the second basses are droning away on a highly present low B flat, and yet it’s still possible for them to go flat in the course of a run-through? How in the world can there be room for it to sag any lower? And yet these guys had enough under there for that to be possible. Any chance I could convince any of them to move to Bloomington and switch to Byzantine chant? Probably not. Oh well.

Larissa, Kurt’s wife, was amazing, I have to say. She was functioning as the “project manager,” as often happens — Flesh of My Flesh has often been in the same role for my crazy schemes — as well as singing in the soprano section. The amount of work she put in during those four days was incredible, and I daresay her dedication to the project matched her husband’s. She was kind enough to give me Advil and supply me with Orthodox thank you cards (one of which went right back to her). I found out over the course of the stay that she is a music educator who works with young children, which perked my interest. I chatted with her briefly about the choir school idea; she seemed to get it, and even expressed some interest in helping me develop the idea further. We’ll see if it goes anywhere, but regardless, the recording effort would have been over before it ever begun without Larissa.

I had a couple of good conversations with Kurt while I was out there. He still hopes to finish the tenor song cycle, and he also talked about how he went with ROCOR when he converted because he felt it was necessary to receive the Tradition in an Orthodox cultural context, rather than as an abstraction over which any sheen could be laid. He said he struggled with that for a few years, but he’s become very much at home in a Russian cultural setting — “I feel like they’re my people,” he said. (I suppose it helps that his wife’s family is Russian.) We also discussed his music and the development of the recording project a bit  — in terms of assembling singers, he said that it was very important to him to have good voices, yes, but also to have singers who knew life at the kliros and who understood what this music meant. He filled it out from there with ringers as needed, but that was where he felt it was necessary to start. What’s interesting, and I told him this, is that while his music is obviously within a Slavic idiom, there are touches here and there where it’s going to be hard to know exactly what to do with it as a singer if you haven’t sung, say, Palestrina. “Yeah,” he said, “that’s my love of counterpoint coming out.” In this sense, I suppose this is where one can point to his music as a melding of styles. On the one hand, I’d be really curious to know what an Anglican choir might make of it, on the other hand, I fear that their approach would make it a bit sterile. Ideally, I guess you’d have singers doing it who can go back and forth between the Russian idiom and Renaissance polyphony. I think the mix of people we had made it work, but I also think that what he’s written presents some unique challenges. I must say that I would love to be able to present Kurt’s music in a liturgical context — but I’d also love to have a choir, a church building, and the kind of liturgical practice where it would be possible for it to fit in liturgically. All in good time, I guess.

It was interesting hearing perceptions of the OCA from some of the MP/ROCOR people; there were a couple of people who pretty consistently described OCA musical practice as “dry,” “white,” “flat,” etc. In all fairness, it was also pretty clear that these were folks who were quite accustomed to an approach that they called “with glory,” but might perhaps might strike OCA people as “bombastic.”

Which brings me to the following observation: there was nothing joyless, humorless, or austere about these people. It was pretty clear from watching them interact over food, drink, and song that the stereotype of Russian Orthodox as this cold, frowning, silent people is just not the whole story. The cultural context that Kurt was talking about isn’t sackcloth, ashes, brown rice, and harsh winters. For the after party Wednesday night, we went to an Austrian-themed brewhouse in Cincinnati that had an accordion band playing with drums and amplification — and between beers, vodka shots (courtesy Kurt’s father-in-law), laughter and drinking songs, the Russian Orthodox table drowned out the house band with ease. I’m not saying I know what they’d be like during Lent, but I think I definitely got a taste of what they’re like for Pascha.

My summer has been bookended by musical experiences, one with Greeks and one with Russians. I think for those of us who might specialize to some extent in a particular idiom but who are able to switch to another if need be, it’s a worthy thing to be able to lend support, build bridges and be a good colleague to all sides, at least as far as is possible. Being a specialist is fine; I’m not sure about being a partisan.

All in all, this recording project was a wonderful experience and a real blessing. I expect that it will take 1-2 years or so for the CD to actually come out, but I’m really looking forward to hearing it (although, as I told Kurt, ethically I can’t really write a review of it!). Details will be available here, of course, as soon as I have them. I hope for future collaborations with all of these people, whatever they might be. Larissa said as I was leaving on Wednesday that the way things such as this are really built on is through the connections that are made — we’ll just have to see what that winds up looking like. Thank you Kurt, Larissa, Maestro Jermihov, Maestro Lapaev, Jonathan (“JONATHAN!”) the recording engineer, and absolutely everybody else there who helped make this so memorable.

(And a very special thanks, before I forget, to Alix Ptichka for translating one of my thank you cards into Russian.)

Mediterranean microtonal melismas are not unAmerican: making time for some musical musings

A few things have come out recently to which I’ve been meaning to respond, and I’m finally able to take a moment to do so.

First of all, the issue of AGAIN which just came out, among other things, reprints Fr. John Finley’s essay, “Authentic Church Music”. This was originally a talk given to the the AOCNA Conference on Missions and Evangelism in 2002, and I have seen it in at least two print publications since then — PSALM‘s newsletter, PSALM Notes, and now AGAIN. It is also, as the link shows, posted on the Antiochian website itself, so clearly Fr. John’s piece has found an audience. Give it a read; I’ll come back to this.

Second, there was this short piece which was run on PBS a couple of weeks ago. I’d love to find a way to embed it, but I haven’t yet, so click on the link, watch it, then come back.

Third, RightWingProf has a couple of posts on music with which I tend to agree. The earlier is here, and a more recent one is here. Go read those, too.

Okay. You got all of that?

I’ve met Fr. John Finley a number of times. I met him at the Antiochian Sacred Music Institute back in 2004, and again at the PSALM National Conference in 2006. I also love his cookbook. He’s a good man, so far as I can tell he’s a good priest, and we know many of the same people. He’s also one of the people to whom I’ve tried talking about the choir school model (an idea which I just seem to have the darndest time communicating in a form that makes sense to anybody but me).

There’s a reason Fr. John’s article has a continuing audience; it is well-written, it expresses a point of view clearly, and it is a point of view which is popular among many American converts to Orthodox Christianity:

Some may negatively assume that such a proposal must necessarily lead to the development of an American Orthodox music, which will sound like Protestant music or the 70’s rock and roll Christian music of the baby boomer generation’s surfer churches. On the contrary, we are hinting at the development of authentic sacred music for the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America, a music founded on “that which has been delivered to us”, but which is also the result of our interaction as Orthodox Christians with the surrounding American culture. (emphasis mine)

Fully Orthodox and fully American! Orthodox as the Seven Ecumenical Councils and American as apple pie! Isn’t that what we all want?

The trouble that I have with the article, and what I offer as a critique, is that Fr. John unfortunately buys into what Alexander Lingas refers to as “the narrative of decline” with respect to Byzantine music as part of his argument. Specifically, this paragraph is problematic:

Is the Byzantine music that we sing today really Byzantine, i.e. from the Byzantine era of the 4th through the 15th Centuries? Are we not aware that the Church music of the See of Constantinople was heavily influenced by the demands of the Turks after the fall of the empire in 1453 AD? Are we aware that the authentic music of the Byzantine Church lost its diatonic character and accepted enharmonic and chromatic intervals during this period of the Turkish yoke? Are we aware that the music of today’s churches in the Byzantine tradition throughout the entire Mediterranean region of the world is the result of the codification of these oriental elements by Chrysanthus in the 19th Century and is scarcely 200 years old?

Checking his footnotes, his citations are predictable — Strunk (1977) and Tillyard (1923). It’s an appealing narrative for many folks; hey, you know that stuff in Byzantine music that makes you feel uncomfortable as an American because it sounds, well, Eastern? It’s not actually as Orthodox as the Hellenophiles and Arabicists want you to think! It’s a later development which occurred under the Turkish yoke! It’s a narrative which validates the supposed biases of the “Western ear” (whatever that means) and knocks the practices of various national churches down a peg or two all at the same time — it’s a very economical argument in that regard.

There’s something else it manages to accomplish, too, which is hinted at in the body of the text and made explicit in a footnote:

We should continue the work of transcribing Byzantine notation into modern western linear notation and adopt modern western scale intervals.* We need to simplify the melodies in connection with the texts and encourage congregational participation. We should encourage the harmonization of the melodies. I have heard it said that the great musical contribution of the East is its melodies and the great contribution of the West is its development of harmony. What better place than America to bring these two great traditions together to form something uniquely American in terms of Orthodox Music? This, of course, has already been done in Russia, and will undoubtedly be a powerful influence on what is done in America in this area of musical development.

* This will, given time, effectively conform all Byzantine melodies to a diatonic equal-tempered scale. According to Byzantine Musical theorists, Medieval Byzantine Music was wholly diatonic anyway. So this could be construed as a move back toward a more pure form of Byzantine chant rather than a perversion of it.

So, actually, the more we file the edges and corners off of Byzantine music, the more Byzantine we make it, in fact! Better yet — we also make it more American at the same time. Perfect.

Also present is the fallacy that somehow congregational singing and congregational participation are coterminous. This seems to be one of those assumptions that makes people feel good but for which I have never actually seen any evidence. Don’t take this as me meaning that I’m against congregational singing; I’m not, not at all. What I disagree with is the “everybody sings everything or they’re not participating” model that seems to be the core postulate of many modern liturgists; that makes as much sense to me as saying “everybody paints the icons or they’re not praying with them”.

Now might be a good time to point out that in the last week, thanks to the magic of Inter-Library Loan, I’ve read Towards the Great Council: Introductory Reports of the Inter-Orthodox Commission in Preparation for the Next Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church, published in 1971, back when they thought the next Synod would be occurring around 1974 or 1975. I’ll discuss it in more depth later, but Section 2 of this document is called “Fuller participation by the laity in the worship and life of the Church.” It is all of two pages. This section seems relevant to the present discussion:

…the nature of lay participation in the life of the Church is clearly expressed in her dogmatic and canonical teaching; it is not a question causing special concern to the Orthodox Church and, for the time being at any rate, it does not constitute a burning problem for her. In all conscience the Orthodox church believes that there has never been, nor is there now, a spontaneous movement among the laity to acquire greater rights and duties in the Church, different from those which they have had since the Church’s foundation. For they have always participated actively in worship and administration, in the pastoral work and teaching ministry of the Church, according to the rights and duties clearly laid upon them by Holy Tradition and the Canons. Their main rights and duties, as lay people and members of the Church, are to live in the fullness of the gifts and divine grace within our Holy Church and to witness by word and way of life to Christ the Saviour and to His gospel. (p. 23)

Obviously, this being 1971, this need not be the last word on the subject, but let’s keep in mind that this was in the immediate wake of 1970 Roman Missal taking a pair of pinking shears to the Mass in the name of “active participation,” and the Commission which drafted this document appears to be intending to head off any such attempts in the Orthodox world.

I must disagree with Fr. John about Byzantine notation and intervals; on a practical level, I might suggest that we might have an easier time getting the Greeks on board with the mission in America if we would stop treating their music as something we just found on the bottom of our shoe that somehow we have to fix and rescue from itself.

On a technical level, I wholeheartedly disagree about harmonization of Byzantine melodies. They function modally, not tonally; you cannot harmonize them according to conventions of Western functional harmony without eliminating the distinctives of the eight-mode system and reducing it to effectively two modes. This already happens when the well-meaning beginning isocratima thinks that the Second and Fourth Modes are intended to be major in character and mistakenly drones away on ni because it sounds like a tonic. The attempts at harmonizing many of these melodies which I have seen have been well-intentioned but nonetheless unfortunate; part-writing errors abound, to some extent unavoidably because the melodies are simply not conceived in the same way as melodies which follow Western conventions. Unavoidable though they may be, they still look, and sound, like part-writing errors.

On a level of Orthodox spirituality — here’s one idea: how about we immerse ourselves in the received tradition before we start trying to “fix” it? Might not something emerge organically over time if we were to do that? That’s not to say that we can’t try things to see if they work, but my thinking is that we’d be best off doing so in continuity with the tradition, not at variance from. If we want to make Byzantine music conceptually more accessible to Western ears, the first step is recomposing melodies to fit the English texts according to Byzantine conventions, not just sanding off the corners of pre-existing melodies and shoehorning in the English. There are increasingly good models for doing so — we should follow them.

From the standpoint of scholarship — at the very least, I would encourage Fr. John to at least familiarize himself with, and subsequently engage, the scholarship which recasts the narrative into one of continuity rather than decline. A place to start might be Lingas’ essay “Medieval Byzantine chant and the sound of Orthodoxy” in the book Byzantine Orthodoxies, Louth and Casiday, eds.

This brings me to the PBS piece on Emily Lowe at Holy Cross in Linthicum, MD. I am not certain if I’ve met Ms. Lowe; I met several people from Holy Cross at the Antiochian Sacred Music Institute back in ’04, and she looks familiar, but I honestly can’t remember. She has a lovely voice; the church is beautiful, and they’ve got her singing one of the signature hymns of Sunday Matins. It’s also kind of fun seeing people like Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green and Terry Mattingly in the choir.

The problem is when things like this are said (which I copy here from the transcript):

During the time of the Ottoman Empire, the Greek chants took on sort of a very Middle Eastern character, and that’s when you hear this sort of dissonant, odd sounding things:  (singing) Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, glory to thee oh God.”  It sounds very foreign to Western ears.

Again, there’s that narrative of decline and cultural captivity with respect to Byzantine music. Granted, there are a lot of people in the Antiochian Archdiocese who teach that, including Fr. John, so it’s not a huge surprise, but my guess is that if the PBS documentarians were to have interviewed somebody like John Michael Boyer, they would have had a different set of quotes.

Ms. Lowe describes herself in one of the comments on the video’s page as “a piano teacher who just loves to sing”. I’m going to guess we have a lot in common; we’re what you might call armchair Byzantine musicologists. We’ve read a lot, we’ve heard a lot of recordings, been to a PSALM event or two and/or the Sacred Music Institute at the Antiochian Village, and we do our best with what we have, which are, as a rule, the Kazan transcriptions. I know I haven’t yet had a chance to actually study with a chant teacher who genuinely knows what they are doing and has direct contact with the received tradition, and my hunch is that neither has Ms. Lowe. The practical reality for me is that there isn’t anybody within a 4-5 hour drive for me to learn from; the closest person about whom I know is protopsaltis at Holy Trinity in Nashville, TN.

All of that is to say, if PBS came knocking on my door, I’d tell them I’m the wrong guy, everything I know I know because I read it in a book or have imitated a recording, I’m not an expert, I’m not an authority, and that they need to go talk to somebody like Boyer or Leonidas Kotsiris in Nashville, who have studied with great teachers (who were themselves students of great teachers and who have been singing these services in this idiom since they were blastocytes), and are themselves teaching it and passing it on. I would tell them they need to talk to people, not who are trying synthesize water from hydrogen and oxygen, but who have actually drunk from the well, if not marinated themselves in it.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m absolutely not attacking Ms. Lowe here. I have bags and bags and bags of admiration for her. She’s clearly wonderful, and a huge asset to Holy Cross. She does what she does very well, loves to do it, and offers it humbly in the service of Christ. That should be the big takeaway from this video, and it should be a model which all of us who use our voices in the service of the Church follow. It would be an honor to sing a service with her, anytime, anywhere. The trouble is the editors of the video presenting the content as authoritative and normative when it isn’t.

Finally, for the most part, all I really have to say about RightWingProf’s posts is — right on, brother. I take issue with a lot of the four-part writing which is out there for English translations for many of the same reasons he does. I don’t think it has to be that way; I think passing 7ths and 2nds can work okay, but they can’t be used as a sentimental harmonic trick.

There are a few little points I wish to engage, however.

I tend to disagree that professional choirs are somehow undesirable. Yes, fine, the Rachmaninoff Vigil is going to be too much for a parish choir as a rule. However, if you’ve got a cathedral choir that can pull it off — defined, as far as I’m concerned, as being able to sing it well and prayerfully — I don’t see a problem using it liturgically. My overall discomfort is that we approach a mindset that says, “You’re too good of a musician to serve the Church with the fullness of your gifts.” I can’t imagine telling an architect or an iconographer that, but we seem really comfortable telling singers that. No, it’s not a concert, but there’s a dichotomy between worship and performance which I think approaches being a false dichotomy at some point. My belief has always been, with respect to that dichotomy, if you sacrifice one for the other, you will do neither well. I completely own that I say that as a former Anglican, however, and that this informs my point of view.

I also fundamentally disagree with the blanket assumption, constantly asserted by many, that Slavic music is “more accessible to American ears”. If sung well, in English, with a melody that actually fits the text in terms of stresses and meter, Byzantine music is plenty accessible to American ears. By contrast, Slavic music sung poorly with stresses and meter distributed in such a way as to do violence to the English text is going to be just as inaccessible to the American ear as people so frequently proclaim Byzantine music as being. This is not a slam against Slavic music or Orthodox music in the Slavic idiom; I’m a big fan of Fr. Sergei Glagolev (who was kind enough to inscribe my volume of his music at PSALM in 2006), and the Kurt Sander settings I’ve sung I’ve really liked. All I’m saying is that I think it is an error to say that somehow one national idiom of Orthodox music is fundamentally more accessible than another and to privilege that idiom based on that assertion. There may very well be reasons to privilege particular idioms in particular contexts, but I don’t think this one holds up at all, and I think recent recordings of Byzantine chant in English bear that out.

Along similar lines, and to repeat a point made earlier, not everything needs to be sung along with by the congregation. Yes, it’s church, not a concert; I might reply by saying it’s church, not a campfire singalong. Melisma serves a particular function in the Byzantine idiom — frankly, that of following the rubrics. ἀργὰ καὶ μελὠς, “slowly and melodically”, is sometimes what the rubrics call for. It is not the aberration many would make it, so I can’t agree that it should be absolutely avoided in the parish.

That said, a parish choir needs to fight its weight. Period. If a choir can’t sing it well and prayerfully, they shouldn’t sing it at all. So, from that standpoint, I agree that there is nothing wrong with “keeping it simple,” insofar as what we mean by that is that the music should be no more complicated than what the choir can sing well and prayerfully. In all likelihood, that’s probably going to mean keeping things a lot simpler than we might otherwise like for the time being — heck, we use the Antiochian Village camp music book as the normative setting at All Saints — but it doesn’t necessarily follow that choirs and congregations can’t ultimately grow into certain kinds of repertoire.

If I were helping to start a mission, what I would be very curious to try, if I had 3-4 other singers who were up for it and who could sing it well and prayerfully, plus an acoustic which would complement it at least somewhat, is using the Thyateira translation with the Boyer/Lingas Byzantine arrangements, as found on The Divine Liturgy in English, as the standard music, and setting it up from the get-go in an antiphonal formation. The idea would be to make a particular traditional practice normative from the get-go so that people are used to it from the start, rather than the mission making it up as they go along. I’ve seen what that can look like, and I can’t quite shake the idea that it is self-defeating and ultimately serves to paint missions into corners.

Perhaps it is good that I am not helping to start a mission.

Review: Richard Toensing: Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ, by Cappella Romana

About four years ago, I was lucky enough to get to sing in concert performances of both the Gretchaninoff and Rachmaninoff settings of the Vigil (more commonly, and incompletely, known as “Vespers” to Western audiences because they don’t know what a Vigil is). Something that was very difficult about the experiences of singing them, however, was knowing that we English-speaking Orthodox Christians do not yet have equivalent works, and that to sing such things in translation would be to largely destroy much what makes the settings so beautiful, since they’re so tied to the Slavonic texts. Subsequent conversations about this with friends of mine who are composers and Orthodox Christians revealed a very real reluctance to become “Orthodox composers” — and I’m still not sure I totally get why, but there we are. Since then, I’ve discovered the music of people like Kurt Sander, whose setting of the Nunc dimittis in English is itself a mini-masterwork, and Ivan Moody, to say nothing of Fr. Sergei Glagolev — and while as a whole we are miles from maturity, it would not be at all fair to say that there are no English-language Orthodox composers attempting to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by some of their old-world counterparts.

Richard Toensing’s Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ is a large-scale work by a fully mature composer which picks up that gauntlet and throws it down again, quite honestly. The intended scope of the piece is indicated by its subtitle, “A Choral Concerto,” and one important point to make before we get any further — this is not, repeat not, a liturgical work. I suppose there might be, hypothetically speaking, a cathedral somewhere with an absolutely amazing choir who could pull it off liturgically, but who actually does the full Nativity kontakion liturgically anyway, these days?

(You might be thinking to yourself one of three things right now. If either 1 — “What’s a kontakion and why do I care?” — or 2 — “Don’t we sing different kontakia for various liturgical seasons?” — then I can tell you that a kontakion in its original form was a very lengthy kind of hymn with many stanzas and a refrain, and the proper kontakia we sing now are only the first stanzas of the applicable full-length versions. If 3 — “Well, we do sing a kontakion every time we do an Akathist” — then please pat yourself on the head and have a cookie.)

As a work intended explicitly for the concert stage rather than the parish choir, much like the Rachmaninoff Vigil setting, Toensing is free to paint on a vast, expansive canvas, and does he ever. He liberally employs text painting, use of soloists and small ensembles, an extensive harmonic vocabulary, adept counterpoint, tone clusters, and so on. Great — but does it sound like music? Yes, most definitely — glorious, lush, beautiful, dramatic, and demanding music. The press materials state that Toensing is “indebted to Slavic traditions,” and perhaps that’s true to some extent, but what I also hear is a master composer, fully on top of his game, synthesizing many of the best influences of 20th century choral writing, including Francis Poulenc, William Harris, Ralph Vaughan Williams, even Lloyd Pfautsch. The wordy text is set in a very sensitive but expressive manner often evocative of the deftness which made Benjamin Britten such a master with English. At some points I found myself thinking, “This is what Morten Lauridsen would sound like if he had more than one trick up his sleeve.” At the same time, the way Toensing uses the music to support the text is strongly suggestive, not just of well-trained artistic sensibility, but also of a deep faith informing his compositional choices, much like Bach.

Toensing shifts from one color to another with ease and control, and is as much an expert with different choral textures. For example, the first stanza begins with a solo cantor on a chant melody, joined gradually by the rest of the ensemble, building until finally the choir is all together on the refrain (“He who from eternity is God”). One stanza transitions smoothly into another, no matter how stark the contrast — in Movement III, Stanza IX (“Receive then, O Holy Lady”) he renders the refrain (“He who from eternity is God”) as a heart-stopping, everybody singing out, vocal-folds-to-the-wall climax, only to begin the next movement immediately with a simple, peaceful melody introduced by the women, without it ever feeling like any kind of a disconnect.

The members of Cappella Romana bring their usual high standard into the game, delivering Toensing’s “poeticized” version of St. Romanos the Melodist’s text with crispness and clarity. Too often choirs sing modern choral works like they’re just trying to get the notes right and they’ll let somebody else figure out how to make music with it later; in this premiere recording of Toensing’s work, Alexander Lingas refuses to take that route, and the ensemble makes music with it now, taking Toensing’s sonic palette firmly in hand and detailing the peaks and valleys rather than just sketching them in. Soprano LeeAnne DenBeste sings the Theotokos’ lines (I really hesitate to call “the part of the Theotokos”) with a crystal clear timbre and laserlike accuracy, and the other soloists acquit themselves admirably as well.

All of that said, I am not convinced that the depths of Toensing’s piece are fully plumbed, and the disc is not flawless. In the case of the former — well, no, of course not. A recording like this is hopefully the beginning of a conversation, rather than just a monologue. It would a rarity indeed for a premiere to be both the first and last word on a given piece (expressively speaking, at least — it is quite common for such recordings to be the first and last word from a commercial standpoint). This recording is without doubt a very strong opening statement to the conversation, but I would be very curious to know what the Kontakion might sound like using boys and men (with boys singing the solo soprano parts as well, not just the choral sections), and I would also love to hear, just for the sake of knowing the difference, what kind of nuances an English conductor might discover in the piece.

My criticisms of the disc itself center around one particular technical point — the acoustic is on the dry side, and there are times where the singers are clearly not loving the dryness of the room as much as they might — which I can well understand, singing services every week as I do in a church where the ceiling of acoustic tiles is inches from my head. My guess is that they chose the less-reverberant approach to clarify the text as much as possible, which I can also appreciate, but there are times where the vocal writing sounds like some reverberation of the chord has been assumed by the composer to be there, so when it doesn’t happen it sounds like something is missing. With nothing but admiration and respect for the effort as presented here, this is another reason why I’d be interested in a performance by somebody native to the English choral tradition — I would like to hear their solution.

One thing I am obliged to mention — something we forget sometimes in a world where we hear music in every kind of room and venue and in every medium imaginable except live in the hall is that music like this is intended to be heard, well, live in the hall. That’s really where the Kontakion needs to be heard, not on an iPod or in the car. It is difficult, therefore, to fairly judge this recording without knowing firsthand what it should sound like in person. I don’t say that to qualify my criticisms or to de-emphasize the praise; I’m just saying that to have a premiere recording three months before the premiere performance is putting the cart before the horse, particularly for somebody wanting to write as honest a review of the music as possible — it is unavoidable in the music landscape of today, unfortunately, but I sincerely hope I can have the chance at some point to experience Toensing’s music as it was intended rather than an electronic simulation of same. It would be akin to writing a review of The Dark Knight based on a pan-and-scan DVD screener watched on a 20″ TV. It doesn’t change the plot, the dialogue, the performances, or anything like that, but it is clear enough from the smaller-scale experience that “there’s a lot more ‘there’ there,” if you know what I mean, and without actually seeing it in IMAX to catch everything, you don’t know exactly what it is.

Besides the Kontakion are several “Orthodox Christmas carols,” Toensing’s settings of Fr. Jack Sparks’ metrical translations of Nativity hymnody. These are all positively delightful and inventive, surprisingly so, and good luck getting them out of your head once you’re familiar with them (particularly “What Shall We Call You,” from the Royal Hours of the Nativity, and “O Let Creation All Rejoice,” from the First Canon of Nativity Eve Matins). I could easily see these settings as having a place within the liturgical life of Orthodox Christianity, as well as possibly being adopted as anthems by church choirs in other communions. As with parts of the Kontakion, many of these are particularly evocative of the best of English choral writing, but there are also clearly some American folk influences (“Now Christ is Born Upon the Earth,” from the Canon of Nativity Matins, particularly has shapenote-esque things going on) suggesting that elements of both sung traditions may ultimately be useful as “American Orthodox music,” whatever it winds up being, coalesces.

In summary, Toensing’s Kontakion is an epic choral masterwork by a composer who is both American and Orthodox, and as a result it is perhaps the first such piece we might dub “American Orthodox.” If it is not quite on par with the best of its Russian Orthodox counterparts, it is only because it does not have the centuries of native Orthodox Christian tradition upon which to draw, not because of anything lacking in Toensing’s abilities as a composer or in the piece itself. The performance itself is, despite a key technical choice which is probably arguable one way or the other, a very compelling case for the work to have a life beyond Cappella Romana’s advocacy and championing, and I very much hope this happens. Recommended.

(Kurt Sander, I think you’re next up at bat.)

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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