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Posts Tagged 'nativity hymnody'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Toensing on NPR’s Performance Today

Just so people are aware, an excerpt from Cappella Romana‘s recording of Richard Toensing‘s Kontakion for the Nativity of Christ (reviewed here) is being played as part of today’s program on NPR’s Performance Today, complete with a mini-interview with Toensing as a lead-in. You can find today’s show online here.

(As a side — but still related — note, somebody whom I’ve known since seventh grade and who happened to go on to be a grad student of Toensing’s at UC-Boulder e-mailed me yesterday to tell me that they’re being blessed as a catechumen on Sunday. This is still stunning me for any number of reasons.)

Χριστὸς γεννᾶται, δοξάσατε!

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then it was time to start roasting a goose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.)


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