Which music?

You want opinionated? I got it right here. I should say, though, that I’m not going to go with my personal preference opinion (if it were up to me, we’d sing nothing but two-voice Byzantine and Znammeny, and with no moving ison), but my equally opinionated opinion about what parishes should and should not sing.

Those of you who aren’t up on Eastern liturgical music need an abbreviated history run through, so we’ll take care of that first.

Just like in the West, chant began as monophonic — just one voice, or melody. Possibly (and I say “possibly” because although this is the explanation I have always seen and it seems reasonable, I really haven’t seen anything supporting it) anyway, possibly because no instruments other than the human voice were allowed in the East, Byzantine chant developed the ison, which began as a continuous, sustained note, the base note of the tone, or mode, of the chant, ostensibly so the chanter would have a reference pitch and not drift out of tune. At some point, the original ison morphed into moving ison, where the ison or pedal tone “harmonized” with the chant melody. At this point, Eastern chant, which had been monophonic, developed into the most primitive form of homophony (a melody accompanied by chords).

Moving ison did not replace traditional ison. You still hear both.

Saints Cyril and Methodius and their missionaries took Byzantine chant to Slavic Eastern Europe, where it was nativized. Znammeny chant is held up as the original Russian liturgical music. Znammeny is traditional two-voice, chant with ison, though moving ison is more frequently heard than traditional ison.

Before we go on, all Eastern liturgical music is, like Gregorian chant, built around as system of eight tones (the octoechos), roughly corresponding to the eight modes of Gregorian chant. Eastern liturgical music has many different systems of those eight tones, however.

When Peter the Great attempted to westernize Russia, he bent his efforts toward the church, and Russian 4-voice (SATB) polyphonic chant was born. This was exported throughout Eastern Europe, and again, nativized in each area, so that today, we have all of these different systems of tones and chants (Kievan, Moscow, Prostopinije or Carpatho-Russian, Galician, the list goes on and on). To make things more complicated, Alexander Arkhangelsky, Nikolai Kedrov, and Dmitri Bortniansky harmonized much of the existing music, turning two-voice chant into SATB polyphonic chant (they aren’t the only choral composers who did this, but they are three of the major figures). Then, major composers, such as Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Rimsy-Korsakov began writing liturgical music, some of which encountered serious opposition because it departed too far from the eight tones.

But forget for a moment the system of chant tones. The real problem that had been developing for some time but reached a zenith with the works of the big name composers was that it took a professional choir to sing the music. As choral music, it’s beautiful. As liturgical music to be sung in church, it’s overwritten, over-harmonized, and just way too, too much overall.

There is a backlash, a relatively recent phenomenon, and a movement to return to the two-voice traditional Byzantine and Znammeny chant. How successful this is depends on the parish, and to a lesser extent, the ethnic makeup.

Michael, a seminarian at St Vladimir’s, regularly expresses his opinion of liturgical music, particularly SATB Slavic music. Of course, he’s an Antiochian, so he has a strong preference for Byzantine chant, and while I agree with his personal preferences, there are other issues involved.

Slavic music is European, and more accessible to American ears. To those of us who care about evangelizing here, this point cannot be made strongly enough. Slavic here includes traditional Znammeny, so I’m not necessarily pushing SATB music. But there’s no reason a parish can’t do a mix of simple SATB and traditional Znammeny, or even Byzantine (speaking as an American, the traditional music grows on you very quickly one you adjust — there’s something very unearthly and haunting about both traditional Znammeny and Byzantine chant).

The other issue is congregational participation. The simpler the chant, the easier it is for the congregation to learn and sing. But simplicity isn’t the only issue.

I went to a Divine Liturgy at another church (which shall not be identified for reasons you’ll understand in a moment). I’m in the choir in my parish. I tried, I really did, but I finally gave up during the Cherubic Hymn. There was just no way to sing along with the choir.

Why? The music was ridiculously — nay, insanely — melismatic (meaning multiple notes to one syllable). I managed somehow to make it to what should have been “Life-creating Trinity,” but instead, it was, “Life cre-aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa …” and it went on and on and on and on as the notes went up and down and sideways and all over the place and surely everybody ran out of breath multiple times before they finally got to “ting,” and then the same, as they sang, “Triiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii …” and again, all over the place for the next five minutes, and you get the idea. Sure, you can sing it if you have the music in front of you, but otherwise, you’d never know when that next syllable was finally going to get there. (And yes, of course I realize that the Cherubic Hymn has to cover a fairly long period of time, but why not choose a less ridiculously melismatic tune and repeat it if necessary?)

Rachmaninoff is unsingable. So is exessively melismatic chant, no matter how traditional to a specific ethnic group it may be. Both should be verboten in the parish.

Look, when it comes to liturgical chant, there’s nothing wrong with simple. Chant is supposed to be simple. It’s church, not a concert. I have heard far too many examples of choirs who take on music far too complex and the results are not pretty at all. And what’s sad is that it could have been so easily prevented by singing simpler, more traditional chant.

We have a pretty high level of congregational participation at my parish, starting with the Magnificat toward the end of Matins and extending throughout Divine Liturgy (interesting because the choir doesn’t take over from the chanters until the Great Doxology at the very end, after the congregation has started to participate). The reason is that we sing singable music, about two-thirds SATB, but simple, and not overly melismatic SATB (lots of Kievan, and a lot of harmonized Znammeny), and one-third two-voice chant, both Byzantine and Znammeny (like I said, if it were up to me, we’d go to all two-voice and we’d drop moving ison for traditional ison, but it’s not up to me, and life is like that). We also don’t (try to) sing anything that’s beyond our capabilities (on another blog, a priest had said his choir’s attempts were less than ideal, and I suggested he have them do simpler music). And even if I do say so myself, we do a pretty good job.

Like I said, keep it simple. It’s church, not a concert.

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3 Responses to Which music?

  1. chironomo says:

    Many of us in the Roman Rite wish we had to deal with the problem of choosing between simple or complex chant…either would be fine with me! However, your point is a good one and can be applied to music for worship in general. Simple IS better.

  2. jeffreyquick says:

    Hey, you know me…I’m all about expressive dissonance. It’s that Lutheran upbringing, the tradition of Bach and Schutz. And the proof is here at http://blog.case.edu/jeffrey.quick/podcasts/index

    So when I said, somewhere else, that musically I don’t speak Orthodox, you can see why.

    But you’re absolutely right about simplicity. Polyphony is incredibly beautiful when done well … and a disaster when it isn’t. How many times have I heard proud podcasts of scholas doing something lame like Arcadelt Ave Maria, and just slaughtering it! There’s no shame in doing chant. It’s been the standard music of the church for over a millennium, including the High Renaissance. If the Church wants to do Josquin and di Lasso, I will be fully onboard…when the Church hires the professional singers that Josquin and di Lasso wrote for. Monks are amateur musicians, and sing chant. Amateurs will need to be rigorously selected to do polyphony, and that sets up a problem that choirs and congregations really don’t want to deal with.

  3. […] 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, […]

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