fatherpatrick

Apologia for classical Church Chant

In Orthodox Christianity: in general on January 29, 2009 at 12:49 am

I have translated a wonderful document written by a priest in Greece. I hope you, my readers, find it to be as informative as I have!  Read on…

The meaning and value of Byzantine[1] Ecclesiastical Music in Orthodox Worship

By Protopresbyter Ioannes Photopoulos, priest at St Paraskeva Church, Attika (Greece)

translated by Fr Patrick B O’Grady, January 2009

 Orthodox worship: tradition of the Holy Apostles and Fathers.

The joy and boast of every Orthodox soul is ecclesiastical Orthodox worship.  From the first years of the ancient Church, worship was shaped, little by little, by the holy Apostles, Fathers and teachers.  Being blessed by the illumination of the Grace of the Holy Spirit, they enriched our worship with psalms, and Gospel, apostolic and Old Testament readings, with hierarchical and priestly prayers, with diaconal petitions, with hymns, troparia, and canons.  These gave form to the Order of the Typikon, subject to the Apostle (Paul) who enjoins us, “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:40). By degrees, these elements gave shape to the form and structure of the Orthodox nave, to the regulation of sacred ikons; and these things entered into worship and into ecclesiastical music.

Thus, we cannot be Orthodox, when we distance ourselves from the ecclesiastical Synaxis (gathering), which our holy Fathers provided to be celebrated with such attentiveness and piety.  There we become one body, the Body of Christ; we confess Him and we send up prayers to the Trinitarian God; we offer to Him our gifts and He returns them to us as His Body and Blood and He unifies us with Himself—He Who promises to offer us the fullness of His life in His glorious Kingdom.

We hear David, the prophet-king, who moves us as he says: “In the churches bless ye God.” For this reason he himself says for himself, filled with divine love (eros): “My soul longeth for and fainteth for the courts of the Lord.”  The apostle Paul seeks the same thing: “Not forsaking your gathering together.”  So, as we thirst for the Grace of God, we hasten to His nave so that we may participate in divine worship: in Midnight service, in Orthros, in the Hours, in the divine Liturgy, in Vespers, all of which together form one image of heavenly worship and a foretaste of the Kingdom of heaven.

  1. Ecclesiastical Music: a work of the Holy Spirit.

In the Orthodox Church, through the Psalms, Old Testament readings, the Trisagion, the priestly prayers, and certain other readings, all the rest of worship is adorned, clothed with ecclesiastical music, even from the first centuries of the life of the Orthodox Catholic Church.

The holy Fathers understood not only the power which music has for effecting a charm on the souls of human beings, but also the need which man has to express himself musically, to sing and to sing praise to God not only through words but also through means of music.  The heretics ran ahead and began to compose poetic verses accompanied by sweet music so that they could disseminate their errors and to implant these in the hearts of men.  But in contrast, the holy Fathers, being illumined by the Grace of God and knowledgeable of the depths of human nature, were not ignorant of the needs of the human soul, of its powers and of its creativity.  On the contrary, they opened its course to an entire musical expression of the Church at prayer.

In an interpretation of Psalm 1, Basil the Great writes, “Since the Holy Spirit saw that the human race is led along only with difficulty into virtue and that we do have a care for correct life since we are inclined to anything which gives rise to pleasure, what did He do? He mingled the delight of melody with the teaching of the Church so that we could receive imperceptibly without fatigue the benefit of spiritual words with the sweetness which the melody brings about in our hearing. So also, for this purpose, melodious tones were developed for the psalms, so that those who are children may mature into a habit of thinking of singing only in an uncomplicated melody while in fact they teach their souls.”

Finally, we understand from that which the luminary of the Church, St Basil, says; namely, that the introduction of music into the worship of our Church is not some cultivated possession of talented musicians who clothe the ecclesiastical hymns with melody. Rather, it is a work of the Holy Spirit, Who directs the Church “into all truth.” The Holy Spirit knows the difficulty of mankind in assimilating spiritual verities, as also man’s tendency toward enjoyment and delight.  The Spirit does not condemn this human tendency, but rather He employs delight, the sweetness of melody, for imparting the profit of spiritual teachings in souls.  Toward this goal, He employs the poets and composers of the Church.  This saying accurately indicates this, “melodious tones of the psalms have been understood.”  By this phrase human cooperation is made clear, in the sacred work of chanting.

The first composers were at the same time also the poets of the hymns.  Almost all of the ancient holy Fathers exercised this ministry of poet-composer and they extended it into their pastoral work.

  1. The Quality of ecclesiastical tonality. The holy Fathers and the sacred Canons.

Now we come to investigate the creation of psalmodia, chanting. We are dealing with a more serious constant of ecclesiastical music; that which determines both its ethos and consequently also its pastoral and edifying value.  The edifying delight in the soul which comes from chanting must not be considered as having absolute value and as being the main weight for spiritual profit which is stored up in divine thoughts.  The holy Fathers have pointed out for us, “The Church is not theatre, as we hear things chanted there (in the theatre) only for pleasure” (St John Chrysostom). “We must chant in the Church with understanding and attentiveness” (St Isidore of Pelusium).

The pleasure which comes from chanting must be such that a chaste thought (sophrona logismo) is created in the soul, says Basil the Great. He adds that we must apply ourselves to the effort of avoiding being carried away due to pleasurable melodies into fleshly passions; while in one of his homilies which he directs to neophytes, he discerns the healthy melody from the bad and harmful. That is healthy which leads to the elevation of man, while that music is corrupt which begets passions which enslave and degrade the soul.

In the initial years in which ecclesiastical music was taking shape, certain phenomena existed on the part of those who chanted in the Church.  These phenomena were not suitable to the ethos of chanting. The appointed chanters would shout, gesticulate aimlessly with their hands and feet as they sought to please their hearers, and introduce into the realm of divine worship theatrical and worldly tunes.  The holy Fathers reproved all these things and permitted only quiet, spiritual tunes which brought about compunction in the soul and led man to God.

There existed in the Saints great sensitivity to the subject of church music, just as also whatever concerned worship. A summary of their discretion within music is contained in three of the sacred Canons.  The first is the 75th Canon of the 6th Oecumenical Synod (in Trullo), which says the following: “We enjoin that as many as chant in the Church be not so unruly as to employ very powerful voices, that they not force their natural voice so as to turn it into shouting, and that they do not add any foreign tunes which do not suit divine worship, but rather that they offer with much attentiveness and compunction those tunes appropriate to God, Who sees even our very secret thoughts.”

The second one, relevant to our subject, is the 15th Canon of the Synod of Laodicea which orders: “Let no one else chant in the Church except those canonical chanters who ascend the amvon (the chanter-stand, today) and chant from the relevant books.”  There is also a third canon, the 33rd of the 6th Oecumenical Synod which sets forth that canonical chanters are all those who had the laying on of hands (kheirothesia) from the bishop.  By this canon, the chanters are classified together on the kleros.

  1. The Structure and Ethos of Ecclesiastical (Byzantine) Music.

On the basis of the experience of the Church, the relevant teaching of the holy Fathers and of the sacred Canons which form the foundation of church music, church music was developed in liturgical practice.  The ecclesiastical melodies, according to St Gregory of Nyssa, were not composed in the manner which musicians of worldly music composed their melodies—musicians who had only one purpose: the delight of their hearers.

With this testimony of St Gregory and also the formation through the injunctions of the sacred Canons for the production of the church tunes, one can trace forward, up to today, byzantine church music. From the first Christian centuries, by degrees, with slow steps, with the fear of God the music of divine worship took shape by the composers of the Church.  Theatrical tunes were removed, suitable musical scales were added, suitable musical elements for each case were composed.  St John of Damascus gave his seal to each one of the eight modes (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, plagal 1st, plagal 2nd, grave (varys), plagal 4th), having differing musical units (theses).  There are dedicated elements, briefer and slower, analogous to the melody. There are brief melodies; e.g., quick (syntoma) troparia. There are “slow-fast” melodies; e.g. those which are chanted somewhat slower, since with each syllable there correspond two, three, or even four musical notes. And then there are slow (argo) melodies, so-called papadika, the cherubika and koinonika which are fit for the quiet reading of the priestly (papas, “priest”) prayers.

There exists a great musical wealth, a multitude of musical teachers and chanters in the byzantine musical tradition.  However, although the melodies are subject to a natural development, this is not an arbitrary process. The composer cannot arrange according to his taste, according to the inspiration of the moment.  The melody which he will arrange must follow all of the canons of ecclesiastical music, in order to be approved by the body of the Church.  This is the reason why when we enter the Church we are not perplexed, since we do not hear foreign compositions which carry our nous away from prayer and the divine thoughts which are hidden in the troparia. Thus, a continuous relevance through time exists in byzantine church music.

As we are speaking up till now about the quality of the melody, we must point out that this quality has relevance also to the manner of expressing the voice; that is, with the manner in which the chanter lifts his voice. Following the commandment of the holy Fathers, the good chanter does not force his voice; he does not shout; he does not overwhelm the area of the nave with an overpowering tension of his voice and fill the heart of those praying with confusion. He keeps the voice within nature, as the canon referred to above says. He carries his voice according to nature and lifts it with natural utility and with open sinuses.  He does not consider the voice to be unembellished, because, in fact, it isn’t.  He unfolds the powers of his voice in accord with tradition, as his teacher showed him, just as he heard chanting to be both pleasing and compunctionate.

Seeing as there is a reason for a teacher of church music, we must speak of how important his subject is for a correct learning of church music, for preserving the musical intervals, for the manner of expressing the voice, and in general for the musical interpretation of the melodies chanted. Many of these are quite difficult and must be taught to the disciple in detail and then the disciple must be heard chanting it back piece-meal by his teacher.  This is the reason why many great and difficult melodies are called mathemata (“lessons”).

There are other constants and other elements indispensible for correct chanting. Above all, from such things as we have said, the reader grasps that the subject of chanting is very profound and scientific, although it is taken up by whimsical amateurs.  It is a sacred subject, seeing as it deals with the prayer of the whole Church and requires fear of God at every occurrence within its domain.  Finally, chanting is a subject which possesses a great historical continuity. It is a living, golden tradition which each Orthodox soul must embrace, must value, must employ for spiritual benefit.  In this chanting tradition, the human soul, “the archetypal organ,” as Theodore, bishop of Cyprus, calls it, finds its full development, its perfect expression.  It becomes the truly suitable organ of doxology to the Trinitarian God.

  1. Byzantine music does not have ethnic boundaries.

This music does not possess an ethnic character.  It is not simply Greek church music, even though it has been expounded and refined in the broader Greek Orthodox domain.  Our holy Fathers have not ever considered creating ethnic boundaries for divine worship. For this reason there is an entirely common ecclesiastical life in all the local Orthodox churches: the structure of the nave, the Typikon, the vestments of the clergy, etc.  The dogmatic teaching, the sacred Canons, the Symbol of the Faith, and patristic literature were all established in the Greek language and in the epoch of Byzantium, were they not? The same thing happened with the production of hagiography and the other ecclesiastical arts.  However, all these were taken up by the entire Church, by the peoples who followed the Orthodox faith.  Among these arts was also church music which extended to all of the Orthodox.  In Russia and in other Slavic areas chanters from Byzantium were called to teach church music. The Orthodox brethren did not do anything else than to receive it, the music developed by Saints and tested in Orthodox worship.  For example, those sent by St Olga the queen to Constantinople, what did they marvel at in Hagia Sophia? To the brilliance of Orthodox worship, one of the chief factors of which was church music.

  1. The spiritual harm from the use of European polyphony in worship; the benefit of compunctionate monophonic Byzantine Music.

In Orthodox Russia and in other Slavic regions, in the middle of the 18th century, European polyphonic music was introduced into worship.  The chief reason for this invasion was the desire on the part of Peter the Great for a forced European reorientation of all of Russia through arbitrary impositions in all areas of life, social, political, religious, etc. We must not forget that this polyphonic music stemmed from the Latins (Roman Catholics). Because of the error of papism, all the elements expressed, whatever is used for worship, whether music, or painting, or architecture, had something sickly, something diseased.  The evident absence of Grace makes the dominance of emotionalism indispensible in the realm of worship.  All this want of the Grace of God, which leaves the soul empty and thirsting, the papists wished to obscure with a kind of sweet (according to their musical opinion) music with intervals which bring about melancholy, a music which seeks to force the soul to know compunction, which it then knows as though it were some kind of created emotional condition, and not as a visitation of divine Grace.  This music seeks to excite the emotional element and to create compunction.  For this reason, it deploys the many voices of men, women, and children, whose high voices “prick” the ears and whose deep voices (the basses) thrust the soul into the abysses. This music deploys musical instruments and worldly musical compositions in order to order to make a sensation, to create a romantic atmosphere to carry the nous of those praying into imaginary worlds.

The musical affirmations of the West were not spread into Orthodox Russia intact. The Russian Orthodox soul could not receive such an obvious worldliness. For this reason, the Russian Church did not receive the introduction of musical instruments into worship. Likewise, she wanted the melodies to be very simple.  (It would be an oversight if here we do not stress the care which our Russian brethren show in the preparation of choirs, to the importance which they give to chanting, and to the ascetical effort of the faithful through their participation in the services of the Church).  However, polyphony, the use of only the major and minor modes of European music, the mixing of men and women in choirs, the manner of musical expression, does not help very much in attentiveness of the mind and in compunction.

There are three undeniable consequences from the use of polyphonic chanting which interfere with compunctionate prayer in the realm of the Church:

1.      Dominance of sentimentality (synaisthema).  A cultivation of fine “religious” sentiments proposes to make the faithful to know the beautiful, but which in fact produce a sensory pleasure similar (not the same as, but similar) to that which is known in the concert hall.  In this environment, prayer is impeded, because there is interposed a worldly joy and delight which obscures the nous and reorients it away from its chief goal;s namely, its offering to God, the search for the mercy of God, thanksgiving and doxology.

2.      Distraction from prayer.  The many differing voices, of men and of women, which do not all chant the same thing, draw away the attentiveness of the faithful soul, his wakefulness, as well as his whole inner world.  These alienate the nous from total concentration on the divine words which edify and bring compunction.  The different ranges of voices (men, women, children) on the one hand bring different, parallel melodic elements and on the other a sundering in the power of the nous which distracts it from its chief work.

3.      Suspense (meteorismos).  The nous is held in suspense with polyphony in chanting. The holy Theophylact calls meteorismos “unstable roaming about of the nous” (ten astate periphora tou noos).  The nous remembers first one thing and then another, and with this in view, jumps about here and there. In the environment of polyphonic chanting, many voices create a romantic atmosphere which seizes the nous and carries it about here and there, unsatisfied.  Many times, in extreme circumstances, a certain unavoidable linking of musical hearing in differing settings, memories and persons takes place.  Our Lord Jesus Christ exhorts us, “do not have a suspended mind” (Luke 12:29).[2]  Although this exhortation deals with flight from worldly cares and the entrusting of the soul to God, it relates most fittingly to the concentration of the nous in prayer, so that in chanting, the nous prays and seeks the chief thing, “the kingdom of God” (Luke 12:31).

Now, in contrast to polyphonic music, byzantine music employs melodic monophony.  Where one or many chant, as St John Chrysostom says, “the voice seems to proceed from one mouth.”  This simple and uniform hearing with dedicated musical themes which go along with a straight musical note, the isokratema,[3] unifies and holds the nous together in prayer.  The melody of byzantine ecclesiastical music is pleasing and in accord with the teaching of the Fathers as it assists in compunction.  But the nous does not run on out and adhere to the melody, so as to know it as a sensory delight.  Our heart “flies,” when we chant or hear the troparia; we rejoice, but this does not distract us from the text of the troparia.  A sickly nostalgia is not cultivated, nor a romantic mood.  This Music does not allow suspense of the nous.  On the contrary, it assists in the nous coming back from its wandering all around without and in its going into the heart and as a result being offered in all its powers unto God.  Prayer becomes fruitful, something beneficial to the Christian.

  1. The return to genuine ecclesiastical music by the Russian laity.

The following arguments exist in support of the usage of polyphonic chanting in the Russian Church: a) that this already has a history, thus it forms a “tradition”; and, b) that it has been loved by the laity, who find comfort in it and think it pleasing.  To these arguments we could reply as follows: a) it is an historical event that we have in Russia a forceful invasion of European music in the realm of worship. For this reason, it cannot constitute true tradition; and b) to the argument that the clergy and the laity find comfort in polyphonic music, permit me to set before you two facts from our Russian brethren.

The first fact is a citation of some older testimonies.  We read in a musical periodical, “Phorminx” (March 1908), what Professor Sokolov wrote in that era in the periodical, “Church News,” an organ of the Holy Russian Synod, “Greek Church Music was for me unusual, monophonic, and peculiar in its structure.  But the more one hears this music, the more it sounds pleasing to him, the more powerfully it works in the soul and raises him in prayer. After two or three liturgies, I not only got used to this music, but even loved it. And just so! Only monophonic music is a genuine product of the Orthodox Church.”  This is the first witness.

Two other testimonies come from the holy Elders. The first is from Starets Varsanuphios of Optina, who was a very good musician.  Knowing European music well, he would say, “music turns man’s focus and attentiveness away from the words and toward the music… And thus it impedes prayer… The soul is silent.  Only sweet sounds are heard… without meaning… without a text…”  He would also complain about polyphonic choirs whose chanting he characterized as “theatrical melodies.” The second testimony belongs to Starets Sampson, who was advising his spiritual children regarding the manner of prayer to be adopted in the Church, as follows: “You should never reject the feeling that you are present before the Lord. Many times this feeling is only of the nous, a noetic energy, without participation in emotionalism. Emotionalism in worship is something foreign to Orthodoxy. That’s why our European choral music frequently obstructs us in our prayer! By this means, the element of emotionalism enters into our life.”  I think the testimonies given above are sufficient to convince us that the simple laity and also the saints of Russia do not find comfort in the use of European music in worship.

The second fact is relevant to the restoration of church music in Russia today.  In some parish churches they chant polyphony, in others, there is an effort to gain familiarity with and restoration of paleo-russian monophonic melodies (Znamenny Chant), and yet in other parishes and in monasteries there is a effort to chant a mixture of byzantine and paleo-russian melodies.[4]  What do all these things show us?  That there is among the Russian laity a return to genuine church music, the music which truly helps toward compunctionate prayer.  The manner in which the paleo-russian melody is chanted today, as they say who know the facts, does not appear to show the true ancient melody. It is rather in the process of experimentation, due the fact that after the reform of Patriarch Nikon the tradition was rejected along with its continuity, which the raskolniki (Old Believers) incorrectly try to preserve.

On one hand, there exists a superior church music, the byzantine music, which holds true over time, as it has been chanted through very many centuries without interruption.  Even though in the entire 19th century, the Greek nationalist propagandists (diaphotistes) fought against the Grace of God, it was preserved undamaged in the divine worship. Just like a clear spring, if you will, like a torrent of compunctionate chanting, it has no ethnic boundaries.  It is offered to all the Orthodox as a gift of God, as a life-giving water, as a ladder running up to heaven to help souls in prayer, toward their union with the Trinitarian God.


[1] Byzantine: this word carries an enormous weight of meaning, mostly lost to modern Western readers. It refers to the multi-ethnic, unified Christian culture of the Christian Roman world in the context of which our holy Fathers thrived and produced the great Orthodoxy patristic legacy.  We often refer to this Christian culture with the Greek word, romaiosyne, “roh-meh-oh-SEE-nee,” or, in Latin, romanitas, “roh-MAH-nee-tahs.”

[2] KJV, “neither be ye of doubtful mind”

[3] In English, commonly called merely the ison (“EE-sohn”).

[4] TRANS: Hear, for example, the sisterhood of St Elizabeth Monastery in Minsk, Belorussia.

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  1. This is a wonderful document indeed, and very informative. It put me in mind of something I heard when I was an Anglican — that most Episcoplians got their theology from the Hymnal. I’m also reminded of the 19th Century Salvation Army expropriation of music hall tunes with the slogan, “Why should the Devil get all the best music?” and of Gospel Rock’s attempt to harness electronic synchopation. Behind all three is the idea that music is a neutral if powerful way to “reach and teach” — Fr. Protopoulos reminds us that music is very much NOT neutral and brings its own values when it is applied to spiritual uses. I am now rethinking my nostalgia for old favorite Protestant hymns.

  2. What about Georgian Chant?

  3. Dear Fr Patrick: Georgian Chant is polyphonic. I think you would have a difficult task convincing a Georgian that their chant is “un-Orthodox”. It may even pre-date “byzantine” chant.

    btw, while I am far from an expert on the history of church music, it is my understanding that byzantine chant itself has evolved, just as has the Divine Liturgy.

    Have a blessed journey to Pascha,
    Mike Strelka, Choir Director
    Holy Resurrection O.C. (OCA), Palatine, IL

    • yes. I listened to some Georgian Chant, by i-net. It appears to me that a similar process has taken place in Georgian Chant as has happened with Russian chanting, in general. Here, I have to confess my lack of competence to address the historical issues of Georgian ecclesiastical chant, as this is well outside of my competence.
      the basic premise holds: ecclesiastical chant is monodic, at the root and by its fundamental ethos. polyphony disturbs the simple unity of sung worship, as taught by our desert fathers in the earliest years and by the fathers of the octoechos and the kontakia, later; namely, John of Damascus (Al-Mansur) and Romanos Melodistes.

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