17 Comments

  1. Misha Pennington

    I sang and chanted in a Greek Orthodox Church for about 7-8 years. At times for some services, it was just the priest and I doing the singing.

    The reason that you have the chanter/choir dichotomy is that real Byzantine Chant – the half flats, internal key changes and intricate melodies – is very difficult for a set of chanters to do together unless they practice it quite extensively. I’m not talking about the hour or 90 minute long choir practice once a week that passes in most parishes.

    The synchronicity is the problem. If that can’t be achieved – and often, due to the limits on commitment from the participants, it cannot – it is much, much better to have one person chanting the melody and the others doing ison inasmuch as it minimizes dissonance which is no less problematic than abysmal iconography.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Some thoughts:

      – Learning resources, including teachers, are a lot more abundant now in our part of the world than they were even 5-10 years ago. This is a generational shift that needs to be taken into account. Also, the basic music education that we used to be able to take for granted at the primary school level and bootstrap up from there is no longer really a thing. People are, in the main, starting from zero across the board these days, and there is overhead that the participant must take ownership of, and do so seriously, no matter what musical idiom one is involved with. This is a challenge for all kinds of music, not just Byzantine chant.

      – Two choirs I reference perform without trying to reproduce the tuning of the 72-tone octave: Boston Byzantine Choir and Eikona. They sing in equal temperament overall, sing off of staff notation scores, and they keep the ornamentation simple. It doesn’t need to be all-or-nothing.

    2. John Michael Boyer

      I had no problem getting a choir of volunteers singing in the proper tunings on 2 hours of rehearsal per week – I simply demanded that they keep trying, keep improving, keep refining. It just takes time. Always play the long game. When a friend and colleague of mine came from Greece to assist with Holy Week, upon hearing our choir sing the very Cherubic Hymn that Richard included in the article here, he remarked that no one back in Greece would have guessed that they were reading from Western notation. What is needed is a good teacher and conductor. Not nay-saying.

      1. On the question of tunings — these articles don’t deal with Byzantine music, but they do address the matter of teaching a choir “microtones”:*

        https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/the-journey-in-performing-microtonal-choral-music-part-1/
        https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/getting-your-hands-dirty-performing-microtonal-choral-music-part-2/

        *and it’s also worth hearing Alexander Khalil’s thoughts on the word “microtones” in the interview found here and here

  2. Pauline Costianes

    Personally, Byzantine Chant is best in small doses. Though it was a relief to hear the
    Boston Byzantine Choir in English, they were hitting every note like a typewriter key, which also happens with every chanter group in Greek churches I have heard.
    Byzantine Chant should be even more conducive to flowing horizontally than the barred Western-type music, but it wasn’t in the selection offered.. And they were pronouncing hard American “r’s” which sets me on edge. The conductor needs to see to that.

    I’m afraid I fall into the camp of seeing a group of chanters not as a “choir” per se,
    because I see a 4-part harmonized type of singing as choral music. But if “choral’
    means a group of singers, then Richard is right.
    But seriously: 8 minutes for a Cherubic Hymn? No thanks! That’s the problem
    of the overly melismatic ornamented, dragged out Byzantine music that makes
    me say – I’ll pass – at least on those types of arrangements.

    That said, Eikona shows that the music can move along and not be
    overly ornamented. In my former choir we used a Tone 1 Anaphora during
    Lenten periods that didn’t drag or was too melismatic either. So that kind
    of thing is available, i.e. Kevin Lawrence’s stuff. And there are some Romanian
    Byzantine offerings through the Romanian Episcopate of the OCA that are
    quite nice.

    1. Point taken on BBC, but I think they have improved their phrasing a good deal over the years. The recording that just came out is much better on the whole (it’s just not on YouTube). Of course, issues like that can be worked out with rehearsal, which I talk about at the end of the article. I think the TLAA Cherubic Hymn reflects the horizontal flow that you’re talking about quite well.

      As for rejecting out of hand the length of the Cherubic Hymn, I know that at least some of the current generation of priests are being told in seminary, at least in the GOA, “If you take less than eight minutes to get to the Great Entrance, you’re skipping something.” At least in GOA, I am given to understand that the new Archbishop prefers proskomide to be done right before the Great Entrance, so I would expect a trend towards needing 8 minutes at least over the next few years. I’m personally not sure I understand why it’s a moment anybody wants to rush in the first place — “Let us now lay aside all earthly cares… but let’s also check our watch to make sure this isn’t taking too long…”

      All that said, that recording was at TLAA, where the combination of a luxurious acoustic, an unhurried celebrant, and two choirs who very much wanted to be there lent itself very well to the dictum of the chief chant instructor, John Boyer: “If you think you’re going too slow, slow down.” My choir sings the same Cherubic Hymn on Sundays, and we have about five minutes max before the priest comes out. It works that way, too.

      Nobody is under any obligation to like anything, of course; that’s not my point at all. At the same time, I think it’s fair to clarify that “I don’t like this idiom in its unrestrained fullness” isn’t the same thing as “It’s not choral music”.

      1. Perhaps people do not understand the definition of “choir”! This very good article goes far beyond matters of personal taste, even if we may have different preferences as regards the way the ensembles in the examples included chant.

        As for the Cherubic Hymn, how on earth can 8 minutes be too long? What the priest has to do in the altar needs this kind of length, and beautifully sung melisma avoids situations such as the singing through of four or five different polyphonic settings (yes, this does happen) in order to cover the liturgical action. Personally, I wait at the step for the choir to finish before I come out at the Great Entrance, and they know I will wait (it’s never very long). Liturgy does not work if there is not that kind of natural ebb-and-flow: it’s a dialogue, not a monologue with decoration.

        1. Happy for your perspective, Fr. Ivan! Indeed, I think the definition of “choir” is a stumbling block, which is why Andre de Quadros’ book is important to the discussion.

  3. Fr. Raphael Daly

    Excellent and helpful critique. Εὖγε. I hope the youtube links hold up over time since I suspect I’ll be directing people to this for quite a while.

    1. Thank you, Fr.! Appreciate the kind words!

  4. Deacon Nicholas

    “Nobody is under any obligation to like anything, of course; that’s not my point at all.”

    Thanks for that; I was beginning to wonder whether I had an obligation to like Byzantine chant, which, for the most part, I do not.

    1. Wonderful! I don’t particularly care for cranberry sauce.

      1. Fr John

        I like Byzantine music but I don’t think it’s suitable in most American parishes.
        All the musical examples above are outstanding but only a few are applicable to regular worship in American churches.
        If we want Orthodox worship to evoke a bygone empire, then we should insist on Byzantine chant. It is a perfect vehicle for authentic transmission of ethos and theology. But the edifice of Byzantine music does not translate to the contemporary idiom. Its strict meter essentially forbids English usage — let’s not kid ourselves about English translations that must accommodate Greek scansion. Even the accommodations made to Arabic and Romanian are not possible here because the mass of translators and performers required to do the work do not exist in the English-speaking world where we comprise a tiny minority.
        Putting aside the issue of making worship available in the common language, where is the widespread support for training singers in this advanced art? Most who would sing in church these days can’t even read staff notation. The efforts of the GOA to promote the art are so far inadequate to its further spread even among Greek Americans. Microtonality is out of the question for most singers who are inured to equal temperament and whose grasp of any music theory and pitch acuity is weak.
        I have been a fan of ancient and oriental musics since childhood. But coming into the service of Christ’s Church has taught me that some bridges are too far to cross. We need to rescue Orthodox Liturgical music for the people worshipping in the churches. Let us continue to promote the fine art of Byzantine chant as a paragon of ethos but let us be realistic. We face a collapse of all church singing, across all jurisdictions. Churches across the globe and throughout history have had to come up with musical solutions to promote their own local worship. Byzantine style went by the wayside because these Christians were living outside the Empire. Their own indigenous musical habits were put to work and they found good solutions to the problem of praising God in their own tongues.
        Again, I laud your efforts to promote the fine art and do not quit. But I can’t see a solution to my parish’s musical deficit in it.

        1. Fr. John — your blessing! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

          Ultimately, many of your points are to the side of the thrust of this piece, which was to address the seemingly widespread perception that it doesn’t work for choirs — in fact, it *is* music for choirs.

          Even so, what you say is absolutely worth responding to, so here are my thoughts. First off, so that you have a general idea of where I’m coming from, you might find this essay intriguing: “Pastitsio and Byzantine chant: in which one finds, at the very least, the best pastitsio recipe ever (also the worst)” (LINK)

          Some specifics:

          But the edifice of Byzantine music does not translate to the contemporary idiom. Its strict meter essentially forbids English usage — let’s not kid ourselves about English translations that must accommodate Greek scansion. Even the accommodations made to Arabic and Romanian are not possible here because the mass of translators and performers required to do the work do not exist in the English-speaking world where we comprise a tiny minority.

          I’m simply not sure how you get here without either writing off, or perhaps being unaware of, what in fact *has* been done and *is* being done. Meter is an element of a certain kind of hymnody (not all), but the fact is that we’ve gone from metered translations in English being thought of as largely impossible 20, certainly 30, years ago to metered translations now being the norm in many GOA and Antiochian parishes, and there being multiple good options in some case. I’ve written about that here (LINK), and I’ve written about a specific case here (LINK).

          To say nothing of hymns that don’t require strict adherence to a pre-set meter (idiomela). That’s a different conversation altogether.

          [W]here is the widespread support for training singers in this advanced art? Most who would sing in church these days can’t even read staff notation. The efforts of the GOA to promote the art are so far inadequate to its further spread even among Greek Americans. Microtonality is out of the question for most singers who are inured to equal temperament and whose grasp of any music theory and pitch acuity is weak.

          Again, I’m not sure how you draw your conclusion without dismissing or not being aware of what is being done. Since 2014, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology has offered a certificate program (LINK) that has around 30 alumni who are teaching, forming choirs, and in general contributing to and enhancing the liturgical lives of their parishes. The Archdiocesan School of Byzantine Music has students around the country. There are efforts such as The Liturgical Arts Academy and AGES’ workshops that offer a high level of instruction and draw students and participants from throughout the United States. Last month there was a workshop at St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Las Vegas, sponsored by the Metropolis of San Francisco, that drew close to 40 people from throughout the Metropolis and beyond.

          None of this was available when I started learning Byzantine music 16 years ago. I had to make do with materials that, to say the least, are not up to today’s standard, and then I had to go to Greece when that avenue was exhausted. Maybe not everybody is seeing the result in their own parish quite yet, but what’s happening today was unthinkable even ten years ago. My friend Amy Hogg and I have a podcast on AF since September ’18 that goes into detail about what the current state of affairs actually is; perhaps it would be of interest to you — click here (LINK).

          And, honestly, “microtonality” is a red herring. I refer you to our interview with Alexander Khalil, who goes into great detail about why. With your interests, I think you’ll find it very thought provoking. You can find it here (LINK) and here (LINK).

          None of that is to say that music education in general is in great shape in this country; it absolutely isn’t. But, again, that’s a totally separate matter than what I’m writing about. It’s a worthy frustration, to be sure, but it’s not the problem I’m talking about.

          Thank you again for taking the time!

  5. Albertus

    I am a Catholic, in orders, who sings in a Gregorian chant schola, and regularly reads this journal. I appreciate very much this article. I love both gregorian chant and Byzantine chant, as well as classic polyphonic masses (such as Palestrina, which, however, of course, we donot sing). I prefer well-sung Greek byzantine chant to Russian polyphony, though. In our own schola we strive for a blending of voices, good Latin diction, and a flowing tempo. Since both liturgical music as well as the liturgical rites in most post-conciliar Catholic churches have degenerated to abysmal depths, I only take part in the traditional Roman-rite liturgy. And this I do my whole life long. The church to which I belong (erected as a ”personal parish” rather than a territorial parish) is locally known as ”as close as Roman Catholic can be to Eastern Orthodox”.

    1. Thanks for the comment! Out of curiosity, do you know the work of Marcel Peres and Ensemble Organum?

  6. T. Chan

    Thank you for this informative article!

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