Some years ago, a singer who was primarily active in Russian Orthodox choral music pulled me aside at a church music event. “Can I be honest with you about something?” this person said to me. “I don’t understand Byzantine music. To me, it looks like it’s either a soloist or a group of mostly men; it seems like you group around the chant stand with a single copy of the music that it hardly looks like you all can see; you don’t look organized in any particular way; most of the time it sounds like you’re all just singing as loudly as possible; you don’t blend; to my ear most of you are out of tune; and I can never understand a word any of you are singing. Whereas, with what I’m used to, singers have their own copies of music; we focus on singing in tune and with good diction; and we aim for a unified sound. Can you help me understand what’s going on when you chanters are singing?”
There is a lot packed into what this person said to me — assumptions about what a choir is, how it’s configured, where it stands, what it sings, and what its focus should be. I will also be the first to acknowledge that some of these points are well-taken, and reflective of how far, not just chant education, but overall musical literacy have to go to be widespread enough in Orthodox America for all of our genres of liturgical music to reach a standard of excellence.
In our twenty-first century American context, there is no doubt that in an Orthodox church where one might hear service music referred to as “Byzantine chant”, most of the time it is going to be sung by a lone soloist or multiple soloists taking turns. Often those soloists might be men who are at least of retirement age. It might not be clear whether or not anybody is singing from a score. And it may appear that the collective activities of the soloists are fundamentally disjunct. In those rare instances where one might hear multiple cantors singing together, it is true that often it can come across as little more than badly-coordinated unison-ish shouting. The world of “the chanter”, in this context, no doubt seems to have no relationship to the world of choral excellence, as defined for many of us by exemplars such as the Robert Shaw Master Chorale, Chanticleer, The Tallis Scholars, and so on. If this is what Byzantine chant is, it would seem, then it is not by any definition choral music. If one is at a parish in which liturgical duties are divided in the manner that has become customary for many Antiochian and Greek parishes (i.e., “the choir” for Sunday Divine Liturgy and “the chanter” for offices and non-Sunday Liturgies) then this disconnect between Byzantine chant and choral music seems to be all the more apparent. Unfortunately it is underscored even further by the unforgiving acoustics of many American church buildings, which subjects vocal lines to a quick, over-amplified death instead of allowing them to hang in the air. Ask the choir to learn a classical chant composition to add to their repertoire for Sunday Divine Liturgy, and the natural reaction would seem to be, “Why?”
The assumption that this state of affairs is normal even appears to influence translation; in The Bilingual Edition of the Typikon (Violakis) published recently by the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Denver Choir Federation, the compilers went so far as to render χορός as “chant group” rather than the obvious, natural “choir” — presumably because the rubrics assigned to choirs in the Typikon make no sense when your regular forces are a single cantor who sings the offices and a big polyphonic choir for Sunday Divine Liturgy.
In ethnomusicologist and conductor Andre de Quadros’ recent book, Focus: Choral Music in Global Perspective, he is very clear about where this divide comes from. “[T]he task to determine what constitutes a chorus [or choir] is in fact tangled and difficult[,]” he writes. While group singing is hardly exclusive to Western choirs or choruses, Western thought about what constitutes “choral music” tends to center almost exclusively on the Western concept of “a group of singers gathered to sing composed and harmonized music in the Western canon.” Thus, “non-Western group singing is not generally understood to fall within the choral singing paradigm” (de Quadros, 13-15).
De Quadros also observes that “[t]he choir is… a place where people find themselves, construct personal identities, meet people, create community, and so forth. For many singers, membership in a choir is a lifelong association; even a once-a-week rehearsal brings the group together. Singers meet at other times, organize social activities, and build interpersonal networks” (de Quadros, 24). The development identity of “choir” as an identity in America’s Orthodox parishes certainly has a history, particularly in Greek Orthodox parishes (see Frank Desby’s 1984 essay “The Growth of Liturgical Music in the Iakovian Era”, recently reprinted in Greek Music in America, edited by Tina Bucuvalas). Perhaps Byzantine chant is not seen as “choral music” simply because it is not the music that the social institution called “the choir” has elected to sing and build their identity around.
However, according to de Quadros, what he calls a “new choral syncretism” and “the beginnings of a choral counterculture and new wave” are emerging. “In the second decade of the twenty-first century, choral music appears to be increasingly progressive and transgressive relative to other performance ensembles… [T]he diversity of practice has become breathtaking[…] [and] choral music is poised for a vibrant future quite unlike its past” (de Quadros, 25, 27-29). As fields such as musicology, ethnomusicology, and music education expand and redefine their scopes so as to decentralize Western paradigms, “[c]horal music is reshaping itself, reimagining and building new repertoires, purposes, and social connections” (de Quadros, 35).
This redefinition of choral music’s parameters opens the door to state what would have been otherwise obvious: Byzantine music is choral music. What we have taken as normal in our parishes with respect to Byzantine chant is not normal at all, but an inherited adjustment to a lack of resources. Indeed, Byzantine music is not only music fitting for a choir, but in the fullest expression of our practice that our rubrics take as a given, Byzantine music is the music of two choirs singing responsorially — alternating with each other, the altar, and the congregation, each in their proper turn.
This model is embedded in the psaltic repertoire, and has been for centuries at least. Our contemporary American model contrasting the lone “chanter”, or μονοψάλτης, shall we say, with “the choir”, expecting that “chant groups” will produce something undesirable, is one that would be met with considerable confusion by the composers who produced much of the received tradition of Byzantine music. The historic genres of Byzantine music as witnessed by the manuscript tradition provided for a number of textures, inclusive of soloists and choirs of different sizes, with compositions being written for multiple configurations of forces — sometimes even within the same piece. In our own day, churches such as the Patriarchal chapel of St. George in Constantinople, St. Irene in Athens, the monasteries of Mt. Athos, the cathedral in Bucharest, Romania, and the Balamand in Lebanon all present the choral fullness of Byzantine music virtually every service. And yes, even in the United States, one can hear Byzantine chant sung by choirs consisting of both men and women at churches like St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, D. C., as well as St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wilmington, NC and St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Albuquerque, NM. The fullness of antiphonal choirs is employed at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in St. Louis, MO, St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church in Charlotte, NC, and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA.
Events that offer instruction in Byzantine music, such as The Liturgical Arts Academy of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Atlanta and the seminars of AGES Initiatives, have offered the experience of Byzantine chant sung by antiphonal choirs as a major draw. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am an employee of AGES Initiatives.) At such events, the students are given the opportunity to sing classical papadic compositions that, in a parish setting, a choir might currently find daunting and opaque, perhaps only suited for “a chanter” rather than “a choir”. In a liturgical setting that presents Byzantine music unreservedly as choral music, the colors of Petros Peloponnesios’ vocal writing in his first mode Cherubic Hymn are completely transformed. No longer dependent on the exposed, transparent virtuosity of the soloist, the men and women of the Liturgical Arts Academy (aided by the amazing acoustic of the Panagia Chapel) bring out the musical peaks and valleys as a still and flowing meditation, doing so nimbly and with confidence. Not only that, but the elements that can call attention to themselves when sung by a lone cantor — tuning, ornamentation, and vocal style for example — now sound natural and idiomatic as a result of being sung by a group with sensitivity and skill. Listen to it here:
A number of performing ensembles throughout the world have served as aspirational models for choral Byzantine chant: A notable example is the Greek Byzantine Choir, founded and directed by Lycourgos Angelopoulos of blessed memory (+2014) and currently led by Georgios Konstantinou. In a recent paper given to the International Society for Orthodox Church Music, John Michael Boyer, protopsaltis of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco and a longtime student of Angelopoulos, discussed at length Angelopoulos’ legacy of presenting Byzantine music as “high choral art, equal in depth and refinement to the great Western and Slavic choral traditions” (Boyer, “Lycourgos Angelopoulos: Maestro Conductor”, presented at the Eighth International Conference for the International Society for Orthodox Church Music, 10 June 2019).
In recent years, Panagiotis Neochoritis, protopsaltis of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, has collaborated with early music personality and violist Jordi Savall on concerts and recordings, with his choir performing classical chant compositions in prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall.
Romanian has only been the official language of the Romanian Orthodox Church since 1863. Much as with English, Romanian has presented challenges with respect to translation, meter, notation, and so on. In light of such issues, the Byzantion Choir’s accomplishments are all the more impressive. Under the direction of Adrian Sirbu, Byzantion has been a performing showcase for Eastern Europe’s Byzantine inheritance of sacred music for the last two decades.
The St. Romanos the Melodist Byzantine Choir of Beirut, led by Fr. Romanos Joubran, and the Choir of the Eparchy of Tripoli, under the direction of Fr. Nicholas Malek, have both served as examples of choral Byzantine chant in the Arabic tradition, as well as models of mixed choirs of men and women.
Despite the widespread parish-level perception in America that Byzantine music is not for choirs, choirs that concertize and record the repertoire are plentiful in the States, and represent virtually every level and configuration imaginable:
- Boston Byzantine Choir, led by Charlie Marge, sings in English with men and women from staff notation scores.
- Women’s chamber ensemble Eikona is a collective of three sisters, Presvyteres Stacey Dorrance and Marika Brown, and Chrysanthy Therianos, who sing in Greek and English from staff notation scores.
- The St. Romanos Byzantine Choir, directed by Fr. Romanos Karanos, is the resident student choir of Holy Cross Hellenic College, and they perform in Greek and English from Byzantine notation scores.
- The Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir, led by Demetrios Kehagias, is a men’s ensemble consisting of cantors from throughout the Northeast corridor, and they sing in Greek from Byzantine notation.
- Cappella Romana, directed by Alexander Lingas, performs modern and medieval Byzantine chant, sung by both men and women, from both staff and Byzantine scores, in both Greek and English (and occasionally other languages as well).
- Romeiko Ensemble, directed by Yorgos Bilalis, is a men’s choir that sings medieval and modern compositions in Greek from Byzantine scores.
- Dynamis Ensemble, led by Samuel Herron, is a men’s ensemble that performs English-language compositions from Byzantine scores.
- Psaltikon, directed by Spyridon Antonopoulos, is a men’s choir that performs medieval and modern compositions in Greek from Byzantine scores.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I sing, or have sung, regularly with the St. Romanos Byzantine Choir, the Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir, Cappella Romana, and Psaltikon.)
Thinking back to my Russian chorister friend: if Byzantine music is choral music, how do we make this conceptual shift persuasive for those who struggle to adjust away from a strict “choir/chanter” dichotomy?
Cantors, this is my call to action to all of you, and I also include myself: if we are serious about presenting a choral model for Byzantine music that people will take seriously, then we need to take seriously the work of getting better at executing it as choral music. While elements such as standing around an analogion instead of in rows in a loft, communal instead of individual scores, some amount of heterophony in ornamentation, and the like, are simply differences of performance context, it is nonetheless more than fair to point out when a choir’s sound is not unified or out of tune, when words are a mush, and when it is clear that we are winging it.
That absolutely does not mean that choral Byzantine chant needs to sound like, say, the Tallis Scholars, but neither does it mean that a monotony of big, dumb, loud singing is acceptable. We have models of stylistically appropriate choral sounds for Byzantine music, and those choirs spend time working to unify their voices, ornaments, and diction. Likewise, it will behoove us to rehearse, pay attention to diction, unification of our ensemble sound, and not let Byzantine choral singing be solo singing by multiple cantors singing simultaneously by accident. I grant that these skills perhaps do not come easily or quickly to experienced cantors who have rarely, if ever, been expected to sing chorally. And choral singers for whom it is not obvious that Byzantine chant is befitting of choirs have their own paradigm shift to make. It is true across the board that overall musical literacy is necessary, as is an ethos of improvement rather than inevitable decline.
Byzantine music in its fullness is choral music, and the “the chanter is the chanter and the choir is the choir and never the twain shall meet” dichotomy is not a helpful way forward in our current circumstances. Let us work to educate our choirs and congregations, but let us also hold our representation of this tradition to a high standard, and work to improve ourselves at the same time.