In Defense of Metrical Translations

By Richard Barrett on October 2, 2018

Byzantine chanters at the Phanar, Istanbul. Photo by Andrew Gould.

A liturgical craft that ideally draws very little attention to itself is that of translation — particularly, the translation of hymnography. The English texts that we hear in church were translated by somebody, and that translator also had to make them natural-sounding and singable in English. In addition, there is also the question of whether or not to translate hymns according to meter — that is, to have the syllable count and word stresses of the translation match those of the original so that they can be sung to the same melody. To do this skillfully is a liturgical craft unto itself, and it is also something of a contested matter in Anglophone circles.

To demonstrate what I’m talking about and why it is important — let’s try an experiment, shall we? I want you to try to get an entire room full of people to sing this text with no score. It can even be a room of musicians. However, all you’re allowed to tell them is that it’s in F major.

You came down from on high, O Compassionate, you accepted burial for three days, that you might free us from the passions. Our Life and Resurrection, Lord, glory to you.

How well did that work? Let’s try another one, only this time you can tell everybody two words: “Amazing Grace”.

From heaven you came down, O Lord; / three days you lay entombed / to free us from our passions grave, / Lord of Life; glory to you.

You may have had to make a little adjustment at “Lord of Life”, but did that work a little better overall? Let’s try another one. All you can tell people is “D minor”.

Let us arise in the early dawn, and instead of myrrh, offer praises to the Master; and we shall see Christ, the Sun of Justice, who causes life to dawn for all.

No? Okay, how about this? What you can tell people is “Come thou Holy Spirit, Come”, and because this tune may be less familiar, you can reference this score.

Ere the morn in beauty wake, / Let us seek the Saviour’s tomb, / Not with ointment and perfume, / But with songs the silence break; / We shall see the Christ appear, / Sun of Righteousness to cheer.

How’d that go? If you were able to get a room full of people to sing it, congratulations; you just sang Orthodox hymn texts metered to a model melody, and you did so in English.

The writing of hymns to be sung to an existing library of stock tunes is a bedrock of Christian worship. The sung metrical homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian in the fourth century are labeled with the incipits of model melodies. St. Romanos the Melodist in the sixth century makes use of the device. The explosion of monastic hymnody, starting in the seventh century with the canon, gave us a voluminous body of sung worship that could never be completely written out in music notation.

And it’s not just in the Christian East or in Greek we see this, either. Don’t forget the Genevan Psalter, the Bay Psalm Book, Wesleyan hymns, and so on. Most Protestant hymnals have what’s called a metrical index for each hymn, which tells you the number of syllables for each line. You can then look up what hymn tunes match the metrical index, and any tune that matches the metrical index can be used for that hymn. “Amazing Grace” has a metrical index of (eight syllables, six syllables, eight syllables, six syllables) so it can be sung to any tune. That excerpt from the Easter canon, incidentally, was metered by John Brownlie (1857-1925), a Scottish clergyman and hymnographer, and it has a metrical index of

In the system of Byzantine music, there are:

  • idiomela – hymns with their own melody
  • automela – hymns whose melody serve as a model melody
  • prosomoia – hymns with texts metered to automela

In addition, the troparia of canons are sung to model melodies called eirmoi. One commonly encounters prosomoia in the offices of Vespers and Orthros; the stichera at “O Lord I have cried” and the aposticha stichera are often prosomoia, for example, as are apolytikia. During Orthros, the kathismata are usually prosomoia, as are the exaposteilaria, and then the stichera at the Praises.

As a practical example, I will demonstrate what this can look like using materials commonly used today.

Bilingual service text for the Praises of Orthros, 14 October, Sunday of the Holy Fathers (courtesy AGES Initiatives)

Here are the stichera at the Praises for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers (14 October this year), in both Greek and English. To take the Greek case first — we see the mode, Plagal II (or Tone 6, if you prefer that nomenclature), and the incipit for the model melody, Ὅλην ἀποθέμενοι — a melody originally composed for the commemoration of Ss. Cosmas and Damian on 1 November. To learn that melody, the cantor consults a book called the Eirmologion — “the book of model melodies”, for all intents and purposes — and finds it among the Plagal II melodies in the section marked Prosomoia.

Score for model melody Ὅλην ἀποθέμενοι in the standard Greek Eirmologion

We will lay aside for now the question of learning Byzantine notation; suffice it to say that the assumption here is that one knows it, and that one also has access to either a cantor who knows the melody, or a recording, or both, in order to be exposed to the details of the performance tradition that may not be explicitly in the score. If it is a well-composed text, it will be intuitive to sing to the model melody without having to fix much of anything; thankfully, this is a well-composed text, and it’s very easy to sing to the model melody. Here is the result:

Are all of these steps required every time? No, certainly not. As one learns and memorizes model melodies, singing prosomoia becomes second nature, much like singing something to the tune of “Amazing Grace”.

Now for English.

Again, we see the mode, and the English incipit of the model melody, “When the saints deposited”, so we consult our English-language Eirmologion…

…well, okay, we don’t do that, since that doesn’t exist… yet. This is where things get a little complicated.

As of this writing, there are two principal sources for metered English translations: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, the non-canonical monastery in Brookline, MA that publishes liturgical books, such as the Menaion and Pentecostarion, using a King James-esque register (what some might call “traditional English”), and AGES Initiatives, which distributes metered texts in a present-day register by multiple translators on the Digital Chant Stand platform. (In the interests of full disclosure, I am the Executive Director of AGES Initiatives.) Collections of English-language scores for the most common model melodies are available from both AGES Initiatives and Holy Transfiguration Monastery, they are even in staff notation if you don’t read Byzantine notation, and model recordings are also available.

First of all, let’s be clear that this is an amazing state of affairs; when I was first starting to educate myself about these matters years ago, metered texts were not only not available, it was commonly asserted that metered texts were neither possible nor desirable nor important. None other than Metropolitan Kallistos Ware referred to metered texts for English as presenting “insuperable difficulties” (Festal Menaion, 13).  Today, we have options about which ones to use, and more are being produced. What a time to be alive as an Anglophone Orthodox Christian!

However, it’s also confusing, because the model melodies have different English language incipits depending on whether you’re looking at AGES or HTM. AGES uses “When the saints deposited”, and HTM uses “Having laid up all their hope”, so if you learned your model melodies from HTM’s book and are looking at a service text on AGES, you may be at a loss, at least initially. However, Fr. Seraphim Dedes’ book has a handy index that cross references his incipits to HTM as well as to the Greek.

Index page of Dedes, Original Melodies

In any event, whether or not you learn your model melodies from a Greek Eirmologion, the HTM book, the Digital Chant Stand, or just happened to have absorbed them all by ear from standing next to a cantor who knows them like the back of their hand (the ideal way, but not reality for most of us), a well-composed English text will be easily sung to the model. Here’s the result:

This is a system that seems daunting and opaque when one is first learning about it, no question. However, the simple fact is that it makes one’s job as a church singer tremendously easier, once some initial overhead is out of the way. For English purposes, if one is using Byzantine music, the alternatives to metered translations are either to have a solo cantor compose on the spot within the appointed mode (so-called “free chanting”), or plain reading. If you know the model melody, and it is a well-composed text, then there’s so much you don’t have to do; not only that, but as I demonstrated above, metered translations are simply indispensable for choral (and, dare I say it, congregational) singing.

That’s all well and good in terms of the musical side, I have heard it argued, but there’s no getting around that the metered texts are usually impossibly awkward and clunky, with syntax that doesn’t work in English or neologisms or bizarre compose-by-thesaurus word choices. We’re having to convey the Orthodox theological concepts in the hymnody in English vernacular, and it would be better to have an understandable text rather than a singable and/or poetic text. This point of view is perhaps best represented by the position of one of the producers of intentionally non-metered texts (and I am grateful to Fr. Andreas Houpos for the reference):

…[I]t [is] possible to merge the melodic chants of our Byzantine music with words which do not blindly comply to musical syllables just to make the melody familiar. When words are inserted just to fit music it oft times makes the text unwieldy, incomprehensible and awkward. We believe the true test comes when the translated text must stand alone. Through the years we have endeavored, while remaining true to our Orthodox theology, that these translations must not be awkward, or even by word misusage, embarrassing. We have chosen the more difficult and time consuming effort of melding music and verse rather than counting syllables to fit music.

If one is going to take such a stance, however, then I think it is necessary to unpack some of the assumptions built into it. Perhaps the first assumption to unpack is that metering texts for the model melody is a negotiable option, and also perhaps the implicit understanding that the choice of model melody itself is an arbitrary matter. This is demonstrably not the case; a quick comparison of any volume of the Menaion with any standard Doxastarion (collection of office idiomela, compositions with their own melodies, for specific commemorations) that contains the same month will demonstrate that the vast majority of hymns are composed to be sung to a model melody. Model melodies are the norm, not the outlier, in other words. We Anglophones tend to perceive the use of model melodies as an outlying case because of the state of our liturgical books, but that is simply not so. Dismissing the metering of hymns as an exercise in “syllable counting” does not give proper weight to a matter taken very seriously by Byzantine hymnographers, who went so far as to emphasize the point in grammar manuals: “If someone wants to make a kanon, he must first compose the heirmos, afterwards, compose the troparia exactly like the heirmos with equal syllables and the same accent, and, thus will realize its purpose” (Theodosius Grammaticus, Commentary on Dionysius Thrax’s Grammatical Art, A. Hilgard, ed. Grammatici Graeci, vol. 1.3, p569 — and I must once again thank Fr. Houpos for the reference). In our own day, metering of texts is a criterion the Ecumenical Patriarchate uses when they are evaluating new offices for saints; they certainly do not see it as a negotiable option.

Not only that, but the selection of model melody does in fact convey important information about the text as well as the commemoration. To give but example, one notices very quickly that the model melody Ὡς γενναῖον ἐν Μάρτυσιν (known in HTM books as “As one valiant” and in AGES’ texts as “To a brave one in martyr saints”) is extremely common — one can sing a large chunk of Vespers and Orthros services throughout the year if one only knows that melody. Why? Because it is a melody commonly used for martyrs, and our liturgical calendar commemorates a lot of martyrs. To the extent that our hymnography may be said to be iconographic, the model melodies are a component of the icon pattern for particular saints and feasts.

The other problem with cynically waving away metering the hymns as “syllable counting” is that we have many genres of hymnography in the Byzantine liturgical cycle; some of them are prose, some of them are poetry. Prosomoia and canons are poetry. While there is no question that it is difficult to translate poetry, difficult does not mean impossible, and to accept a flattening of register and genre in our liturgical texts strikes me as doing ourselves, and our language, a real disservice. As a living language, it is clear that individual hearers have different thresholds for acceptable poetic language in vernacular texts, but I disagree that this means that the solution is to aim for prosaic and anodyne; the solution is rather to embrace poetic language in our hymnody and educate our congregations about why we’re using poetic language. One of the most popular pieces of music in the country right now is two hours and forty-five minutes of vernacular lyric poetry filled with references to the Federalist Papers and directly quoting 18th century letters and speeches with dense syntax; don’t tell me that people will flock to “The ten dollar founding father without a father / got a lot farther by working a lot harder / by being a lot smarter by being a self starter / by fourteen they placed him in charge of a trading charter” but somehow won’t put up with the occasional rearranged sentence. If we can tolerate it in our Christmas carols, then let’s find a way to deal with it in our Christmas hymnody, too.

“But it’s poetry written for a different language!” some might say at this point. Perhaps, but languages borrow poetic and literary forms all the time. The Greek hymnographers borrowed from Syriac poets like St. Ephraim the Syrian. The sonnet was originally an Italian form before Shakespeare got a hold of it. Present-day Anglophone poets translate and borrow from Persian poetry (see the work of Robert Bly, for example). English can handle it.

Not only can English handle it, but we’re getting better at it. I offer four different English-language versions of the eirmos for the first ode of the first canon for Christmas; the first is Fr. Seraphim Nassar’s unmetered version as found in The Byzantine Project by Basil Kazan, the second is Fr. Ephrem Lash’s unmetered version as set by Jessica Suchy-Pilalis, the third Fr. Seraphim Dedes’ metered version set to the traditional melody, and the fourth John Michael Boyer’s metrical adaptation of Fr. Ephrem’s text as heard on his recent recording Sun of Justice.

Nassar (unmetered) Lash (unmetered) Dedes (metered) Boyer/Lash (metered)
Christ is born, glorify him. Christ hath come from the heavens, receive him. Christ is on earth, be ye elevated. Sing unto the Lord all the earth, and ye nations praise him with joy; for he hath been glorified. ‘Christ is born, give glory! Christ comes from heaven, go to meet him! Christ is upon earth, be exalted! Sing to the Lord all the earth; and all you peoples raise the hymn with joy, for he has been glorified’. Christ is born; glorify Him! * Christ is come from heaven; go and meet Him. * Christ is on earth; arise to Him. * Sing to the Lord, all you who dwell on the earth; * and in merry spirits, O you peoples, praise His birth. * For He is glorified. Now Christ is born, therefore glorify! * Now Christ has come from heaven, encounter him! * Now Christ is on earth, be raised on high! * Sing your praise to the newborn Lord, all the earth; * and with jubilation all you peoples raise the hymn, * for he is glorified!

Again, we’ve gone from the presumption that it’s fundamentally impossible to two very good options in a reasonably short time.

It seems to me that there are two additional developments that could further enrich and enhance the use of metered hymns by English-speaking Orthodox faithful. First, there are some first-class poets in the world of Anglophone Orthodox Christianity, artists such as Scott Cairns and Nicholas Samaras, and if such people could be included in translation efforts, it would only improve the good work that is already being done.

Second, English-language hymnographers need to start composing offices from scratch for American saints using the conventions of prosomoia and metered canons. Here is a real opportunity for the English language to absorb these poetic forms and have them take root. Yes, there are published English-language offices that already exist in some cases, but the examples I am familiar with do not follow any metrical conventions of this kind. Perhaps some of these existing texts may be adapted to meter, or at least used as models to some extent, but a multiplicity of offices for local and/or newer saints isn’t entirely unheard-of (there are multiple offices for St. Elder Paisios, for examples). In addition, one of the positives about metrical hymns is that they can also be sung using unmetered music if one so desires; the reverse is more difficult.

In conclusion, metered hymn texts are an indelible, non-negotiable component of the tradition of Christian hymnography generally and Orthodox hymnography specifically. They facilitate ease of individual singing, to say nothing of choral and congregational singing; they also convey iconographic information about the saint or feast being commemorated. To put it another way, as much as we Anglophones like to complain about Orthodox worship being inaccessible, we would do well to remember that metered prosomoia exist to make singing hymns easier and more accessible. The body of metered hymnody in English continues to be a work in progress, but we have come a long way since the 1960s, when it was asserted by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware that metrical translations were unworkable. Now we have at least one good option for many prosomoia and canons, sometimes more than one, and it is a repertoire that is being added to and improved by existing, as well as new, translators. There is certainly still more work to do for this tradition to take root completely in English-language worship, but there are sufficient singable metered texts at this point, as well as resources for learning the model melodies, that there is every reason to embrace the practice.

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  1. Andrew Gould on October 2, 2018 at 10:30 pm

    Thank you, Richard, for this informative article. I appreciate your commitment to traditional standards for hymnography, and your recognition that metered texts and model melodies are a tradition vital to both Byzantine chant and English Protestant hymn singing.

    I wonder, though, why you would not consider traditional English conjugations to merit equal attention. After all, traditional pronouns and conjugations are as ubiquitous in English hymnography as metered poetry. They were considered indispensable to ecclesiastic good taste right through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and even through most of the twentieth – centuries after they were disused in common speech. And here too, we have an exact parallel in Orthodoxy, because neither in Greek nor Russian churches are hymns sung in the modern vernacular, but always in an archaic liturgical form of the language.

    Personally, I find use of modern language extremely unsettling to the liturgical aesthetic. Why would we maintain a commitment to medieval-style painting, architecture, and vestments, and yet translate in a modern vernacular idiom, alien to our own language’s established liturgical form? Your thoughts?

    • Father Gregory Francis Desmarais on October 3, 2018 at 1:43 am

      May I respond with this question, why is it necessary to maintain a commitment to mediaeval architecture, vestments, and iconography, and for that matter archaic linguistic form?

      • Andrew Gould on October 3, 2018 at 1:27 pm

        Well, a simple answer is that the entire Orthodox Tradition is characterized by an extreme dedication to preserving medieval forms. Hence Orthodox architecture and music have not gone through a series of stylistic revolutions from one century to the next the way Western art has. It has maintained the Byzantine style and their regional variants for 1500 years, and done so with remarkable strictness, whilst also allowing an incredible flowering of diversity and originality within the parameters of those styles. To abandon the cannon of style and Tradition, and the medieval texts and ceremonial forms proscribed in our service books, would be simply to abandon Orthodoxy. Without the medieval stuff, all we would be left with is faith and morals – ie, we would be just like the Protestants.

    • Richard Barrett on October 3, 2018 at 11:46 am

      Thanks very much for the comment, Andrew. I’ll try to answer your question as best I am able; it’s a complex matter, and one that maybe merits its own article or counterpoint-style piece (written by people who are actually experienced translators in both a modern idiom as well as KJV-style idiom).

      First off, I tried to acknowledge the two registers that we hear in Anglophone churches — indeed, celebrate the embarrassment of riches we have today in both registers — without dwelling on it, simply because it is a huge topic. In my own parish, I use texts in a contemporary register a) because they are what my bishop prefers I use for English b) they are what my employer produces and I do my best to “eat my own dogfood” (to borrow a term from my years-back software work experience) c) there is an extent to which metered KJV-style texts are saddled with some heavy baggage in terms of church polity and liturgical unity. I allude to the problem in the article, but I don’t really want to get into the weeds with it for several reasons, so I’ll leave that there.

      In terms of writing the article, I don’t give metered KJV-style texts as examples for the simple reason that HTM publishes the books that contain those texts, I don’t have access to HTM’s materials beyond what they make available online (hence linking to their book of model melodies), plus they don’t meter their canons.

      As for the broader philosophical point — it is true that ecclesiastical/ancient Greek is not Modern Greek, and that even new offices (like that for St. Elder Paisios) are composed in ancient Greek. However — setting issues of comprehension aside — there is a consistent living Orthodox tradition of ancient Greek expressing Orthodox thought. This same tradition does not exist in English; there is absolutely a substantial tradition of English-language Christianity and English liturgical language, but that is, fundamentally, a Protestant tradition — that’s a trap with English overall, since much of our linguistic resonance has very deep roots in Protestant thought. It’s part of, I think, why many ears reject “Mother of God” as a title for the Virgin Mary and prefer “Theotokos” — the Greek word simply doesn’t have the baggage, even though, strictly speaking, “Mother of God” is just fine. That’s not a categorical indictment of KJV-style English, necessarily, but I do think it is something that requires careful attention of the translator-poet.

      Also, KJV-style composition is its own beast; you can’t just compose in modern English, do a search-and-replace to change pronouns and verb endings, and say you’re done. This is not an abstract point for me; I am working on a set of metered troparia for the Sunday Beatitudes (more here: ), and I am working in a modern register. I’ve been asked to produce a KJV-style version as well for parishes whose bishops have mandated such a register of English; I’m not going anywhere near it until I’ve finished the first set, because I’m going to have to approach it differently, and it’s going to be a much harder task. While I’ve done search-and-replace-style adaptations before, they’re really not any good, and I want to make sure these are up to snuff.

      To put it another way, while I don’t have a fundamental problem with the existence of KJV-style texts, I think there are pitfalls that make it tricky to historicize the register and say, “There, that’s English-language Orthodoxy.” I don’t think you can retroactively fabricate that tradition; such a project done right would, I think, be Tolkien-esque and require a linguist and poet of that calibre willing to make it their life’s work. And that would be just to lay the groundwork; there’s other work I think you have to do to get it up to snuff as a living tradition, and while on the one hand I would of course say it’s all worth doing, on the other hand I’m not sure why we wouldn’t just save a massive step and do the forward-looking work with the contemporary register.

      Which isn’t to say that I believe that there’s nothing useful about historical forms of English for Anglophone Orthodoxy; I think Old English literature and poetry like Beowulf, the Dream of the Rood, Caedmon’s Hymn, etc. can be useful and informative.

      I will say that over the summer, AGES Initiatives received permission from His Excellency Metropolitan Kallistos Ware to include his KJV-style texts for the Festal Menaion, the Lenten Triodion, and the Triodion Supplement in the Digital Chant Stand, so AGES’ own stance on register is not absolute. Those texts will not be metered, however.

      Your point about preserving medieval traditions of architecture, iconography, etc. is an interesting one. I would push back on it somewhat; you yourself have said that in your work, you try to instantiate architectural traditions so that they look like they belong in their surroundings, building from local materials, etc. To me, the register of English falls under the umbrella of “local materials”, and this is why I advocate getting real, living poets involved and composing natively using these metrical conventions, not just producing translations.

      Does this help at all?

    • Ryan on October 3, 2018 at 12:00 pm

      I’m not Richard but I would say that addressing an individual as “you” does not thereby make a hymn “vernacular” in any kind of casual sense. If I sing, “Blessed are you, God of our fathers, for you are praiseworthy and exalted unto the ages” I am speaking quite differently from everyday English speech or even everyday English writing. Which is to say that the hymnographic texts are inherently elevated in their language and will remain so if translated well, whether one translates them into a “traditional” or “vernacular” English. An immediate intelligibility does not mean a dumbing down. Another thing is that when we create texts in “traditional” language, we are employing a literary device- archaism. That is, the creation of a sense of stateliness using archaic language. The effect of what we are doing is actually dependent on the time we live in and the fact that certain word choices and grammatical conventions are perceived as archaic and venerable. And we are likely going to be very selective in our use of archaism. Old grammatical forms might be used but much of the diction will be modern. I am not saying this as a criticism of archaism- I think it’s a legitimate literary device- but we have to recognize that it is something used by people outside of the time it evokes, and the purpose is to give a sense of dignity and solemnity. There are other ways to accomplish this without employing archaism.

      • Richard Barrett on October 3, 2018 at 12:43 pm

        Yes, I agree, that basically what we’re talking about is a “high” contemporary English. The translations of Fr. Ephrem Lash, although not metered, generally accomplish this, I think.

        • Andrew Gould on October 3, 2018 at 1:37 pm

          Well, high and formal language certainly accomplishes much of it. But traditional English has several characteristics that are objectively better than their modern equivalents. One is that the pronouns indicate singular vs. plural with specificity. This is no small matter when trying to make a liturgical text clear in its meaning. As a choir director, I frequently need to adapt modern English translations of hymns to the traditional English that my parish uses. Quite often, it is unclear to whom the pronouns refer. I have to read it several times, and sometimes look at another translation, before I’m confident whether the ‘you’ at the end of the hymn is referring to some group of martyrs or to Christ. In traditional English, such ambiguities are mostly resolved.

          Also, there is the phonetic sound of the language. Any singer knows that ‘you’ and ‘your’ are terrible vowel sounds to have to sing, whereas ‘thee’, ‘thou’, and ‘thine’ roll off the tongue with ease and sound so much better. Since our hymns tend to have many lines that end with these pronouns, it makes a huge difference to the sing-ability of the text, and the beauty to the ear.

          • Richard Barrett on October 3, 2018 at 1:52 pm

            Disagree categorically, as a singer who has sung in English, German, Greek, Italian, French, Russian, Slavonic, Spanish, Latin, Romanian, Arabic, and Czech that there are “terrible vowel sounds to have to sing”. I do not believe that’s a thing.

            I would also have a hard time seeing your preferences as “objectively better”. I will say that a good friend of mine who composes Byzantine chant in English refers to “traditional English” (and I’m not sure I agree that’s a thing, either, but I know what you mean) as “English with training wheels” from the standpoint of composition. Yes, you have all these extra syllables to play with, for example, which can be great for the composer, but that just means we have to go through the process of
            figuring out how to make these things work without the extra stuff. Yes, 2nd person pronouns take their number from context and not from morphology, but a well-composed text will make the context clear, and a native speaker will get it without the archaicism. Not only that, but we’ve completely switched around the understanding of the thee/you distinction in popular understanding, which also doesn’t help. Again, get living poets involved, compose new offices in English for saints in Anglophone lands. I don’t think the -ests are necessary; what’s necessary is for English to embrace the poetic forms and make them native.

          • Richard Barrett on October 3, 2018 at 1:57 pm

            (And, while certainly a worthy topic, I still think this is all pretty tangential to the specific question of model melodies. As I suggest, it’s a matter probably best dealt with in its own article or articles.)

          • Andrew Gould on October 3, 2018 at 4:48 pm

            Yes, I now regret bringing it up, as it’s taking too much attention from your topic of meter. But I do see it as the same issue from a broader standpoint. Some would say that understandability to modern listeners is paramount, and therefore the awkwardness of metrical translations AND the archisms of traditional English are both unacceptable. Others (including me) would say the beauty of the presentation is paramount, and so translate and conjugate accordingly.

            So I am just puzzled why you would fall into ‘conform to the musical/poetic tradition’ camp when it comes to meter, yet would fall into the ‘modern/understandable’ camp on pronouns.

            Since my choir sings Kievan Chant, we would find no advantage to metrical texts, but we find that ‘you’s’ are seriously problematic. So many hymn lines end with this pronoun, and Kievan chant puts all the emphasis on the last syllable, setting it to a melismatic cadence. So we would end up singing something that sounds a bit like ‘yoo-hoo’ or ‘yo-de-lay-hee-hoo’ on almost every cadence. Maybe this phenomenon explains why Slavic churches seem so much more concerned with traditional pronouns than Byzantine churches.

            I do wish, though, that we had a way to do metrical hymns. If there existed some metrical form of Orthodox chant that suited the musical aesthetic of Russian churches, I would be all for it. As a former Anglican, I’m extremely accustomed to metrical translations of ancient hymns. Those English hymn-writers of the 19th century didn’t seem to have any difficulty turning ancient Greek and Latin texts into beautiful metrical English. But I also notice that they didn’t try to translate the texts terribly literally. Their translations were more impressionistic. We can see this in many Protestant hymns that are actually based on Orthodox hymns – for instance, ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’. The Protestant versions are much more singable and memorable than our own English translations, but they wander from the original text significantly.

            I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on how much creative re-writing we are willing to accept as part of making beautiful metrical translations.

          • Richard Barrett on October 3, 2018 at 5:02 pm

            So I am just puzzled why you would fall into ‘conform to the musical/poetic tradition’ camp when it comes to meter, yet would fall into the ‘modern/understandable’ camp on pronouns.

            Simply put, because I don’t find anything inherently more beautiful about early modern English (it’s not “Old English”, for those who might be inclined to call it that; Caedmon wrote in Old English, not Shakespeare). It’s beautiful when executed artfully in its own context, as is modern English; I don’t think there’s anything about modern English that intrinsically disadvantages it from being beautiful. Extra syllables and archaic morphology aren’t what make language beautiful; beauty of composition and beauty of execution are what make it beautiful.

            As for creative re-writing — I think some of it is inevitable. There’s a particular project that I’m in the early stages of planning that I hope to be able to use to demonstrate some of the points I’m talking about here; watch this space for details.

          • Richard Barrett on October 3, 2018 at 5:43 pm

            This is not the project I mention above, but I’ll talk through a work-in-progress example of a point I discuss, that of writing offices for Anglophone saints in English following metrical conventions. My own patron saint, St. Richard of Wessex, is, shall we say, liturgically underrepresented in the Byzantine rite. I am no Scott Cairns or Nicholas Samaras, to be clear, and certainly no Fr. Seraphim Dedes or Fr. Ephrem Lash or Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, but I am somebody who has written and published in a lot of different genres (including poetry), I am a cantor who has a reasonable sense of how the melodies work, I’ve sung a LOT in English in many professional contexts, and I have some facsimile of reasonable facility with Greek, so I have something of an understanding of how the Greek texts are composed. Plus, my puns prompted Fr. Seraphim Dedes to say to me when we first met, “Can you put that skill to good use and become a hymnographer?”

            And, not to put too fine a point on it, but nobody else is going to bother (which is how I’ve wound up doing 99% of the things I do, but never mind).

            So, at least for now, let’s say that it’s expedient to compose the apolytikion first; that way there’s SOMETHING to be sung on his feast day one way or the other. Then the question becomes, what do I use as the model melody? Well, there are three places to look — St. Richard is called variously St. Richard the Pilgrim and St. Richard the King, so are there are any obvious saints with Greek offices to look at? Short answer: searching through the Menaion, it would seem no. I briefly pondered Ss. Constantine and Helen as a model, and maybe I’ll return to that idea, but for the apolytikion, I don’t think so.

            Instead, I’ll go with the saint whose name is semantically equivalent to Richard: St. Basil (Βασίλειος means “king” or “ruler”, as does “Richard”) the Great. His apolytikion does not seem to have been used much, if at all, as a model melody, but as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says, Tradition does not mean we are forbidden from doing anything for the first time, so I’ll go with it.

            You can listen to the Greek model here. It’s not 100% pitch-for-pitch the score I’m following, but you’ll get the overall sense of it.

            After some writing, rewriting, starting over, etc. I come up with the following apolytikion:

            A pilgrim and king, you left for Jerusalem,
            * in saintly fellowship with your kin.
            * In Swabia you gave up your earthly life;
            * your children thus laid you to blessed rest.
            * Your proved your regal spirit by your miracles, fulfilling the promise of your name.
            * Holy Father Richard, king who in death revealed our God,
            * beseech our Savior Christ that he will save our souls.

            Listen to it here. Work in progress, but you get the idea, I hope.

          • Andrew Gould on October 3, 2018 at 8:24 pm

            That’s beautifully done, Richard. And I can see that the constraint of meter has been a benefit to you in composing the text. It gives structure to the hymn, which could easily have come off as arbitrary otherwise.

          • Richard Barrett on October 3, 2018 at 8:29 pm

            Thank you for your kind words! I will say that the arbitrariness you mention is something that I certainly see in a lot of English-language offices that don’t follow these conventions.

          • Ryan on October 3, 2018 at 2:04 pm

            I notice a lot of translators are straitjacketed into using the phrase “thou didst” because the second-person-singular past tense of a verb (e.g. “recalledst”, “circumcisedst”) is just too awkward.

          • Hieromonk Herman on October 5, 2018 at 10:46 am

            Ryan, that’s a point that the late Fr Ephrem Lash often made, arguing that it was a confusion of archaic simple and emphatic past. In fact, however, it’s not hard to find just this use of “didst” in the Bible, in contexts where the “-dst” could just as well have been used: Ex. 15:10: Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them: they sank as lead in the mighty waters.

            Ex. 40:15: And thou shalt anoint them, as thou didst anoint their father…

            Deu. 9:7: from the day that thou didst depart out of the land of Egypt…

            Jdg. 13:8: Then Manoah intreated the LORD, and said, O my Lord, let the man of God which thou didst send come again unto us

            1Sa 3:6: And Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, Here am I; for thou didst call me.

            Ps. 22:4: Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them.

            Ps 30:7: LORD, by thy favour thou hast made my mountain to stand strong: thou didst hide thy face, and I was troubled.

          • Ryan on October 8, 2018 at 10:50 am

            Fr. Herman- I wasn’t aware of Fr. Ephrem’s emphatic and simple distinction. I am aware that there is plenty of precedent in English literature for ample use of “thou didst” and I’m not saying it is inherently awkward, but in many of our hymns we address God in second person past tense, so that sometimes the “thou didsts” keep piling up until it does become rather clunky.

  2. Stan Takis on October 3, 2018 at 9:08 am

    New Byzantium Publications at is also a reliable source for hymns with metered modern English texts in both staff and Byzantine notation. Over the 12+ years of its existence, it has been accessed hundreds of times every week.

    • Richard Barrett on October 3, 2018 at 1:53 pm

      Yes indeed! Thanks to both of you for your work, Stan!

  3. Ted Droppa on October 3, 2018 at 11:50 am

    As one who sings in Church and often in the choir, I would really like to see translations that use understandable language in a comprehensible order for singing. Sometimes the Kings English is not good for that. If the congregation does not comprehend what is being sung, then the whole purpose of opening one’s mouth has disappeared. Recently we sang a tune that used the word effulgent. No one in the congregation and only one person in the choir knew what it meant. That is a failure, though I am sure it is full of meaning (radiance) in its original setting. But if nobody “gets it”, then we might as well have sung the tune in elvish. The beauty of the music is not the main point of singing. It is the message. If the message gets obscured, whether by word choice or by contortion of the grammar, then it is losing it’s main purpose. In any translation or setting to music, I think that has to be remembered as the point of the whole thing. Traditional protestant hymnology suffers from the same disease in many cases, and is often further obfuscated by the obsession with rhyming.
    Another thing that sometimes happens is that the composition will stretch out syllables to the point of sort of dismantling the words by their extreme length. In some cases, by the time the word is finished, you have forgotten what the beginning of it even was. It is just another way that the message gets placed subservient to the tune.
    I am in no way an expert, but these are some things that I have noticed…
    God grant the translators and hymnographers success. I know it is hard work.

    • Richard Barrett on October 3, 2018 at 12:19 pm

      My exhortation in this piece is that we embrace the richness of linguistic expression present in our hymnography. We have simple responses, dialogue, prose hymns, and different kinds of poetic hymns. If we’re saying we can’t translate poetry as poetry (an argument I have certainly heard, and one I address in the piece), then that’s a real problem.

    • Andrew Gould on October 3, 2018 at 1:49 pm

      Hello Ted. You say the following, as though it is obvious: “The beauty of the music is not the main point of singing. It is the message. If the message gets obscured, whether by word choice or by contortion of the grammar, then it is losing it’s main purpose”

      If such were the mind of the Orthodox Church, then our services would look very different. We would not sing the texts at all, because singing always makes words hard to understand. And we wouldn’t build churches with resonant acoustics, as that makes understandability far worse. We certainly wouldn’t sing in ancient forms of language, not spoken by anyone in a thousand years, if ever. And we certainly wouldn’t sing texts incredibly slowly to long melismatic tunes.

      I imagine instead, we would have a lector stand in front of the congragation and read the hymns in a loud clear voice, prefacing each one with an explanatory title, and closing each one with footnotes to explain historical references and difficult vocabulary. What understandable services we would then enjoy!

      No, I think it is clear from the entire history of Orthodox liturgics that understandability of the text was never more than a secondary or tertiary priority. Beauty was always first, and ease or memorization was probably second (hence devices like meter and rhyme). And this makes sense. We don’t go to church to be educated in hymnography. We go to church to pray. The hymn texts are conducive to prayer if presented with beauty and grace – then they move the heart. But if they are presented with brutal clarity, they only enflame the intellect.

  4. Ryan on October 3, 2018 at 12:18 pm

    Great article, Richard. I think there badly needs to be more discussion in English on the nuts-and-bolts of sacred poetics.

  5. Ryan on October 3, 2018 at 12:21 pm

    And a metered English eirmologion would be an amazing resource, not just for singers but for would-be hymnographers.

  6. Richard Barrett on October 3, 2018 at 12:22 pm

    Also, melismatic singing is definitely a musical texture, particularly with short texts that accompany liturgical actions. It’s not a matter of being subservient to the tune; it’s a matter of the liturgical context being that you sing those pieces that way at such moments — “slowly and melodically” is the instruction in our liturgical books. But that’s a different matter entirely from metered translations.

  7. aunteater on October 3, 2018 at 12:37 pm

    Translations… they’re difficult. It’s exciting to think that we’re still very much in the middle of the process, and that somewhere on the other side, we will have a complete collection of beautiful liturgical music in English. But it’s still frustrating to be in the middle of that process and not at the end. I’m a chanter-in-training, having to do most of the “training” on my own, due to lack of teachers and resources in our church/area. At the start it was insane, I was trying to learn almost an entire Orthros service from scratch every week. It felt like a small miracle when I finally got the hang of the tune for “On the Mountain” and realized that it gets re-used nearly every week! Is there really an argument for *not* fitting things to the prosomia? Maybe for very experienced musicians that would not be a problem, but I’d be lost without them– we’d still be reading 60% of the Orthros music, instead of chanting it.

    Not that I don’t sympathize with people who just want it to “sound nice”. I love AGES, I deeply appreciate your work on it (and that it’s a free resource), and I’d be helpless without it, but I still run across the occasional humdinger of an awkward translation, throw my hands in the air, and say “I can’t sing this! There has to be a better translation!” and then go look for it on St. Anthony’s website, and the Antiochian music library, to see how it’s worded there. My kids get to hear me gripe about it enough that we were in the checkout at the grocery recently, and as I was loading fruits and vegetables onto the conveyor belt, my four-year-old chimed in (at top volume): “IT’S EVERY KIND OF VIVIFYING PRODUCE!!” I hope you don’t mind, but when that set of antiphons rolls around, I pencil in “life-giving fruit” and tamper with the meter to make it work. “Vivifying” is hard to pronounce, and trips me up every time. But that would be kind of a disaster on the congregational-singing level. We *need* things to fit familiar tunes. Obviously.

    Repeating tunes are 100% worth the occasional weird translation– as long as it’s still a work in progress and there’s some hope it will get better. It’s getting better! We will make it better! We are making it better!

    • Richard Barrett on October 3, 2018 at 1:35 pm

      Yes, the process is definitely iterative, and it needs to be. That’s okay. We’re getting better, as I point out.

      And as for AGES — yes. A lot of Fr. Seraphim’s older translations are in the process of being reworked, and we prioritize the things that people bring to our attention. Christ’s ascension is no longer an “awe-inspiring lift-off”, the conception of Christ is no longer “ungamic parturition”, and Moses is no longer inscribing a cross with his rod extended. You can always contact us with feedback and comments: info AT agesinitiatives DOT org.

      • aunteater on October 3, 2018 at 4:12 pm

        That’s wonderful! I’ll have to check and see if the water is still “congealed” on either side of the Israelites 😉 And I didn’t know there was a feedback route– I will avail myself, next time I run face-first into one of those. Thanks!

        • Richard Barrett on October 3, 2018 at 4:38 pm

          There are lots of feedback loops that you can tap into; we’ve got a YouTube channel (just search on “AGES Initiatives” and you’ll find it), a Facebook presence (search for “eMatins+”), and a Twitter handle @AgesInitiatives. Please keep in touch and let us know what you think!

  8. James on October 3, 2018 at 8:00 pm

    I appreciate this very much. You make strong arguments regarding the use of model melodies as normative in English musical tradition as well as Greek. Your example of the sonnet as a prosodic form created for one language and adapted effectively for English is another powerful argument.

    Still, it’s the weakest point of the argument: sonnets are rarely sung in English. English-language song lyrics are rarely composed as sonnets. This is because iambic pentameter (Shakespeare notwithstanding!) does not come naturally to English prosody. Few English melodies are written in iambic pentameter. Even Amazing Grace, although it’s iambic, alternates tetrameter with trimeter. Oh Susannah alternates trimeter and tetrameter, using mostly trochees. The melodies that sing easily in English, and that come naturally in English, are composed for English prosody. And there remain very good reasons to look back to Anglo-Saxon verse as a metrical form most naturally suited to English-language prosody.

    This is an argument for composing model melodies at the same breath as composing English-language translations of automela– or composing translations of automela to fit existing English-language model melodies. Prosomia, then, would be translated to fit these English-specific model melodies. The translator’s task becomes a great deal easier when the target prosodic form is one that is natural to the target language.

    Such translation was not uncommon in the 19th century: in fact, you’ve referenced John Brownlie’s work. It fell from favor in the 20th century because it was seen as inauthentic to the experience of the text in the source language: using Russian, or Persian, or Japanese metrical forms in English-language translations gives the translation an “exotic” feeling that makes readers imagine they’re experiencing the original language. The question is whether, for Church hymnography, deliberately evoking the experience of a foreign linguistic form is an appropriate goal.

    There are other questions and challenges– plenty of them. If rapid alternation between English and Greek throughout the service is an aesthetic to be nurtured in liturgical music, then it’s impossible not to stick with Greek-specific melodies for the English. A large library of strong English-language translations, composed for Greek-specific melodies, that are translated and sung so well as to *sound* as though they were in their element, would be the strongest rebuttal I can think of to my concern. You’re making the case, I think, that not only is such a library possible, but that it already convinced. My experience of English-language Byzantine chant has not yet convinced me, but I *am* very willing to be convinced.

    • Richard Barrett on October 3, 2018 at 8:26 pm

      Well, regarding the singing (or non-singing) of Shakespearean sonnets, that’s not at all my experience. Perhaps look at this:

      Trying to compose a new set of model melodies specifically for English texts that you then match new translations to is certainly something some advocate. Nicholas Roumas argues for such an undertaking in his book The Musical Ark. I’m not sure about the utility in the short-term of having to generate a NEW set of metered translations for new model melodies when there are already is a substantial amount of work that’s been done for the existing melodies. That library does in fact exist, and it’s growing; I think it would be far better to continue in that vein. In the long run whatever modifications that need to be made for English will be made without such a radical reinvention.

      • James on October 3, 2018 at 8:58 pm

        It’s not that Shakespeare hasn’t been set to music. It’s that neither Amazing Grace nor I’ve Been Working on the Railroad nor Greensleeves nor most (any?) model melodies that most English-speakers know by heart are melodies that suit iambic pentameter.

        Your argument for continuing current efforts is more than fair.

        • Richard Barrett on October 3, 2018 at 9:14 pm

          Right, but what you said was “sonnets are rarely sung in English”. That’s not exactly the case.

          • James on October 3, 2018 at 9:44 pm

            But I’ve got my meaning across by now, yes?

            I mean, I could be wrong: I’d be very interested to peruse a classic English-language hymnal, or other songbook, for model melodies based on fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. (Or on iambic couplets.) Perhaps they’re more common than I believe.

            The model melodies that spring readily to mind are mostly tetrameter, or alternating tetrameter and trimeter. Trochaic verse is at least as common as iambic verse. Am I wrong?

          • Richard Barrett on October 3, 2018 at 10:04 pm

            You may be right, but I’m not sure what it has to do with what I’m talking about. Even if what you’re saying is the case, I don’t take that to establish “iambic pentameter doesn’t work for model melodies in English”; I take that to establish “tune writers have chosen to do other things”. I don’t grant linguistic fittingness as a category, since language generally adapts to whatever it needs to do. A Greek man once said to me, “English is a strictly utilitarian language, only good for barking orders. It’s not a language for creating great works of art and building great societies.” I just looked at him and said, “My wife’s a linguist, and I happen to know that’s” — well, I won’t say what I happened to know it was, since this is an Orthodox Christian blog, but you get the point.

  9. James on October 3, 2018 at 11:26 pm

    When it comes to the way sounds are organized, different languages *do* work differently. When people use that as a value judgment, we happen to know what that is. But the fact is that specific sonic structures *are* inherent elements of specific languages.

    One element fundamental to many languages, for example, is tone. Because English is not a tone language, when we compose melodies we can make any word have any pitch we choose. But in a highly complex tone language like Vietnamese, the words themselves have given pitches or pitch patterns, and song melodies have to be fit those pitches/ patterns. When English pop songs are translated into Vietnamese, the melodies *have* to be altered to fit the inherent pitch of the words of the translations. An extraordinary translator, perhaps, *might* be able to create a translation so brilliant that the pitch of each Vietnamese word fits the pitch of the place it falls in the original English melody… but that’s not at all a realistic goal.

    The prosody of some languages is based on contrasts between unstressed, secondarily stressed, and primarily stressed syllables. English and Russian fall into this category. This is inherent to the way the sonic structure of English works. It’s not the way writers or composers or whatever decided to work with English; it’s fundamental to the system. This is why English poetry primarily counts stress– counts feet– rather than counting individual syllables. This is why “Once upon a midnight dreary while I pondered weak and weary” fits the same pattern as “Open here I flung the shutter when with many a flirt and flutter” even though the former has sixteen syllables and the latter seventeen. They both have eight feet, and it’s the feet that count.

    The prosody of other languages is based on patterns of evenly-stressed syllables. Swahili works this way, as do many Bantu languages– although some also have tone systems. I think Japanese works this way, to some degree. Poetry in these languages is just a matter of counting syllables. Because stress patterns aren’t inherent to the grammar of the language, a musical score can place stress anywhere it likes. But adding an extra syllable to a line in Japanese would be like adding an extra foot to a line in English.

    IIRC, the prosody of Homeric Greek is based at least in part on the contrast between long vowels and short vowels– a distinction that is meaningless in modern English. (What our elementary-school teachers call “long” and “short” vowels do not differ meaningfully in duration– it doesn’t take more time to say the vowel in ‘cane’ than it takes to say the vowel in ‘can.’ That nondistinct distinction was dreamt up by trying to map the grammar of classical languages onto modern English. It’s an unreal rule like the rule that prepositions are unfit to end phrases with.) I don’t know if the long-short distinction exists in Byzantine Greek or not. If it does, it’s pretty clear that long-short contrasts don’t map well onto a system that has no such contrast.

    Going into more detail than that– even within the set of languages whose prosody relies primarily on stress contrasts– different languages have different natural patterns. This is inherent in the shapes of the words themselves, as they are pronounced, and in the structure of phrases, as the syntax of that language puts them together. These distinctions are not value judgments– certain stress patterns are not more “utilitarian” or more “artistic” than others– but they are sonically distinct.

    Just like it’s hard work to get a melody composed for an English text to fit a Vietnamese text if that text is to be intelligible, it is hard work to compose phrases in a given language in a way that fits the natural prosody of a different language. It can be done. But the better thing to do is to adapt the melody to suit the sonic structure of the language. Because English grammar depends *so* heavily on word order, it’s especially tough to reorganize an English phrase along prosodic lines that don’t come easily to English prosody. It can be done beautifully, but to do it consistently and beautifully takes genius. It’s wonderful to *have* geniuses doing translation, but demanding genius is perhaps too much to ask.

    Perhaps it isn’t too much to ask. And perhaps the particular task– of shaping English text into Byzantine prosody– isn’t as demanding as I imagine it is. I will stick to my guns defending the fact that different languages have different inherent sonic structures, but I’m willing to be convinced that I’m exaggerating the difficulty of the task at hand. I think what I need to do is give it a try. I’d like to give it a try. I’m glad you’re doing it.

    What I’ve tried in the past– with some amateur delight– is to translate into Anglo-Saxon prosody: each line has two pairs of stressed feet; each pair separated by a pause and linked by alliterated consonants. It’s remarkably productive: that is, it’s not *hard* to get words and phrases in English to fit this pattern and to sound nice. It’s a form that favors economy of sound, rather than begging for extra syllables. But I recognize that it’s not a form suited at *all* to Byzantine music.

    • Richard Barrett on October 4, 2018 at 12:08 am

      A number of thoughts here —

      But the better thing to do is to adapt the melody to suit the sonic structure of the language.

      Unless the melody is part of a bigger system with mutually intelligible parts that you’re trying to preserve, as I am arguing it is in the context of Orthodox liturgy. Otherwise you’re isolating English from that system.

      Because English grammar depends *so* heavily on word order[…]

      Really disagree here, particularly where poetry/lyric is concerned (and as I tried to suggest with the examples of Hamilton and Christmas carols). Read an Anglican hymnal. There is so much that is tolerated there that we Anglophone Orthodox wring our hands to death over as being “awkward”.

      All of that said — the modal thesis charts on the St. Anthony’s Monastery websites catalog all the theseis according to stress accent in word patterns, 1s and 0s. That’s not really sufficient to describe how Greek composers understand what they’re doing, nor is it really sufficient to describe how it needs to work in English. It’s a starting point, and it’s a good and necessary starting point, but — to borrow a phrase from John Michael Boyer — you have to get past the 1s and 0s. English has consecutive one syllable words, diphthongs, consonant clusters that have to be taken into account. Even so, the system is being quite well adapted into English by the current crop of composers and translators right now without a drastic reinvention along the lines of what you’re suggesting being anywhere close to necessary. It’s still not perfect — nor do I claim it is in the article — but we’ve gotten a lot better at it, and the current level of work shows it can be done. It doesn’t take geniuses, it just takes people willing to take the time to wrestle with the words. “I need this tomorrow!” has been one of the prevailing translation strategies for much of Orthodoxy’s time in Anglophone circles, which doesn’t exactly make for texts that roll off the tongue.

      Regarding ecclesiastical Greek — it’s something of a hybrid system. The tonal system had fallen out by the time the Epistles and Gospels were written, certainly, as did any meaningful distinction between long and short vowels. Stress accent prevails as a result. However, the stress accent still relies on understanding what the distinction used to be – e.g., iota and eta are pronounced the same, but iota counts as a short and eta counts a.s a long, which impacts where the stress accent goes. In Modern Greek that memory is really blurry (“this is an eta but it USED to be an iota the way it spelled 500 years ago, so the accent assumes that it’s a iota”), which means that the accents of some (not all) words are changing.

      • James on October 4, 2018 at 8:31 am

        Thanks for taking the time to unpack all this. I’ve learned a lot.

  10. James on October 4, 2018 at 8:49 am

    The ordering of phrases in English is far more flexible than many people claim. But it is less flexible than most languages. And the ordering of words within constituent phrases is almost totally fixed. English-language writers and translators have fewer options, vis-a-vis words order, than writers and translators in most other languages do. Even though, as you point out, there *are* lots of options.

    • Richard Barrett on October 4, 2018 at 10:00 am

      There are more options than I think people assume; it just takes a bit of thought. The options are not a binary choice of either “See Spot run” or Yoda. I was listening to Gilbert and Sullivan this morning; W. S. Gilbert, much as with his present-day equivalent Lin-Manuel Miranda, knew exactly what he could get away with. I would say we need more confident wordsmithing and less handwringing about what’s going to be “accessible” or what’s going to “suit English”. Again, English can handle it.

      • James on October 5, 2018 at 12:41 am

        I dig that.

  11. Dana Ames on October 24, 2018 at 5:30 pm

    Hi Richard, nice to be reading you here. I miss your blog, and understand why you set it aside.

    I get the model melody idea, and can attest to how helpful it has been for me as an untrained choir member (I have a fair amount of training in Western music but none at all in Orthodox liturgical music, except what I have picked up from singing it for 9 years.) I assuredly want to keep the traditional music. As regards your Holy Fathers example, the English words are still being sung to a Byzantine melody that arose from Greek-speaking people. Having learned a language besides English (German) to fluency, and being conversant in a couple others (Italian, Spanish), I know first-hand how the language-specific areas of the brain work differently when one is operating in a different language, even one as closely related as German is to English. I see you’ve commented on the difference between the stresses etc. in the languages in the discussion, and I agree that “English can handle it” – at least from the standpoint of fitting text to the music. The thing is, the Byzantine melody isn’t the kind of musical sound that comes from English speakers – it contains so many embellishments that are more naturally fitted to the Greek tongue than to the English. Perhaps in a Greek parish where a lot of people speak Greek, it doesn’t make that much difference. To my ear, it’s jarring in the starkness of the “foreignness” of the sound.

    My Rector, Fr L. Margitich, is a really good “Englisher”; his arrangements, esp of Znamenny chant, aren’t jarring, but with the Byzantine melodies he sets, it still feels somewhat like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Russian melodies are much easier on my ears, whether metered or not; I don’t know Russian, so can’t comment on the stresses etc. that might make it sound less “foreign”.

    I guess the long and the short of it is that my heart and ears long for American Orthodox liturgical music that sounds like it comes from the heart of a native English-speaking people – not so much Englished Greek or Russian melodies. I don’t hear very much of that sort of sound (except for a few things that have too much of an “Appalachian flavor”, which is also distracting for me), although there is more of it now than when I was received into the Church 10 years ago. Maybe I’m just too impatient; I know there are good composers working out there, but I don’t have the training to judge whether they are using the traditional tonal system and melodies in their settings. And those “special melodies” that don’t fit in the tonal system but are still traditional did arise from somewhere… Anyhow, thanks again for the work you’re doing, and for your articles here.


    • Richard Barrett on October 24, 2018 at 5:44 pm

      Thanks for the comment! What I would say is that there’s a problem with this kind of sentiment:

      …the Byzantine melody isn’t the kind of musical sound that comes from English speakers…

      It’s an idea that gets expressed a lot, certainly, but here’s the problem: I’m an English speaker, there is nothing Greek about me going back as many generations as I am aware of, I make that kind of musical sound, and it sounds perfectly natural to me. To me there is nothing inherently “Greek-sounding” about it; it simply sounds like being in church to me, much as Byzantine icons and vestments look like being in church to me. It fulfills exactly the criterion you mention: it comes from the heart of a native English speaker.

      I’ve written about this problem at some length — you mention my old blog, so you’ve probably read the pieces I’m about to link to, but for a start try:


      I’d also encourage you to listen to the podcast I’m producing with my friend Amy Hogg, another native English speaker who is producing these musical sounds very much from her heart:

      What makes it “English” or “American” is not a particular sound; what makes it “English” or “American” is there being a living and developing tradition of this repertoire in English, and that’s exactly what’s happening.

      Hope this helps.

    • Ross on October 24, 2018 at 8:58 pm


      The Byzantine chant tradition is informed by the traditions of many people, not just Greeks – perhaps we can say that the people who lent to the richness of this tradition stem a culture of being Roman (‘the Romiosini’, if you will) which has come to be understood as those multi-ethnic peoples confessing the Orthodox faith. The chant tradition certainly solidified around Greek as the primary language and that’s where the majority of our texts come from but if you look around at what’s happening in the world, the Byzantine chant tradition is being employed, today, in the native tongue of, to name a few, Romanians and Arabs. So these Orthodox people speaking these other languages have looked at this tradition and said “there’s something to this, it’s an important part of Orthodox worship, we should embrace it and master it”…

      Perhaps they will one day replace it with an indigenous tradition, but this centuries old continuous tradition has been found to be the best, or if not best, most appropriate, musical expression for our worship. Note the word ‘continuous’ – this isn’t a matter of “this is something old so let’s do old things because that makes us feel traditional” but rather the continuity of development within the Holy Spirit-guided Church is the important component here.

      If there were to be a ‘music from the hearts of English-speakers’ what would it be and what might you propose? When Orthodoxy was adopted by the Rus, it was embraced thoroughly from the top down and permeated the culture of the people. When Orthodoxy came to America, it was another faith among other faiths, brought by peoples with their own culture and one could say there was also a “church culture” which encountered other “church cultures” and also a national culture that is at best Protestant-leaning . The church music of the Christian groups already in this country certainly did not develop within the Orthodox church. We could also push further and say that this music is informed by ‘church cultures’ that do not believe as we do – or to be blunt, music reflective of an ethos reflective of dogmas our church sees as heresy. I think we’d agree that looking at the culture of America, such that it is today, is also not the place to be seeking an appropriate musical paradigm. Dare I also say it, our music, while we could claim it serves many purposes, it is meant to primarily embellish and enrich the words and prayers of the services…and I’d argue that at the bottom of list of purposes is satisfying the need for nostalgia, particularly, reminders of churches we left.

      As such, the only real way forward with all of this is to engage the received tradition with fervor and dedication and see how it develops amongst us. We are blessed to have people that are skilled and knowledgeable in this tradition with the ability to compose new melodies using the rules and formulas of this tradition in the English language. Many of us can and do sing these melodies and produce the sounds appropriate to the music from our hearts…and we’re Americans. For my part, like the aforementioned persons, I too have no Greek heritage (to my knowledge). Could we not also argue that it’s particularly reassuring that Byzantine music sounds very little like the music we hear on the radio or we’ve heard in other kinds of worship?

      • Andrew Gould on October 25, 2018 at 12:26 pm

        Ross and Richard, I feel like you’re evading a subtle but real issue that has been raised by Dana and also by James earlier. Of course we know that language and melody are ‘largely’ interchangeable, and that different languages share the same tunes all over the world. But nevertheless, there are some obvious differences between how Greek and English are pronounced, vocalized, and accented, and this affects which singing styles fit them most naturally. To my ear, the biggest issue is that Byzantine chant in Greek is sung with a very bright tone (often called nasal, though I know this term is inaccurate). English is not traditionally sung like this, and so Byzantine chant sung this way in English sounds artificially foreign. I understand the reasons Greek-American chanters do it. They need a consistent vocal aesthetic when switching from Greek to English, and they know that Byzantine chant, being only a melody and ison, sounds harmonically wimpy when sung like an English choirboy.

        Nevertheless, it’s a real issue with English. It’s not an issue with Arabic. Arabic is vocally more similar to Greek, and is traditionally sung with the same bright tone and similar ornaments.

        Slavonic, on the other hand, is vocally similar to English. Russians sing approximately the same way as Englishman. English words can be inserted into Russian church music with none of the problems described above. A Russian church can switch between the two languages seamlessly without having to compromise the traditional vocal style or rhythm of either.

        I’m in no way saying that it’s bad or wrong to do Byzantine chant in English. I’m just saying that it has some special challenges that don’t exist in other cases of cross-language usage. To deny this is not realistic.

        Perhaps the future of Byzantine chant in America is as follows: As Greek becomes less common in the churches, and English is fully the norm, the bright tone will fall away and chanters will sing in a more naturally English style. This will require more harmonization to fill out the sound, so multiple isons with more sophisticated modulation will become more common, eventually maybe just becoming 4-part harmony. It will more closely resemble the style of Western/Russian music. Of course, we see this exact thing in Romanian and Serbian churches that use Byzantine chant, and probably for exactly the same reason. I find most of this westernized Byzantine chant quite regrettable though, as it loses the vigor and energy of the original. Maybe there will be some composers who can find a perfectly satisfactory solution to the dilemma.

        • Richard Barrett on October 25, 2018 at 12:49 pm

          This is certainly commonly asserted, but having sung with a wide variety of cantors and singers more generally, I find it to be a very problematic generalization (and the linguistic generalizations are problematic, too — for example, I’ve had cantors who are native Arabic speakers go on at some length about how different Arabic sounds from Greek, and how this means Byzantine chant sounds better in Arabic than Greek). If you compare, say, Hadjinicolaou chanting in English in his Byzantine Music in the New World series to Cappella Romana’s Divine Liturgy in English, I think a remarkable difference of color is demonstrated. Just in Greek, the current protopsaltis of Constantinople, Panagiotis Neochoritis, has a very different voice from, say, his earlier predecessor Thrasyvoulos Stanitsas, and both of them are different from, say, Fr. Dionysios Firfiris of Mt. Athos, and of those three, I’d be hard-pressed to describe any besides Firfiris as sounding “nasal”. Stanitsas is certainly bright, but he’s bright in a manner comparable to the Italian tenors of his day, not nasal. Neochoritis has a very dark-sounding instrument, and nasal is not a word I am able to associate with his sound.

          I’ll also note that the most nasal singer I’ve *ever* heard is the quintessential English tenor Sir Peter Pears (listen to his recording of Winterreise — he’s far more nasal than Firfiris). I’m not convinced that associating these categories with particular languages and musical styles is helpful.

        • Richard Barrett on October 25, 2018 at 1:07 pm

          I’ll also note that you can hear a survey of how the English language recordings of Byz chant over the last 30 years reflect how native speakers are absorbing it in the podcast episode that came out two weeks ago and also in the episode that will come out tomorrow. Find them here:

        • Dana Ames on October 25, 2018 at 8:31 pm

          Ross and Richard,

          I am only 10 years Orthodox and I have a lot to learn. I will make use of those links. I very much agree that “there’s something to [the Tradition], it’s an important part of Orthodox worship, we should embrace it and master it.” My true hope is that I personally am able to “engage the received tradition with fervor and dedication.”

          I’m not interested in anything like trying to reconcile Byzantine and American (especially ugly American) architecture, i.e. using popular music for Liturgical hymnody. May it never be! I am, however, drawn to the folk music heritage of the British Isles, since that is the foundation of what American musical tradition we do have. I don’t believe we should slavishly import British Isles folk tunes into the Liturgy, either. Nonetheless, the Church was there for centuries before the Schism, and I think there may be something usable there, from people whose earliest monastic tradition was essentially that of the Desert Fathers (transmitted via southern France), and whose language developed into Modern English. Otherwise, the majority of the music I long to hear is going to come from skilled and praying composers who know the Tradition well and can bring something American into the “living and developing tradition of this repertoire in English” that will enable our nous to gather up the rest of our innards for prayer – just as the Serbs and Romanians did, for example. I’m probably too impatient, wanting this thing right now — typically American — and I’m also not sure I am expressing myself clearly enough.

          Andrew, thanks for getting it. Your work is traditional for sure, and also very much in keeping with the sense of the place in which the edifice will arise.


  12. John Michael Boyer on October 25, 2018 at 5:51 pm

    I’m afraid your comments are based in (admittedly quite common) misconceptions regarding the languages in question, singing in general, and Byzantine Chant specifically, and simply don’t hold water. The fact that there have been less-than-well-done attempts at performances and recordings of Byzantine Music in English does not mean that there have not been highly successful attempts as well. It all comes down to having a command of all the elements involved. I might as well tell you that traditional Orthodox architecture and American architectural styles can never be combined, simply because of the myriad horrible attempts that have been the norm in the US for far too long – one look at one of your designs refutes that. But one has to see it to believe it. So: widen your horizons and listen to more performances and recordings by people who know what they’re doing. I can give you a list if you like.
    I look forward to seeing more your work, as well.

    • Andrew Gould on October 25, 2018 at 6:31 pm

      Fair enough. I am not a professional musician, and I’m more than happy to defer to your expertise, John. But I didn’t say there were no successful examples of Byzantine chant in English. I know that there are. I just meant to say that I suspect that there are real issues between the languages that perhaps contribute to the unsuccessful examples. But in fairness, this is true of Russian music also. I have heard choirs singing English with a fake Russian accent at machine-gun speed, trying to sound exactly like Russians singing badly.

  13. Richard Barrett on October 25, 2018 at 11:20 pm

    This also might be helpful — it’s the audio of a talk I gave at last year’s Boston Byzantine Music Festival:

    I will say that a comprehensive defense of Byzantine music in English is more than a bit outside of the scope of this article. I also don’t know what comprehensive defense is possible beyond pointing to the level of creative production that is currently occurring (which is an article I’m writing a couple of different versions of for a couple of venues). To the extent that much of what is expressed problematizing Byzantine music in English is largely based on personal subjective perception, it’s not clear to me what can be said that will adequately address the issues raised; I can point to something that exists, I can point to more of it existing now than did at previous points in time, I can point to people doing things, I can talk about their level of expertise, I can talk about how what they do is addressing this or that issue, but I don’t think that’s what’s being looked for when the “It just isn’t American-sounding” comment comes up. I’m not really sure what *is* being looked for, however. I do know that I can’t offer affirmation because I don’t share the perception or the premises. People certainly feel the way they feel, and I can certainly acknowledge that, but at the same time, to say “This isn’t really anything that can take root in the soul of native English speakers or be expressed from the heart of Americans” rather marginalizes the experience of a number of people I can point to, as well as my own — people who *are* Americans and native English speakers for whom this is most certainly music that dwells in and is expressed from their heart and soul. There is never a discussion of any aspect of Byzantine music in English where this sentiment isn’t raised by somebody at some point, so obviously the entire subject is triggering, and obviously there are strongly-held opinions and feelings on this topic. Still, I’m not sure I have anything helpful to add beyond what I’ve said that will meet those opinions and feelings on their own terms. I get it; as I said, I just don’t share the perception and I don’t grant the premises (and I have multiple grounds on which I find the perception and premises problematic).

    At the same time, to be clear, that I don’t share assumptions about “Byzantine music doesn’t work for the Western ear” doesn’t therefore mean that I think anything other than Byzantine chant is heretical garbage. I am not by any means a Byzantine music purist; I am a specialist, perhaps, but not a partisan. I might say that The Psalm 103 Project in all of its facets ( ) is closer to how I see things. There’s room for all of it; just do it well.

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