Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated – Part I, First Principles

By Richard Barrett on August 13, 2012
  1. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated – Part I, First Principles
  2. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated – Part II, Getting Started
  3. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated — part III, dealing with that strange subspecies called the “musician”
  4. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated — part IV, in which the question is asked, “Shouldn’t you be at rehearsal?”
  5. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated — part V, in which bricks and mortar concerns are considered
  6. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated — part VI, in which technical points are considered and a wrap-up is offered

Several months ago on my own personal blog, I posted a brief piece titled “Notes from the psalterion”. It was a brief set of general, “best practice” kind of principles regarding Orthodox liturgical music, sparked by an earlier, similar piece I had written titled “Notes from the building committee” (which itself was very much influenced, or at least affirmed, by fellow OAJ-er Andrew Gould), and it also broadly summed up some things I discussed in a couple of invited talks I had given earlier in the year.

The piece sparked a good deal of discussion, and for a number of reasons it seems worthwhile to revisit them here. Between Benedict Sheehan’s excellent discussion of the spiritual underpinnings of Orthodox music (Part 1 here and Part 2 here) and the recent interview with Vladimir Gorbik regarding his well-received master class at St. Vladimir’s, there is perhaps sufficient groundwork for a preliminary treatment of some of the practical matters surrounding the liturgical craft of singing in Orthodox worship. So, here are those principles once again, with expanded comments and consideration of what precisely I mean. Length is going to require this to be done in installments, so I will begin with a discussion of the first couple of points.

  • Principle #0: The act that you are performing as a singer in church is the sung worship of God according to the practice and tradition of Orthodox Christianity. One may fairly insist that this is something different than a concert; one may also fairly insist that this is also something different than a campfire singalong, an exercise in nostalgia, the affirmation of somebody’s childhood, or the salving of one’s insecurities. At any rate, understood this way, singing in church is at once a privilege, a craft, and a discipline.

There is, of course, a mammoth problem underlying this point: what, precisely, IS the music of Orthodox Christianity? What makes “Orthodox music” Orthodox? Why are, say, Byzantine chant and Kastalsky and Desby “Orthodox music”? Why are Evangelical praise songs not “Orthodox music”? To maybe get even more subtle, why isn’t Gregorian chant “Orthodox music”?

This is a much bigger issue than can be tackled in one essay, of course. At a 2010 conference at Indiana University, a panel consisting of John Michael Boyer, Alexander Khalil, Vicki Pappas, Kurt Sander, and Richard Toensing was asked by an audience member, “Can you tell me what makes Orthodox music Orthodox?” and the panel unanimously replied, “No.” Vladimir Morosan gave a presentation titled “What Makes Orthodox Music Orthodox?” at the Sacred Music Institute at the Antiochian Village in July of 2011 that provided some useful ideas to consider, but suffice it to say that the question is still only beginning to be answered. Vladimir Gorbik perhaps starts to get to the heart of the matter when he quotes his composition teacher, Roman Ledeniov: “Good new music always resembles something from the past, while bad music tends to be unlike anything that came before.”

Setting that aside for the time being, however, there is the matter that while one’s childhood and insecurities are ideally not the governing factors that determine how we approach our Church’s music, the reality remains that our parishes and choirs are filled with people who expect to be treated as such. With music especially, it becomes a tricky balancing act; our worship, and therefore our music, is popular in a technical sense, but it is not populist; music is experienced on an intensely personal level and yet must be impersonal and corporate in the context of Orthodox liturgy. Maintaining and improving a musical tradition while having to be aware that hurt feelings can start wars and split churches can be a pastoral minefield. Besides that, culturally, it seems to me that to assert authority is to acknowledge you don’t have it in the first place — so what do you do? There is the platitude that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” but how best to understand that? Should it be taken as understanding that, in a leadership role, you have to do some strategic people-pleasing in order to get what you want? I would say no — frankly, such an approach is to turn the job of a church singer into a political role, and that is a non-solution. The answer, I argue, is education — the church singer must be prepared to educate in love, both from the psalterion in the singing of the Church’s hymnody and among the rest of the parish “at large”, as it were. The church singer must be prepared to answer the question, “Why do you sing what you sing the way you sing it?” and even if the answer is not understood, the love for the person asking the question must be apparent. That is the better way to convey “how much you care”.

Finally on this point, in terms of singing in church being a “privilege, a craft, and a discipline” — there’s an awful lot that can be said there, but for now I point you to Vladimir Gorbik, who speaks of the need for at “at least one qualified, trained musician; otherwise, it’s next to impossible to create well-appointed church singing”; there is also Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who said in a homily a few years ago that singers in church “are not singers but members of the clergy, serving the Gospel together with the higher clergy, complementing the work of the holy preacher and the spiritual [father].” As well, no less a saint than St. John Maximovitch, according to a Greek-language biography titled The Man of God St. John Maximovitch, says that “the attitude of cantors should be reverent, and should correspond to their high calling, just as they join their voices with those of the angels. It is the daily responsibility of the choir director to attend to this…”

  • Principle #1: As the object of this sung worship is God, it is to be performed as prayerfully, skillfully, and within the parameters of the traditions governing the chosen style of music as the singer is capable of doing.
    • Principle #1a: This assumes that “performance” and “worship”, properly understood, do not constitute a dichotomy but parts of the same whole.

Here’s what this doesn’t mean: “If you can’t do it perfectly from the get-go, don’t bother trying.” What it does mean, rather, is that we as singers in church start with the best we can do, and from there, we must always seek to be learning to improve how we do what we do. If the ultimate object of what we’re doing is God, then there is no “good enough” as such. That doesn’t mean we all have to function or succeed at a professional level, but that distinction might tend to be deceptive. To the extent that +Bartholomew is right that we’re clergy rather than singers, we need to function at a higher than professional level. We need to take it more seriously than that. Overall, we must have at the forefront of our minds and souls that there’s always a next level worth striving for, and that goes for all of us.

This idea of always seeking to learn to serve better relates to the “discipline” component of the previous point. “Discipline” is a very Christian concept; obviously it’s derived from the same Latin word that gives us “disciple”, discere, which — just as in Greek, μαθητής — literally means “learner”. Orthodox Christianity is governed first and foremost by Tradition — literally, the giving over, the “handing down” of what has come before, the reception of what has been transmitted. This kind of learning implies that there is a teacher able to teach the learner who wants to learn, however, and practical and cultural concerns can make this difficult. Teachers can be very hard to come by depending on geographic or economic concerns, we have a tremendous do-it-yourself impulse in this country to begin with that leads many to believe teaching oneself is inherently better than learning from a teacher, and most have us horribly busy lives that can make even committing to a weekly rehearsal a daunting notion, let alone committing to the learning of a musical art.

Besides that, it seems to me that there is the cultural conviction in some circles that “expertise” is something that maybe plumbers can afford to have, but it’s probably not worth it for anything that “regular people” might do. If you’ve clearly taken the time to learn to do something well, that just demonstrates that you’ve got too much time on your hands and you haven’t spent that time doing anything useful. Again, the counter to this is that if the object of the craft is God, and we as singers are joined with the angelic ministry of the altar, then “good enough” doesn’t really have a meaning, particularly when human nature tends to take “good enough” and turn it into “as good as it will ever get”.

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  1. Richard Barrett on August 13, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    Point of clarification — “discere” is the verb in Latin which means “to learn”; μαθητής is the Greek noun “learner”, from the Greek verb μαθεῖν “to learn”.

  2. Ross Ritterman on August 29, 2012 at 12:19 pm


    I really enjoyed reading your post here as you ask some pretty compelling questions. In one of your paragraphs you seem to imply that Desby is “Orthodoxy Music”. While it’s perhaps correct that in the minds of many choir musicians Desby’s music is considered Orthodox, I would contend that his music has unfortunately taken us in a direction away from Orthodoxy and paved the way for innovations such as confusing 4-part harmonies and overpowering organs that are closer to protestant expressions of music. The result is distraction from a focus on the words and a focus on emotionalism, watering down of Orthodox worship. This then lends itself to detachment from feeling as being a part of the worship and people rather feeling as if they are observing a performance in a concert hall.

    On another note, to the extent that the Church musician is part of the clergy and thus has a roll in educating the people around why we sing what we sing – there needs to be new standards for who we allow lead our choirs. Someone whose background is jazz composition, relies exclusively on the liturgical guidebook to know what sing every Sunday, only has his choir sing “Save us O Son of God…” twice (as a real life example), is perhaps unfit to be able to be a choir director. We should not be letting organs play Bach and Tellemann during Communion.

    Our musical standards as Orthodox should be much different than in any other church.

  3. Richard Barrett on September 2, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    Hi Ross,

    I won’t argue with you one way or the other about Desby; I think Desby can be done well in a way that doesn’t have to cause the problems you describe, but I also share your concerns. As I said, I think it’s necessary to determine what we mean by “Orthodox music”, which is a problem we aren’t going to solve here.

    Agreed wholeheartedly on the issue of standards; I will say, however, that the scenario you describe sounds like the ideal candidate in some jurisdictions — i.e., somebody who doesn’t know the typikon well enough to argue. There are jurisdictions where following only what’s in the liturgical guide and not knowing any better is exactly what they would prefer. I myself am familiar with the experience of asking the ecclesiarch of a given deanery why there’s the instruction to not to do X under any circumstances when the liturgical books clearly say to do X, and receiving the answer, “Please just don’t do it, and and please direct your liturgical questions to me rather than consulting the books yourself.”

    I’ll have more to say about standards in coming installments. Thanks again.

  4. Ross Ritterman on September 24, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    Hi Richard,

    The problem many have with Desby is that supposedly after having studied Byzantine chant on Athos, all of his melodies are essentially built on Sakellarides’s repertoire – the issues with which you are probably well aware of and are beyond the scope of this discussion.

    Nonetheless, it seems like there’s this amnesia amongst many choirs that almost has a parallel with how, for Protestants, between The Apostolic Age and Martin Luther there was no history. Our musical tradition did not begin in the 1950s with Western trained musicologists studying at University of Southern California. We have anthologies and anthologies of classical scores, we have a wealth of recordings available (allowing us to know exactly how things were chanted at the Patriarchate).

    The National Forum of Church Musicians uses icons of St. Romanos and John of Damascus on their website. Could many choir singers tell you things St. Romanos or St. John of Damascus composed? There’s a joint problem of both lack of education and lack of standards.

    Our hymnological tradition is an essential aspect of our Orthodoxy the same way, for instance, iconography is. Within this tradition are standards and guidelines – and while there isn’t one unique, correct expression, there are not extremes.

    The way we all have different talents, some of us should be chanting, some of us should be making icons etc. These talents are typically developed under the supervision of a master of that received tradition.

    Unfortunately that’s in large part not the case when you have people trained in popular western music – and regardless of how wonderful a composer someone is of western music this does not qualify them to compose and lead an Orthodox choir. Unfortunately things have taken a different course.

    I fear that if “composers” keep composing what they want to compose we’re going to wind up things like this:

    The fact that some jurisdictions would prefer a robot that follows a liturgical guidebook versus understanding why things are done short changes everyone and is not a very Orthodox attitude. If indeed church musicians have a clerical function, then it is not acceptable to not understand what’s contained within the Imerologion and the various books from which we draw the texts of the services.

    I look forward to your future installments and reading what you have to say about standards.



  5. Richard Barrett on September 25, 2012 at 11:38 am

    That setting of the Cherubikon is one of which I was not aware. A cautionary tale, to say the least.

    The issue of the clerical function of church musicians is, I think, exactly the point of contention. If we could get clear direction on that point from our leadership one way or the other, I think it would solve several problems. That won’t happen, I don’t think, because it’s a lot easier politically to alienate musicians over a long period of time than it is to alienate members of the congregation immediately, so it’s up to us to do what we do as well as we can, not be jerks about it, and have the quality of our service (both from a musical standpoint as well as a Christian standpoint) make the case.

    • Basil Crow on November 25, 2012 at 11:16 pm

      If we could get clear direction on that point from our leadership one way or the other, I think it would solve several problems.

      The Ecumenical Patriarch explicitly stated that church musicians are members of the clergy, as you quoted above. How does that not count as “clear direction on that point from our leadership”?

      • Richard Barrett on November 26, 2012 at 11:59 am

        A reasonable question. The way I would answer it is this:

        Yes, the Ecumenical Patriarch has explicitly stated that. In Greek, on a website that I doubt most Anglophone Orthodox Christians have any idea exists, that a good deal of them won’t be able to read, and coming from a hierarch whose authority some Orthodox go out of their way to de-emphasize. As such, it’s leadership that for the most part has not reached these shores, and even if the bishops in this country are aware of it, I wouldn’t say they’ve exactly fallen all over themselves to make sure everybody hears it.

        In other words, I know about it because it was linked to from the Psaltologion forum, and because I can read Greek. Meanwhile, some of the hierarchs in this country go out of their way to marginalize any particular function on the part of church musicians, saying things like χώρος “actually” meaning λάος rather than signifying any kind of a set-apart musical service, etc. But then we still have and need cantors and choir directors, even though it’s not entirely clear why, if we’re treating them as more of a necessary evil than as having any kind of particular function.

        So, for all practical purposes in this country, I’d say that we still need clear direction from our leadership.

        • Basil Crow on November 27, 2012 at 10:55 pm

          In other words, I know about it because it was linked to from the Psaltologion forum, and because I can read Greek.

          The fact that you can read Greek is irrelevant; you know about this quotation merely because you read a post on the Psaltologion forum that contained a link to the homily and an English translation of its third paragraph (in which this quotation is found). Even though you went on to read the rest of the homily and retranslate the third paragraph, you still read the quotation first in English (as did I).

          Even setting aside this particular quotation, the clerical function of church musicians should hardly be a secret to English-speaking Orthodox Christians. Tonsure by a bishop has been a requirement for readers and chanters since the Quinisext Ecumenical Council, of which Canon XXXIII states: “Since we know that, in the region of the Armenians, … some of those who are even untonsured are appointed to succeed cantors and readers of the divine law, we decree that henceforth … let them not permit any one at all to read in the ambo, according to the order of those enrolled in the clergy, unless such a one has received the priestly tonsure and the canonical benediction of his own pastor; but if any one shall have been observed to act contrary to these directions, let him be cut off.” It can be hardly be said that this Canon “has not reached these shores.”

          Yes, I am aware that “some of the hierarchs in this country go out of their way to marginalize any particular function on the part of church musicians,” contrary to the Canons and the received tradition of the Orthodox Church going back many centuries. Such behavior is in disdain of Holy Tradition and foreign to the spirit of Orthodoxy, and it ought to be called out as such. Sorry, but I can’t help but feel pain when I see the disrespectful attitude that prevails (even among some clergy and hierarchs) regarding our Holy Tradition and Canons, which were written by divinely inspired Fathers to guide our lives. How much of this ancient tradition do we have to lose before we realize we’ve gone too far?

          • Richard Barrett on November 28, 2012 at 8:59 am

            I agree with you about all of that. My point is that Psaltologion is probably read by a statistically insignificant number of Anglophone Orthodox, is probably known to exist by an even smaller number, and the original source would be accessible by an even smaller number than that. As opposed to some of our bishops, who tonsure readers who can barely read, let alone sing, and many of whom, as I said, go out of their way to de-emphasize any clerical nature of their function. So, no, just because the Ecumenical Patriarch has said it, it doesn’t mean that there has been clear leadership on the issue. The message has been transmitted; until it is received and re-transmitted in an unmistakable fashion, it doesn’t do cantors any good; it’s just, uh, preaching to the choir, as it were.

  6. Ross Ritterman on September 25, 2012 at 2:25 pm


    That setting of the Cherubikon is a very extreme (and almost comical) example of something I was just using to make a point about what our liturgical music could turn into if things go unchecked.

    I think the clerical function of musicians is “a” point of contention among several points, that I mentioned above. Education is perhaps first and foremost. As part of one’s education as a Church musician, it’s not simply enough to know how to sing.

    With respect to the leadership (i.e. our Hierarchs) we have had declarations on standards historically – in fact – we have a statement from the Patriarchate condemning polyphony in the 19th century. We also have, recently I might add, a statement from the Patriarchate in the negative about the validity of the “Karas method”. So these things are happening, as well as Hierarchs (albeit it slowly) correcting the liturgical practices of parishes when necessary, mostly on an ad hoc basis.

    Unfortunately you are correct that these issues wind up being of a political nature – to which I am certainly sensitive – and the goal is never to alienate but to help people understand why we do what we do.

    We are all very insular in our perspectives because we mostly see what goes on in our parish or nearby parishes.

    But let me tell you what I have directly observed and what I’ve read (noting this is with respectto the GOA specifically as I have little to no knowledge about practices within other jurisdictions).

    Choirs are aging and the people who typically like the style promulgated by the Choir Federation tend to be in the 45+ demographic. The younger people want traditional, Byzantine style music with simple melodic lines. Younger people, at least those I know, typically do not like the organ and find it to be a distraction. I’m sure if you were to interview every single person in the congregation about what they think about the music, you might get wide varieties of answers, ranging from the highly convicted to the highly apathetic.

    Per a meeting of the Choir Federation leadership with the Episcopal assembly last year, the “graying” of choirs has been acknowledged and the Bishops have expressed the desire for young people (especially the 25-45 yr old demographic) to be more involved. Also, quoting the report, “There is great interest in the choirs presenting familiar melodies so that the congregation will recognize them and even be able to sing along with them. The Synod feels that some of the music that is being sung is outstanding for concert performances, but not for the average congregation and choir.” (The full report is here:

    While people take things far too personally in general, and I’m not suggesting an immediate and wholesale alienation of our choirs there is a huge educational gap regarding the understanding of the musical heritage of our Faith that needs to be remedied.

    Instead of directors composing new polyphonic, contrapuntal settings with some ambitious and dare I say misguided goal of wanting to expand the repertoire of their choirs as an end unto itself, we need to be looking at our Faith’s tradition and what the Fathers of The Church have fostered as the correct expression of music in worship and not externally.

    Feelings may wind up getting hurt, people have emotional connections to all manner of things, music included, and to the people who disagree with what I’m saying I might sound like a jerk – but this is an issue that has implications for the future of our Church in this country and, to say it again, is integral to us being Orthodox. It’s not just my opinion.

    I was so thankful to be at a practice last night with 8 other parishioners in which we chanted as a group the Katavasies of the Theotokos, the megalynaria and the 4-mode Exomologisthe which we will chant during communion.

    Historically speaking there is not a better time, considering the resources available, for people to learn about the traditions of Byzantine music and start reincorporating them into the regular worship services.

    I’m excited for the future!

  7. Orthodox Arts Journal on October 11, 2012 at 9:02 am

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  9. […] borne fruit, even if it won’t specifically be attached to the parish anymore. All told, this (as well as the ongoing annotation and discussion of it here) represents a pretty good snapshot of my thinking of how the effort worked, and how I would […]

  10. […] and the publishing specifics are different for Orthodox Christians in this country, there are practical issues with respect to how we conceive of music in our parishes that we have to figure out how to address, the spiritual issues are still very much part of our […]

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