First published in
Composing and Chanting in the Orthodox Church: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Orthodox Church Music, Joensuu: ISOCM/University of Joensuu, 2009, 337-342
© 2009 Ivan Moody All rights reserved.
The Idea of Canonicity in Orthodox Liturgical Art
“Divine beauty is transmitted to all that exists, and it is the cause of harmony and splendour in all that exists; like light, it emits its penetrating rays onto all objects, and it is as if it called to it everything that exists and assembles everything within it.” (Pseudo-Dionsysios1)
The term “canonical” in relation to Orthodox art is extremely problematic. Its use as far as Orthodox church music is concerned would seem to have been popularized in the West by the publication in English translation of Johann von Gardner’s monumental tomes Russian Church Singing 2. Gardner differentiates between canonical and non-canonical singing by noting that “the term ‘canonical’ refers to singing that consists of melodies contained in official liturgical singing books – either ancient manuscripts written in staffless notation, or printed books with staff notation printed by the Holy Synod of the Russian Church. It makes no difference whether these melodies are performed in their original form – or in two, three or four voices; as long as the original canonical melody is maintained, the singing may be termed canonical. By contrast, non-canonical singing consists of freely-composed polyphonic settings of liturgical texts, which, although intended for use in the liturgy, do not employ canonical melodies, and in various other ways do not fulfil the requirements placed upon liturgical singing by the Typikon.”3 Gardner himself subsequently notes that in Russian writing on the subject, the terms “ustavnoe penie” and “Neustavnoe penie” are employed, but that they are “not precisely defined”!4
Gardner states that the category of non-canonical singing covers, firstly, “Freely-composed melodies and free settings or harmonizations of canonical melodies that have been fundamentally altered by the composer” and, secondly, “paraliturgical compositions”.5 While such a categorization might at first seem entirely reasonable, and is so, I believe, in the case of the second group, the first group is rather more problematic. It is problematic in that it neatly avoids the issue of what, in the tradition of the Orthodox Church, the composer is. If we take it as axiomatic that a composer of Orthodox church chant is an anonymous contributor to an already-extant and historically venerable corpus of ecclesiastical music, such a composer might, nevertheless, still be guilty of “fundamentally altering” canonical melodies, but his historical anonymity would protect him from a contemporary backlash. Further, if such a composer is part of the kind of gradual shift that causes one kind of chant to evolve from another – the appearance of Kondakarian chant in mediaeval Russia, or the emergence of Serbian penije on the basis of the Byzantine repertoire would be examples – then he may be accused, according to Gardner’s categorization, not of corrupting a single canonical melody, but an entire corpus of chant. Following this logic, it follows that such a corpus of chant would be canonically invalid.
While the above is in some ways a reduction ad absurdum, it serves to illustrate the problem in a general way, and it is a point to which I shall return.
Though it may perhaps be obvious, in this context it bears repeating that there has never been any binding legislation issued by the Orthodox Church as a whole prohibiting the singing of polyphony in services. Such legislation would take the form of a Canon, and would inevitably make illegal in one fell swoop some of the oldest music sung in the Orthodox world, that of the Georgian Church. Rather, the definitions of what is acceptable as liturgical music have been promulgated as occasional rulings and recommendations in reaction to particular circumstances. Thus Metropolitan Meletios (Pigas, later Patriarch of Alexandria) in 1590: “We do not censure either monophonic or polyphonic singing as long as it is proper and decent . . . As for the noise or droning of animate (sic) organs, Justin the Philosopher-Martyr condemns it; and it was never accepted in the Eastern Church.”6
In a fascinating survey of the singing of the Kievo-Pechersk Monastery given at the first edition of this Conference in 2005, Deacon Dimitri Bolgarsky wrote extensively about the adoption of polyphonic singing as part of the Monastery’s tradition. He ascribes this adoption to the third historical stage of Kievo-Pechersk chant, writing that “The homophony adopted in the Lavra was an “answer” to the partes singing, a polyphonic concert style of Western origin, and provided a contrast to it by means of different basic principles. The Lavra harmonizations preserved the monodic basis of singing and, correspondingly, preserved the spiritual essence of the ancient singing in the “new” style (…), in contrast to the partes style that replaced sung prayer with an artistic concert. The singer monks used the new means provided by homophony – the choral unison of the Znamenny monody became the ideal expression of unity, since it cannot denote diversity as in it the different voices are united in one voice. Diversity can exist only in the singing of several parts. However, unity in diversity can be based on different aspects. A chord in a partes concert is a symbol of harmony coordinating separate things – every voice is autonomous and self-sustaining. The unity in the homophony of the Lavra chant is based on the idea of the “core” and of “growth”, the gathering of voices around the one basic canonical chant. It denotes the oneness of the essence, common aims, the expression of the spirit and quality of unity. The musical and intonational character of homophony, naturally, differs from the intonation of monodic unison, but the inner, sacral content of the chant, based on the Holy Word, continues the unbroken tradition.”7 Here, then, we have an elaborate corroboration of Gardner’s defence of canonical polyphony, as well as a lively defence of the theological symbolism of harmony. These observations parallel Yuriy Yasinovsky’s comments on the L’viv Heirmologion, dating from the late 16th – early 17th century, when he says “…the manuscript shows the influence of Latin Polish elements which appear to be combined with overt opposition to it, and with the realizing of the Orthodox nature of the national culture.”8
Deacon Dimitri goes even further when he discussed the period of the “Ukrainian Baroque”, from the 17th to the mid-18th century. He says: “The ideal of the Ukrainian baroque, with its new set of values, corresponded to some extent with the traditional ideal of monasticism in the Kievo-Pechersk Lavra. The emphases of the new world view also challenged the ascetic ideal and, as a consequence, produced a specific type of emotionally transformed melos. A sense of inner joy and freedom came to rule in the Lavra singing. In this way, the inner dynamics became more noticeable in the hymns such as “Praise the Lord, o my soul” (Ps. 103), the Cherubic Hymn (especially at “For we are about to receive the King of all”), etc.
It cannot be denied that some of the features in these hymns resulted from the influence of baroque aesthetics, elements of which filtered into the singing practice of the monastery. In the same way as baroque architecture combines exactitude and structure with an elaborate variety of lines and colours, the melodic fabric of the chants began to sense the joy (“the gaiety of the spirit”) of understanding the beauty of God’s creation, which decorated and supplemented the canonical chant with a special melodic braid. The singing tradition of the Lavra remained untouched by certain features of the new style, such as expressions of sudden alteration, excitement and contrast, etc. because they were foreign to the monastic spirit.”9 Such an approach to this period has, in recent years, become singularly unfashionable. How can we reconcile “emotionally transformed melos” with the untouched melody of Gardner’s canonical chants? Exactly how can a “special melodic braid” supplement canonical chant?
Some answers to these questions may be suggested by examining some recent work on iconography. In an article on “Theology of the Image and the Evolution of Style”, Deacon Alexander Musin, in discussing Uspensky’s idea that “theology and image constitute a united verbal-figurative expression of Revelation”, writes that this concept “needs to be defined more exactly”. He goes on to say that “The interrelation of the word and image in the Church is significant; as an artistic image its subject cannot be contrary to a biblical or dogmatic text. Nevertheless, the ways of expressing the inner content of the image can be different and do not require the same severe regulations of terminological character as rhetorical theology.”10 There is a clear parallel to be made here with the historical changes in Kievo-Pechersk chant as analyzed above.
Musin notes further that “we should remember that one of the characteristic features of theology itself is the fundamental ability to express the same truth using different terms that change depending on epoch and culture”, and, after discussing the reading of an icon as being a synthesis of intellect and spiritual contemplation, that “(…) the language of the icon can happen to be invariant, because its illegibility is overcome by a feat of human will. At the same time, this language is a function of time like a theological language. A religious image finally becomes an icon through the acceptance of the image by the Church during its consecration regardless of image stylization. The function of Orthodox theology is known to be not a logical regulation of the amount of theological knowledge, but a rhetorical development of Tradition and Revelation for the purpose of ‘inculturing’”.11
If one accepts the premise that “a religious image finally becomes an icon through acceptance of the image by the Church, regardless of image stylization”, it is stretching the parallel not at all to suggest that the same premise is applicable to church music apparently lying outside the canonical norms as defined, for example, by Gardner. Again, Musin says that “The negation of the importance of icon painting, religious painting and architecture of the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries for the Church is based not on a serious theological analysis of such art, but mostly on a subjective negation of some positive influence of European culture on the Orthodox Church in Russia. The religious art of the Synodal period happened to be at last churched as a result of its theological acceptance and prayer practice, as it corresponded in full measure to the ideas and demands of society at that time.”12 Similar observations might be made concerning much Venetian icon painting of the 17th century13 or the tradition of Ukrainian folk icons of the late 19th century.14
If one is willing to apply this logic to the music of the period, one can, so to speak, “re-church” an entire corpus of music, accept it as part of the rich history of the liturgical arts of the Orthodox Church, and avoiding the perils of anathematizing this or that aspect of the fullness of our heritage.
It should also be noted that the often very active reforming movements currently at work in the liturgical arts in many countries are themselves the result, in part, of the same historical process that produced this corpus of what is, in effect, frequently characterized as “bad liturgical art”. Without the development of Italianate humanistic icon painting there would have no subsequent Byzantine revival, no Petros Sasaki, no Grigory Kroug. Similarly, without the overlaying of various polyphonic styles on the monophonic corpuses of Russian church music, there would have been no codified polyphonic court chant, no elaboration of the kind to be found in Tchaikovsky or Rakhmaninov, and certainly no movement for a return to the liturgical aesthetics of an earlier period. What this means on a local level is that it can be dangerous, pastorally, spiritually, to impose radical solutions – as I have seen done – in situations in which there is an established modus operandi, or rather, a modus celebrandi. Since even small changes are noticed, it is clearly a great pastoral risk to change the entire sung repertoire of a parish in one fell swoop. Reformers need to be aware of this spiritual danger, to take into account their own responsibility in making any changes, and to consider the need for stability at a parish or community level.
Does this mean, then, that we should allow people to continue unenlightened, enduring “bad liturgical art”? The short answer is yes, for the risks of spiritual alienation are great. The longer answer is that education, undertaken gently and with spiritual wisdom, can play a very important role here.
There is another aspect to this question. The removal of these “substandard” repertoires from liturgical use means that, though they have served Orthodox liturgical worship in the past, they are now to be relegated to some kind of museum, sung, perhaps only in concerts, examined by scholars of those dark and corrupt periods. To this I would say that the reformer must be very careful what and how he chooses to reform. Censure of this kind is, fundamentally a matter of taste, and if we make a universal imposition of our own taste, we are as uncanonical, or at least paracanonical, as those authors and painters whose work in the service of the Church we are endeavouring to extirpate.
In closing, I return to the earlier reduction ad absurdum and suggest another aspect of it. If we were to apply structuralist hermeneutics to the case for restoring monophony where the tradition has for the last few centuries been that of polyphony, we would be forced to concede that our signifiers have changed: just as we cannot look at a Byzantine icon in the way that those who first saw it did, following our collective experience of the renaissance and its consequences, so we cannot reproduce Znamenny chant after the experience of polyphony as though we had lived the tradition. In “decoding” the repertoire, we are inevitably “encoding” it once more. It was, naturally, to guard against this transmission of meaning from signifier to signifier, as happens in language, that the Ecumenical Councils met and defined dogma. The difficulties encountered in so doing, occurred, of course, often precisely on account of the mutability of meaning in language. Thus, when we read in the 75th Canon of the Council in Trullo (Quinisext) of 692 that “We wish those who attend church for the purpose of chanting neither to employ disorderly cries and to force nature to cry aloud, not to foist in anything that is not becoming and proper to a church”15, we are obliged to wonder exactly what, for the authors of that canon, would have constituted disorderly crying in liturgical worship. In that the definitions, for example, of consonance and dissonance have shifted, and ideas of simplicity and complexity even in monophonic chant have altered during the course of history, we cannot take our own experience, our own set of signifiers, and apply it to the words of such a Canon as though they had been written yesterday. The 12th century canonist and historian John Zonaras defined what was unsuitable in liturgical worship as being “womanish members and warblings”, which phrase has in its turn been interpreted as meaning “trills, and, an excessive variation or modulation in melodies which inclines towards the songs sung by harlots”.16
If we forget that the Holy Spirit works through the Church, and that repertories of music, just like customs, may be absorbed and churched, then our idea of canonicity is very often just that, our idea.
(1) Pseudo-Dionysios, The Divine Names, Paulist Press, Mahwah, NY, 1987, p.76.
This translation, by Glenn E. Curtis, appears in Tatiana Vladyshevskaia: “On the Links between Music and Icon Painting in Mediaeval Rus”, in William C. Brumfield and Milos M. Velimirovic, eds, Christianity and the Arts in Russia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1991
(2) Johann von Gardner, Russian Church Singing Vol. 1: “Orthodox Worship and Hymnography”, translated by Vladimir Morosan, SVS, Crestwood, New York, 1980.
(3) Ibid., p.102
(4) Ibid., p. 102, note 5
(5) Ibid., p.112
(6) I. Malyshevsky, Melety Pigas (Kiev, n.p., 1872) p. 89; English translation provided in
Morosan, Vladimir, Choral Performance in Pre-Revolutionary Russia, UMI, Ann Arbor/London, 1986, p 40
(7) Dmitri Bolgarsky, “Kievo-Pechersk Chant” in Proceedings of the First International Conference on Orthodox Church Music, ed. Ivan Moody and Maria Takala-Roszczenko, forthcoming, Joensuu, 2007
(8) Yury Yasinovsky, “The Oldest Copy of the Ukrainian Choral Manuscript of the Staff Notation”, in Vizantiya I Vostochnaya Evropa: Liturgicheskie i Muzykal’nye Svyazi (Gimnologiya, Vol.4, Progress-Traditsiya, Moscow, 2003, p.257 (translation slightly modified)
(10) Iconofile, issue X, p.13. I am most grateful to Kateriina Husso for bring this article to my attention and for enlightening general discussion on the question of canonicity in icon painting.
(11) Ibid., p.16
(12) Ibid., p.24
(13) See, inter alia, Kazanaki-Lampa, Maria: Ὀδιγὸς τοῦ Μουσεῖου, Ἐλληνικὸ Ἰνστιτοῦτο Βυζαντινῶν καὶ Μεταβυζαντινῶν Σποθδῶν Βενετὶας, Venice 2005 and Guida al Museo di Icone e alla Chiesa di San Giorgio dei Greci, Istituto Ellenico di Studi Bizantini e Post-Bizantini di Venezia, Venice, 1992.
(14) One of the few to take these icons seriously was the ethnologist and collector Ivan Makarovych Honchar (1911-1993); his collection is to be found in the Ivan Honchar Museum in Kiev (see http://www.honchar.org.ua/). For a brief account of further recent interest in these icons, see Sedova, Yana, “Ukrainian American collector brings folk icons into the spotlight”, in The Ukrainian Weekly, December 24, 2000, No. 52, Vol. LXVIII. Available online at http://www.ukrweekly.com/Archive/2000/520024.shtml
(15) The Greek text of the full Canon reads as follows:
Κανὼν ΟΕ´ (75) τῆς ϛ´ Οἰκουμενικῆς Συνόδου
Τοὺς ἐπὶ τῷ ψάλλειν ἐν ταῖς Ἐκκλησίαις παραγινομένους, βουλόμεθα, μήτε βοαῖς ἀτάκτοις κεχρῆσθαι, καὶ τὴν φύσιν πρὸς κραυγὴν ἐκβιάζεσθαι, μήτε τι ἐπιλέγειν τῶν μὴ ἐκκλησίᾳ ἁρμοδίων τε καὶ οἰκείων· ἀλλὰ μετὰ πολλῆς προσοχῆς, καὶ κατανύξεως τὼς τοιαύτας ψαλμῳδίας προσάγειν τῷ τῶν κρυπτῶν ἐφόρῳ Θεῷ. «Εὐλαβεῖς γὰρ ἔσεσθαι τοὺς υἱοὺς Ἰσραήλ» (Λευϊτ. ιε´, 30), τὸ ἱερὸν ἐδίδαξε λόγιον.