We in the Orthodox Church are blessed to be surrounded by music during our worship. It is a real shame, in my opinion, that a number of our Western brethren ignore music as an essential part of worship. My violin professor once told me, “We as musicians have a direct line of communication to God, and so many churches ignore it!” We as Orthodox utilize this line to God so often that sometimes we take it for granted. We take it for granted that each of our different jurisdictions has its own unique music that they use to sing praises to the Holy Trinity. Each different style of Liturgical chant expresses the culture of the people who sing it, but the words, the prayer, across each jurisdiction is the same. The style of chant used in my diocese, the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese (ACROD), is called prostopinije. Prostopinije is a Slavonic word which simply means “plain chant.”
The plain chant is sung today not only in the ACROD, but also in many of the Byzantine Catholic Churches in the United States. This is because Byzantine Catholic Christians and Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Christians come from the same area of Europe, the southern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains in Central Europe. For all intents and purposes, both the Byzantine Catholics, who are also known as Greek Catholics, and the Orthodox serve exactly the same way. The only difference is that instead of commemorating an Orthodox Patriarch during services, Byzantine Catholics commemorate the Pope of Rome. The history of the people is extremely fascinating, but you could spend pages and pages discussing it. The important thing to know for our purposes is that both the Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches from the Carpathian area sing prostopinije.
The oldest layers of the prostopinije have their roots in the Byzantine Chant which was brought to them by evangelizers from the Byzantine Empire. The people fell in love with this new religion and the chant that came with it. In the hands, or rather mouths, of the Slavic people, Byzantine Chant eventually evolved into the Znamenny Chant around the 11th Century. The Znamenny Chant then split into two main branches–the Northern branch of Moscow and the Southern branch of Kiev. It was the Southern branch of the Znamenny Chant that the Carpatho-Russian people used in their worship. After centuries of a number of influences, most notably folk music, the present day prostopinije took shape.
The Znamenny Chant and the early chant of the Carpatho-Russians prior to the 17th Century used a type of notation known as neumatic notation. It is similar in style to the Byzantine notation in that it does not use the five-lined staff that is used in modern Western music. The Carpatho-Russians abandoned neumatic notation completely by the 17th Century in favor of Kievan square notation. This notation looked very much like modern music notation; it was on a five-lined staff and it had distinct note shapes. The major differences were that the notes are square shaped and the rhythmic values of the notes are different. The prostopinije was not written in modern notation until 1906 when a Byzantine Catholic priest by the name of John Boksaj compiled an anthology of the plain chant. Fr. Boksaj transcribed the melodies as they were sung by Joseph Malinich, the cantor of the Cathedral Church in Uzhorod, Ukraine. The book that was published was called Tserkovnoje Prostopinije, the Plain Chant of the Church. It was a groundbreaking work which brought this chant, which has its roots in the ancient Byzantine Chant, into the modern era.
The Carpatho-Russian plain chant is sung by the entire congregation. While it is led by a cantor, or sometimes a small number of cantors, the entire congregation sings. Congregational singing allows the involvement of every person in the worship. It is really an incredible thing to experience hundreds of people singing and praying together; each voice being heard as an individual and yet those voices combining as one prayer to God. The prostopinije, like its Byzantine predecessor, has eight tones. It follows the Octoechos cycle like the majority of other Orthodox Chants. It is written as monophonic music, music with a single melodic line, but in liturgical practice, people sing natural and unwritten harmonies which only add to its beauty and magnificence.
Personally, I have been singing the prostopinije for as long as I can remember. I started cantoring, as most other cantors, simply by singing the music over and over and over again. Singing the plain chant, not just as a cantor, gave me something to do during the services. Singing allowed me to participate in the work of worship in a way that I would not have been able to otherwise. It was the congregational nature of the plain chant which helped me grow in my faith and in my knowledge of the Church and her theology, because the hymns are nothing more than expositions on the Faith. Each Orthodox jurisdiction in America has its own beautiful chant, its own unique line to God. The line that the Carpatho-Russians use is prostopinije, a chant with echoes of the rustic Carpathian villages and the haunting melodies of Constantinople.
If you would like to listen to the prostopinije, please visit: http://www.acrod.org/multimedia/audio/liturgicalmusic/
Fr. Nicholas grew up in Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Danbury, CT where he graduated with his BS in Music Education from Western Connecticut State University. He recently completed his studies at Christ the Saviour Seminary in Johnstown, PA where he lives with his wife, Pani Stacey, and son, Cyril. He is a priest of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese.