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.”
Source: WikiMedia Commons
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.
Source: WikiMedia Commons
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.
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.
Learn to chant, so that you may experience the sweetness of the work, for those who chant are filled with the Holy Spirit. – St. John Chrysostom
The history of the Greek Orthodox Church can be described as a history of prayer through song. Following the ancient Greek philosophers, the Fathers of the Church recognized the profound impact music has on souls and adopted it as a tool of instruction and edification. The music of the Church came to be known as the Psaltic Art and later as Byzantine music. The latter term is indicative of the paramount significance of Byzantium-Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, in the genesis, growth, and development of this tradition.
Technical Aspects of Byzantine Music
Byzantine music is a strictly vocal, monophonic, a cappella tradition. In its fullest expression, it is performed antiphonally by two choirs standing at opposite sides of the solea. Each choir is comprised of a director (called Protopsaltis and Lampadarios for the right and left choirs respectively), a number of melodists who chant in unison, a number of isokratae who hold the ison, i.e. the fundamental note in a given melodic context, one or more soloists, a canonarch who intones the verses of the hymns, and a reader who recites or intones biblical pericopes and certain liturgical texts.
Holy Cross St. Romanos the Melodist Byzantine Choir chanting at St. Spyridon Cathedral, Worcester, MA
The musical settings are composed in the four authentic and four plagal Byzantine modes, each of which has its own scale, tonic, structural notes, melodic contour, range, melodic formulae, etc. These characteristics lend each mode a particular feeling or expression. For example, the first mode is associated with joy in Christ’s Resurrection, the second mode with mild sorrow as well as fervent prayer, etc.
History of the Psaltic Art
St. Ioannis Koukouzelis (c. 1270 – c. 1340)
The history of the Psaltic Art can be traced through the elaborate and majestic ceremonies in Hagia Sophia and other cathedrals and monasteries of the Eastern Roman Empire to the simple, unadorned hymns of the early Church. Initially, hymns were composed along with their own music, but after the emergence of Byzantine musical notation in the 10th century, composers started setting pre-existent texts to new music. Out of the approximately 1,000 known composers, two figures stand out for their remarkable proliferation and overall contribution to the development of psaltic compositional technique: St. Ioannis Papadopoulos Koukouzelis (13th-14th c.) and Petros the Peloponnesian (18th c.).
Becoming a Cantor
To become a cantor, one needs to study Byzantine notation, which is made up of neumes and other signs that are primarily derived from the Greek letters and diacritics. Being a cantor also presupposes intimate familiarity with the contents and usage of liturgical books and service rubrics. Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology offers a comprehensive training program that culminates in the awarding of a Certificate in Byzantine Music to students who have developed a mastery of the art. Additionally, formal instruction is offered at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, in schools of Byzantine music at several Metropolises of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and in numerous parishes throughout the United States.
Setting of Pasapnoarion in the plagal first mode by Nicholas Roumas
The Liturgical Function of Chanting
While it is certainly meant to provide aesthetic pleasure to the listeners, the primary function of chanting is to make manifest the grace that resides in the sacred hymnology. Rather than being an art for the sake of art, Byzantine music is the ‘liturgical garment’ with which the poetic text of a hymn is vested. This liturgical aspect of music has a threefold purpose: first, to penetrate the soul of the faithful in a way that mere speech can’t and, by extension, to make the doctrines of the Church easier to instill in the hearts of the people; second, to expand and transform the words from means of exchange of information between humans to vehicles of communication between God and man; and third, to facilitate the sanctification of the praying community. According to Elder Timotheos Tzanis of Crete (1928-1991),
The cantor who chants with the grace of God is captured by the Holy Spirit, he does not live in this world, he ascends to the heavens! And he imparts this grace to the entire congregation! If only we had eyes to see the rays of light that come out of the cantor’s mouth and fall on the heads of the faithful!
Dr. Grammenos Karanos is Assistant Professor of Byzantine Liturgical Music at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA and Director of the St. John of Damascus School of Byzantine Music of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston.
One of the most wonderful movies about Orthodox prayer is The Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer, a documentary made by Fr. John McGuckin and Dr. Norris J. Chumley. It depicts the journey of two men who, following an ancient example of a monk, go from the Egyptian desert and Mount Sinai, to Greece, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia in search of people who still practice this prayer. They look for people who pray the Jesus prayer and struggle to converse inwardly with God. In each case the people following this mystical tradition seek solitude and are later found in the wilderness – the wilderness of desert, the watery wilderness, the wilderness of the woods and the wilderness of the frosty lands. The beautiful thing is the Jesus Prayer shapes their mystical dialogue and bears the signs of the wilderness where it occurs.
The reason I think this movie is relevant when talking about music and worship is that it offers a good analogy for the great variety of music that may be encountered in Orthodox worship–Arabic, Greek, Romanian, Georgian, Russian chant, etc. The chanting tradition in divine worship is shaped by its geographical context just as much as the musical context where it occurs–just like the Jesus Prayer. The desert, the waters, the woods, and the frost put a charming seal on chanting. What sounds good to the Greek ear will sound exotic to the Russian as will the Arabic Byzantine Chant to the Romanian, for example. What binds all these traditions together is the unity of faith, the shared dogmas, history and belief in the Savior Jesus Christ.
These various chanting traditions originated in synagogal singing and developed simultaneously in connection with different centers like Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, etc. When “imitating” the mother church became too difficult new chanting styles emerged most of the time taking the shape of the local musical traditions.
Fr. Teodor leads the children of St. Herman’s Orthodox School in chanting at a hierarchical liturgy at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Allston, MA
Romanian chant is a good example in this regard. Historically close to the Byzantine Empire and having great relationship with Constantinople, the Romanian chant followed the tradition of Byzantium and even after it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks took pride in continuing its legacy. Well known church choirs in Romania still try to emulate it to this day. In the western part of the country however, in the territory that was under the Austro-Hungarian occupation, the Orthodox Church suffered acerbic persecution, and the people were cut off from their brothers in the principalities of Moldova and Walachia who continued to worship using Byzantine chant. In order to preserve their ancient faith and traditions the Romanians living in Transylvania used the local musical tradition in divine worship, resembling more and more folk music rather than Byzantine chanting.
The significance of music in worship is immense. St. Basil the Great considers music to be a vehicle of dogma, comparing it to the honey used by physicians to sweeten medicine that otherwise would be hard to swallow. Music draws people together in worship and can channel different feelings and emotions delivering them prayerfully to Christ. It can also help you retain your spiritual identity as we saw it helped the Transylvanians.
Worship is the highest destination that music, as a vehicle, can reach. Silence and stillness are the opportunity to rejoice in God’s response. If a monk can silently pray in a cave on mount Sinai, you can loudly worship with psalms in a city church. This dialogue with God is vital, and it is just as important that we don’t allow our prayer ropes to stay idle in the urban “wilderness” as it is for Russian monk to work on his salvation while living on permafrost.
Fr. Teodor Anastasoaie teaches at St. Herman of Alaska Christian School in Allston, MA serves at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church which is part of the Bulgarian Diocese of USA, Canada and Australia and is passionate about Byzantine chant. He leads the Byzantine choir of the parish and is convinced that the best way to learn Byzantine chant is through increased participation in Church services.
My most joyful moments of College Conference East were spent in the Chapel after Compline. There was a little over a half hour of time following the service where no one would leave. The priest would give the final blessing, but everyone decided to stay and sing a while longer. During that time, there was this incredible tension. We all wanted to go and spend time with our friends, go for a Sheetz run, or grab some much needed sleep, but it suddenly became a struggle to leave Church. For a short period of time, our earthly cares had been silenced. Growing closer to Christ and spending time worshiping Him became more important than anything happening in the outside world. Those were the happiest moments for me. That small segment of the conference when all of us chose to devote our attention to Christ a little longer than was asked of us.
After about a half hour the crowd slowly started to disappear, but it often wasn’t until 4:00 a.m. that the last group left the chapel. Throughout the entire evening, we would take turns singing hymns in the languages of our ethnic backgrounds or would occasionally break out into Christmas carols so everyone could sing along. (I like to think the Christmas carols were our way of bridging the gap between New and Old Calendar.)
At times, the beauty of the sounds in that little Chapel were overwhelming. So much so, that I frequently stopped singing because I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. Admittedly, there were probably a few occasions when we paid more attention to the blend of our harmonies than the words we were saying. However, I think it’s safe to say that the real reason we stayed and kept singing so late into the night was because we recognized the fact that we have a God who is worthy of continual praise.
The theme of this year’s conference focused on becoming witnesses to Christ. How lucky we were to spend four days in an environment that made our task as witnesses so effortless. I wasn’t ready to leave. I didn’t want to give up the life I experienced while I was surrounded by over 300 other Orthodox Christians. I wanted to continue singing hymns and Christmas carols until 4:00 a.m. every night for the rest of my life. It truly felt like a beautiful little taste of paradise.
Late night chanting at College Conference East 2015
Although the ease of Christian living was wonderful while it lasted, the reality is we’ve all returned to places that don’t necessarily make three church services a day a priority. I pray that everyone who attended CCEast this year will remember those awesome moments when they encountered Christ and the Theotokos. We should tell other people with excitement about just how wonderful those four days were. Not to brag or make anyone jealous, but to potentially make someone think, “I want what they have.” Retelling the stories of our days at CCEast is a way we can all be witnesses to Christ in our everyday lives.
Once I’m back at school, I plan to tell my friends all about those treasured moments I experienced after Compline. May God give us all the courage to share those special moments with everyone we encounter. May our strength be renewed each time we remember those spiritually charged days, and may those who hear our accounts be drawn closer to the truth of our Lord and Savior.
Christ is among us!
He is and always shall be!
Irene Grysiak is a junior at Saint Francis University in Loretto, PA. She is in a five year program studying to be a Physician Assistant. She spent the past two summers working as a counselor at Camp Nazareth and loved every moment of watching the campers grow closer to Christ.