Kevin Basil (signature)

Chant as You Can, Not as You Can’t

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Written by Basil on 10/16/2002 4:43 PM. Filed under:

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Longinus the Martyr, who stood at the foot of the Cross

Dear X.,

I am happy to try to answer your questions. Remember that I am only a sinner. What is true is not my fault, and what is misleading or hurtful I hope to repent of.

There is, as you note, a difference between what we are learning and what we used to sing. Part of the difference is between chant and western music of the Baroque period and later. Put as simply as possible, chant focuses on the text, and it puts the melody at the service of the text. Western music since Bach puts the emphasis on the music itself, to the extent that words are made to fit melodies.

Part of the problem with some of our former settings (not all, by any means — I’m thinking right now of the settings for “Heavenly King” and “It Is Truly Right”) is that they were too melodic. Chant is much more like speaking musically than it is like singing a melody — although clearly melodic singing is still involved. The lack of meter is also important but not always a determining factor.

As for the New Skete settings (the “Great Litany,” for example), I have tried to keep some of them when it’s clear that they are using an established chant system (Kievan, for instance, or Znammenyj). However, they are publically condemned by church leaders for a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which being that they are often not “conservative enough” in their theological positions. And yet, they are privately praised by many for other reasons. To be frank, they are a political hot-potato. With material that is adapted from standard chant systems, I feel I can say, “Look, this (the ‘Great Litany’) is Kievan. I have heard it done in St. Example parish.” Or, “This (‘Receive the Body of Christ’) is Moscow chant, and I know it’s very widely used.”

The problem is when it’s their own compostion (“Christ is Risen”, for example) and therefore says, “Chant of New Skete” in the upper-right corner. Then, I really have to lay it down, because I need to put some more political chips in savings before I can start throwing them away. (Fr. T. is especially critical of the Monks of New Skete.)

As to which is more beautiful, I will admit to a difference of opinion in some measure. Of course, I tend toward simplicity in aesthetics myself. (All that Byzantine stuff, no pun intended, drives me up a wall sometimes. Not that it’s always bad; just that it gets, well, Byzantine at times.) I would prefer singing a single chord all stretched-out (well-harmonized, mind you!) to a saccharine melody.

But, I am not of the opinion that beauty is completely subjective. In fact, I believe that beauty is objective, as it is indeed the glory of God shining through the created world. I think that for now, it may be useful not to think about what we are doing in terms of beautiful or not-beautiful. Part of what needs to happen for all of us is that we need to expand our concept of what is beautiful. You may want to think about what it is in these settings that the original culture (primarily Russia, but also Greek Byzantium to some extent) found beautiful. Another approach is to find some very good examples of chant (the Sacred Treasures CD is one, St. Vladimir Seminary bookstore has others) and base your thinking on that, instead of on the impoverished example I am providing for you. Still another approach, from a Western perspective, is to listen to Western chant (from Gregorian chant up through and including even Palestrina, Tallis, and other Renaissance composers) and seeing how that compares to Greek and Russian chant.

Part of the conundrum is that the culture of chant is something that one picks up by hearing it and doing it. We were getting there before, but we still had too much attachment to settings that simply do not count as chant.

It is also important at this juncture to point out that none of this is intended to be a condemnation of what we did before and certainly not of Western music as a whole. It seems to me that the kind of difference we’re talking about is very similar to the difference between traditional Orthodox iconography and Western devotional art. Just as using only Orthodox icons in worship does not necessarily negate or condemn paintings by Rouault, Rubens, Michelangelo, or Grünewald, so the use of Orthodox chant does not negate works by Bach, Mozart, Britten, Holst, Stravinsky, or Rutter. Or even the settings we used to sing here at Christ the Life-giver/St. Athanasius. Like the use of Orthodox icons, it is simply a choice that is made for the sake of appropriate common worship.

Does that help at all? I will be happy to answer more questions, and that is especially true if they are in response to my explanation here. I should also note this: I do have some leeway, but not much. I am under pressure from Fr. D. to teach “standard OCA” settings, as he himself is under pressure to do the same thing. I have tried my best to explain some of the reasoning behind the changes that are being made, but the real authority lies with him. And I am sure that he will also be happy to answer any questions you might have.

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