Kevin Basil (signature)

The Stone of the Choir Director

Next article: A Bit of Lightness
Previous article: Schizoid Soul

Written by Basil on 02/25/2003 4:06 PM. Filed under:

Share with your friends and followers:

On the OrthodoxPSALM mailing list, we have been talking recently about the use of modality in Christian chant. The dicussion has centered mostly around the dichotomous association of pieces in major with happiness, joy, and generally pleasant feelings and of minor with sadness, compunction, grief, and generally unpleasant feelings. The general idea of some participants, with which I agree, is that these associations are purely psychological and cultural associations, and even stereotypical in some situations. To this I would add that these associations can cloud our judgment of Beauty in musical objects. Established readers know already that I am suspicious of any assertion that might lead to a thoroughly relativist aesthetic.

In the midst of this discussion, Mark Bailey, Lecturer in Liturgical Music at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and Director of the Yale Russian Chorus, related the following anecdote, which I reproduce with his permission:

A few years back, a few families from the Middle East had moved to
the United States and started attending an OCA parish. The parish’s
liturgical music repertoire consisted mostly of St. Petersburg-Moscow
Slavic choral settings—the typical stuff for many OCA churches.
But, because of the new families, the choir director, at Pascha,
decided to do Ode One of the Canon in Byzantine chant, and then
continue the rest in Ledkovsky and Obikhod.

After the Paschal service, the families from the Middle East with
great exuberance thanked the choir for doing such a joyful rendition
of the Byzantine chant for Ode One—they loved it. The rest of the
parish, however, questioned the director, “Why did you start the
canon with that dreary, minor key sad chant? Pascha should be happy—thank goodness you switched back to the other music.”

I love this story, because it illustrates the relativity of feelings associated with music. It also demonstrates part of the task of music directors and choir directors in the Orthodox Church by raising some interesting questions.

Does the director choose chant settings based on how he thinks the setting will make his people feel—a choice which simultaneously is dominated by and reinforces these associations? Or, does the director ignore these associations, developing a repertory that is timeless and that transcends the particularities of the present culture?

This last question is the most nettling. It seems to me that this is the goal that is in many ways placed before the director of music. Yet, it is simply not an attainable goal in this world.

Makes one think that perhaps Sisyphus and not Saint Roman the Melodist is the patron of church musicians.

Share with your friends and followers:


The URL to trackback this post is:

Comments are closed.