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Heavenly Music

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Written by Basil on 05/19/2005 11:45 AM. Filed under:


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I have received the CD of Fr. Sergei Glagolev’s chants which I blogged about earlier. I am very pleased with it, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The the structure of the melodies follows the rhythms of English language, but the harmonies involve subtle dissonance. This brings to mind similarities to Arvo Pärt or John Tavener. The music is for liturgical celebration, so the pieces are much more straightforward than Tavener, whose work is primarily written for choral performance and only inspired by liturgy. Pärt’s compositions are sometimes long as well, but he also writes for liturgical celebrations, so the comparison is more apt.

There seem to be two distinct types of pieces: Those in which the congregation is expected to sing along, and those in which it is not. For example, the Cherubic hymn, whose function in the liturgy is to cover a very long prayer by the priest and evoke a sense of unity with the angelic powers, uses long, willowy rhythms and is heavy on the dissonance. The melody is difficult to discern. The communicated effect is, “Listen, don’t try to sing along.”

On the other hand, many pieces are more singable and seem to invite the assembly to sing along. For example, several communion hymns (koinonika) have been included. The koinonikon is a psalm verse, such as “Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the highest” or “The righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance; he shall not fear evil tidings,” which praise God with either a theme from the day, or the theme of communion, or both. Fr. Sergei’s koinonika settings make use of easily distinguished melodies, much more consonant harmonies, and quick rhythms which mimic the effect of spoken English. The increased singability of these pieces invites the assembled faithful to join in.

My one gripe — and it is pretty distracting in an otherwise exceptional compilation — is the use of the Slavonic pronunciation of “Alleluia”: ah leh loo EEEEEE ah. Quite grating and distracting in a CD where everything else is in English.

However, I am very pleased on the whole, and I am happy to further commend this collection to your listening pleasure.

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6 Responses to “Heavenly Music”

  1. Jim N. Says:

    ‘nother question. :) I was reading through some chanting materials I had just dug up. Our lead chanter had given them to me some time ago and I’d forgotten about them. Anyway, in one of the books on chanting it mentions that some council at some point forbid the writing of new music for liturgical use, because (I think) the music was becoming westernized and therefore was loosing it’s Byzantine umph. Or something.

    So how is it that new chanting music is being written? Was there another council somewhere else that gave the green light and I just haven’t gotten there yet in my readings? Just curious… Thx.

  2. Basil Says:

    Jim, well, I’m not familiar with that. Since you attend an Antiochian parish, I would guess that it is probably a Greek or Syrian council with only local jurisdiction. That’s only a guess, mind you.

    Certainly, Slavic churches have a long tradition of new settings for liturgical hymns. Otherwise, we would still be singing Byzantine chant as opposed to Znammeny, Moscow, Kievan, Russian, Bulgarian, Carpatho-Russian, Romanian, Serbian, etc. Churches which follow Greek typica tend to show a strong preference for Byzantine chanting (which I am told is really not truly Byzantine but heavily influenced by Arabic tonality); the Syrians fall into this category.

    Also, Byzantine chant is based on a modal system. The psaltis (chanter) learns a particular scale and improvises melodies based on the structure of the scale. In Slavic chant systems, the chanter or choir learns a melody and applies the same melody to every hymn which is in that tone.

    I’m really quite a novice at this (believe it or not); I would recommend researching further with a protopsaltis or choirmaster experienced in a wide variety of systems with knowledge of their history for a better answer. I’ll put this question out on the Orthodox PSALM mailing list and see what comes back.

  3. Jim N. Says:

    Yeah, I’d like to catch up with her this weekend. The articles I read also stated that ‘true’ Byzantine chant is not sung in parts, but only the melody and the ison, yet our choir does four part, etc. I’m just curious as to the evolution of it all. And you’re right, I believe it was a local council. Thanks Basil.

  4. Basil Says:

    Jim, that is true of Byzantine chant, musically. Some churches get somewhat dogmatic in their preference for this pure Byzantine chanting. In my experience, this is mostly true in the Greek tradition, as Slavic churches have long embraced various Western influences (such as four part harmony). I am speaking on a musical level, not necessarily theological.

  5. Erich Says:

    Yeah, the Russians seem to have no restrictions. Even if you look at the music for a ROCOR liturgy, it’s more than likely that you’ll find Chaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, Ippolitov-Ivanov, Arkhangelsky, Bortnyansky, Chesnokov, and a whole host of others who composed from the 18th to the 20th centuries.

  6. Mark Powell Says:

    Dear Kevin,

    I’m glad you’ve enjoyed our Glagolev recording. You are correct in your assessment that some pieces are meant to be congregational and others are not. This reflects an Orthodox understanding that services are carried out by the whole assembly, but each according to his or her office (ie, everyone doesn’t do everything: bishops, priests, deacons, readers, singers, light-bearers, door keepers, the faithful, etc etc). I couldn’t help chuckling about the “Allelu-ee-a”. This isn’t only the “Slavic” pronunciation; the Greeks pronounce it this way too, and you’ll find some Latin pieces with extended “ee” vowels on Alleluia too. Since Alleluia is one of those Hebrew words that the Church kept intact, it is normal that it be pronounced differently by different people. Orthodoxy is very much a cosmopolitan faith!

    About new hymns: I think it’s important to note a couple of things related to your post. New settings of hymns are constantly being written in every musical tradition: there are new settings of Byzantine hymns (yes — newly composed pieces using the building blocks of Byzantine chant), new settings in Slavic styles, new music in Russia, in Serbia, in Bulgaria, in Finland, and so on, as well as here in North America. Also, it’s important to note that Byzantine chant is not primarily an improvised art–the “classic” music is written down and is performed from a relatively prescriptive notation. Because many hymns have metrical patterns that allow them to be sung to established melodies, it might look like improvisation. For these hymns, there is a many-to-one relationship between hymn texts and a specific tune (in Greek this is called a prosomion; in Latin, a contrafactum). But for most festal and ordinary hymns, there are classic settings as well as newer compositions that are specific to each text.

    I hope you’ll enjoy our next recording coming out in May, “The Fall of Constantinople.”

    Good lent,

    Mark Powell
    Singer/Executive Director
    Cappella Romana