The Chanted Choral Liturgy

(A guest post by Deacon Timothy Woods)

The purpose of chant in our churches is to invite the people to be actively involved in the prayer. Our chants are simple and repetitious, easy to catch on to. Even when I am tired and I don’t really feel like singing, even if I tell myself NOT to sing, halfway through the liturgy I find myself humming along and then finally singing out loudly from my heart. That is the reason for our chant, to allow the people to worship God from their hearts!

But we also have a beautiful choral tradition. Composers like Bortniansky, Kedroff, and Archangelsky are household names in the Eastern Slavic churches, and there are many others who have graced our liturgies and moved our people. Modern composers are also making fine contributions which should be used. With a well rehearsed choir under the direction of a capable leader, these Holy God’s, Cherubic Hymns and special communion pieces not only move hearts, but attract new parishioners.

It was once described to me that chant is where “the rubber meets the road,” but that the people’s prayer takes wing with choral music. The most effective worship uses both, but in a way which does not cause one to detract from the other.
When I have incorporated choral music into a chant setting, my philosophy has always been thus: The first thing sung MUST be chant, and it MUST be something the people know. If we begin with a choral Liturgy of Peace, we are immediately sending a signal to the people that “we are glad you are here, but we don’t really expect you to sing”. This is precisely the wrong message to give to any parish. Choral music should be saved for the larger liturgical pieces, and the short responses, again, must be chant so as to keep the people engaged in the flow of
the liturgical current.

I offer here an example of a Sunday Divine Liturgy with Cantors and Choir. Note that the choir rarely sings two pieces in a row. In this way the choir is present, but it is never allowed to “take over the liturgy”. The main responsibility of the singing still falls to the cantors and the people. The choir simply allows the worship to “soar” from time to time. Also note that the “Choral Settings” could be harmonized chant, or a through-composed work. This is only a suggested pattern. Many other patterns are possible, as long as the chanting holds a slight sway.

Deacon Timothy Woods

Music before Liturgy:

  • One choral piece
  • Appropriate congregational hymns, sung in unison by cantors or choir (very important there is no harmony yet, unless the people add it themselves)

At the Divine Liturgy

  • Litany of Peace: Chant, again, in unison!
  • First and Second Antiphon: Chant (spontaneous harmonizations could begin)
  • Hymn of Incarnation: Choral setting (all choral settings could be either harmonized chant or composed choral music)
  • Third Antiphon: Chant
  • Entrance Hymn: Choral setting
  • Troparion/Kontakion: Chant
  • Holy God: Choral
  • Prokeimenon: Chant
  • Alleluia: Choral or Chanted
  • Litany of Supplication: Chant
  • Cherubic hymn: Choral
  • Responses: Chant
  • Symbol of Faith: Harmonized chant (led or assisted by choir)
  • Anaphora responses: Chant
  • Hymn of Victory: Choral
  • Responses: Chant
  • It is truly proper: Choral or chanted (if a 9th ode irmos is called, I would use a choral arrangement or harmonized chant, so it will not seem less festive than the parish’s ordinary hymn at this point)
  • Responses and preparation for Communion: Chant
  • Lord’s Prayer: Choral
  • Responses: Chant
  • Communion hymn of the day: Choral
  • Blessed is he who comes: Chant
  • Communion: Choral music while the cantors receive, then verses of the communion psalm through a chanted or choral refrain
  • We have seen the true light: Chant
  • May our mouth be filled: Choral
  • Responses: Chant
  • Blessed be the name of the Lord: Choral
  • Dismissal: Chant
  • Many Years: Chant or Choral
  • After Liturgy: One choral piece, then congregational hymns as people leave.