In the morning service of Matins in the Byzantine Rite, the liturgical poem called the Canon is followed immediately by a Hymn of Light – in Greek, exapostilarion or photogogikon; in Slavonic, svitilen). These hymns are usually “read” or chanted simply by a reader, but for great feasts they have special melodies of their own. (Think “You, King and Lord” at Pascha.)
Music for the Matins hymn of light for the feast of the Nativity on December 25 can be found in the 1925 Prostopinije of Theodore Ratzin, who transcribed the 1906 Bokshai Prostopinije with addition material from the Slavonic Irmologion. Here is a setting in English:
Listen to the hymn:
This hymn is sung at Matins on Christmas, and also on the Sunday after the Nativity, when we celebrate the relatives of the Lord: Joseph, his foster-father; James, his cousin and first bishop of Jerusalem, and King David.
It seems to me that it is time to take a serious look at our plain chant, and how we sing it in worship. That is the purpose of this blog series, Our Plain Chant.
It has now been
70 years since church first began celebrating services in English
55 years since the first official chant settings in English
12 years since the release of our current Divine Liturgies book, which our bishops promulgated in order to have a common format of the Liturgy across our entire church
It seems to me that it is time to take a serious look at our plain chant, and how we sing it in worship. That is the purpose of this blog series, Our Plain Chant. I hope it can serve as way to spread knowledge of our chant, how we use it, and how we can improve our church singing while maintaining our tradition of sung congregational worship.
Why a series?
The Metropolitan Cantor Institute website has a wealth of material about individual plain chant melodies, and how to sing services. But because it is an instructional site, we have stayed away from presenting a lot of historical background, or any critical commentary on our chant and how we sing it. I hope that this series will let us provide some of this background, AND enable cantors to contribute to the discussion.
Many of the issues that affect our church singing are common to a range of melodies, so I am going to first look at the shared issues that we face whenever we sing, THEN look at particular chant melodies and services.
With each blog post, I hope to include a recording which I consider to be of value in understanding our chant.
Here is a complete recording of the Divine Liturgy for the 25th ordination anniversary of Bishop (later Archbishop) Stephen Kocisko, celebrated at the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1966. This is one of our best recorded examples of the sound of our congregational singing.
It has been more than 12 years since the promulgation of our present Divine Liturgies book, and what looked like an enormous number of musical settings of the Cherubic Hymn (ten of them!) now make up the basic repertoire in many parishes.
With than in mind – and considering the enormous number of such settings in Slavonic – I would like to offer the three possibilities for new settings in English, to give us greater opportunities to expand our plain chant in English, making use of Slavonic melodies which are already well know. I hope to teach these at the eparchial workshops planned for next year, and they are also keyed to the versions of the base hymns in the Hymnal Project (which will also be covered at next year’s workshops).
If you look at the liturgical calendar on the MCI website, you will sometimes seen two sets of music for Vespers, with one of them labelled “samohlasen.” What does this mean, and which set of music should you choose?
Now that everyone is (hopefully) recovered from Holy Week and Pascha, I would like to solicit cantors’ feedback on the books and music for Holy Week with the feast of the Annunciation. Was there anything you found particularly tricky? What went well, and what could be improved? (I am asking because we can hope to have new Holy Week books for next year that match the texts and music from the DIvine Liturgies and Presanctified books; but final details have yet to be worked out.) Please send any input you may have to email@example.com. Thank you!
Some years ago, the MCI distributed for trial use a set of harmonizations in four parts (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) for the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. We are currently revising these slightly and will be re-releasing them, to support parishes with a group of experienced (or willing!) singers who want to expand the sound of congregational singing in their parishes.