Our Chant, Episode 3: The Role of the Cantor

Our chant – like our liturgy – is at once insanely complicated and gloriously simple.  It is easy to learn the basics of chant, and even the harder melodies can be sung by anyone in the congregation, IF they have someone to follow who knows the chant and how to apply it in practice.

Time and again, I come back to the following observation of the Russian Orthodox musicologist Ivan Garner about the singing in the churches of the prostopinije tradition in Europe:

In all village churches, both Orthodox and Uniate, congregational singing of all the services in their entirety has been practiced exclusively, including the hymns of the “proper,”  utilizing the full range of tones and melodies…  The cantors – the more experienced chanters among the parishioners – who stood on the kliros, began the chanting.  As soon as those present recognized the melody, the whole church sang: they sang all the stichera, all the troparia, all the irmoi – in a word, everything that the typikon indicated was to be sung.  They sang in unison, and whoever was able added a parallel melody line or improvised a bass line.  The impression produced was one of extraordinary power.  But the main thing was that those present were not passive listeners, they were not “the public,” but were aware that they themselves assisted at the performance of the divine services.

This is an excellent place to start, and you can read more in the article What is a cantor?  on the MCI website.  But for purposes of this article, I would like to talk more specifically about what our Church and our chant need today from its cantors: I believe it needs cantors who are learned, perceptive, and willing to share what they have.

The learned cantor

Our chant – like our liturgy – is at once insanely complicated and gloriously simple.  It is easy to learn the basics of chant, and even the harder melodies can be sung by anyone in the congregation, IF they have someone to follow who knows the chant and how to apply it in practice. And therein lies the complexity.

We live in a time and place where few people sing naturally, and where our divine services are held a few times a week. So it takes conscious, conscientious study to master our patterns of worship and singing. 

If you want to become a learned cantor:

  • Really listen to the singing of experienced cantors and clergy, both in your home parish and everywhere you go.
  • Find out more about the history of our chant and liturgy.
  • Learn all our chant melodies and how to sing them; listen and practice until you know them by heart – and can sing them in church.

The real test of mastery will be the ability, when given a book for one of our services by anyone who comes to you, to be able to explain what the service is, and why we celebrate it; to demonstrate the singing, in a way that can touch the heart of your hearer; and to teach anyone by example how to sing it well.

The watchful cantor

As we will see in later episodes, our plain chant is structured in a way that makes it easy for a congregation to sing, if they have good leadership.  And one of the essential characteristics of a good leader is that he or she pays attention to what is going on:

  • Before the service: is everything prepared and practiced? Does the congregation have what they need for worship? Do I know what I need to do to start the singing at each point?
  • During the service: does the music match what we are doing, in tempo and style? Are people singing well, or do they need more guidance? Are we in step with the clergy? Am I actually praying, or just going through the motions? What can I do right now to make sure all is done in good order, to the glory of God?
  • After the service: is there something I need to review orpractice? Is there something I need to teach the members of the congregation, or someone I can invite to the cantor stand – perhaps as my eventual replacement?

Some of this “situational awareness” comes from practice, but I can also recommend an ancient Christian practice particularly to cantors: keeping vigil. Spend time, starting with a few minutes, every day, in quiet before God. Learn to calm your passionate mind and listen for the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Glorify God and ask him to show you what you need to see, when you need to see it.

The generous cantor

Finally, an entire army of learned, perceptive cantors will not do what Christ asks of us unless these cantors are also willing to share what God has given them in study and prayer:

  • sharing your time: being truly faithful to your commitments, in church and out – being reliable and on task.
  • sharing your vocation: being open to forming new cantors who will one day take their turn leading the singing (perhaps so you can harmonize!)
  • sharing your heart: showing kindness and compassion, even in difficult circumstances, or toward people you might otherwise dismiss.  It is often in those people we most need to see the face of Christ.

As many of the saints have said, none of us really knows the struggles of those around us. And yet the times when people come to church – especially for baptisms, weddings or funerals, or when they return after a long absence – may be absolutely crucial in determining whether they see the beauty of the kingdom of God in the people and worship they encounter, or if they experience disorder, contempt, and thoughtlessness. We need to love all those God puts in our path, because our aim is for all of us to one day feast together in the Kingdom of heaven.

In future episodes, I will be looking at much more concrete examples of how our chant “works” in serving our worship. But I would invite you to comment here about your view of the cantor’s vocation, and how we can make it a more effective sign of the truth, goodness, and beauty with which God desires to bless the world.




Our Chant, Episode 2: What is “our chant”?

Hearing the chant – preferably, hearing it sung well – is a prerequisite for singing it well.  Like jazz, this is not a form of music you can learn from reading it in a printed score.

My introduction to this series begs the question: what is our chant, exactly?

In the Byzantine (Ruthenian) Catholic Church, we sing our services congregationally, from beginning to end, using a liturgical plain chant called prostopinije, which means “plain singing.”  Parts of this music form – the more complicated parts, which we have in common with Russian and Ukrainian chant families – were written down centuries ago.  But the ordinary melodies sung at every service? Those were not written down until the beginning of the 20th century.  Instead, every village sang its own, slightly different version of the same basic hymns and responses, and perhaps add a few of their own.

This worked rather well when cantors served in their home villages, or were at least willing to switch to using the local versions of melodies;  where people did not move around much; and when cantors (lead singers) and church members attended services through the week, and for many hours on Sundays. The sheer amount of chant that one heard made it possible to learn a vast amount of music by heart.

 But even at large gatherings such as pilgrimages, it became apparent that the chant was not at all consistent from one place to another – again, except for the complicated melodies which were written down in the chant books called Irmologia.  So a series of bishops in Eastern Europe opened chant schools, published music collections, and (to some extent) began to standardize the prostopinije chant. This was the state of affairs when those who founded our churches here first came to the United States.

An oral – and aural – tradition

We sometimes refer to our chant as an oral tradition, meaning it is passed on by word of mouth, whether teaching or lived experience.

But is is also an AURAL tradition, meaning we learn by what we hear (and see, and sense with our bodies – which are intimately involved whenever music is performed by ourselves or others).  Hearing the chant – preferably, hearing it sung well – is a prerequisite for singing it well.  Like jazz, this is not a form of music you can learn from reading it in a printed score.

So our chant consists of:

  • a basic stock of melodies – about 90 in all – to be learned by heart, internalized, from hearing and singing them over and over.
  • a method of applying these melodies naturally to any liturgical text – all the troparia, kontakia, and other hymns we sing.
  • a shared understanding of how cantors, clergy, and congregatons communicate with each other during the service.
  • a common way of singing chant in harmony

The boundaries of the chant are pretty clear, but not entirely so – some spiritual songs (the 18th and 19th century Eastern European equivalent of “praise music”) made its way into the chant in the form of borrowed melodies, and sometimes popular choral hymns for the Liturgy were transmuted into something that looked like plain chant.  But overall, our chant provides the music we need to sing every liturgical service in the church year.

Chant books

On the MCI website, you will find thousands of pages of music. But the basics of prostopinije are found in our chant books, generally in Church Slavonic, and sometimes in older notations. It is not necessary to read these books – unless you really want to understand the ins and outs of the chant, or if you are setting new texts to the chant melodies.  One of the aims of this series is to “open up” the chant books so you can see how our prostopinije developed, and how it works, in detail.

Next time, we will talk about those who are responsible for “executing” (and hopefully not killing!) our chant: our cantors.

For the complete services, go here.  And leave comments or questions below if you like!

Our Chant, Episode 1: Introduction

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 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
  • 14 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 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.

The series will focus on our Carpathian prostopinije, and a few other chants we use in church. Paraliturgical hymns and choral music of our church will get their own series as time permits. New posts will appear every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Topics covered

Watch this space for an index of all articles in the series.

The Christmas “Hymn of Light”

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.

A Christmas present: Three new Cherubic Hymn settings in English

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).

Continue reading “A Christmas present: Three new Cherubic Hymn settings in English”

What are “samohlasen” and “podoben” melodies?

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?

Continue reading “What are “samohlasen” and “podoben” melodies?”

Holy Week follow-up: your input requested

Christ is risen!

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 mci@archpitt.org.  Thank you!

Harmonized Plain Chant – Part 1

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.

In the meantime, we are releasing two harmonizations of the Liturgy for the Presanctified Gifts, acording to the official 2010 books:
Continue reading “Harmonized Plain Chant – Part 1”