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?”

A New Marian Hymnal

The 1984 Marian Hymnal marked an important milestone in our church’s music; it was the first major collection of these hymns, with music, in English. As part of the work on the forthcoming hymnal, the MCI has prepared a “new” Marian hymnal for experimental use:

New Marian Hymnal
New Marian Hymnal (camera-ready booklet)

See the Discuss links on the Hymnal Project page if you have any questions about particular hymns – and if you have suggestions for improvement, or hymns that should be added, please comment below!

(Note that the formatting, and even some words and music, may very well change when the Music Commission goes over the draft hymnal; for example, with English and Slavonic side-by-side, there is really no need to include both titles on each page.  In the meantime, please do not use the music publicly, or at large gatherings such as pilgrimages, unless  you have made sure that everyone has access to the “new” versions, and had had time to learn them!)

Music for Pascha, Part 2

As I mentioned in the previous post, we have very few paraliturgical hymns or “spiritual songs” for the time from Pascha to Pentecost, so I am considering the possibility of including new settings of liturgical hymns for this season in the forthcoming hymnal.

In the last post, we looked at some additional settings of the Paschal troparion (“Christ is risen from the dead”).  We might also want to provide a Paschal setting of the Cherubic Hymn or Cherubikon; here is one based on the Paschal hypakoje (“The women with Mary before the dawn”) which has been used for many years at Saint Elias Byzantine Catholic Church in Munhall, PA:

and after the commemorations:

I have also prepared matching versions of “We praise you, we bless you” and the four Communion Hymns which are always sung in the Paschal season (for Pascha, Thomas Sundays, other Sundays, and Mid-Pentecost).

Now, I think there are certainly some Cherubic Hymn settings out there which are sort of so-so, but there are also some that are quite good, and usable in English.  If you have one of your own, consider sending it in!  Years ago, the Inter-Eparchial Music Commission discussed the possibility of taking such settings, looking them over, perhaps making some tweaks as needed, and adding them gradually to our repertoire.  I am not sure if the new hymal is the best place to publish them, but the hymnal process may be a good place to start.

Similarly, we have one setting of the Our Father for use in the Paschal season, based on the Paschal canon (DL 167-168):

But here is another from St. Elias in Munhall, based on the Paschal hypakoje, “The women with Mary before the dawn):

This, too, is music we could probably use right away in some parishes. Especially if weekday Divine Liturgies are held, there are a lot of opportunities to sing the Lord’s prayer!

I have taken all this music and combined it with the Paschal troparion settings from yesterday into a music supplement for Pascha.  Tomorrow, we will look at our one real Paschal hymn, “Christ is risen!  Joy from heaven” and see how that might fit into the picture.

Please leave your thoughts about this music – or other liturgical settings we might like to have for the Paschal season – in a comment below!

New books for Lenten Sunday Vespers!

I am pleased to announce updated versions of two books from the Metropolitan Cantor Institute:

The Order of Vespers on the Sunday of Forgiveness (Cheesefare Sunday) and the Sundays of the Great Fast

This book (88 pages) contains the complete service of Vespers on Cheesefare Sunday afternoon and on the five Sundays of the Great Fast – everything but the saints’ stichera, which change from you to year.

The Order of Vespers for the Sunday of Forgiveness (Cheesefare Sunday)

This book (28 pages) contains ONLY the service for Vespers on the afternoon of Cheesefare Sunday, along with the service of mutual forgiveness (which is also in the larger book for the entire Fast). This smaller book does not include the stichera of repentance in the Eight Tones, or any saints’ stichera, so it is exactly the same from one year to the next.

What’s new about these books?

  • They use more current translations of Vespers, matching the Divine Liturgies and Presanctified books wherever appropriate – both text and music.
  • Music is provided for all psalm verses at the Lamp-lighting Psalms and aposticha, so there is no need for a second book, or large leaflets with this music.
  • The formatting has been vastly improved, and I intend to use the same style (perhaps with further improvements) for the other MCI Vespers books as they are revised.
  • Music has been smoothed out where necessary, and typos have been corrected.

For parishes that celebrate Sunday afternoon Vespers several times during the Great Fast, I recommend the larger book, while parishes that celebrate ONLY Forgiveness Vespers might want to stick to the smaller one. Both books are intended for printing in booklet form on legal size paper. Here the the prepared booklet versions:

The Order of Vespers on the Sunday of Forgiveness (Cheesefare Sunday) and the Sundays of the Great Fast – camera ready version

The Order of Vespers for the Sunday of Forgiveness (Cheesefare Sunday) – camera ready version

One thing these books do not include is the text of the prayers said privately by the priest, such as the Prayers of Light, as well as detailed rubrics for celebration. Rather than putting these in every single MCI book for Vespers (and having the cantor and congregation have to leaf past them), we have created a NEW book containing the priest’s and deacon’s parts of Vespers – both Great and daily Vespers, AND the rubrics for Vespers with the Divine Liturgy, the All-Night Vigil, and Great and Holy Friday.  Watch for a blog post coming soon!

Have Mercy on Me, O My God

This week, I’m beginning a new series on non-liturgical songs for use before and after church services, as part of the MCI’s contribution toward a new hymnal for the Byzantine Catholic Church.

Singing during the Great Fast

Our first “official” set of spiritual songs for Lent is probably the set in the back of the 1978 Levkulic Divine Liturgy book:

  • The sentence is passed (Uže dekret)
  • Christ our King, who reigns with justice (Christe Carju spravedlivyj)
  • In Gethsemene’s Darkness (Jehda na smert’ hotovilsja)
  • Beneath your cross I stand (Pod krest’ tvoj staju)
  • Come now, all you faithful (Prijd’ite voschvalim)
  • Now do I go to the Cross (Idu nyni ko krestu)
  • Having suffered the passion (Preterp’ivyj)

A later book from Father Levkulic and cantor Jerry Jumba, Hymns of the Great Fast (1984), added music for the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil as well as:

  • At the most holy cross (Krestu tvojemu)
  • Earth and heaven mourn (Nebo, zemlja sotvorinjnja)
  • O my Jesus, suffering in pain (O Isuse poranennj) – two versions
  • Rejoice today (Radujsja zilo) – for Palm or Flowery Sunday
  • Have mercy on me, O my God
  • Do not forsake us (Ne opuskaj nas)
  • O my people, my people (L’udi moji)
  • O my God, you are so merciful (O Bože, moj milostivyj)
  • O soul so sinful (Hljan’ duše hrišna)
  • So boundless is her sorrow (Stala Matia zarmuščenna)
  • The grieving mother Stradaljna Mati)
  • We venerate, O Christ (Poklanjajusja moj Christe)
  • O Son of David – for Palm or Flowery Sunday

I hope to look at each of these over the next three weeks. But what these have in common (for the most part) are that they are not so much Lenten hymns, as hymns of the Passion of Christ.

In our tradition, broadly speaking, the texts and prayers of the liturgical services tell us what we are about. And the forty days of the Great Fast are mostly about repentance and conversion, NOT on the sufferings of Christ.  Those are much more the focus of Holy Week itself, which comes after the forty days of Lent.

But there is one hymn in Hymns for Great Lent that definitely “works” for the entire period of Lent: a versified setting of Psalm 50, King David’s psalm of repentance.



  • The original was in 2/4 meter, but only fit into that meter with difficult. Instead, I re-barred it in a chant style, still keeping a fairly duple meter.
  • I changed the opening note from G to  E, following an oral tradition in a number of parishes. This has two advantages: it gives a gives the piece a better minor-key sonority, and it allows each verse to begin and end on the same note.
  • In three places an extra note had to be added to put an accent in the right place. Rather  than complicate the music at the top, I marked those places with an asterisk (*) and added just the problematical music at the bottom.

Whoever leads this is still responsible for SINGING the accents correctly, but I think it works, and I plan to add it to the proposed draft hymnal.

There is one spot that doesn’t sing as well as I would like.  In the last verse, “a heart contrite with humbleness” requires work to fit it to the first ten notes of the last phrase. It CAN be done, but it’s awkward. Any suggestions for a text that works better?

Please append your thoughts below!  Do you have any Lenten hymns we should talk about that are not listed above?

Why TWO classes on the Divine Liturgy?

In the 2-year MCI Online program, there are two different classes on the Divine Liturgy:

  • Introduction to the Divine Liturgy
  • The Divine Liturgy

Some students coming the program wonder if this is a mistake.  It’s not, and here’s why.

When we taught in-person classes for the Metropolitan Cantor Institute, an entire class sang together. Sure, we would often go from one person to another, trying out individual melodies, but there was really no way to make sure that every student knew each part of the Divine Liturgy.

The online course is different. For example, in the Introduction to Church Singing class, every student submits online recordings of themselves singing on a single pitch (to check rhythm and expression), then to a psalm tone, then singing simple responses (“Amen”, “To you, O Lord”) and litany resp0nses (“Lord, have mercy.”) The course is also structured to test a student’s ability to match pitch with the priest of deacon.

The Introduction to the Divine Liturgy class teaches about the Divine Liturgy, and also teaches how to sing and lead the material on pages 11-103 of the Divine Liturgy book – even the Saint Basil melodies! Students practice the music reading skills they learned in the previous course, and how to sing and lead plain chant.

But to do this for ALL the music on these pages would be overwhelming for newer cantors (and even for more experienced ones, if they are still learning to read music!). So for this course, students choose ONE melody for each hymn, such as the Trisagion (“Holy God”) and the Cherubic Hymn (“Let us who mystically”), to record and use to demonstrate their learning. By the end of this course, every student can sing the entire Divine Liturgy, as long as they can choose the melodies to be used when there is a choice.

Later in the program, the Introduction to the Eight Tones class provides a lot of experience in reading musical notation, and in learning and singing melodies. Students practice and demonstrate the troparia, kontakia, prokeimena and Alleluia in all eight tones.

Then, once they are into the “intermediate” classes and take The Divine Liturgy, they will be better prepared to understand the liturgical organization of the service, AND have the necessary skills to sing well from musical notation, and to sing more complicated music.  In this course, they will learn and demonstrate ALL the different melodies we use in the Divine Liturgy, as found on pages 11-103 of the Divine Liturgy book.

By covering the Divine Liturgy, our most important service, in two separate classes, we allow students to grow into and master the cantor’s role, and make sure that every student can sing the Divine Liturgy prayerfully, musically, and well.


Singing and Church Renewal

(Originally published in the September 2017 issue of the Byzantine Catholic World.)

Our church’s tradition of singing – that we ALL participate in chanting entire liturgical services – is a precious spiritual inheritance, one that sets us apart within both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. It has the potential to endow our worship with great beauty and stateliness, but it can also have practical benefits for our parishes. In this series of articles, I’d like to talk about these benefits, and present a challenge to each parish, and each Byzantine Catholic, to help foster this tradition over the coming year.

Our plain chant, developed for Church Slavonic from its origins in Greek music and adapted to English, has a vital property when led by a trained cantor: inevitability.  Its melodies can be learned by heart and applied to a wide variety of hymns such as troparia and kontakia, in such a way that every phrase leads naturally into the next, and each hymn is matched to the one that follows.  “The overall effect,” said musicologist Ivan Garder, who travelled in Eastern Europe in the 1920’s, “is one of extraordinary power.”

Yet many of our parishes no longer  experience this power today, and the reasons are not hard to find. As a whole, we are no longer a culture that sings, at work or at play; instead of making music, we listen to other people make it. Music education in schools is less thorough than it once was, and parishes are fragmented. Liturgical services like Vespers, molebens and the Paraklis have fallen out of use, and while the vast majority of our parishes still sing entire Divine Liturgies, we often do so in a lackluster fashion, using only a small number of the wide range of melodies we once knew by heart.

At this year’s Summer Music School in Pittsburgh, cantors from around the country had a chance to discuss the state of our church singing and prospects for renewal. There was general agreement that there ARE things we can do to recapture and even surpass the kind of congregational singing our parishes have been known for in the past.

– We need to acknowledge that EVERYONE can sing, and good singing can be taught, learned, and practiced.

– Cantors need to be encouraged, AND held to a high standard, since their talents and attitude make a huge difference.

– Singing in harmony, once done by ear in most of our parishes, is a skill that can taught, and harmonized plain chant should become once more a regular part of our liturgical experience.

– School children and young adults, in particular, should have more opportunities to learn and enjoy singing in church.

Most importantly, cantors and faithful need to learn to listen to one another. We sometimes forget that listening is an essential part of living in community, and is just as essential if we want to sing our praises to God with beauty, grace, and joy.

Deacon Jeffrey Mierzejewski is the director of the Metropolitan Cantor Institute.