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.

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.

Liturgical hymns before the Divine Liturgy – your comments requested!

Recently, as part of the Introduction to the Divine Liturgy course for cantors, I added an article on what to sing before the Divine Liturgy to the MCI website. In particular, I have some real reservations about the practicality of using some of the liturgical hymns in the Divine Liturgies book for this purpose.

Rather than put those observations (which are purely my own!) into the article, I have decided to post them here for comment and discussion. What do you think? (Here is the article itself, without my personal thoughts.)

Continue reading “Liturgical hymns before the Divine Liturgy – your comments requested!”

Online Musicianship for Cantors!

In preparation for our online classes, which begin in February, the Metropolitan Cantor Institute has acquired a site license for Theta Music Trainer, a website with computer- and smartphone-based games that teach pitch matching, recognition and singing of scales and intervals, and other important skills.

Complete access to this website is available to all cantors in the Byzantine Catholic Church, as well as students in the MCI Online program. For more information, see the Theta Music Trainer page on the MCI website.

New year, new calendar

Christ is born!

20161230_144418The liturgical calendar for 2017 is now on the MCI website. Please be aware that this year, I am planning to update some of the proper music for fix typos, correct some bad phrasing, and so on. Whenever older music is updated in this way, I will add “Last modified on <date>” on the bottom of the first page.

Cantors should also order (and learn to use!) the annual typikon from the Byzantine Seminary Press:


This booklet has detailed directions for the hymns to be sung at each major Divine Liturgy in the year. In January, the MCI will put explanatory and practice material to help you learn to use the typikon.

YOUR HELP REQUESTED: Remembering our choirs

Throughout the history of our church, there has sometimes been competition for “pride of place” between congregational singing of plain chant, and the singing of choirs (whether of harmonized chant, or of choral masterworks). The singing of our notable choirs has not only added beauty to our church in the past; it can also be used in the present to enhance and supplement our congregational singing, and show us how chant was understand or harmonized in the past. And where choirs can be re-founded or formed, they can provide opportunities to train singers in the liturgical services of our rite, and add social activities based in the parish community.

With that in mind, the Metropolitan Cantor Institute has been working with the Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh for some time to collect information and recordings from the principal choirs of the Byzantine Catholic Church. Now we are turning to you for assistance. We are particularly interested in the following choirs and their directors: Continue reading “YOUR HELP REQUESTED: Remembering our choirs”

YOUR HELP REQUESTED: Remembering our professors

For many years, cantors who received comprehensive cantorial training in Europe were known in this country as “professors.” These men led church singing, taught religion classes, directed plays, and often organized church services when clergy were scarce. Over time, other particularly influential cantors were also called by the title, “Professor.”

In order to better preserve and foster our chant tradition, the Metropolitan Cantor Institute has been working with the Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh to collect information about these important leaders in our church. Now we are turning to you for assistance. We are particularly interested in the following cantors: Continue reading “YOUR HELP REQUESTED: Remembering our professors”

Reader’s Course Videos Available

In September, reader’s courses were held at our cathedrals in Munhall, PA and Parma, OH. Thanks to Fr. Andrew Summerson, the Parma classes were professionally recorded, and those recordings are now available along with the class handouts:

Video 1 (48 minutes)
Video 2 (82 minutes)

Web link: Lectionary
Handout: Introduction to the Books of the Bible
Handout: Tones for Chanting Psalms and Readings
Handout: Tones for the Prokeimenon and Alleluia Verses
Handout: Text of Psalm 50
Handout: Practice readings

As always, materials from previous MCI courses can be found here.