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!

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