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?
Anyone who attends the Divine Liturgy regularly knows that we sing troparia to melodies made up of phrases which repeat in a regular order. There is one of these melodies in each of the eight tones. So if you encounter a hymn labelled “Troparion, Tone 1” you know it will be sung to the troparion melody in Tone 1.
For singing kontakia, the rules are a little more complicated. Certain feasts had special melodies written for their kontakia (Christmas, Tone 3; Theophany, Tone 4; Ascension, Tone 6; Pascha, Tone 8) and these melodies became so well-known that all kontakia in these four tones are sung to the feast-day melodies, while for the other four tones the troparion melodies are used.
For the hymns of Vespers called stichera, we have another set of eight “ordinary” melodies, one in each tone, called “samohlasen” melodies. These melodies are sometimes used to sing other hymns as well; for example, “It is truly proper to glorify you, O Theotokos” is sung to the Tone 6 samohlasen melody, and “We have seen the true light” is sung to the samohlasen melody in Tone 2.
Some parishes use these melodies to sing the Our Father, and they are also sung at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts and during Holy Week.
Podoben or “special” melodies
In some of our older church books in English, you sometimes find the indication “special melody” – for example, at Vespers on Great and Holy Friday for the set of hymns beginning, “When the Arimathean lifted you lifeless from the cross.” This melody is very well known in our parishes, even though it is not one of the “normal” melodies in the eight tones.
These special melodies are also called “podobny”, from the Slavonic word podoben which simply means “melody” or “tune.” In Church Slavonic books, including those for the people, you will find that hymns at Vespers and Matins often have both a tone and a melody indicated:
Hlas 2, podoben Jehda ot dreva.
Tone 2, special melody “Jehda ot dreva”. (followed by the words of the hymn to be sung to this melody)
These special melodies or podobny are used to add something special to certain services – a particular flavor or “sound” to a feast day or special occasion. Melodies are memorable, and like familiar words and phrases they help us become grounded in the liturgical year.
They are also used at times to connect different services together. For example, the Hymns of Farewell at the funeral service (“Tell us now, brother…”) are sung to the same Tone 2 special melody, “Jehda ot dreva” or “When from the wood of the cross” that we sing for the burial of the Lord on Great and Holy Friday.
When the MCI began producing music handouts for Vespers in 2004, we often provided two sets of music: the texts set to the special melodies, with a second set of music at the back using the simpler samohlasen melodies. But since parishes will never sing both sets, we moved to having two different leaflets whenever special melodies are appointed. So if you see a link in the liturgical calendar which looks like this:
you will know that clicking on the first link will get you music set to the special melodies (podobny) where they are appointed, and the second link takes you to slightly simpler music using the samohlasen melodies.
Sometimes there is only a single link for Vespers music; in these cases, either no special melody is appointed, or the special melodies in the liturgical books for that day have entirely fallen out of use in our church. Whenever you don’t know the special melody for a sticheron, just use the samohlasen melody in the appointed tone.
For a summary of the samohlasen melodies and podobny, see Melodies for stichera.
Another meaning of “samohlasen”
Samohlasen once had an entirely different meaning: it was used for hymn melodies written for a particular feast which were not used anywhere else, while podoben meant a melody shared among several feasts.
You can see this sometimes in Father David Petras’ annual typikon. If the description of Vespers refers to “the samohlasen”, this means a special sticheron or hymn, particular to the day, which originally had its very own melody. These melodies are only found in old chant manuscripts. In our church, at least, we sing stichera to the “ordinary” melodies in the eight tones – what we call samohlasen melodies -and to the special melodies or podobny.