Liturgical chant became an integral part of Christian worship since Apostolic times in agreement with the admonition of St. Paul: "With gratitude in your heart sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God" (Col. 3:16). Chant, especially in the Byzantine Rite, became an expression of liturgical piety of the faithful, who used to come together in their churches not only for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, but also for their common prayers, offering to God their "sacrifice of praise" (Heb. 13:15).
Our ancestors in the Carpathian region received Christianity from SS. Cyril and Methodius and their disciples in the Byzantine Rite. Along with the Byzantine liturgy they also received a fascination for the liturgical chant. Of course, during the following centuries they applied their own musical genius and, eventually, they developed their own style of liturgical chant.
Carpatho-Rusyn liturgical chant is executed in unison by the entire congregation (monodic chant). They call it "Prostopinije" (Ruth.: proste--simple, plain; pinije--chant). in English Plain Chant, in opposition to the richly embellished polyphonic liturgical singing executed by choirs.
Due to the lack of proper literary sources, it is almost impossible to trace the history of the development of the Carpatho-Rusyn plain chant-Prostopinije. It is only in recent times that some scholars became interested in the genesis of the Prostopinije, having been attracted by its "intoxicating beauty" (prof. S. Reynolds, the University of Oregon).The roots of the Carpatho-Rusyn Plain chant reach down to the Byzantine liturgical music arranged by St. John Damascene (d. 749) according to the scale of eight tones (Ruth.: hlas --voice, tone) that were in use by the Greeks in the eighth century. There are some liturgical hymns or canticles that could not be fitted into the musical system of these eight tones (Greek: ektoechos--eight tones). The melody of these special hymns repeatedly changed and many of their melodies were preserved. Thus, for example, we have twenty various melodies for the Cherubic Hymn registered by Rev. John Bokshay in his Tserkovnoie Prostopinije (1906). And the number of some melodies can still be increased.
This was not the case, however, with the hymns which were controlled by the eight tones system. Their music was more stable and, even after some changes during the centuries of its use, they retained characteristic elements of the original melody. These original elements must be discovered by the musicologists as they try to present to us the history of the liturgical chant.
Contemporary scholars, studying the Carpatho- Rusyn liturgical chant, are able to trace its origin from Kiev to the Carpathian region. Thus, in the formation of the Carpatho-Rusyn liturgical music we can discover three distinct layers of composition that, in the course of centuries considerably modified the original Byzantine chant, namely: 1) Bulgarian-which developed along the lines of Cyrillo-Methodian tradition; 2) Old Kievan-as was cultivated in the famous eleventh century Monastery of Caves ("Kievo-Pecherska Lavra"); 3) proper Carpathian- through the influence of some popular melodies, characterized by the chromatic scale.
As was mentioned before, Carpatho-Rusyn liturgical singing is monodic chant (Greek: monoidia-singing alone) executed in unison. Of course, a group of people of various sexes and ages could never sing in strict unison. For this reason one can always catch some fragment of folk harmonization in the Rusyn churches. It might be informal or even unconscious, but it certainly adds to the "mystical power" of congregational singing.
In the Carpathian region liturgical as well as folk music was transmitted from one generation to another by means of oral tradition. At the very beginning there were no books containing music available. When they did become available, neither the cantors nor the faithful had sufficient musical education to be able to read first the neumatic (set of signs) and, later, the square or diamond notation. The monastic schools of that period provided qualified candidates with only a practical training in the liturgical chant.
In Subcarpathian Ruthenia liturgical chant started to be systematically cultivated only at the turn of the 18th century, when some educated cantors, who had received their musical formation in the famous monastic schools of Kiev, Pochajiv, or L'viv, arrived on the scene. They mastered not only the liturgical chant but also, to a certain extent, the theory of music. Some of them even copied the scores of the more complicated liturgical melodies for themselves.
The most outstanding of these educated cantors was John Juhasevich (1741-1814). He had studied in L'viv, where he also learned the skill of artistic writing. He left behind some 38 hand-written books with liturgical music, which he entitled Irmologion, i.e., the collection of irmoses (Greek: heirmos-irmos, a special group of complicated hymns, introducing the melodies of the nine odes of the Canon, usually taken at Matins). Several collections of the religious songs copied by Juhasevich, which he called Spivanik, were also found.
The systematic teaching of liturgical chant in Subcarpathia started with the foundation of the Theological School in Mukachevo (1744). Bishop Michael M. Olshavskyj decided to educate not only the priests but also the cantors since it was their duty to teach the children in the parochial schools. However, it was Bishop Andrew Bachinskyj who laid a solid foundation for the cultivation of liturgical chant when, in 1793, he established the Preparatory School for Cantors and Teachers in Uzhorod.
Besides the Holy Liturgy there are many other services and celebrations in the Byzantine Rite that contain a great wealth of liturgical hymns. The people learned to sing some of these hymns, especially those most often repeated, from memory. But, truly, the majority of them were chanted by the cantor alone, since only he had the proper liturgical books available. It was Rev. Andrew Popovich (1809-1898), the pastor of Velika Kopanya, Ugocha district, who placed a Zbornik into the hands of the Rusyn people, in which he collected the hymns for Sundays and solemn Feastdays throughout the entire liturgical year. It was printed for the first time in Vienna in 1866 under the title-Velikij Zbornik (Large Collection . . .).
Father Popovich also taught his parishioners how to use the Zbornik and how to sing the various parts of the liturgical services. Soon the faithful started to take an active part in these services, praising God 'with one voice and one heart."
The "fever" of congregational singing rapidly spread from Velika Kopanya to the entire eparchy and Father Popovich's Velikij Zbornik had to be reprinted several times (in 1887, 1888, 1906, etc.). At last the Carpathian Mountains re-echoed with the intoxicating beauty of the praises of God.
Due to various influences in the education of the cantors, the liturgical chant in Subcarpathia varied from one district to another, even from one village to another. Bishop Julius Firczak (d. 1912) decided to unify the chant in his eparchy and commissioned a talented young musician, Rev. John Bokshay (1874-1940), to compile the liturgical chant as it was sung at Holy Cross Cathedral in Uzhorod. The cantor of the cathedral at that time was Joseph Malinich (d. 1910), who had a phenomenal memory for music. He supplied the melodies while Father Bokshay tried to set them down in musical notation. The end result was the first manual of plain chant entitled Tserkovnoje Prostopinije (The Church Plain Chant) which was published in Uzhorod in 1906.
The Prostopinije, with the approval of Bishop Firczak, became a standard manual of plain chant in the Eparchial Seminary and Preparatory School for Cantors in Uzhorod where liturgical singing became systematically cultivated. In this way the style of chant at the Uzhorod cathedral was gradually introduced throughout the entire Eparchy of Mukachevo and, eventually, became a common heritage for all Rusyn eparchies in Europe and abroad.
It should be noted that in some parishes of the Prjashev Eparchy the Galician plain chant is in use to the present time. The Hungarian Byzantine Catholics follow the Prostopinije of Bokshay, which was simultaneously published in Old- Slavonic and Hungarian (1906).