Melodies for Litany Responses

One of the characteristic features of Byzantine liturgy is the litany: a series of petitions or subjects for prayer, intoned by the deacon, to which the people respond, "Lord, have mercy!" or "Grant this, O Lord!" The repeated singing of "Lord, have mercy" is a heartfelt prayer for God's grace, assistance, and protection, and an expression of love from the One who first loved us.

Unlike the simple responses, litany responses are often sung to two or three different melodies, in alternation. This page covers the melodies for the litany responses in the prostopinije (Carpathian plain chant) tradition.

The Small Litany

This is the shortest of the litanies, and often omitted; its original purpose was a "cover" a prayer of the priest, who only intoned the conclusion of the prayer. Small litanies also serve to mark the transition from one part of a service to another (for example, at the end of the Canon at Matins). The small litany uses a fixed text, except for the priestly exclamation at the end.

The deacon begins the litany, using a melody of his own choice, ending on do. (These melodies given here for the deacon are examples.)

Smalll litany 1

The people respond with a melody that starts on sol, a perfect fourth below the deacon's ending note:

Small litany, 2

Notice that the people have ended back on do, where the deacon continues with the subject of our request:

Small litany 3

The people now respond with a different "Lord, have mercy" - one that starts up on re rather than down on sol, but is otherwise very similar:

Small litany 4

The deacon now invites us to commit ourself to Christ: "Remembering our most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary with all the saints, let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God."

Small litany 5

And the people respond by agreeing to this proposal, turning toward Christ:

Small litany 6

Now the priest prays aloud, ending with a doxology, or short expression of praise of the Holy Trinity, and the people respond:

Amen

Listen to the Small Litany, which can be found on page 122 in the Divine Liturgies book.

The Small Litany is easily memorized, but the basic responses here are used for a number of other litanies as well. The people's singing is scale-wise, with only two leaps: down a perfect fourth at the beginning of the first "Lord, have mercy", and up a major third in the "To you, O Lord."

The Litany of Peace

Vespers and the Divine Liturgy begin with a litany in which we pray for the whole world and its needs; because of the opening invocation ("In peace, let us pray to the Lord"), it is called the Litany of Peace. Special petitions may also be inserted toward the end of the litany, along with prayers for the departed.

As with the Small Litany, the deacon intones petitions for praying, ending on the tonic pitch, do. The first response by the people is:

Litany of Peace 1

and the response to the second petition is:

Litany of Peace 2

These responses alternate - first one is sung, then the other. Like the Small Litany, the Litany of Peace comes to a close with the petition "Commemorating our most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady.... let us commit ourselves... to Christ our God," and the people respond:

To you O Lord

The priest prayers a prayer, ending on do, and the people respond:

Amen

Listen to the Litany of Peace, which can be found on pages 11-13 in the Divine Liturgies book.

Petitions for the departed in the Litany of Peace

If there are special petitions in the middle of the Litany of Peace, the responses to them are the same pair of "Lord, have mercy" melodies. After these special petitions, the deacon has the opportunity to lead the people in prayer for the dead. If he chooses to do so, he will usually end his petition with do - ti - la (that is, in a minor key):

LHM dep 1

The people respond with "Lord, have mercy" in a minor key, beginning on la. (The key signature here puts do on the second space from the bottom of the staff.)

LHM dec 2

(The solfege syllable si is just sol, raised by a half step.) The deacon sings another petition for the departed:

LGM dec 3

and the people respond with different minor key "Lord, have mercy", more soulful but more difficult than the previous one:

LHM dec 4

Then the Litany of Peace continues with the next petition as usual.

The Litany of Supplication

In the Litany of Supplication at the end of Vespers and Matins, we pray for protection and safety throughout the coming night or day. At Vespers, the litany begins

Let us complete our evening prayer to the Lord.

and at Matins, it begins

Let us complete our morning prayer to the Lord.

In either case, the people respond:

Litany of Supplication 1

with that same initial drop of a perfect fourth down to sol. The deacon continues:

Protect us, save us, have mercy on us, and preserve us, O God, by your grace.

and the people respond:

Litany of Supplication 2

Now there follow a series of petitions, each of which ends "let us beseech the Lord", to which the people respond "Grant this, O Lord" with two alternating melodies:

Deacon: That this whole evening be perfect, holy, peaceful, and without sin, let us beseech the Lord.

Grant this 1

Deacon: For an angel of peace, a faithful guide and guardian of our souls and bodies, let us beseech the Lord.

Grant this 2

(The second petition provides the alternate name for this litany: the Angel of Peace Litany.) The petitions continue, with two alternating melodies for "Grant this, O Lord." The two melodies are exactly the same except for the first note, do alternating with mi.

Finally, as with the previous litanies, the deacon intones, "Commemorating our most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady..." and the people respond:

To you O Lord

Then the priest prays the final prayer and the people respond with the Short Amen, as usual.

A very similar litany, with the same responses, occurs at the Divine Liturgy just before the Our Father. In both cases, we pray for our own needs, as well as for repentance and a peaceful death.

Listen to the Litany of Supplication, which can be found on pages 63-65 in the Divine Liturgies book.

The Litany of Fervent Supplication

So far, the response, "Lord, have mercy" has been sung once each time. But in the Litany of Fervent Supplication, we sing it three times for each of the major petitions, which pray not just for our physical needs (as in the Litany of Peace) or for our own personal needs (as in the Litany of Supplication), but for our Church, for our religious and civil leaders, for those present in Church, for those who have shown us mercy, and for all Christians.

The Litany of Fervent Supplication begins with two petitions to which we respond with a single "Lord, have mercy":

Deacon: Let us all say with our whole soul and with our whole mind, let us say:

LHM 1-1

Deacon: O Lord, almighty God of our Fathers, we pray you, hear and have mercy.

LHM 1-2

The next petition is followed by a very simple and scale-wise triple "Lord, have mercy", which goes all the way up to sol before returning to do:

Deacon: Have mercy on us, O God, according to your great mercy, we pray you, hear and have mercy.

LHM 3-1

In the next petition, we pray for the Pope, for our bishops and priests, "and for all our brothers and sisters in Christ." The response is a slightly more complicated triple "Lord, have mercy", which includes a downward leap of a perfect fourth, but otherwise follows the scale from do up to la (notice we go higher with each petition) and back down to do.

LHM 3-2

This same response is sung for the next petition, for our civil authorities:

LHM 3-2

If there are special petitions, the deacon intones them now, and the response has the widest range of all, and including several leaps before returning to do.

LHM 3-3

Finally, for the last petition, we repeat the first, easiest triple "Lord, have mercy":

LHM 3-1

Then, the priest concludes the Litany, and we respond with the Short Amen.

Listen to the Litany of Fervent Supplication, which can be found on pages 35-37 in the Divine Liturgies book.

The Litany for the Deceased

In the Divine Liturgy, there are several optional litanies.

The first of these is the Litany for the Deceased, used when the Divine Liturgy is celebrated for someone who has died, or as a commemoration of all the departed. This litany has two sets of melodies, on pages 39-40 of the Divine Liturgies book. Cantors may choose either set of responses, but the two sets should not be mixed.

The first set of responses (marked A) are in a minor key. The deacon intones in a minor key:

LHM int minor

Then a triple "Lord, have mercy" is sung as a response three times:

LHM 3 minor

Then in response to "let us beseech Christ, the immortal King and our God," we sing:

Grant it minor

Then the priest of deacon intones, "Let us pray to the Lord", and we respond:

LHM high

The priest prays the Byzantine prayer for the dead, "O God of spirits and of all flesh...", and we respond:

Amen minor

Note the addition of the leading tone (si, a raised so) to emphasize the minor key. This set of melodies is notated twice in the Divine Liturgies book: once in A flat (four flats) on pages 38-39. and once in G (one sharp) on pages 436-437. Here we use the latter key, which is easier for most cantors to read, but the melodies are the same.)

The second set of responses is in a major key, but are otherwise used the same way:

LHM 3-4

Grsnt this 4

LHM dec 2

Amen

Listen to the Litany for the Deceased (both versions), which can be found on pages 37-39 in the Divine Liturgies book.

Litany for the Catechumens and Litany for the Faithful

These optional litanies (pages 40-41 in the Divine Liturgy book) may be used when catechumens – that is, those being prepared for baptism – are present at the Divine Liturgy. The responses are exactly the same as for the litanies we have looked at earlier. Note, however, that some responses are to be sung by just the catechumens, and some are to be sung by just the faithful (those already baptized). In both cases, the cantor should lead the group that is singing.

Summary

With practice, you will become familiar with the different litanies, and the responses for each. (For example, whenever you hear "let us beseech the Lord", the response will be "Grant this, O Lord.")

Learning to sing smooth scale-wise passages and perfect fourths (ascending and descending) is critical for proper singing of these responses. If you have trouble matching pitch, especially with clergy who sing much higher or lower than you do, see the suggestions in Pitch Matching.

One more tip:occasionally, there will be an additional blessing or short prayer service at the end of the Divine Liturgy or Vespers. If the priest or deacon ever suddenly intones:

Let us pray to the Lord.

the correct response is almost always:

Lord have mercy

Having this response ready gives you time to determine what is going on in the service!