In the discussion “Ensuring Beautiful Liturgies” I offered to provide some analysis of various settings of our liturgical chant. Given that Christmas is this week it seems timely to look at the various settings of the Christmas Troparion (especially since I’ve been finding myself singing “Roždestvo” several times each day).

But first let me provide a reference point for my analysis of the Christmas Troparion using some Christmas Carols everyone knows. Think about “The First Noel” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. Sing through a verse or two of each. Then think about all the times you sang them congregationally in church, and about the various recordings of these carols being sung by choirs. What are the differences between these two carols? You might respond that “The First Noel” is a quieter carol and that “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is an action carol. Or that the first is weaker and the second is more powerful. But why? Consider two points. In its opening line “The First Noel” has two notes per syllable while “O Come, All Ye Faithful” has one syllable. Throughout each hymn you’ll see that “The First Noel” tends to have more notes per syllable than “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. There is a direct relationship between how many syllables per note there are (or notes per syllable) and how strongly a congregation sings the song. The second point is that “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is a simpler melody than “The First Noel”. Now Christmas Carols are obviously not the same thing as troparia set to the eight Ruthenian tones. But consider and you’ll see that the principle of keeping settings as simple as is possible holds. This is an application of the “KISS Rule” (“Keep it simple, Silly), which is well known by our cantors and long a part of our chant tradition. When chant is set simply (with the chant serving the text, keeping the syllable to note ratio close to 1, and providing for good accentuation of the text) the resultant settings are more easily sung by the congregation, which means more powerful singing.

Consider the Christmas Troparion when sung in Slavonic. Sing it through. What do we notice? With two exceptions, for every syllable there is only one note! And where there are two notes per syllable said syllable is the one in the word that (when spoken) gets the accent. That is part of why it has always been well sung and a favorite of Slavs (anyone remember the days when visitors entering a house during Christmas would automatically start singing “Roždestvo” as soon as they entered someone’s house?).

Definitely something to think about here!

Let’s look at some settings of the Christmas Troparion in Slavonic and English:

1. The generic Slavonic as sung in probably at least half of our parishes.
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The Christmas Troparion was always sung very strongly in Slavonic. This was very much because for each syllable in the text there is only one note to be sung (there are two exceptions at the ends of phrases). Having one note per syllable means the congregation is going to hit each note/syllable with more strength and that the sound of the troparion will be stronger and ‘crisper’. Note that the opening line omits notes when compared to Bokšaj. The omission of such notes has always been common in singing prostopinije and in the last century there has been a slight natural trend towards the simplification of the most commonly used tones. [Even in Bokšaj you can find examples that show the principles of how to abbreviate the melody for a really short text.] Note in the ending phrase the accent is on “va” of the “Slava”, which is an improper accent. I would not attempt to change that after a few centuries of singing it like this but it could be changed easily by putting two notes on the “Ho” in “Hospodi”, giving “Sla” the half note and then the “va” and “Te” on the same note.

2. A simplified Slavonic setting as sung in a lot of parishes.
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Note that the pattern for Tone 4 Troparion used is simpler then the one in #1. Among other things, it is also a reminder that Bokšaj was a snapshot of one parish at one particular time and never the standard held to by all parishes using Carpathian Chant.

3. A severe Slavonic setting that is literal to Bokšaj (which is pretty awful).
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I’ve seen a few settings of what some claim to call a ‘restored setting’. It is a literal application of the melody given in Bokšaj regardless of the problems with accentuation. I’ve seen two different settings for the opening lines. The one with the multiple notes per syllable is more difficult for congregations to sing strongly. The one that simply gives one note per syllable has resulted in improper accentuation of the text. I do not believe there are more then a handful of parishes that might sing settings such as these.

4. The 1969 "Green Compline Book" English.
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The major problem with this setting is not the omission of the notes that are often omitted but rather the omission of notes that are vital to the structure of the melody. If the “O” in “O Christ our God” in the opening line had been on a B it would have worked. But omitting that note which is necessary to the structure of the melody left an arrangement that did not and could not work.

5. My 1984 setting in English
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I had restored the setting of this troparion from the “Black Book” to the above, and up until the RDL it was used in over 200 parishes with good success.

6. The 2006/2007 RDL Setting
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"Your Birth, O" is spread across 6 notes and has the same softening effect as in "The First Noel", making it less powerful and more subdued as a hymn. Each word (“Your”, “Birth” and “O”) gets two notes and the same level of accentuation even though in normal speaking one would accent only “Birth”. This is what happens when you force the text to serve the music rather then letting the music serve the text. If you examine the official settings in the Thompson Pew Book you’ll see that there is tendency to assign multiple notes to emphasize articles (like “and”, “the” and “a”), mostly on runs or where there is movement in the melody. The problem with this is that when you sing such a setting it sounds very forced and awkward since no one would actually speak that way (well, there are people who, a, a, a, a, a, s-s-s-speak t-t-that w-w-ay).

When reviewing the published chant settings in English one needs to first divide them into the settings for the fixed texts of the Divine Liturgy and the changeable texts. While I don’t agree with every note given in the “Gray” and “Green” music books (or the update for these fixed texts for the Divine Liturgy given in the “Black Book”) I do support setting the chant as simply as is possible so that it may better serve the text in a manner that is easy to sing. We’ve already discussed the antiphons several times. In the 1964 settings in the First Antiphon we gave the Lord “GLOrious” praise (the accents are natural). In the 2007 settings the people now give Him “gloRIous” praise. Sorry, but that sounds really silly. No one would – when speaking – say “What a gloRIous day!” Those who set the antiphons in 1964 were willing to sacrifice a note so that the text could be properly accentuated. It did not at all affect the pattern used to sing the other verses of the antiphons, the weekday antiphons, or the ones for feasts.

7. Pattern for Troparion Tone 4:

But back to Troparion Tone 4. Ultimately, the pattern used for Tone 4 Troparion is as follows:
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The notes in brackets [o] can be omitted to keep the settings simpler and without altering the structure of the melody.

The notes between bars | o | are repeated as necessary.

Best wishes to all for a peaceful and joyous Christmas.

Christos Raždajetsja! ~ Slavite Jeho!
Christ is Born! ~ Glorify Him!