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#317815 04/06/09 04:08 AM
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I had never really thought about this before, but recently when I attended another UGCC parish, I came way with some really mixed feelings regarding choirs and there relation to the liturgy. At the other church I attended, the choir sounded good enough to put out a CD, but the downside was that there was practically no participation from the rest of the congregration, and a friend and I gave up trying to join in the singing very quickly. Of course it was very beautiful to listen to, but after we left, my friend, who's been attending my parish, remarked, that while the choir was very impressive, it didn't feel like we had participated in the liturgy. Having already attended my parish, she knows that the singing in our church may not be of CD quality, but it is quite robust and leaves you feeling like you're more than an observer. So I'm a little confused. Does a world class choir eliminate participation from the rest of the congregation, or could it be vice versa ?

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What's to stop your participation?

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"Does a world class choir eliminate participation from the rest of the congregation, or could it be vice versa ?"

The answer lies not in the choir, but in the music. The use of a choir is extremely ancient, but the choir was seen as leading the congregation in song, not usurping the voice of the congregation. The music of the Church originally was monadic--everyone sang in once voice. The choir led the chanting, especially useful in larger churches, where the voice of one or two cantors would be drowned out. People sometimes added an ison, or sang in natural harmony along with the choir. The choir therefore reinforced the people and provided a foundation on which they could add their voices.

In the 17th century, under Italian influence, complex polyphony began infiltrating the Orthodox Church, often under the patronage of aristocracy (which always craves to be fashionable). Many of these arrangements, for four, five, or six voices, were simply too complex for untrained voices, which reduced the role of the congregation either to singing the ison or simply listening.

By the 18th century, in Russia particularly, Western operatic style compositions were supplanting the traditional chants, just as in the West operatic compositions had supplanted Gregorian chant. The result was the same in both places: just as one would not expect a random collection of individuals off the street to sing a Mozart or Rimsky-Korsakov opera, you would not expect them to be able to sing a Mass or Divine Liturgy by them, either. So the choir totally supplanted the people in certain jurisdictions, though congregational singing continued to be the norm at monasteries and "in the sticks" (not to mention among the Old Ritualists), and there the traditional chants were preserved, to be restored in our time. Because the majority of people no longer sang, they no longer assimilated the texts of the Litugy, of the various hymns, troparia and kontakia, and with them the underlying theology of the Church; the role of liturgy as principal catechist was severely weakened, if not lost, and it should come as no surprise that Western-style catechetical manuals rise in popularity from that time forward.

If the choir is properly used, as the bedrock for the congregation singing of the traditional chants, then it is a valuable adjunct to the liturgy. If it is used as a means of displaying vocal prowess through the singing of composed pieces beyond the capacity of the people, then it is a hinderance to their full participation in the Liturgy.

I saw this last summer in Bucharest, when I went to Liturgy twice at two different churches just across Revolutionary Square from each other. In one, the congregation sang traditional Romanian chants, led by a handful of men in the kliros (interestingly, their number varied through the Liturgy, as some men joined in later, while others dropped out; only the cantor was there for the whole Liturgy). The other was next to the home of the national orchestra and chorus, and most of the members of the choir, as well as the deacon, were professional singers. I was treated to an outstanding concert of a whole range of composed pieces, both familiar and new (apparently there are a number of Romanian composers who wrote church music in the 19th and 20th centuries). It was beautiful but it was not Liturgy.

I should say that what goes for the choir should also go for the cantor, even if there is no choir. I have been in many churches where the cantor possessed an outstanding voice, and was right proud of it, too. He sang the Liturgy beautifully, adding all the grace notes; a light tenor, he sang about an octave higher than the rest of the congregation could reach. I tried to sing along, but gave up, since his tempo seemed arbitrary, his pitch was too high, and his inflection unfamiliar. Nobody else sang, either.

In my experience, the best cantors (like the best choirs), lead the people, subordinating their own egos and vocal abilities to those of the congregation. They know what their people can do, and they do not attempt to exceed it. This may mean they simplify some of the tones, sing lower than they could (or higher--who wants to match a basso profundo on a low C?), and help carry the people through the Liturgy. If he does his job right, gradually he makes his job redundant--or at least much easier. The people become utterly familiar with the common parts of the Liturgy, know most of the Octoechoes, and maybe even the troparia and kontakia of the greater feasts. He merely gets them started, gives them a pitch and controls the tempo. The people do the rest.

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Very well articulated Stuart. It's really hard to criticize an outstanding choir, when you consider the talent level and the hours of practice they must have put in. On the other hand, there is something very disappointing about a large congregation that for the most part does not sing.

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We have three chanters and a choir. The chanters do mostly Znammeny and Byzantine, and we (the choir) do Znammeny, Prostopinije, Kievan, Russian, and Byzantine, some harmonized, some not. I might also say that we're quite good, although I must also say the choir was quite good before I joined them. Congregational participation, for whatever reason I have not yet discovered, begins during Matins with the Magnificat, and continues throughout the Liturgy, and there is a high level of participation, whether the music is harmonized or not.

At another nearby Orthodox parish which for reasons of charity I will not name, congregational participation is non-existent. The reason is that they do excessively melismatic music (melismatic is the opposite of syllabic -- that is, melismatic music will have numerous notes to one syllable) that nobody could sing without knowing it, and without having a director to watch. I gave up -- and remember, I sing in a choir -- during the Cherubic Hymn. "Life cre-aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa" and it went on, and on, and on, and on, jumping around from note to note to note to note to note, seemingly forever until finally, ending on "ting," and then, "Triiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii" was the same, as was, "niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii". It was impossible. I realize that the Cherubic Hymn needs to fill a fairly large space of time, but why not choose a simpler one people can actually sing, and repeat it? That's what we do.

I don't know of any parishes that use music too sophisticated for people to sing, at least not these days. I think that's more of a problem of the past, especially now that Znammeny and even Byzantine are making a big come-back in Slavic parishes. But all of this ridiculously melismatic music is impossible for anyone who is not looking at the music and the choir director to sing -- so why use it?




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I think that Drillock's English arrangements of Znammeny are eminently singable by a congregation, precisely because it hews to the earlier syllabic style. The same can be said of the English settings of Byzantine Chant performed by the Boston Byzantine Choir, heard on their CD "First Fruits". Check out this short sample of "God is the Lord": First Fruits [liturgica.com]

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By the way, Znamenny can be melismatic: Iiiiii-je Chruviiiiii-iiii-iii-iii-ii-i-nij. Works for monks, who sing it every day. Doesn't work as well in English, and not on people who hear it, at most, once a week.


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I'm wondering just how widespread this situation is now. A friend at my church told me that at his old UGCC parish, they had a large choir who did all the singing during the liturgy, while the rest of the parishoners did nothing.

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Originally Posted by Lawrence
I'm wondering just how widespread this situation is now. A friend at my church told me that at his old UGCC parish, they had a large choir who did all the singing during the liturgy, while the rest of the parishoners did nothing.
In my Parish we have 3 cantors who take turns leading a small choir & the congregation in singing the Liturgy. We may not all be in tune or even in the same key but a majority of the parishoners are singing. That's what makes it so beautiful. Every now & then the cantors will sing harmonies as they did today since there was a larger crowd to carry the melody.

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Like a Carpatho Rusyn would say, sing prostopinje. Seriously it is easy to sing. We visited an OCA parish that uses it and it was during mission vespers so there were a lot of people present who don't usually use prostopinije. Guess what, when the stichar, apostica, well, almost everything was done everyone in the congregation sung. Why? because it is catchy and easy to sing and follow. If you wonder what it is and you're OCA think the Sat. Evening prokeimenon in tone 6.. .that's vesperal tone 6 prostopinije. Galician chant is easy to sing and congregational too.

Check out this new work, it's Orthodox 2 part singing from St. Tikhon's www.orthodoxtwopartmusic.org [orthodoxtwopartmusic.org]

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What a surprising and disappointing discussion.

Why do you have to equate "participation" with the people singing everything? That is precisely the rabbit hole into which the Catholic Church jumped into the 1960's, and much evil did it do to us. Now we Catholics are slowly recovering our polyphony and classical music and our melismatic chants... and you Orthodox want to imitate our failed experiences???

Frankly, the more I read the liturgical discussions in ByzCath and OrthodoxChristianity.Net, the more I am convinced that the Orthodox Church is on the verge of its own liturgical chaos, as the very mentality that destroyed the Roman Rite in the 1960's is invading Orthodox circles today.

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But beautiful as they are, polyphony and operatic liturgical pieces are not truly liturgy. Moreover, they did not become common in the Orthodox Church until the late 17th century, in imitation of the developments of the Latin Church. So, at very best, we can say that Orthodox polyphony and composed liturgical music are a latinization; at worst, we can say that the entire phenomenon of composed liturgical music contradicts the patristic understanding of liturgy, both East and West, by alienating the people from their rightful role in the liturgical dialogue. Going back more than a century, the Holy See has insisted that Gregorian Chant is the proper musical genre for the Roman liturgy, and that congregational singing of such is the norm. Yet every attempt to restore the authentic chant tradition of the West has failed. The situation did never became as grave in the East--there were always places where the ancient chants were sung congregationally--and the Liturgy was still regarded as a sung dialogue between priest and people. So the restoration of the ancient chants was never as large a problem for us as it was for the Latins.

I am curious, though--if full participation does not require the people to sing their parts (and the sung Mass is still normative for the Latin Church), then what exactly does full and active participation mean to you?

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Just as there are degrees of melisma, there are degrees of participation-a-ble music. Polyphony is no bar. If it were, we wouldn't have Protestant congregations booming those marvelous Wesley and Bach hymns. Personally, I prefer Byzantine or Znammeny (original, and not harmonized), but Russian polyphony is accessible to Western ears, and the importance of accessibility in the scheme of evangelizing America cannot be overstated. Those who do not know the harmonies sing the melody. Polyphony does not in any way bar participation.

You can't force participation. People choose to do it or not. I don't see how changing music, particularly making it far stranger to Western ears, is going to have any effect on participation, except to lessen it.

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"Polyphony is no bar."

I would distinguish between natural or 'folk" harmonies and complex polyphonic arrangements. Anything beyond three voices is generally beyond the abilities of untrained voices, and therefore should be avoided in liturgical settings.

"If it were, we wouldn't have Protestant congregations booming those marvelous Wesley and Bach hymns."

These, however, are simplified arrangements. Moreover, Protestants generally have the assistance of an organ or piano to provide pitch and carry the tune.

"Personally, I prefer Byzantine or Znammeny (original, and not harmonized), but Russian polyphony is accessible to Western ears, and the importance of accessibility in the scheme of evangelizing America cannot be overstated. "

Accessible, in the sense of not sounding too foreign, but not accessible in the ability to sing in its original arrangement. Before going into Znammenny or Kriuk, one could simply go back to Russian, Halich or Byzantine plainchant, to say nothing of Carpatho-Rusyn Prosptopinje.

"You can't force participation. People choose to do it or not. "

Quite correct. They choose to do it when (a) the music and the texts are familiar; and (b) when the music is within the scope of their talents. I find it interesting that the higher the degree of convert membership in Orthodox or Byzantine Catholic congregations, the greater the enthusiasm for traditional chant; conversely, the more resolutely ethnic a congregation, the more they seem to prefer "Westernized" liturgical music. Being a convert myself, I know where I stand.

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But beautiful as they are, polyphony and operatic liturgical pieces are not truly liturgy.


Says who? The liturgical modernists who wrecked Catholic liturgy in the 1960's and 1970's and forced millions to sing the miserable ditties of the OCP?

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Going back more than a century, the Holy See has insisted that Gregorian Chant is the proper musical genre for the Roman liturgy, and that congregational singing of such is the norm.


You gravely misread the Magisterium of the Catholic Church regarding Church music, which explicitly gives pride of place to BOTH Gregorian chant and Sacred Polyphony. ALL the documents on sacred music issued by Popes Pius X and Pius XII, and Vatican II give an honored place to polyphony.


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I am curious, though--if full participation does not require the people to sing their parts (and the sung Mass is still normative for the Latin Church), then what exactly does full and active participation mean to you?

I will let the current Pope answer you. Emphases mine.

From "The Feast of Faith" by Joseph Ratzinger, published in 1986 by Ignatius Press (pp. 123-125)

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One of the principles of the Council's liturgical reform was, with good reason, the participatio actuosa, the active participation of the whole "People of God" in the liturgy. Subsequently, however, this idea has been fatally narrowed down, giving the impression that active participation is only present where there is evidence of external activity -- speaking, singing, preaching, liturgical action. It may be that articles 28 and 30 of the Constitution on the Liturgy, which define active participation, have encouraged this narrow view by speaking largely of external activities. Yet article 30 also speaks of silence as a mode of active participation. We must go on to say that listening, the receptive employment of the senses and the mind, spiritual participation, are surely just as much "activity" as speaking is. Are receptivity, perception, being moved, not "active" things too? What we have here, surely, is a diminished view of man which reduces him to what is verbally intelligible, and this at a time when we are aware that what comes to the surface in rationality is only the tip of the iceberg compared with the totality of man. In more concrete terms, there are a good number of people who can sing better "with the heart" than "with the mouth"; but their hearts are really stimulated to sing through the singing of those who have the gift of singing "with their mouths". It is as if they themselves actually sing in the others; their thankful listening is united with the voices of the singers in the one worship of God. Are we to compel people to sing when they cannot, and by doing so, silence not only their hearts but the hearts of the others too? This is not to impugn the singing of the whole faithful people, which has its inalienable place in the Church, but it is opposed to a one-sidedness which is founded neither on tradition nor on the nature of the case.

Next, Joseph Ratzinger / Pope Benedict skewers the idea of "utility music", referring to the idea of Karl Rahner that the great heritage of Western Church music (polyphony, ancient chants, classical music, etc.) should be banished in favor of easy-to-sing music for the whole people. (So you now know who was behind that monstrous idea to begin with)

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A Church which only makes use of "utility" music has fallen for what is, in fact, useless. She too becomes ineffectual. For her mission is a far higher one. As the Old Testament speaks of the Temple, the Church is to be the place of "glory", and as such, too, the place where mankind's cry of distress is brought to the ear of God. The Church must not settle down with the what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level; she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable and beloved. Next to the saints, the art which the Church has produced is the only real "apologia" for her history. It is this glory which witnesses to the Lord, not theology's clever explanations for all the terrible things which, lamentably, fill the pages of her history. The Church is to transform, improve, "humanize" the world -- but how can she do that if at the same time she turns her back on beauty, which is so closely allied to love? For together, beauty and love form the true consolation in this world, bringing it as near as possible to the world of the resurrection. The Church must maintain high standards; she must be a place where beauy can be at home; she must lead the struggle for that "spiritualization" without which the world becomes the "first circle of hell." Thus to ask what is "suitable" must always be the same as asking what is "worthy"; it must constantly challenge us to seek what is "worthy" of the Church's worship.

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