Liturgical Music in the Orthodox Church
Church Music Sunday, this year celebrated on Sunday, Oct. 1, gives us two opportunities regarding the music of our Church. First is the opportunity to reflect on the beautiful gift of hymnology we have been given, and second is the opportunity to say, Thank You! to our Church musicians.
Liturgical music in the Orthodox Church has its own unique origins in the development of Byzantine Ecclesiastical Chant. Hymns chanted in this traditional style are rendered by male voices with no instrumental accompaniment, and no harmony other than the isokratima, sustained tones which lend support to the melody. The chant melodies are written in one of eight musical modes which are assigned to specific Sundays on a rotating schedule. In other words, one Sunday will have hymns chanted in the First Mode, the following Sunday will have hymns in the Second Mode, the following Sunday in the Third Mode, etc. This system provides musical variety throughout the year.
Byzantine Chant has its own notation system as well, which looks nothing like contemporary staff notation. To the right is a sample of Byzantine Chant notation:
Chanters are trained to read this notation as easily as we can read the words on this page. Each symbol designates how high or low the melody moves, as well as how long to hold each syllable. A major difference from staff notation is that there is no absolute pitch in Byzantine Chant notation, in other words, a chanter is free to start chanting a hymn beginning on a note that is comfortable in his range, rather than needing a pitch pipe or keyboard to start on a specific note such as A or B or C.
Most church choirs today no longer sing in Byzantine Chant, but sing harmonized versions of the same chant melodies, with female as well as male voices, 2- 3- and 4-part harmony, singing either a capella (unaccompanied) or with organ accompaniment. This is primarily due to living in a western society in the U.S., which has adopted musical forms, sounds and notation that developed in western European traditions.
We are grateful to our church musicians who are needed not only at every Sunday liturgy, but weekday liturgies, Lent and Holy Week services, as well as at Weddings, Baptisms and Funeral services. As mentioned earlier, since the musical mode changes each week, there are new hymns to be chanted each Sunday of the year, which requires rehearsals.
On this Church Music Sunday, each of us should make it a point to thank our musicians for their give of time and talents.
In addition, if there are others interested in becoming a part of the music ministry, feel free to contact Choir Director Dennis Georgen or anyone in the choir for further information. Music is truly a gift of God, and should be used in praise of our Lord, Jesus Christ, for his glory, and our own inspiration and edification.