Eastern or Western? This is the question that always seems to be the topic of debate when church musicians gather to discuss the hymns of the Church. What is the proper way to offer hymns to God? Should we use music written in the Byzantine Style or those which are written in the polyphonic Western style? Those who favor the Byzantine style argue that it is in accordance with the tradition of the Church, while those who argue in favor of the Western style say that the Byzantine style is foreign to today’s American communities. Eastern or Western? I believe that this debate focusing on the style of liturgical music has caused us to lose focus of the true concern regarding the manner in which these hymns are being sung.
In order for us to gain a better understanding of the manner in which liturgical music should be chanted we need to first reacquaint ourselves as to how and why it was instituted into the Liturgical Life of the Church in the first place. In both the Gospel accounts of Saint Matthew (26.30) and Saint Mark (14.26) it is mentioned that after our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ instituted the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper, both He and His disciples sang a hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God. Later, we see this practice continuing after our Lord’s Resurrection, during the early days of Christianity when Saint Paul advises the faithful saints of Ephesus to “be filled with Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.” (Ephesians 5. 18b – 19).
This early Christian practice of singing spiritual songs is a continuation of the ancient Judaic tradition of chanting psalms. For centuries, before the appearance of the Messiah, Israel had declared the praises of our Lord with hymns found in the Book of Psalms. After the Resurrection and establishment of the New Covenant therefore, it was only natural that these first Christians and members of the New Israel, should pray with the same voice as the fathers of old; embroidering it with their own Hellenic tradition as well.
As the church grew, and especially after the years of early Church persecutions, many new hymns which were specifically Christian in character began to appear. But how were these hymns to be sung? Where they to be chanted by harmonizing or by monophonic choirs? To answer these questions the early Christians referred to Isaiah’s vision of angels of the Lord praising God and singing in one voice: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6.3). It was precisely because the heavenly hosts sang their praises of God in a single voice that the early Christians, favored monophonic singing, and adopted it as the early form of Christian chant. This decision was further supported by many Church Fathers including Saint Gregory Nazianzus who described the angelic choirs singing psalms and hymns by saying that “despite many mouths only one voice was heard.”
Saint Basil of Caesarea develops this idea even further by stating: “Who can consider as an enemy one with whom he has sung God’s praises with one voice? Hence singing the psalms, imparts the highest good, love for it uses communal singing, so to speak, as a body of unity, and it harmoniously draws people to the symphony of one choir.” The early Christian community therefore becomes a single body, magnifying the Lord in song. Saint Cyprian of Antioch also gives us this impression when he describes the liturgy of the Church in Antioch saying:
Therefore we went into the church, and (one could there) see the choir, which was like a choir of heavenly men of God or a choir of angels taking up a song of praise to God. To every verse they added a Hebrew word (as) with one voice, so that one might believe that there were not (a number of) men but rather one rational being comprehending a unity, which gave off a wonderful sound, which the dead prophets were announcing once more through the living.
Canon LXXV of the Sixth Ecumenical Council also deals with Liturgical Music, warning that those who attend the church for the purpose of chanting should neither “employ disorderly cries… forcing nature to cry out loud” or “foist in anything that is not becoming and proper to the Church.” The Canon goes on to instruct the chanters to offer such psalmodies with much attentiveness and contriteness to God.
Over the centuries, music has evolved into an indispensable element of worship. It underscores the fundamental concept of community which was so vital and so real in the early Church, for it was the task of all present to sing, to participate in song, and to respond with one heart and one voice to the celebrant. It must be noted here however, that music was never understood as a private, or personal devotional service, rather its function was communal; it identified the popular element of the liturgical celebration. It is for this reason that any music sung in the church which “focuses attention onto a particular person or group, which forces another group into becoming passive listeners and observers, is alien to the age-old tradition of the Church and to the literal meaning of liturgy: an act of the people.” This is not to say that there were no soloists in the Church, because there were, however, their primary task was to lead and cue the responses from the assembled body of the faithful, and not to alienate them from the communal aspect of worship. Musical tradition suggests that simple melodies, ideal for congregations with little or no formal musical knowledge were used and many of the early written melodies that still exist today support this fact.
There were two kinds of singing in the early Church: an ancient Responsorial Form and a later Antiphonal Form. The former began with a soloist’s singing of the response, which was usually a selected verse from a psalm. This gave the proper pitch to the choir, made of the congregation, which then repeated the response. The Antiphonal procedure required that the congregation be divided into two choirs, each with its own leader and each with its own refrain. These trained choirs, and their leaders, (the protopsaltes for the right choir and the lampadarios for the left), assumed full musical control around the middle of the ninth century and consequently began the tendency to make the liturgical music of the Church quite ornate and elaborate.
Looking now at the later Byzantine period and to our own times as well, we have come to the era where music is something which is expected, and to some extent taken for granted, in Orthodox worship. In fact, to celebrate a service without music would seem highly irregular. Yet, how has church music evolved into what we have come to experience in our choirs today? The man responsible for transforming the Byzantine music of the church into Choral harmonization was John Sakellarides, who at around the early 1900’s made attempts at harmonizing Byzantine Chant. Although Sakellarides’ influence on the liturgical music in Greece was minimal, he had an enormous effect on the musical development here in America, where congregations where deeply influenced by the choral music present in public schools and local non-Orthodox Churches.
The Greek Orthodox Church in America introduced choral music on a permanent basis during the first quarter of the twentieth century. This was soon followed by the inclusion of young girls and women in the choirs, which even though unheard of in Greece, raised no objection from either the communities or the clergy. The inclusion of women into the choirs did however, pose another problem, in that the music used by the choirs to this point, which was brought over from Europe, had been written for four-part male choirs and was now deemed inappropriate. The rewriting and composition of new liturgical music influenced by non-Hellenic sources was inevitable. At the time of World War II, most Orthodox Churches in America had choirs composed of both males and females and were usually accompanied by an organ. Although the original choir music was for the most part simple, education and the congregation’s exposure to intricate choral music outside the Church soon pushed the local church choir to offer more challenging music, creating a sort of renaissance within the Church, which still exists today.
In closing, the question of Eastern or Western seems mute. While it is important to strive to stay true to the ancient melodies of our hymns, it is most important that they remain acts of prayer. Let us be reminded of the glory of God through the chanting of liturgical hymns. Let us continue to pray to our Lord that he may grant us the strength to glorify and praise His most majestic name, of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, with one voice and one heart until the ages of ages.
By Fr. Peter Orfanakos