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Liturgical Singing: Beautified Prayer, Not Concert Performance

November 17, 2015

“But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching? Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle? So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken?

 

For you will be speaking into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me. Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel. Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.

 

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say ‘Amen’ at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say?

 

For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified. I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1Cor.14:6-19)

 

This may seem an odd quote with which to preface an article on Liturgical Singing, but it is actually quite on point. Since the late 19th century there has been an idea in many parishes in Metropolia/OCA and other Slavic Orthodox jurisdictions that ‘proper’ liturgical music includes the elaborate arrangements of the great Russian composers: Rachmaninoff, Mussorgsky, Lvov, Bortniansky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, et al; even though those same composers specifically composed those arrangements for use in concerts not divine services. A concert performance style developed alongside this belief characterized by “sell it to the back row” power and the idea that the clergy put on their ‘performance’, the choir puts on a concert and the congregation was simply the audience. This thankfully began to change with the ‘Eucharistic Renewal’ of the 60’s and 70’s (itself a continuation of the ‘Kollyvades Movement’ on Mt. Athos beginning in the 18th century), where the congregation’s vital ministry was re-discovered, and their participation in singing was once again allowed if not encouraged, as it had been in centuries past.

 

It helped that services were beginning to be celebrated in the vernacular so people actually understood what was being said, not just that certain words were sung in a certain hymn at a certain time, as was common with Slavonic which no one spoke outside Church and few understood at all. This exposed the central flaw in the love-affair with late-Tsarist Russian concert hymns, they often featured large sections where each voice was singing different words or syllables at any one time – not to mention that the voices often split (firsts and seconds), so they are more voices to manipulate; artistically beautiful from a strictly musical standpoint, but horrendously damaging and counterproductive from a liturgical standpoint. A similar bent toward needlessly elaborate singing is found in the Greek Church where vowels or consonants are actually added to words in musical arrangements to allow the Psaltis to extend a single word with melisma after melisma, until it is difficult to tell what the word is – much less what the phrase or sentence is supposed to be saying.

 

The quote from 1st Corinthians states that, while it is admirable that a person can speak in other tongues/languages (Grk. “γλὡσσα/glossa”, the root of “glossary”; referring to real languages not supposedly inspired gibberish v.10), if the people there cannot understand that language, nothing of what the speaker says will be of any benefit to them. This is why God granted the Apostles the ability to “speak in tongues” and was a main argument for finally switching from Old World languages to English once our parishes had become predominantly American-born. The same is true in liturgical singing, where the words are paramount and the music is simply there to beautify the words. It is possible to simply read any divine service – including the Divine Liturgy – and the purpose of service has been achieved, the words have been heard which describe and give meaning to the actions and vice versa; praise, thanksgiving and intercession have been made, and the word of God has been preached.

 

The same cannot be said of a divine service where the melodies, without the words, are hummed or played instrumentally; in which case the attendees may be enchanted by beautiful sounds, but they receive no edification, no intercession is made, no thanks or praise is given and the word of God is not heard. The service is as dead/useless as faith without works (Jm.2:14-26). The words are theologically/ spiritually imperative (Matt.4:4/Deut.8:3), the melodies are secondary.

 

Just as speaking to a congregation in an unknown tongue cannot be beneficial, hearing words mixed, garbled and super-imposed on each other into a cacophony of sound may please the artistic ear, but the soul hears noise and gains nothing, for the words cannot be comprehended. The ear is compelled to note whether the various voices hit the right note, at the right point, with the right energy; rather than noting what the Church is trying to convey. The same can be said for the practice of ‘climbing the scale’ while reading; aesthetically pleasing to some, but it places the emphasis on the reader’s skill – did they move to the next step cleanly, did they count the number of lines correctly before starting – and not on the words.

 

One of the jewels of the ‘Eucharist Renewal’ is the return of lay participation, specifically in reading and singing and, while every piece the choir sings shouldn’t have to be sing-able by the congregation (there are “fancier” arrangements that are still intelligible), every word the choir sings must be understandable to the congregation or the choir is utterly failing in its ministry; depriving themselves and their fellow believers of the understanding and benefit of the prayers/praise they are singing. They are there to give glory to God and lead the congregation in prayer and praise, representing and joining with the Angels* (*“Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim…” Is.6:1-3) who lead the Saints in praise to God (Rev.4:8-11, 5:8-14).

 

As St. Paul states in the closing of the main quote, though he is able to speak many languages, he would prefer to speak just five words that the people can understand. In the same way, though a choir may be gifted and have a vast repertoire and be able to sing elaborate and grand pieces; it should desire, liturgically, to sing simple pieces that their fellow worshippers can understand and derive spiritual benefit from. The works of the above-named composers are masterpieces by God-graced minds, but they have their place – the place the composers intended – in liturgical concerts where artistic beauty can be given free reign, but not in church where the common worship of the community is the hymnography’s raison d’etre.

 

{Note: ‘Kollyvades Movement’ – a movement championed by Ss. Makarios of Corinth, Nektarios of Aegina, Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, Kosmas the Aitolian, Paisius Velichkovsky and Nikolaos Planas; which sought to restore Hesychastic spirituality/Unceasing prayer of the heart, Patristic theology, and Eucharist/liturgical-centered living (including frequent reception of Communion) to the Orthodox and remove the innovations which led to the near loss of these essential elements of Holy Tradition.}

 

 

 

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