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Setting Liturgical Texts to Music

November 17, 2015

If one of the fundamental goals of “reasonable” liturgical worship is the effective
proclamation of the Gospel in spoken and sung words, the effective audible
communication must be the concern of every liturgical musician. Effective audible
communication is dependent 

 

on many factors—among them, voices of good quality, well
developed diction skills, favorable acoustics. But even more basic, the starting point, if
you will, is a good musical setting of the text—one that takes into account

  1. the cognitive meaning and theological content of the text

  2. the grammatical structure if the text

  3. the sound and cadence of the words themselvers

In the context of this discussion we will be focusing specifically upon
musical settings in English, although in some respects the principles we will talk about
could be applied to any language. When considering English text settings used in
Orthodox worship we recognize, first of all, that in the overwhelming majority of cases,
we are dealing not with original English texts set from the outset to newly composed
music, but with translations set to various melodic and harmonic patterns initially
composed elsewhere, with another language in mind. In other words, we are dealing with
adaptations.

  1. Three “generations” of adaptation – Example 1

    1. 1st generation: earliest efforts (1920s and ‘30s) — Literal note-for-note adaptation

    2. 2nd generation: (1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s) —mechanical “accommodation” of English text

    3. 3rd generation (1980s and ‘90s to present)—creative awareness of the sound and cadence of the English language

  2. Basic responses – Examples 2a and 2b (Litanies)

  3. Other examples—“Magnify, O my soul”; Refrain on Paschal Canon — Examples 3 and 4

  4. “Holy God”—Hierarchal and Processional—Examples 5 and 6

  5. “Rejoice, O Isaiah”—Examples 7a and 7b

  6. “Masculine” and “feminine” endings: problems and solutions—Example 8

Concluding thoughts:
The history and tradition of singing Orthodox liturgical texts in English is
still relatively young.


The best places to learn good principles of English text setting are, in most
instances, outside the realm of Orthodox music, .e.g. English composers such as
Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, John Dowland, Henry Purcell, Ralph Vaughan
Williams, Benjamin Britten, to name just a few. Good models for handling text
can be found in English anthems, hymnody, art songs, and even opera opera,. We
cannot ignore a 500-year-old tradition of sacred choral singing in English as
practiced in non-Orthodox churches, and expect to establish a meaningful
practice of our own within English-speaking Orthodoxy.


New generations of composers and editors are continuing to create 3rdgeneration
adaptations of “received” settings, and will eventually create 4thgeneration
settings: original melodies and harmonies as vehicles for English texts;
some are already doing so (Fr. Sergei Glagolev, Mark Bailey, John Tavener, Ivan
Moody, to name just a few)

 

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