Setting Liturgical Texts to Music
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
the cognitive meaning and theological content of the text
the grammatical structure if the text
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.
Three “generations” of adaptation – Example 1
1st generation: earliest efforts (1920s and ‘30s) — Literal note-for-note adaptation
2nd generation: (1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s) —mechanical “accommodation” of English text
3rd generation (1980s and ‘90s to present)—creative awareness of the sound and cadence of the English language
Basic responses – Examples 2a and 2b (Litanies)
Other examples—“Magnify, O my soul”; Refrain on Paschal Canon — Examples 3 and 4
“Holy God”—Hierarchal and Processional—Examples 5 and 6
“Rejoice, O Isaiah”—Examples 7a and 7b
“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)