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Congregational Singing

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  • Stan Takis
    Here s an article I wrote for our church bulletin. Feel free to post your thoughts. Our priest strongly favors active congregational participation. A BRIEF
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 1, 2007
      Here's an article I wrote for our church bulletin. Feel free to post
      your thoughts. Our priest strongly favors active congregational


      by Stan Takis, Choir Director

      Colossians 3:16 â€" Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all
      wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and
      spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

      Ephesians 5:18-19 â€" Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to yourselves
      in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in
      your heart to the Lord.

      The above verses from the epistles of Paul make it very clear that in
      the worship practices of the earliest Christians, entire congregations
      participated in the musical activities. This, no doubt, comes from the
      practices of the Jewish synagogue. In the ancient Jewish temple, the
      Levite musicians, through the use of hand signs, taught cantillations
      from the Torah to congregations. In the homilies of St. John
      Chrysostom and other early Christian manuscripts, we find descriptions
      of liturgical services that make it clear congregational singing was
      an integral part of worship. No serious scholar of the early Church
      questions this fact. However, sometime during these early years, the
      office of chanter was established as an appointed position, as in the
      temple, probably as a continuation of Jewish practices, and perhaps
      because as the order of the service developed and number of the hymns
      increased, knowledgeable chanters were needed to lead the
      congregational singing.

      So why did congregational singing die out, almost completely
      disappearing from Orthodox practice? The answer begins in the canons
      (laws) of the early Church. In the Fourth Century, the Council of
      Laodicea decreed in its fifteenth canon that, “No others shall sing in
      the Church, save only the canonical singers, who go up into the ambo
      and sing from a book.” The most common explanation of this canon is
      that the amateur singing of the congregation was interfering with the
      dignified execution of the services, and by then, the chanters were
      considered an ordained office of the lower clergy, and thus their role
      was expanding. This is a reasonable assumption, given the context of
      the other canons of the Council, which were highly concerned with the
      decorum of the Church leaders and practice. (You can read the canons
      of the Council of Laodicea at this website:
      http://reluctant-messenger.com/council-of-laodicea.htm. It is a very
      interesting document.)

      In the monasteries of the early medieval period, the hymnody of the
      Orthodox Church began to flower. New forms of hymns were developed
      such as the kontakion and kanon. Monastics such as St. Romanos the
      Melodist, St. Andrew of Crete, and St. John of Damascus made
      significant contributions and changes. As the duties of the office of
      chanter expanded, and the practices of the monasteries influence the
      Patriarchal churches, the system of music became more arcane and
      distant from the congregations. With the development of “kalophonic”
      chanting in the 14th Century, a style pioneered by St. John
      Koukouzelis which featured long melodic figures and frequent vocal
      ornamentation, the music of the Orthodox Church did not lend itself to
      congregational singing anymore.

      Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church in western Europe underwent a
      similar change in its musical practices. Their ancient system of
      monophonic Gregorian chant took on polyphonic ornamentationâ€"that is, a
      complicated system of harmony that required skilled singers of four or
      five vocal parts. Thus, a good deal of the music for the Catholic mass
      became the responsibility of a trained choir and congregational
      singing was greatly reduced. In 18th Century Russia, Peter the Great,
      who admired Western European culture, banned the old chants and
      instituted a Catholic-style, polyphonic choir to the Russian Orthodox

      Martin Luther is credited with reviving congregational singing after
      the Protestant Reformation. The Lutherans, over time, became known as
      “the Singing Church,” eventually producing a hymnal of over 600 songs
      to be sung by congregations. It is possible that the joyful hymn
      singing of Protestant congregations influenced a movement in the
      Catholic church to revive their older musical traditions. In 1903,
      Pope Pius X declared, “Special efforts are to be made to restore the
      use of Gregorian chant by the people, so that the faithful may again
      take a more active part in ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in
      ancient times.” It was also around this time that John Sakellarides, a
      chanter in Athens, was going about the process of simplifying the
      ancient Byzantine music of the Greek Orthodox Church, adapting it to
      staff notation, and encouraging his congregations to chant.

      In the 1920’s and 30’s, in the American Greek Orthodox Church, an
      attempt was made to assimilate American church culture, which is
      predominantly Protestant and Catholic. Orthodox churches acquired
      pews, priests shaved their beards and began wearing clerical collars,
      and lay choirs were organized. Two thick Protestant-style hymnals were
      produced, entirely in Greek and featuring the music of Sakellarides,
      harmonized in three or four parts by George Anastassiou in one hymnal,
      and Christos Vryonides in the other. Another hymnal featured original
      music by Nicholas Roubanis. These hymnals were clearly written for the
      choirs, however, and not congregations. Since then, many new liturgy
      books with more complicated polyphonic arrangements and compositions
      have emerged, thus solidifying the preeminent position of the choirs.
      As choirs grew, congregations remained silent.

      In the 1977, in an effort to spur congregational singing, the Greek
      Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America produced a hymnal for
      the pews of Greek Orthodox churches using the by-then, well-known
      melodies of Sakellarides. This hymnal, known as “the Green Book,”
      achieved moderate success in a time of dwindling participation in
      choirs and in the number of trained chanters in churches. Priests who
      favored congregational singing turned to the Green Book, and it is
      still being used today. Unfortunately, the Green Book is weakest in
      its English adaptations, and thus, with the increased use of English
      in Greek churches, a plethora of new congregational singing tools has
      appeared. Despite all of this encouragement, congregational singing
      still has not established itself as a regular practice in Greek
      Orthodox churches. Ironically, congregational singing has diminished
      in Protestant churches as choirs and hymnals have given way to “praise
      services” featuring theatrical rock bands with microphone soloists,
      and the styles of music are adopted from the world of popular

      What are the arguments for congregational singing today? The late
      Archbishop Averky of the Russian Orthodox Church in America made a
      passionate statement favoring it. He wrote:

      “Thus, according to the concept of our Divine Services, all the
      faithful must take part in the singing, if not in all, then at least
      in the majority of our Church hymns, rather than standing in church
      like idle spectators and listeners. The church is not a theater, where
      one goes only to see and hear beautiful singing, but a place of common
      prayer, in which all must participate in a fully conscious manner.

      “The intrusion into our Divine Services of Western concert-singing,
      accessible only to specially experienced singers with careful and
      lengthy preparation, forced out the choir of believers from a living
      participation in common liturgical singing and made those who come
      into church only listeners, but not living participants in common
      Church prayer. In this Western theatrical singing; all the attention
      is concentrated not on the words, but on the melody, which is more or
      less artificialâ€"with bravura or sentimentalityâ€"but not at all
      churchly. Under the influence of this singing, in which it is often
      impossible to even make out the words, and which is deeply alien to
      the Orthodox ascetical spirit, many begin to come to church not for
      prayerful participation in the Divine Services, as in a common action
      of all the faithful, but only to listen to beautiful singing, in order
      to experience aesthetic pleasure, which is, unfortunately, accepted by
      many in our time as a prayerful feeling. This, in union with
      irreligious upbringing and irreligious, often godless, school
      education, penetrated by an atheistic and materialistic spirit, leads
      to a greater and greater departure from genuine church mindedness and
      the understanding of the Divine Services by the broad majority of the
      believers…Thus, the surest path for a return of our irreligious
      society to the Church is the return to the ancient practice, which is
      in accord with the Church rubric: the restoration of congregational
      singing in our churches.”

      The style of music that one chooses is important for the encouragement
      of congregational participation. Byzantine scholar and musical
      historian Dimitri Conomos has written:

      “My preference for monophonyâ€"that is, single-line or horizontal
      melodyâ€"is more practical than it is aesthetic. It's usually easy to
      sing, easy to learn, and easy to remember. The chanters can readily
      match their note to the celebrant's without worrying whether it's too
      high for the sopranos or too low for the basses. This style of music
      is ideal for congregational singing and one never has to worry about
      going flat. And the liturgy ceases to be interrupted by the annoying
      arpeggio humming of the conductor before the beginning of every
      troparion. Polyphonic music, on the other hand, is by its very nature
      more complex, denser, and more difficult. In order for it to be done
      well, both musically and liturgically, one has to concentrate. The
      music demands a lot of attention, attention that could better be given
      elsewhere during a divine service. This is not horizontal but vertical
      music. It depends on the interplay of consonance and dissonanceâ€"that
      is, musical tension and releaseâ€"to arouse our senses and to draw our
      attention to the excellence (or its lack) of the composition.

      “Monophonic music serves the liturgy perfectly well. Unlike polyphony,
      the music of fashion in the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods,
      simple chant melodies can be tailored to follow the text, to amplify
      its meaning and rhetoric, to give it an appropriate musical dress. But
      even monophonic music can be made inappropriate if the singers engage
      in vocal display with dominating voices, unnecessary exaggerations,
      poor phrasing and unclear diction. As transmitters of the sacred
      texts, the vocalists must edify the chant by singing well, singing
      together, and by praying the hymn. With regard to expression, true
      liturgical singing should be self-effacing and objective. The sacred
      words must speak for themselves without the intervention of
      subjective, personal interpretation. Dramatic renditions and
      theatricality are out of place in the liturgy.”

      Here at Assumption, our choir has taken steps to aid in congregational
      chanting during the Divine Liturgy. We have simplified most of the
      music we sing to a monophonic melodic line harmonized only by a
      droning tone (ison). We limit the use of difficult polyphonic harmony
      to the Cherubic hymn, the Consecration, and the Communion, times at
      which congregations normally do not sing. These are usually the most
      excellent pieces of the modern liturgical composers and arrangers, and
      it allows us to continue the legacy of the last eighty years without
      sacrificing congregational participation. We have introduced into the
      pews a hymnal of the same music the choir sings, with Greek and
      English side-by-side. Father Michael and Father Tom have exhorted
      parishioners to chant along with the choir and the chanters during the
      services. We have begun an educational program in the Sunday school,
      teaching the hymns of the Divine Liturgy, and we have invited the
      children and their parents up to the choir loft to physically join
      with the choir. We have encouraged both younger and older adults to
      make a commitment to becoming choir members. All these measures have
      been taken to improve our worship and our knowledge of Orthodox
      spirituality as a community. The rest is up to the parishioners
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