Why do we have choirs?
- Dear List:
I bought a high definition television a year ago, but I did not get
around to ordering the HD channels on my dish until two weeks ago.
They have a channel called Equator which shows exclusively travel
videos from around the world. Many of these are Japanese productions
in which an English voice is dubbed over. I think the background music
remains the same from the Japanese version. Only a Japanese person
could have selected the music they did for the examination of the
Hagia Sophia and an ancient monastery in Constantinople, which I
watched last night. Most of the music they used was New Age stuff with
an unintelligible female voice and synthetic drums. It kind of sounded
like Enya. At one point, they were slowly zooming in to the great icon
of Christ Pandokrator, and the music was a polyphonic choir singing
"Agnus Dei" over and over. At any rate, as a Greek Orthodox Christian,
I found it MADDENING to look at sacred icons with this music playing
in the background. As I got to think about it, I don't think I would
have been satisfied if they had played Desby or Bogdanos or any other
of our modern Greek Orthodox music either. These images called for
Byzantine chant and no other music would have felt right.
I recently had a discussion with a clergyman who asserted that choirs
are an anomaly in the Greek Orthodox Church, exclusive only to America
in the 20th and 21st Centuries. He felt they really did not belong in
our services. I guess, historically speaking, he's right that the
Church got along without them for centuries, but what is it about our
modern American society that makes our choirs necessary in worship? I
would like to hear your answers to this and your rebuttals to the
sentiments express by this clergyman, which are the same that I have
heard from other people as well. I've been an apologist for choirs,
but I still find it hard to argue this point, given the history of
music in our Church. If you compare it to the visual arts, our icons
are extremely distinctive and unique in the world of painting. When
you see an Orthodox icon you are immediately ushered into the Church
and all of her doctrines and dogma. Orthodox icons that are painted
today look exactly like the mosaics and paintings on the walls of the
Hagia Sofia and other Byzantine-era churches and monasteries. What
about the argument that our music should be just as timeless and
The only argument I can figure somebody might use against the music we
commonly call "Byzantine" today is that we really don't know exactly
what the music of the early Byzantine era sounded like, so we have to
come up with our own idea of appropriate music. Somehow, this argument
doesn't satisfy me, because it seems so un-Orthodox. It's hard to rely
on the scholars because they can't seem to agree on what the oldest
notation we have really sounds like. Lots of people have their
opinions, but which scholarship is the most compelling?
I am convinced, in any case, that the music of our Church should be
simple enough for congregations to sing, regardless of how music
eventually developed in our history. Our services are a dialogue
between the celebrant and the people. The people should be singing the
hymns. That's how I feel about it. The only problem is, the people
rarely show up for anything but the Sunday Divine Liturgy any
more...and even then, they're usually late. How long do we cover for them?
- --- In firstname.lastname@example.org, "Stan Takis" <takistan@...>
>(Responding late, sorry)
> --- In email@example.com, "dananetherton" <dana@>
> > One practical benefit has to do with the shortage of skilled
> > cantors.
> > Another is (let's be frank) the opportunity it affords our devoted
> > ladies to take an active role in the worship of the Church.
> Dear Dana:
> True. And let's not forget the assimilation issue. We are still
> assimilating. The US is overwhelmingly Protestant and Catholic, and
> there are many in our Orthodox Church who do not see why we cannot
> be more like them.
"Still assimilating" ... could be, could be. At the same time, of
course, Nia Vardolos fought off Hollywood attempts to change "My Big
Fat Greek Wedding" into something Jewish, or Italian -- because by gum
she *didn't* want the distinctively *Greek-American* elements in her
story to be assimilated into the generic "Mediterranean immigrant" story.
And thanks to the clout that Rita Wilson (producer, and Tom Hanks's
Greek-American wife -- on whose behalf *he* became Orthodox) had built
up in Hollywood, she didn't have to.
And Michael Constantine (for one) could finally *play* a Big Fat Role
that is in his own ethnic background -- perhaps his 5th "Greek"
character in a 35+ year career with 164 appearances (according to
This is consistent with what's happening with other ethnic groups in
America: the byword is no longer "melting pot", getting melted into
"Americans"; the byword is "diversity" and "heritage".
So the assimilation process no longer has to go on to the point where
visible Greek-ness (and visible Orthodoxy) disappears. The "Greek"
part of "Greek-American" (and by extension the "Orthodox" part of
"Greek Orthodox") no longer has to disappear in favor of the
Perhaps it's the younger generation (like Nia Vardolos and Rita
Wilson) that recognizes this, and the older generation that still
clings to the old model of assimilation?
But it's true that assimilation has been part of the history. Back
when I was regularly on Usenet, a cynical Greek-American who also
regularly posted there asserted that the GOA would be gone in another
generation or two -- as the young bail out to join the Protestant
churches, while the old insist on using Greek-and-only-Greek.
That mindset *can* cripple a parish -- I know an OCA parish in my
metro area that nearly perished because of it (different ethnic, same
Perhaps the younger generation -- those members who stick with the
Church despite these frustrations -- will be the ones to break free of
the "assimilation" approach to Orthodoxy. That's certainly the age
range where I see interest in learning Chant. And it's certainly the
age range where (in my own little parochial patch) I see zero interest
in joining the choir.
-- Dana Netherton