choirIt seems almost by accident that I became a composer of Orthodox liturgical music. As a music student at Oxford in the early 1970s, I had written some rather complex modernistic pieces, some of which were performed at various concerts. While staying in Siena, Italy, in the summer of 1974, I had the audacity to show them to the famed Italian composer, Luigi Dallapiccola, who was presenting talks about his music at the Accademia Chigiana. (I vividly recall him pausing to catch his breath at the tops of hills as we walked about the city; his health was already failing, and he died early the following year.) For my postgraduate studies I had to decide between composition and musicology. After receiving no particular encouragement to pursue composition, I chose musicology, and around 1976 I stopped composing altogether, never expecting to return.

That was until the early 1990s. By then I was living in Amsterdam, had converted to Christianity and was moving in British Anglican and Dutch Protestant circles. Through them I got to know the music of Taizé: short, chant-like pieces and canons that were dignified and easy to sing. The canons especially reawakened the dormant composer inside me. I thought it would be good to try composing something similar, so I wrote a series of them, most based on Scripture. I went on to set several sections of one of the innumerable Anglican Communion rites: series III, as it was known.

My life took another turn when, in 1993, I started singing in the choir at the Russian Orthodox church in Amsterdam on Saturday evenings. Two years later I was received into the Orthodox Church. I wrote a series of wildly difficult pieces for three male voices on texts from the Orthodox service books. I played them on the piano to the parish priest, the late Father Sergii Ovsiannikov—who diplomatically remarked that he found them “very interesting.” I soon realized that new music for the Orthodox church was a hard sell at the best of times, and that if I was ever to have my music accepted for use in a liturgical context, I would have to simplify my style. This is a perennial issue: how to come up with fresh ideas while still supplying something that is easily absorbed by the singers and congregation and will not scandalize the priest.

I am often asked where my musical ideas come from. The fundamental answer is that my main teacher is the Church herself. One learns by standing in the church for hours and experiencing the liturgical action as it unfolds. A more technical response would be that I taught myself by harmonizing traditional chants, at the same time adapting them to the English, Dutch, or French language. (I have only very occasionally worked with Old Slavonic.) Our Church is endowed with several arrangers, and the one I most admire and whose adaptations have influenced me the most is Father Michael Fortounatto, whom I first met at a workshop in Amsterdam and again in London, where I sang under his direction at the Russian cathedral from 1997 to 2000. At the same time, as a Western European, I am aware of being influenced by non-Orthodox traditions, such as Gregorian chant, Hildegard von Bingen and other monodic repertoires, English hymnology, German chorales, the French polyphonic chanson, and so on. I see nothing wrong with this: if Orthodoxy is to take root in Western European soil, it is only natural for it to take on various elements of the cultures of these countries.  

Moreover, ever since becoming Orthodox, I have believed that it is necessary to go one step further: alongside the arrangements of melodies from traditionally Orthodox countries, we should be providing original music composed specifically to the translations of the liturgical texts in the “new” Orthodox languages such as French, English, Dutch, etc. The more conservative Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics have difficulty accepting this notion, insisting that the only acceptable music must be “canonical,” i.e., handed down from generation to generation, and that only adaption or rearrangement of already existing elements can be admitted into church music. I disagree, and see no basis in either Scripture or Tradition (in its true sense) for such a view. Was not all the old music new once? Does not the Psalmist enjoin us to sing a “new song” to the Lord? What parent would prepare the same meal day after day for his or her children? What person, on getting up, would put on the same shirt day after day, if (s)he had a choice? Alternation and the desire for variety is no sin. However, I do not advocate an “anything goes” approach to church composition, which must combine the realistic with the creative.        

So what are the basic criteria for composing music for the Church? What makes it liturgical? Here, a useful thought experiment is to imagine a situation where a parish, after learning the hard way how much tension and division music can occasion, decides to ban music altogether and recite all the texts instead. What difference would it make? For me, I think it would be like looking at a film made in colour in black and white; visiting a park where there are no trees; attending a Liturgy where Communion is not served; eating a birthday cake which has no candles; or drinking alcohol-free wine (yes, there is such a thing, and no, I do not recommend it!). A whole dimension would be lost, one which, more than any other, reminds us of God’s beauty and transcendence. In such a service, the God that would be “revealed” would at best be a sober, reasonable, disincarnate, rather cheerless being incapable of motivating us to become like Him. This is my view, though an unmusical person may think differently.

Tradition holds that we fell through the senses (our sensual appetites often let us down), so we must be saved through the senses. Whereas non-Orthodox services often seem to be meetings about worship rather than worship itself, Orthodox services immerse us in the thing itself, by appealing to all our senses simultaneously (and also to our reason, let us not forget!). Music in this sense forms part of a Gesamtkunstwerk made up of the visual (icons, clerical dress, etc.), the oral (liturgical texts and their musical dress), the kinetic (procession/movement), and the olfactory (incense). Many writers on Orthodox liturgical music stress that the music must support the words. I agree, but would add that music is part of all these other elements, which together cooperate to present a stylized (in the sense of non-naturalistic, as found in icons) reenactment of God’s action for our salvation. Music functions to support the liturgical texts: that is true and important. But perhaps even more important is that both text and music point to the Word Himself. God is inexpressible, uncontainable; in this sense, there is no “content” in liturgy, which always points to something and Someone beyond itself.   

All music written for the liturgy must be Orthodox, but not all Orthodox-inspired music is liturgical. The late 20th century saw the emergence of several Orthodox composers, some of whom achieved world-wide fame, such as John Tavener and Arvo Pärt. Their music for the concert hall is undoubtedly Orthodox in ethos, but is mostly not liturgical. Liturgical music is written according to criteria that are different from the music destined for the concert hall (though a handful of compositions could be said to satisfy both sets of criteria). For one thing, by general consensus Orthodox liturgical music is performed only by voices, without instrumental accompaniment. For another, the music is written so that the words can be easily heard, in a note-against-note style diametrically opposed to, say, Renaissance settings of the Ordinary of the Mass. The rhythms of liturgical music often approximate to speech, and many pieces are written without bar lines, which are simply not needed if one is guided by the rhythm of the words. Another distinctive quality is the primacy of melody. This may seem an obvious thing to say, but a piece for the concert hall often emphasizes a melody’s development, as well as timbre or atmospheric harmonies, just as much as if not more than the melody itself. In Orthodox liturgical music there is no “sonata form,” no “development” in the sense that music theorists would understand these terms. Most Orthodox liturgical pieces consist of successive presentations of the same melody, the only variations being inflexions to accommodate the varying accentuation and intonations of the successive sentences of text. The melody must be strong and have a distinctive profile that can easily engrave itself in the minds of the faithful. Some degree of “word painting” is allowable, I think, but it should always be very discreet and not disrupt the flow of the music.    

The fundamental difference between liturgical and concert music lies in its intention. Most music heard in the modern concert hall is a display of the composer’s originality matched by a display of virtuosity on the part of the performers. Music in the concert hall aims to create tension, to excite, to set up technical and musical problems that can be solved in a way that elicits such sensations as surprise, relief, admiration. In liturgical music the performer/audience polarity does not exist, the singers perform in the name of the congregation, who participate in prayerful silence or join in the singing, depending on the local custom. Liturgical music does not excite—it centers, it brings the human soul back to itself. It does not aim for a type of beauty that exists in its own right, but functions to unveil and amplify the beauty of the prayers.

But the main criterion for liturgical music is its degree of acceptance by the faithful. Only music that has actually been used in church can be said to be liturgical in the fullest sense, whatever the composer’s aptitude or wishes. This acceptance can be hard to achieve. On the one hand, most Orthodox composers have been taught the virtue of humility and are reluctant to put themselves forward (with the exception of the present writer!). On the other, congregations can be very cautious and conservative, unwilling to make the short-term effort to absorb something new in order to gain the long-term dividend of a richer repertoire. I have struggled with this, but am fortunate that in both the Netherlands and in France I have met people who are supportive of the work I have been doing. Some of these are singers who share my restlessness and taste for exploration and are both willing and able to tackle new repertoire. As a result, informal workshops have been organized and several pieces put into rehearsal. The singers do not hesitate to give valuable advice, for instance correcting a mis-accentuated word or criticizing a musical idea that is not up to scratch. (My wife of blessed memory was one of my most exacting critics!) This has proved to be an inestimable service, for which I will always be grateful.

It is vitally important for composers of Orthodox liturgical music to work with such groups, both to keep up one’s morale and to ensure the highest possible standard not only of the compositions but also of their performance. Poorly prepared performances of new music are almost guaranteed to kill off the music before it has had a chance to establish itself, as an untrained ear can easily mistake a poor performance for a poor composition. I often ask myself what can be done to allow the Orthodox to overcome their fear of new music. The most effective way is probably to make recordings and disseminate them widely, so that the sounds become familiar before the pieces enter liturgical use.

However, such support groups, though indispensable, will not in themselves suffice to prepare the way for new music. A robust diocesan structure would prove very useful in supporting and supervising the introduction of new music through workshops, websites, and the like. There is also the question of who decides what new music is admissible. Composers should be prepared to work with choir directors and clergy to ensure that their music is of a sufficiently high standard and meets the needs of the faithful. 

The final plank of support for new music must come in the form of education. In France it is unfortunate that, even as the need for musical renewal is beginning to be felt, standards of singing have been in long-term decline (and not only in France). As musical literacy and sight-singing is not taught in schools as thoroughly as it once was, Orthodox are going to have to take up the slack themselves. We must make it a priority to teach our young people how to sing and sight-read, and develop exercises and teaching methods specifically tailored to Orthodox needs. 

Establishing the principle that new Orthodox liturgical music can and should be written for the languages of the countries of the Western hemisphere is an uphill struggle. Many Orthodox still question the need for new music, pointing to the fact that there is already a rich repertoire that has been handed down. I have no logical or verbal arguments that could possibly win over these naysayers. I have only my musical notes, and the conviction that the creation and introduction of new music is self-evident, as natural as breathing. A church that would choke the introduction of new music is committing a sin against the Holy Spirit, is only half alive.

There have been painful setbacks, but the fact that there are Orthodox willing to rehearse my pieces with the aim of one day introducing them into the repertoire is a prospect that fills me with joy and gratitude. Let us thank God for the beauty that will “save the world” (to quote Dostoevsky), and that He allows us the freedom and the honour to take part in the creation of that beauty. 

On a related topic see also Introducing Orarion: Orthodox Hymn Setting Platform.

James Chater holds a DPhil from Oxford University. He is a musicologist and composer of Orthodox liturgical music. He also freelances as a journalist, writes occasional social and political commentary (including for Orthodoxy in Dialogue), and blogs about his wide range of interests at jameschater.com. He and his two teenage children reside in France.     

Orthodoxy in Dialogue seeks to promote the free exchange of ideas by offering a wide range of perspectives on an unlimited variety of topics. Our decision to publish implies neither our agreement nor disagreement with an author, in whole or in part. 
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