The November/December issue of Choral Journal is online and features an article titled “American Christian Orthodox Choral Music” by Jason Thoms. You can read it in its entirety at acda.org/choraljournal. Following is a portion from the article.
Music majors and students in music appreciation have studied the Mass ordinary movements of the Catholic Mass, Gregorian chant, the structure and development of the motet, and the cyclical and cantus firmus masses. These are some of the most important musical forms and genres in early Western music. When asked to name a piece of Christian Orthodox music, Rachmaninoff ’s “Vespers” or Tchesnokov’s “Salvation is Created” are likely two pieces that come to mind, but many choral directors might have trouble coming up with other titles. It says a great deal about the quality of Orthodox choral music that many of the top professional choral ensembles in the United States have Grammy-nominated or Grammy-winning recordings.
Most of this repertoire, however, was not written for the concert hall but instead for small choral ensembles who sing multiple times a week in the churches and multiple times a day in the monasteries. Many music history texts contain no references to the music of the Eastern Orthodox Church, even though there is at least as much musical depth and breadth in the Eastern church as in the Western church. The harmonic and melodic beauty of Orthodox choral music provides a distinct sound to concerts or worship that audiences and congregations will fi nd enjoyable and meaningful.
The liturgy of the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church developed as part of the same catholic faith until the Great Schism of 1054, which separated the Eastern and Western churches. Like the liturgy of the Catholic Church, the Orthodox liturgy has ordinary texts (every time a particular service is performed), and proper texts (specifically assigned to the particular service of the day, week, or season). In both the Catholic and Orthodox faiths there is a long-standing and extensive lectionary of texts and liturgies that are sung for each service of the day and week. Unlike the music of the Roman Catholic Church, the music of Orthodox traditions is not built around just one central location but instead developed, adapted, and created in every culture in which it took root, resulting in a wide variety of musical styles in a variety of languages.
Worship in the Christian Orthodox church is a vocal-choral tradition. The daily and weekly services are meant to be completely sung or chanted with usually only the homily spoken. In most Orthodox churches, the priest chants parts of the liturgy, and a chanter or choir responds. There are some selections of liturgical music and hymns sung solely by the chanter or choir and any congregants who know the music. In most Orthodox traditions, no instruments are allowed, though some Greek Orthodox churches do have organs. The Orthodox liturgy puts a lot of responsibility on the chanter and choir, which will often sing for the majority of the worship service. There are many worship experiences during the year where services can last well over three hours, such as Holy Week and Pascha.
Read the full article in the November/December 2021 issue of Choral Journal at acda.org/choraljournal