Word Magazine November 1994 Page 6



By Archpriest Vladimir Soroka

As we celebrate the Bicentennial of Orthodoxy in North America this year, we face the 21st century with challenges that are unique to our land. We would be less than honest if we didn’t confess that we are a divided Orthodox Church in this country. And yet we are given hope that recent efforts by SCOBA will bring the desired unity of all Orthodox jurisdictions in this land.

Musically, it seems, we are no less divided, and no less diverse. Fortunately, our different musical traditions are a rich source of beauty, and I think we can use this diversity as a ground for cooperation and unity. Today, I would like to reflect on the Orthodox situation in North America, musically speaking, and show how our musical diversity can be, not only a source of unity for the future, but also a living connection with the past.

I have three major points to discuss with you. First, I would like to review with you the meaning of the term “Orthodox liturgical music.” Then, I will speak about the diversity of our ethnic and national musical traditions as a source for an emerging North American tradition. And finally, I want to speak a bit about what I see as the most essential and crucial Orthodox Christian tradition, a common thread which runs through all of our traditions, and that is, congregational singing.


First, let’s begin with the basics. What is “liturgical music?” We know that it is music which we use in our worship to praise God. But in my estimation, a more appropriate and descriptive term could be used, and that is “sacred song.” We make a very clear distinction between secular music and “sacred” or “liturgical” music. We call our music “sacred”, because what we do with it is a holy and sacred duty. We also call it “sacred” or “holy” because God Himself is Holy. Everything in our Church is holy. We call the Liturgy “Divine.” We call the gospel and the icons “holy.” And so, too, we should call the music that we use in worship “holy” or “sacred.” All of our efforts, all of our words and all of our music is directed toward one end, the glorification of God. We must be ever mindful that to sing in church is a holy thing, and should be done with that one goal, to “sing praises to Him who rose again from the dead, the Author of our Life.” (Dismissal Hymn of Matins, tones 1-4).

“Singing” is no less of an important word when we speak of “liturgical music.” All of our music is expressed in words through singing. We wed the life-giving words of our hymns to music and thus participate in the worship of God that never ends in the eternal Kingdom (Rev. 5:9). The nature and the purpose of music, of “sacred song” is unique in Orthodoxy. St. John Chrysostom expressed it best when he said, “Nothing uplifts the soul so much, and gives it wings, and liberates it from the earth, and releases it from the fetters of the body, and makes it aspire after wisdom, and deride all the cares of this life, as the melodies and rhythms of sacred songs.

Given these definitions, it is clear that Orthodox liturgical music, because it is “sacred song”, is unaccompanied by any instruments. A cappella music is not only tradition with a small “t” it is also tradition with a capital “T.” The source of this teaching can be found throughout the Tradition of the Church. The New Testament Scriptures are strangely absent of virtually any reference to the use of instruments in worship. St. Paul summarizes the epitome of New Testament worship when he says, “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord,” (Eph. 5:19). The Church Fathers always interpreted Old Testament references to instruments allegorically, putting them under the old law.” St. John Chrysostom says, “In olden times they were led by instruments because of the dullness of their understanding and their recent delivery from idols. Just as God allowed animal sacrifices, so he also let them have these instruments, condescending to help their weakness,” (on Psalm 149). We must always be careful to guard this beautiful and meaningful practice of keeping our worship strictly a cappella. Instruments are of the world, but the voice, created by God, keeps our worship free of “unnatural” sounds.


In the very music itself, not just the words, is also carried a certain “tradition.” In every age, these beautiful melodies carry the deepest devotions of Orthodox Christian musicians. And so, in a way, we can say the music itself is a part of Tradition and is not just incidental. To put it plainly, we can’t use “just any old” music. Musicologists tell us that Byzantine music has its roots in Hebrew music and later, Russian liturgical music had its roots in Byzantine music. Clearly, each generation built on what they inherited from their forefathers. It is time for us to do the same. North American Orthodoxy cannot help but to follow the same pattern, if we remain faithful to God. Just as the Holy Spirit has guided the Church to develop the iconography to adorn our churches and bring us the reality of God’s Kingdom isn’t it logical that music will do the same? We must make sure that the very melodies themselves are transfigured from mere notes, mere music, to the eternal and unspeakable sounds of the Heavenly Kingdom.

Orthodox North America is filled with countless national traditions. I was raised in the Russian tradition and it is the one with which I am most familiar. However, today, North American parishes are seldom made up of only Russians, or only Greeks, or only Antiochians. As the foreign language “barriers” have died away of “natural causes,” so, too, will the single “ethnic” parishes. Our music must and will reflect that. However, how many of us have said (when hearing a different Orthodox choir), “We don’t sing THAT music!” referring to a different sound or melody? We must come to realize that we all possess a rich treasury of music which was the singular comfort of our ancestors. It was something they brought to the “new world” as a precious gift. But now, it is time for the music to reflect the make up of our parishes and of our country. Nothing would warm the heart of a “displaced parishioner” more than to hear one of their familiar melodies outside of their home jurisdiction. Unfortunately the opposite is more prevalent. I know of parishes that have sung the exact same Cherubic Hymn for 50 years! When you ask them why, they usually respond, “Because it’s the only one we know! Are there others?” When you tell them there are literally hundreds of Cherubic Hymns, many of them suitable for small choirs, they are shocked!

There is a practical problem in all of this. Finding different music is a challenge. There are different ways of approaching this, if you wish to incorporate different traditions. The best way would be to call some other Orthodox churches of different jurisdictions and speak with the choir director. Tell them what you are looking for and offer your music library for the same thing. It is one way to build your library, as well as a friendship between the two churches. This could lead to an exchange of choirs or a combined choral effort in time, being sure to represent the different national traditions in your music. Another way, and more accessible, is to buy musical compilations, many of which represent different nationalities. About 25 years ago, I published a book of music for the Divine Liturgy which contained not only four or five different selections for each hymn (including some different national traditions) but also original music of American composition. It has been sold around the world in English-speaking countries and is now published by St. Tikhon’s in Pennsylvania. More recently, St. Vladimir’s Seminary published a book of hymns for the Liturgy which also includes some Byzantine music.

This brings us to the subject of “North American” Orthodox music. Can there be such a thing? Some say that the term “North American Orthodoxy” is an oxymoron. They say that Orthodoxy is holy and venerable, (and it is), but North America is so hopelessly secular and lost as a culture that nothing good can come of it. Let us not be fooled. The Holy Spirit will indeed move us and our children to develop music which is indigenous to North American Orthodoxy. To say anything less would be to deny the very same Faith that gave us the music that we use today. When I say “North American” music I do not mean that we should sing the Cherubic Hymn to the tune of “On Top of Olde Smokey”, or to put the words to the Hymn to the Theotokos to a Protestant hymn tune, no matter how beautiful it may be. What I mean by “North American” is, using what we already know that is, Russian and Byzantine music, we begin to compose new melodies based on what we already use. We make a new North American melody, from Russian and Byzantine models and examples. We make a new expression of familiar material; a living tradition and a legacy to future generations.

Ultimately, what we are all trying to do, both priest and singer, composer and director, is transform this time, this temporal world into an eternal and mystical foretaste of the Kingdom of God. In this way, the music transcends the labels of Russian or Antiochian or American or Canadian, and becomes truly “Orthodox” in every sense of the word.


The final tradition which I would like to speak about and which is most important for “experiencing” the concept of unity, both in our parishes and on a larger level, is congregational singing. If we want to “integrate our traditions”, this is the tradition par excellence that we must employ.

I have spent my life developing music for choirs. I grew up in a musical family, am professionally trained in choral music and have sung in choirs ever since I can remember. I love choral music and have devoted much of my life to it. And so, I want to preface my remarks by saying that I am not for the abolition of choirs. Our services are complex and require the services of a trained choir director and a competent choir. In fact, in my opinion, our choirs have seen a decline in the past twenty years and I want to see that improve. No parish should be without the service of a liturgical choir. Nevertheless, I would also like to see every parish take time to have the congregation participate by corporately singing some of the responses and hymns of the services.

In the most ancient Orthodox prayer books, the services were always written as a dialogue between “Priest” and “People.” The prayer book never said “Priest” and “Choir.” This was for obvious reasons. Everyone participates in the service. You cannot respond by just sitting and listening. When the Scripture admonishes us to “sing and make melody”, does it refer only to the choir? The very word “liturgy” means “common work.” That is, it is the common task of everyone in that church to sing praises to God. In fact, we might say, it is everyone’s solemn duty! One might answer, “Well, if the congregation wants to sing, they can sing with the choir.” Unfortunately, people tend to sit back and “enjoy” the service. They become somewhat of an audience. But is the choir’s task to “entertain” the congregation? No, we must be very careful to guard against such perceptions!

Another reason that congregational singing is essential is that it guards against passivity among the congregation. The absence of at least occasional congregational singing compels them to be passive listeners and mere viewers of the divine services. People who are passive in church tend to complain about the length of services and say things like “they don’t get anything out of coming to church. Congregational singing wisely employs every voice, because every voice was created by God, and every voice should be thanking Him.

Finally, having the entire congregation sing together is a living icon of the church being of “one mind and one heart.” There is a powerful unity that is expressed when the entire congregation sings from the very depth of their souls. St. Ignatius of Antioch said, “All of you together become a choir so that being harmoniously in concord. and receiving the keynote from God, in unity you may sing with one voice through Jesus Christ to God the Father,” (to the Ephesians,.4).


And so, in our contemporary situation in North America, it is not uniformity of style that is most needed; it is oneness of mind and heart. The issues of our Church are of course, more important than which “Holy God” we will sing next Sunday. But the issues will see their resolve when we come together as a church, sharing our diversity while working in unity. We have much to learn and share with one another. Let us make the future a time to delight in our common Faith. Let us make the Liturgy a place where all participate and taste the goodness of the Lord.” And finally, let us press onward in all that we do, “doing all things to the glory of God,” (I Cor. 10:31).



In recent times, I have heard and read a great deal concerning congregational singing in Orthodox Church worship. There are those who strongly advocate congregational singing, even, going so far as to state that ALL the singing in the church should be rendered by the entire congregation. Others should remain silent throughout the service and consequently we have a third group that promotes the idea of only a partial participation by the congregation.

Before stating my own opinions regarding this matter, let me briefly dwell into some of the aspects of singing in the early Christian era.

In the early days of Christianity there were four forms of vocal worship: 1) congregational singing: 2) one-singer (soloist) form; 3) two-choir or antiphonal form; 4) singer (precentor) and congregational form. They are defined as follows:


The tradition of all the faithful singing together and actively participating in the services with “one voice and one heart” was the oldest and most generally accepted style of vocal worship. St. John Chrysostom, in comparing his era to that of the apostolic age, wrote: “In the ancient church everybody sang together just as we do today men, women, the old and the young, regardless of their age and stature — producing sweet, soft tones from their hearts.”

From the very Apostolic times, the faithful in Christ came together to sing praises to God. St. Jerome, in his Epistle to the people of Galatia, said: “Often when the congregation of a church responded with an ‘Amen’ or ‘Lord have mercy’ you could hear a rumbling like that of thunder.”


In this particular practice, one singer would go to the center of the church and sing the responses, improvising a melody to an established text, while all of the faithful would silently listen.


It is related that St. Ignatius (49-107 A.D.), one of the early Christian fathers, had a vision in which he heard the heavenly choirs praising the Holy Trinity in alternating chants, and he was so impressed by it that he introduced into the Church the idea of two choirs of singers answering each other.

In singing the Psalms of David, the Hebrews used this idea of antiphonal music. We see it, too, in the Greek choruses, in the Roman kitharoedic chants and now in the early Christian hymns. From this antiphonal to the later poly-phony (poly — many, phony — sounds), many voices or parts, is a natural step. St. Basil the Great, in commenting on antiphonal singing, stated that in this form one has the greatest possibility of meditating and thinking on the contents of the text.


In this style, one singer exclaims in a loud voice a part of the verse and the remaining portion is sung by the people, very similar to the traditional way in which the psalms are sung in the Jewish synagogue. The precentor sang the whole psalm and the congregation responded after each verse with an interpolated phrase. This specific form was very popular in Alexandria during the time of St. Athanasius the Great.

In examining these various forms of vocal worship, we can readily observe a diversity of styles and approaches to this important element of worship. By its character, we can perceive that the music in the ancient church was natural and simple. It was almost in the form of conversation — monologue speech.


In the early days of Christianity, all of the faithful participated and sang the services as they felt the necessity of doing so. With the singing of the psalms and liturgical hymns, together with prayer and the reading of the Holy Scriptures forming the essence of the service, the early Christians felt a natural desire to be one in their life in Christ.

As the church grew, music became more sophisticated; the services became more and more complex and we began to find less and less participation by the congregation in the worship of the church. In our own situation today, we find little participation in the singing within the church.

Needless to say, the role of the choir in connection with church worship has contributed greatly to this predicament. There are those who say, “Why should we sing?” This is why we engage a choir-master; this is why we have a choir. I came to church to hear the choir, not the congregation.” The error in this type of thinking is that the active participation of the whole body of the faithful has been delegated to a select few. The congregation should and must participate in the singing.

Am I advocating the dethronement of the role of the choir in the church? Certainly not, for the choir is here to stay and is an integral part of church worship. There are many services in the Orthodox Church that require intensive preparation and much too complex for the congregation to learn and to sing, regardless of how simple the music is. How can the congregation possibly learn and render all the Lenten services, the responses of the numerous feast days, the canons of the Christmas and Easter observances, the wedding ad funeral service rituals and numerous others. This would be an almost impossible task. The choir, therefore, is absolutely essential. It is trained singers or the “schola cantorum” which leads the singing — the public worship in the church.


When should the congregation sing? Every church has its own particular problems and situations and no definite pattern covers the various practices. But if a congregation is able to sing the responses to the Divine Liturgy, or any service for that matter, it should be encouraged to do so. There are some practical drawbacks to congregational singing that require careful study and attention. Foremost is this disturbing problem of certain congregation singers who insist on singing louder than the choir or above the rest of the congregation. Congregational singing —must be soft and reverent and always in good taste. I would advise that the congregation refrain from singing when either the Senior or Junior Choir is singing. In congregational singing one must avoid dragging. This is a common fault and must be avoided.

Encourage the men of the parish to sing. They are always a little timid in this respect. A few words of encouragement are always beneficial.

Unison or harmony? Both are acceptable. God created the human voice to sing in harmony — sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. It is a joy to listen to the hymns sung with all four parts “bursting in harmony.”

—Father Vladimir Soroka is a retired priest in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), living in McKees Rocks, PA.