Friday, April 10, 2009

Byzantine Chant

In the 18 months since I was chrismated into the Orthodox Church, my main ministry has been chanting at Matins, which I do nearly every Sunday. Matins begins at 8:15 on most Sundays, and 8:00 on certain feasts. That it could get a night owl like me out of bed that early on a weekend should be sufficient proof of how much I have come to love chanting.

When I was an Anglo-Catholic, my liturgical involvement took the form of serving as an acolyte. I served at both Low and Solemn Masses, as well as Evensong & Benediction. I especially enjoyed my five years serving for Fr. Anderson at Morning Prayer and Low Mass on Thursdays. After working together for so long, each of us knew what the other was going to do, and our choreography became automatic, so that I could actually pray during Mass instead of always thinking about what I had to do next.

In my various liturgical roles, I was not only serving the church but also educating myself on the details of the liturgy. While I gained a respectable degree of expertise on the Mass, there were always others with more knowledge (and bigger libraries) than I on that subject. But eventually, thanks in large part to my exposure to Benedictine monastic life, I think I became the parish’s resident expert on the Daily Office.

At Holy Cross, lay liturgical roles at the altar are reserved, for the most part, to subdeacons and teen-age boys, so it looked like I would have to learn Byzantine worship standing with the congregation. When Doug, one of the protopsaltis (lead chanters) began offering occasional classes in Byzantine chant on Sundays after coffee hour, I attended. Since I have always found my voice frustratingly inadequate, I did not imagine that I would actually be able to chant in services, but I thought this would be a chance to begin my education on the Byzantine services of Vespers and Matins. Not much later, the other protopsalti, Emily, took over the job of training the new chanters. We would meet to practice for two hours on Saturday afternoons before Vespers. At first we focused on learning the standard pieces that are sung every Sunday, as well as on learning the eight Byzantine tones. Emily recorded and uploaded several of the hymns, as well as a short introduction to each of the tones consisting of the apichima (a short mnemonic to help the chanter bring the tone to mind quickly), a sample hymn in the tone, and the Resurrectional Troparion of the tone. I learned to chant by playing these pieces over and over and singing along with them. Eventually, the time came when I was scheduled to chant at Sunday Matins.

My very first time, I was the only chanter who arrived on time. When Deacon Mark came out of the sanctuary to ask if I could get the service started by myself until the other chanters arrived, I could only say no. (Ever since then, I have judged my progress, in part, by asking how far into the service I could get if I had to do it solo.) The first few times, I would just be assigned to read psalms and other parts that are simply read, and otherwise sing only the parts that were sung in unison by everyone. But it wasn’t long before we newbies started to take our turns on the kathismata and the anabathmoi, two types of hymns that are free chanted every Sunday.

In free chanting, one is given a text, along with a number from 1 to 8 representing the tone in which the words are to be sung. Each Byzantine tone has its own characteristic patterns built on one of the four scales. The chanter sings the words, matching them to the patterns of the tone, essentially composing a musical setting for the words spontaneously within the strictures of the tone. If you really know the tone and can get it into your head, free chanting is not as hard as it sounds. If you don’t know the tone or can’t call it to mind, however, it is impossible to do right. Free chanting is much easier when you are following someone else who has just chanted something in the same tone. Another thing that makes free chanting easier is that each Sunday is assigned one of the eight tones, and most of the pieces that are free chanted will usually be in the tone of the week. Therefore, we could focus on one tone each week.

Not everything is free chanted. For most of the hymns there are settings written in Western musical notation. Some chanters prefer to rely on these, while others prefer to free chant. Free chanting comes easier to me. However, free chanting only works for solo pieces. Hymns that are to be sung by everyone require written music to keep everyone together. I learn the frequently sung pieces by ear and then use the written music as a reminder. Otherwise, I try to follow those who read music better than I.

About a year ago, on Lazarus Saturday, a crew from the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly came to interview Emily about Byzantine chant and to film Matins and the Liturgy. That segment, edited down to under three minutes, will finally air this weekend. It became available on-line today.

Only James chants with Emily in the segment. I was still too green to chant on TV (in the big game you play your stars, not your rookies), so you’ll only see the back of my head in the congregation (I’m the one obstructing your view of the icon of Christ). Now, a year later, I get to chant with Emily and James all the time – like tomorrow at Matins of Lazarus Saturday.

For those who want to read more, here are some links:

Byzantine Chant – an article from OrthodoxWiki.
Byzantine Chant – an article from the Holy Cross Website.
Tone Three – Emily’s reminiscence about chanting in Greek on Christmas Eve.
Makin’ the Big Time – Emily’s blog post on the TV segment.


Roland said...

The image is Byzantine chant notation (which I do not read).

Mari said...

For a guy who doesn't dance you're awfully concerned about choreography. ;-)

Emily said...

A lovely post! But you left out a significant piece of the puzzle -- what an amazing ear you have, Mr. I-last-sang-in-8th-grade, and how strong and confident your voice has become in just a year or two. That, and the fact that you're frighteningly reliable, even when your protopsalti is not (was I really late on your first day? How awful!)

Lynn said...

Congrats on learning something new! :)