Having been raised Methodist, I think of singing as an essential part of church. The biggest thing that initially drew me to both Anglo-Catholicism and Orthodoxy was the principle of a liturgy that is mostly sung. During my Anglo-Catholic years, it took me a long time to get used to the Low Mass, a service with no singing at all (though I eventually grew to love serving at Low Mass more than any other service).
Nearly all of my pre-Orthodox singing, however, was done as a member of the congregation. I chose both my Anglo-Catholic parish and my Orthodox parish mostly because their respective congregations were participants in the singing, not just an audience for the choir. (One might argue that I was a member of the choir when I was chanting psalms as a vocationer with the Benedictines, but in a monastery the monks are really both choir and congregation.) I have written previously about how I got into chanting after I became Orthodox, so I won't repeat that story here.
Singing at Seminary
After patristics, my most demanding class in my first semester at St. Vlad's was liturgical music. It was an easy class for the OCA students with choir experience, but not so easy for the rest of us, especially the Antiochians. I've never been much of a choral singer - I have trouble hearing parts other than the melody. And, to the extent that I have sung in choir at all, it has been as a tenor. (When I was a freshman, my music major friends told me I was a tenor, and I always assumed they knew what they were talking about.) But in my voice test at St. Vlad's, I learned that I am actually a baritone. And then I was assigned to the mixed choir, where the only parts for men are tenor and bass, so I struggled to sing bass. In addition to singing at Matins or Vespers four days a week, plus Vigil every other Saturday and Liturgy most Sundays, I had to attend two choir practices and a music lecture each week. All together, that came to about ten hours a week, not counting the biweekly music quizzes, which were held outside of class time and required a lot of preparation.
During my first semester at St. Vlad's, the thing I missed most was chanting at Matins every week at my home parish. So I was really looking forward to being back for Matins on Christmas Eve and the Sundays before and after, chanting familiar Byzantine music. The two Sundays were to be tones 3 and 4, no less - my two favorite tones!
But I learned a few weeks ago that Matins on the Sunday after Christmas would be displaced by a baptism, and Christmas Eve would be complicated by the presence of the bishop. So I placed most of my hopes on the Sunday before Christmas. Unfortunately, thanks to last weekend's big snow storm, Matins was cancelled and I was snowed in at my brother's house (the first of several weather-related complications of my Christmas vacation). So Christmas Eve would be my only opportunity to chant.
The Stolen Canon
At Holy Cross, our normal schedule on December 24 is Royal Hours at 9 AM and Matins at 10 PM, followed by the Divine Liturgy. This year we added Vespers following the Royal Hours. When I arrived I found the largest congregation I've ever seen for Royal Hours - a good turn-out for our bishop's visit. The service moved a bit quicker than usual, as it often does when Bishop Thomas is present. When it ended, and I moved up to the chanters' stand for Vespers, I was disappointed to learn that our protopsalti, Emily, would not be joining us. Her absence left us in disarray, but we managed to get through the service. The bishop jumped in a few times and unexpectedly sang hymns that chanters were expecting to do. This was actually something of a relief at the aposticha, which we were not completely ready for.
When I checked my e-mail a few hours later, I learned that Emily was out with the flu and would not be joining us for Matins either, and my Matins assignment had been expanded to include the stichera on the Praises, as well as the kathisma hymns. My only other major parts were ones I knew about - the First Nativity Canon and the odd verses of the Great Doxology, both to be sung with Garth. I had been practicing the Nativity Canon for nearly a month - and it was challenging enough that I really needed that much time to learn it. I spent a couple of hours at my office printing music, marking up the kathismata and stichera for free chanting, and practicing everything, then headed for church.
The three chanters stood with the choir at the back of the church, rather than at the chanters' stand. Matins started smoothly. I free chanted the first two kathismata pretty well but was a bit shaky on the third, which followed a different pattern than the first two. The men got through the Polyeleos without messing up the "humiliation" verse, but in celebrating that small victory almost missed the next verse. Eventually, the time came for the Nativity canons. Garth and I chanted the first ode of the first canon, and then Debra chanted the first ode of the second canon. Before we could start on the next ode of the first canon, Bishop Thomas jumped in and sang it. He did this on all the remaining odes of the first canon. In no time, the piece I had been practicing for weeks was over and I only got to sing the first verse. I managed to recover my composure in time to free chant the stichera on the Praises, which went well. We concluded Matins with the Great Doxology in tone 2, and it sounded much better than it had in rehearsal two nights earlier.
The bishop sang a slightly different translation of the First Nativity Canon than the one we had been practicing. In the third and sixth odes where our translation read, "without change," he sang, "without transubstantiation." In both instances, the original Greek words come from a root that means "to flow" or "to change." (This is a different word than the one translated "without change" in the Chalcedonian definition of Christ's two natures and in the hymn "Only-Begotten Son.") The bishop's translation is one that appears in various official Antiochian places, like the website of the Los Angeles diocese. (The existence of multiple official translations is not unusual in the Antiochian Archdiocese.) I am still wondering if this translation was intended by the translator as a bit of anti-Roman polemic. Or, alternatively, did he have a limited English vocabulary heavy on technical theological terms?
My favorite ode of this canon is the fifth. (The fifth ode of a canon is based on Isaiah 26:9-20.) The ode reads:
O Lover of Mankind, since thou art the God of Peace and the Father of Mercies, thou didst send to us the Angel of Thy Great Counsel, granting us thy peace. Wherefore have we been led aright to the light of divine knowledge, glorifying thee as we come out of darkness.
Just after we have passed the darkest time of the year and the days are beginning to lengthen, we celebrate the arrival of the Logos, the true light who came into the world to enlighten us all.
Wishing a merry Christmas and a happy 2010 to all of my readers.