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Sing with understanding. (1 Corinthians 14: 15)

Notes from the Choir Loft (NCL) is a weekly publication conceived to further the music ministry in our parish. All of us sing in church–from the altar, from the chanter’s stand, from the choir loft, or from the pews–and this singing is living prayer, the soul of Divine Worship. But to “sing with understanding,” we must immerse ourselves into the Hymns of the Church, grasp their essence with our minds and hearts, and make the effort to move out of complacency and into action. God-willing, NCL will answer this call to worship; it will present 3 subjects: The Hymns of the Church, Orthodox Hymnographers, and ponderings on Liturgical Singing – all of which will run sequentially from week to week. May this effort be God-pleasing!


Liturgical Singing 1

Praying through Our Hymns

Lecture in 6 parts: The Nature of Prayer and Relationship of Singing to Praying; What Do We Sing?; The Roles of Those Who Lead the Singing; Order in the Church; “Litourghia”; and Six Hymn Types.


Part I: The Nature of Prayer and Relationship of Singing to Praying.

     As we know, prayer can be individual or corporate; it can be personal–said or recited or sung in private, or it can be liturgical–recited or sung in the context of Divine Worship; it can take the free-form of a conversation with God or it can utilize canonic prayers. The prayers can be extracted from Scripture or composed by hymnists–the great hymnographers of the Church. Prayers can be spoken silently or uttered quietly without a definite pitch (as in a personal, devotional prayer); recited in psalmody; uttered utilizing Ekphonesis – a more varied type of recitation; or they can be sung. Whatever the source of the text and however it is performed, it is useful, I think, to attempt to answer a basic question: What is real or true prayer? St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and St. Theophan the Recluse say: “we are called upon to pray not only in words, but in our spirit, and not only in our spirit, but also in our heart—so our mind sees and understands clearly what is said in words, and our heart feels what our mind thinks. All this, joined together, is real prayer. And if our prayer does not have all this, it is either imperfect or not prayer at all. That fact should, however, not discourage us, but help direct us on our way, for we are, after all, on a journey to God.” “So our mind sees and understands clearly what is said in words, and our heart feels what our mind thinks”– that’s a tall order; in other words, anything short of this coordinated effort of the heart, mind, and spirit is “not prayer at all!”

     I will now turn to St. Basil the Great’s words to transition into the musical aspect of my general topic: “inasmuch as the Holy Spirit knows that it is difficult to lead mankind toward virtue, that because of our inclination towards pleasure we are negligent of the path of righteousness, what does He do? Sweet singing accompanies teaching so that, through the sweetness of what we hear, we would imperceptibly be benefited from all that is said.” It appears that the musical element in prayer is, so to speak– ordained, if not as an equal partner to the Word then, at the very least, as a legitimate one. And, for all intents and purposes, the musical element in Orthodox worship manifests as singing. Professor Johann von Gardner clarifies this point: “In worship only the word can clearly express the ideas contained in prayer, instruction, contemplation, etc.,… instrumental music, on the other hand, by its nature is incapable of such unambiguous expression; it can only express and evoke the emotional element, which is received subjectively by each individual listener, thus giving rise to a variety of interpretations.” This clarification is useful for two reasons: 1) it explains why instruments are not typically used in Orthodox worship (the use of organ in Divine Services is pretty much an American anomaly) and, more importantly; 2) it places the “word” front

and center, establishing a hierarchical relationship between the word and the musical element as the accompanying element. Hearkening back to St. Basil’s words – “sweet singing” and “the sweetness of what we hear,” one might infer that, even though St. Basil clearly states that singing is an accompanying element, singing also possesses an aesthetic dimension which may be the catalyst that drives the word home. Beauty is, after all, an intrinsic feature of the Orthodox worship experience.

Phillips Lecture Series, April 13, 2022, Dr. Peter Jermihov




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