NOTES FROM THE CHOIR LOFT
Liturgical Singing 2
Praying through Our Hymns
Part II: What Do We Sing and The Relationship of Singing to Praying.
What do we sing? We sing hymns, Psalms, and spiritual songs or odes. [For clarification: the word hymn derives from Greek word ὕμνος (hymnos), which means “a song of praise.” A writer of hymns is known as a hymnist or hymnographer. The singing or composition of hymns is called hymnody.] Professor Gardner puts singing into perspective: “there is not a single service, either public or private, in the Orthodox Church that does not contain singing either in the form of simple recitation or of a more complex nature… These hymns are inserted between prayers and readings, accompany processions of the clergy, and are interwoven among psalms verses in an established order and in accordance with specific rules. The texts of these hymns are intended to focus the thoughts of the listener upon the central theme of a feast or upon the commemoration of a given saint. At other times the hymns serve to instruct the congregation in major dogmas of the Orthodox faith.” I included this paragraph to make two points: 1) the Orthodox Church sings a seemingly endless variety of hymns forming an enormous corpus of texts and 2) singing occupies a huge portion of Divine Services, indeed, a Service void of singing is unimaginable.
Now that we’ve established that in Orthodox worship the musical element is singing (because instruments are not part of the equation), I would like to emphasize an important point: the act of singing hymns is prayer. Von Gardner says: “It becomes clear, then, that the liturgical singing of the Orthodox Church is one of the forms of worship itself. The principle remains the same in all instances: the word is presented in an appropriate musical setting, in accordance with the character of the service and the logical content of the verbal text.” We often hear among congregants and even singers: “what a beautiful Trisagion or Cherubic Hymn or Enite, etc!” The psychological insight here is that the sung hymn is somehow an autonomous event, a kind of aesthetic relief from the Divine Service, a temporary ‘check-out’ into relaxation mode–the comfort zone of enjoying the music, something possessing intrinsic value of its own. The singing of these hymns is living prayer, it is, if anything, an intensification of prayer, it is heightened prayer. Abbess Thaisia of Leushino Convent says: “Strive with all your strength to concentrate attentively on the words which you pronounce; pronounce them in such a manner that they come from the depth of your soul, which is singing together with your lips. Then the sounds of the vivifying current of your hymn will pour into the souls of those who hear them, and these souls, being raised from the earthly to the heavenly, having laid aside all earthly care, will receive the King of glory who is borne in triumph by the Angelic hosts.” If it wasn’t heightened prayer, we wouldn’t need to sing it, we could recite it or use Ekphonesis. OThere is no separate standard or metric for singing. Praying and singing are one and the same action manifested in different forms of human expression.
Phillips Lecture Series, April 13, 2022, Dr. Peter Jermihov