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Liturgical Singing 

Praying through Our Hymns

Part V: Who Sings the Hymns in Divine Worship?


     Who sings the hymns in Divine Worship? Church hymns, since the earliest times of Christian worship, have been sung by a combination of singing forces: by a celebrant(s), by a cantor(s) – who is in essence a soloist, by several cantors – who, by definition, constitute a choir, and by the assembled congregants. One might further divide the performing forces into two categories: select singers and non-select singers. The clergy constitute a highly select body of celebrants who are “select” by virtue of their ordination, not by their musical qualifications. On the other hand, cantors are highly “select” and assigned their prominent role in worship by virtue of their musical attributes; historically, they possed the best voices and were musically trained. Members of the choir are also “select” in the sense that they possess various levels of musical aptitudes (pitch accuracy, music literacy, vocal ability, etc.) but constitute a distinct body of congregants, usually separated from the main body of worshippers with physical space (for instance by a choir loft) and by virtue of their heightened musical abilities; still, they are, typically, not soloists and may or may not be musically trained.

     It is interesting to note that the Greek Orthodox polyphonic parish choir, utilizing polyphony (many-voiced choral arrangements of chant and/or composed hymns) and female voices, arose in American Orthodox churches in the first quarter of the 20th Century, probably as a result of large waves of immigrants from Greece and Eastern Europe. Also of interest is the fact that Dr. Jessica Suchy-Pilalis (an American musicologist and harpist) was the first formally recognized woman cantor in the GOA, and she was tonsured 1984. Frank Desby’s article (see below) postulates that female cantors were not allowed in Greece as of the date of that article (1984) but were becoming widespread in America; they are now more common in Greece but still controversial.  

     It is important to understand the distinction between singing forces and the manner in which they perform hymns. A body of singers can be called a “choir” if the singers/cantors sing any given voice part in unison (such as an ison or a chant melody) with 2 or more singers on a part; if a singer/cantor sings alone, he/she is a soloist; both of these descriptions address the matter of “singing forces.” Both the choir and the soloist can sing utilizing different forms of psalmody – alternating the soloist with another soloist or the choral body with a soloist; when we hear equal alternating bodies, we call this antiphonal singing; when we hear the sequential use of unequal forces, we call this responsorial singing; both antiphonal and responsorial methods of performing address the manner in which hymns are sung. I describe these elements of worship only to emphasize this: the Orthodox Church utilizes all the above-mentioned performing forces and manners of performing. There is no preference, per se, for chanting over choral singing, or congregational singing over singing performed by a select body, or any other combination thereof – all constitute the fullness of worship as manifested in historical and local traditions within the Holy Church. The fullness of Orthodox Worship is expressed through the inclusion of all singing forces and manners of execution. I invite you to read the following articles to gain more insight into this inquiry:

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

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