Praying through Our Hymns
Part VI: The Six Types of Orthodox Hymns
Delving into a hymn’s content during a Divine Service is challenging, the hymns go by quickly, and the content may be complex and difficult to grasp. This is why having the texts in our hands and praying them as they are being sung is very helpful. But another approach is this: study and analyze the hymns before the Divine Service. We do this kind of pre-event preparation with so many of our secular events–concerts, theater productions, even sports events; we read program notes that place a given musical composition into a historical conteext and describe the composer’s intentions, we familiarize ourselves with the plot of a play or even reread familiar soliloquies, and we read up on the rosters and stats of a big game before we enter the stadium. The same approach can help us before we enter the Holy Temple: we can read and analyze the texts of a given feast or special period of the church calendar, such as Great and Holy Lent; by “analyze” I mean think about the content of a given hymn, understand its content, and most importantly, connect with its essence; heartfelt connections don’t just happen, more typically they emerge after deep thought and inquiry.
To help with this kind of preparation, I would like to offer Professor Johann von Gardner’s categorization of Orthodox hymns into 6 general types:
- Hymns that are poetic texts and offer praise to God–doxological hymns.
Examples: We praise You sung at the consecration of the Holt Gifts at the Divine Liturgy or O Joyful Light sung at the Entrance at Vespers.
- Hymns of a dogmatic nature, which express in poetic form certain key points of Orthodox doctrine, for example, the theotokia-dogmatika or stichera dogmatika sung at Saturday evening Vespers at the end of the verses following Lord, I call upon Thee, hear me.
- Hymns that describe historical events.
Example: the sticheron at the Litiia of the Nativity of Christ.
- Hymns of a moralistic nature, which contain no prayer to God, but speak directly to the listener in the manner of a sung sermon.
Example: a verse from the stichera at theAposticha sung at Vespers of the first Monday of Great Lent.
- Hymns of a contemplative nature.
Example: the sticheron on the Praises sung on Great and Holy Saturday.
- Hymns that accompany liturgical actions, relating in poetic form the symbolic meaning contained in those actions.
Example:the Cherubic Hymn, during the singing of which the bread and wine to be used in the Eucharist are carried from the Table of Preparation to the Altar in solemn pr
(I will be delving into each hymn type in detail in subsequent articles.) The point of this process of identifying and categorizing hymns is to bring us closer to the essence of each hymn and help build deeper mind-heart connections.
Russian Church Singing – Volume 1: Orthodox Worship and Hymnography by Johann von Gardner. http://www.musicarussica.com/books
Phillips Lecture Series, April 13, 2022, Dr. Peter Jermihov