Liturgical Singing 10:
Choir and Congregation
Choir and Congregation: Liturgical Components and
Discrepancies as They Relate to the Restoration of Congregational Singing in Orthodox Christian Worship
by Mark Bailey
With the exception of the “Alleluia,” the examples so far cited share the quality of liturgical interaction between celebrants and assembly. The congregation either affirms, responds, supplicates, or converses with the celebrant. and each aspect of interaction relates directly to the liturgical components being executed at the time. With musical settings of these components written tunefully and simply, the congregation should be able to sing these texts with ease; certainly they should not have to delegate this responsibility unnecessarily to the choir, who has its own unique liturgical role to serve.
Apart from clergy interaction, the congregation should also participate with the choir in the execution of psalmody which accompanies liturgical action or movement. The structure of liturgical psalmody specifically indicates that refrains should be sung by the gathered assembly. Since these refrains are conventionally short, usually a phrase or two, they are accessible to the congregation. who can pick-up the tunes and texts quickly on first or second hearing. Troparia which repeat as refrains (the Third Antiphon of the Festal Divine Liturgy, for example) are also accessible to the assembly, thus allowing the choir to take complete charge of the verses. Such balanced and practical interaction between choir and congregation allows liturgy its natural energy and momentum, which otherwise lacks when the choir performs both roles. Admittedly, psalmody is far less prominent in today’s rendering of liturgical celebration; erstwhile psalm antiphons with verses and refrains, in many cases, have been reduced and, in part, replaced by
ecclesiastical texts added ex post facto. 4 Where antiphonal psalmody does exist intact e.g. feast day antiphons, or where it exists in shortened form e.g. the Prokeimenon and “Alleluia” verses before the Gospel. the congregation should claim its rightful part by singing the refrains.
A few other liturgical components are less easy to assign. Based on history, for instance, one may cogently argue that “We have seen the True Light … and “Let our Mouths Be Filled with Thy Praise … “ belong to the gathered assemblv as well, since, most likely, they were originally executed as final troparia refrains to the Communion Psalm 5 (the final “Alleluia” certainly supports this argument). Other components such as the “We Praise Thee …” of the Anaphora, “One is Holy … ,” “Blessed be the Name of the Lord … ,” and the like, take on the characteristics of de facto liturgical commentary, as opposed to the aforementioned affirmations and responses characteristic of the gathered assembly. History is ambiguous on this matter, because these
texts, on the whole, represent bits and pieces, which, by evolution, have found their ways into liturgical format. Without conviction necessarily, the author would just as soon allow the choir to remain responsible for these phrases.
It should be apparent, however, that the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, along with “Holy God,” The Hymn to the Theotokos, and other ordinary texts of the Liturgy, have been left off the suggested list of settings for the congregation to sing. This is done with intention. These texts have become, in essence, the weekly hymns of the Liturgy; little action or movement now takes place while they are sung. Often, they are set with excessive grandeur and ostentation to the point where the Liturgy, on the surface, appears to be a recitation of imposing hymns with other transitional components stuck in between. This condition. however, exists without liturgical or structural justification. Each so-called hymn either once served a specific liturgical function. or was introduced with extra-liturgical reasons in mind. In the Byzantine Cathedral of the fourth and fifth centuries, “Holy God” and The Cherubic Hymn were, of course, grand processional antiphons, rendered with psalm verses and refrains by cantors and congregation. The Lord’s Prayer, the only scriptural hymn-text in the Liturgy, but arguably out of place nevertheless, and the Creed, which calmed the heretics and accompanied the Kiss of Peace, were not comfortably settled into the Liturgy until the fifth and sixth centuries. 6 As for the Hymn to the Theotokos, even Germanus’ eighth century liturgical commentary makes no mention of it. The point, of course, is that within the formative stages of liturgical worship when Eucharistic priorities evolved (those priorities being scriptural readings, sermons. Eucharistic prayers, the Presentation of the Gifts, the Kiss of Peace. the Anaphora, and Communion),7 these so-called hymns, which are so prominently featured in liturgical celebration today – thus overshadowing true liturgical priorities, were nowhere to be found.
Encouraging the congregation to sing these settings, therefore, supports certain liturgical discrepancies, best exemplified by today·s rendition of the Creed. Originally introduced to accompany the Kiss of Peace, as mentioned, the Creed, now as a hymn, covers the Kiss of Peace, instead. Liturgy dictates, however. that Eucharistic reconciliation among all members of the
community is historically and spiritually essential for Communion with Christ in his gathered community. In other words, the assembly should be focused on the Kiss of Peace with the Creed as its accompaniment, not its competitor. While liturgical evolution may, and one hopes will, have its way with these hymns, it is better to leave them to the choir, and to allow the congregation to focus specifically on those liturgical components, which, by nature, are justifiably within their grasp.
Such emphasis on the role of gathered assembly should not neglect nor preclude the importance of the choir. In partnership with the celebrants and the congregation, the choir should serve two essential liturgical roles. First, the choir must take charge of all texts and settings which change from week to week, and which require a certain amount of musical and rubrical preparation. This allows musicians to explore musical directions beyond the simplicity needed for congregational participation, thus enhancing liturgical beauty with the gifts of musical art. Second, the choir should lead the gathered assembly in song by setting the pace, tone, and direction of the assembly’s singing. The choir conductor, should one exist, should become the congregation’s director as well. The choir’s role as leader also makes combined efforts, such as the singing of antiphons with refrains, flow smoothly and coherently, as liturgy dictates.
In closing, one must admit that liturgy, as a combination of evolutionary components, assigns distinguishable liturgical roles to the congregation, to the choir, as well as to the clergy. To restore congregational singing within the services, therefore, requires the assembly to begin to sing again those liturgical texts which, by nature, call for the assembly’s utterance. At the same time, the choir, as members of the assembly, should lead congregational singing, and then also render musically by themselves those texts which lie within their domain. Should such restoration of ceremonial role playing cause greater general liturgical interest and captivation, all the better. But the legitimate reason for this movement is that it restores to liturgy certain key aspects necessary for its pristine celebration, which is indeed the noblest of endeavors.