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Liturgical Singing 11


by David Drillock


Earthly worship is an imitation of heavenly praise. The earthly church at prayer unites the faithful with the prayer of the angelic praise. This thought is not simply a Byzantine theoretical supposition combined with platonic imagery, but is the vision of the Prophet Isaiah and the account of heavenly worship expressed in the fourth chapter of the book of Revelation. That the song of the church on earth is united with the praise in heaven is a theme found in the writings of many of the church fathers. St. John Chrysostom writes: 

“Above, the hosts of angels sing praise; below men form choirs in the churches and imitate them by singing the same doxology. Above, the seraphim cry out in the thrice-holy hymn; below, the human throng sends up the same cry. The inhabitants of heaven and earth are brought together in a common assembly; there is one thanksgiving, one shout of delight, one joyful chorus.”[1]

Byzantine mystical thought developed the idea of the angelic transmission of the chant itself. In the sixth century Pseudo-Dionysios articulated the concept of the divinely inspired “prototype”; the idea of an “intuitive divine inspiration … in which the hymns and chants are echoes of the heavenly song of angels, which the prophets gave to the people through a sense of spiritual hearing.” [2] These divinely inspired hymns and chants, which were viewed as models of the heavenly songs, serve as the foundation for all creativity. God and beauty are interrelated, and in the words of Pseudo-Dionysious: 

“Divine beauty is transmitted to all that exists, and it is the cause of harmony and splendor in all that exists; like light, it emits its penetrating rays onto all objects, and it is as if it called to it everything that exists and assembles everything within it.” [3] 

The task, then, of the church artist or musician is not self-expression, not creation that reflects individual, personal feelings, attitudes, and principles, but “the comprehension and reproduction of heavenly songs, the re-creation of divine images that were transmitted by means of ancient religious archetypes.” [4] These songs are  WUnot his, they do not belong to him. They have been revealed to him and he transmits this revelation to the collective body of the church. This explains why the names of the composers during the early Byzantine and Slavic periods remain anonymous; their works are not their self-creations which they personally own, but are the inspired revelations which they transmit to all of humanity. The artist submits his will to the will of God in order to be able to receive and to transmit the divine revelation. 

Is not this the essence of the story of the writing of the Nativity Kontakion by Romanos? In his recorded “Life” we read that the great poet-hymnographer “received the gift of composition of kontakia when there appeared to him in a dream the likeness of the Holy Virgin who gave him a piece of paper and commanded him to eat it. He thought it best to eat the paper. This was the feast of the eve of the Nativity and, straightway from arousing from sleep he mounted the ambo and began to sing ‘Today the Virgin …’ [5] 

This is the concept that has served as the root for the development of both music and icon painting in the church and has much to offer us today in understanding the function of the artist in the life and work of the church. It strongly emphasizes that the artist, the iconographer or the composer — does not work in a vacuum. There are patterns, models, prototypes that serve as the foundation for the creative process. These models are the collected treasury of the church and the prototypes which serve as the artistic canon or rule. “The more lasting and firm the canon,” writes Pavel Florensky, “the more deeply and purely it expressed general human spiritual need; the canonical is that which belongs to the church; that which belongs to the church is collective, and the collective belongs to all humanity.” [6] 

For the early church musicians, then, the compositional process consisted in fitting together, with slight modifications dependent on the text, such transmitted short melodic patterns (called by musicologists music formulae or kernels) which constitute the melodic substance of the hymn. These formulae came into existence as a result of constant oral repetition so that in the course of time, they became crystallized into fixed melodic patterns that were organized and then associated or assigned to a certain church mode, or echos. In church iconography, the icon’s beauty is understood to be a reflection of the holiness of its prototype. When the artist lost this understanding and replaced it with the goal of representing people and objects in their visible, daily condition, that is, what is disclosed to the eye alone, to the emotions, and to human reason, not only was the spiritual value lost but the aesthetic quality itself deteriorated. [7] 



1. Homily I in Oziam seu de Seraphinis I; PG lvi, 97.

2. Vladyshevskaia, Tatiana, “On the Links Between Music and Icon Painting in Medieval Rus” in Christianity and the Arts in Russia, edited by William C. Brumfield, and Milos M. Velimirovic (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991), 18.

3. Pseudo-Dionysious, The Divine Names (Mahwah NY, Paulist Press, 1987) 76. This translation in Vladyshevskaia, op. cit., 18. 

4. Vlaldyshevskaia op. cit., 18.

5. Germanos, Life of Romanos

6. Florensky, Pavel, Iconostasis (Crestwood NY, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 87. This translation in Vladyshevskaia, op. cit., 19. 

7. Ouspensky, Leonid, Theology of the Icon, Volume II (Crestwood NY, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992), 345. 


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