NOTES FROM THE CHOIR LOFT
Liturgical Singing 14
ENGLISH TEXT AND BYZANTINE CHANT: SOME PROBLEMS AND ISSUES
By Nancy Takis
It may come as a surprise to some that after centuries of liturgical use in the Orthodox Church, there is today some controversy among chanters regarding what exactly is Byzantine chant. In general, all agree on the classical understanding of the term: a system of tones, or modes. Well-defined melodic patterns adapt the form of the music to the cadence of the Greek language, so that accents and syllables shape the melodic lines. For example, there are prescribed ending patterns for musical phrases based on final accents. Other important qualities of traditional Byzantine chant include unique scale tunings and musical notation. These are irrefutable facts of history.
So why does controversy arise? Because the formal definition of Byzantine chant is predicated on two factors: Greek as the sole language of the Church, and musicians immersed and trained in the Eastern “yphos”. As the Church in America evolves, however, we cannot take these preconditions for granted. Indeed, in most of our parishes, where English is used alongside or in place of Greek, and where musicians come from a predominantly Western background, they have long since ceased to apply. There is, as of yet, no definitive agreement on how best to reconcile Byzantine chant, in all its glorious intricacy, to this new world of English and Western Music. Given the complex factors involved, many people question not how an English text should be set to Byzantine chant, but if it should be done at all! For some, the answer is a definite, “No!” Their main arguments are as follows:
1. Some chanters and Byzantine scholars adamantly maintain that Byzantine chant should not be used with the English language because the “sound” of the music is not compatible with this language; in other words, there is a cultural, traditional, and historical gap that can not and should not be bridged. When we attempt to combine the two, the sound of English text being sung in a way very foreign to the English language somehow destroys the perfect marriage between the text and the music. Some of these proponents would argue that the English language should develop its own system of chant that would be consistent with the “Western” sound (as opposed to the “Eastern” style of music). The Russians managed to do it, and so should other nationalities.
2. There are a large number of Byzantine chanters who are firm in their conviction that if melodic lines are not rendered in the microtones of true Byzantine chant, then the resulting music is not Byzantine chant, and should not be referred to as such. The micro-tunings are essential to preserving the chant, and if we lose or disregard this defining quality of Byzantine chant, we are destroying part of its very nature—a part which should be preserved.
3. Western musical notation cannot accurately express the nuances and rendition of the chant, and therefore should not be used if we are to call the music Byzantine chant.
These three “hot topics” are very much discussed and disputed among Byzantine purists, who seek to preserve and perpetuate the ancient and holy system intact. By ignoring elements deemed integral to the very nature of Byzantine chant, they maintain we are destroying it. To what degree “change” constitutes “destruction” is up for debate, but we can at least acknowledge that were an English translation of a Byzantine hymn, rendered in Western transcription, handed off to be performed by Pavarotti, or the Three Tenors, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the resulting sound would probably not be very Byzantine. Nonetheless, from a practical point-of-view, the facts in the United States today are these:
1. English is being used, in some cases more often than Greek.
2. The majority of choirs and many of the chanters singing English do not read
Byzantine notation, nor do they have the time or inclination to learn to do so.
3. Singers in the U.S. have been brought up in Western music traditions; not only is it
difficult for them to hear (let alone learn and reproduce) the micro-tunings and distinctive yphos of the Byzantine system, they quite frankly often do not want to.
To be continued…