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Sacred Music: It's Nature And Function

By The Liturgical Commission of the OCA

All sorts of theories have been advanced to explain the origin of music in human culture. One thing is certain: throughout recorded history until only recently, music was not an independent art form but connected to some other activity: religious ceremony, military and court functions, drama, dancing, courting and wedding rights, and even work. The word "music" derives from the Greek mousike, the art of the muse, which in ancient Greece referred to a combination of poetry, acting, dancing, and musical sounds. Apparently music throughout most of history was an association art, yet in that association it was an essential ingredient for heightening or intensifying the activity.

Ultimately music did not originate with man; it has always been inherent in nature. Since man is a part of nature, then, theories concerning its origin are rather pointless. It is enough to say that what we call music, the sequential expressions of pitched sounds in rhythmic patterns, is a part of human nature because it is found in the nature of the cosmos in general. Thus its origin is in the creative wisdom of God.

St. Gregory of Sinai, speaking of music in the Church, said: "Psalmody has been given to us that we may rise from the sensory to the intellectual and true." Sacred music is uplifting, and there is a decided transforming power in it. It is grounded in matter - since all sounds proceed from vibrations of something material - yet the effect is uplifting beyond the sensory to a higher plane. And because music always requires the element of time, it is by nature an event. It is dynamic rather than fixed, a flowing movement rather than a "still life." More than any other art, then, it carries the possibility of change, of transformation. In the case of genuinely spiritual music, it can elevate from the sensory to the sublime. As usual, St. John Chrysostom expressed it best: Nothing uplifts the soul so much and gives it wings and liberates it from the earth and releases it from the fetters of the body and makes it aspire after wisdom and deride all the cares of this life as the melody of unison and rhythm-possessing sacred songs."

Music, then, by its very nature has power to uplift and transform the human heart. It is most natural to employ song when one desires to refresh and "recreate" the soul. And this recreation occurs most certainly and most deeply when one's sole aim in singing is to glorify God.

Now, obviously all music does not have as its end the glory of God and the recreation of the human soul. In fact, today most music is unmistakably "secular" - music for entertainment, for dancing, for "background" during work or driving or shopping - for any number of activities unrelated to God. There is even a large (and lucrative) segment of contemporary music which is consciously against God and which seeks to glorify the lowest instincts and appetites of man. And most distressing, the extreme secularity of the present age has resulted in the introduction of profane, worldly styles of music in many churches.

It is sad to notice that the vast bulk of "music" produced day after day in our own time and broadcast ad nauseam over the electronic media neither glorifies God nor elevates man. It does not even seek these aims. It at once reflects and feeds the overtly profane and secular culture in which we live Just as a human who is overcome by sin and remains unrepentant is not fulfilling his own nature, so profane music does not fulfill its own nature Perhaps one might, therefore, more appropriately term it "anti-music".For those who still accept the traditional Christian revelation concerning the nature of man and his role as king and priest within creation, there can be no joy or satisfaction in any art which ignores or denies or is divorced from God; music least of all, because of its natural potentiality for lifting up the mind and heart. Music can reflect the harmony of heaven; it can provide us on earth with a foretaste of the splendor of the Age to Come. Sacred music, then, is true music, reflecting as it does the deepest truths of God and man: that the universe is not self-created or self-sustaining, but created by God and filled with His Presence.

The Christian practice of worship included sacred music from the very beginning. At the Lord's Supper when Our Lord Jesus Christ instituted the Mystery of His precious Body and Blood, He and His disciples sang a hymn before they departed to the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26). And St. Paul, writing to the "faithful saints" in Ephesus, advised: "Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart." (EphesianS 5:18-19).

The early Christians simply continued the Judaic heritage of chanting psalms, adding gradually new hymns which were specifically Christian in content. The notion that sacred music developed only after the age of the early Church persecutions is quite erroneous. In fact, it was through psalms and hymns that the intense band of the faithful expressed their strength and joy in the Risen Lord during those long years of persecution. When the Church finally did emerge from that difficult era, its music continued and flourished as before.

During the age of the Seven Ecumenical Councils (4th-8th Centuries), music in the Church received its definitive structure and character. Some of the more clever heretics in that era knew well the power of music to capture human hearts. They shrewdly expressed their false doctrines in lively, catchy melodies which spread quickly among the people. But the character of the tunes, consonant with the falsity of their content, echoed the music of the theater and circus. In opposition to the heretics, the Church Fathers formulated guidelines for the music to be used in Orthodox worship.

The main features of Orthodox sacred music defined during the Great Councils are still the canonical norms for church music today. They are outlined as follows:

First and most obviously, the music is purely vocal. No accompanying organ or other instruments are used. The human voice alone glorifies God. There are a number of reasons for this. During the formative years of the Church, the organ along with other musical instruments were associated with the theater and circus; they evoked the whole atmosphere of pagan frivolity and licentiousness for the Christian. Even in the Western Church until the 15th Century instruments were not permitted. As late as the 16th Century in the West, the organ was hardly more than tolerated, the music being still mainly a cappella.

The deeper objection to instruments was that their use was considered not consonant with the spiritual nature of Christian worship. In the past Jewish worship had included them, but only as an accommodation to human weakness, to the spiritual imperfection of the man under the old Law. St. John Chrysostom said in this regard: "David formerly sang in psalms, we today also sing with him; he had a lyre with lifeless strings, the Church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre, with a different tone, indeed, but with a more accordant piety." Christian worship is higher and more perfect by virtue of the perfect revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Musical instruments are of the imperfect realm of "this world"; they are lifeless," mechanical and ostentatious; they introduce into the character of the services a contrived, sensuous, theatrical element. The lyre of "living strings," the pure human voice because of its flexibility, its warmth and the deep feeling it can express, is the sole worthy instrument in the more perfect worship of the "New Israel." Jesus Christ has inaugurated a new age, the New Creation where the faithful now worship in "spirit and truth" (John 4:23-24).

The second main characteristic is that the music, being wholly vocal, is completely wed to the text. The text, in fact, is paramount, the words and their meaning suggesting the very contour and rhythm of the music. Since the Orthodox church knows of no sacred music without words, it is from the text and for the text that the melody proceeds. The music is a holy chant, not measured by any regular or contrived meter. There are, therefore, in Orthodox musical history, no hymnwriters who were simply professional musicians; they were rather liturgical poets whose basic task was neither music nor poetry, but prayer. They were without exception ascetical, mystical fathers. And the content of their hymnology is never subjectivistic, but rather objective declarations of Orthodox doctrine. Each verse, each tropar, each "stik" is a marvellous poetic statement of the Faith. The services, especially Vespers and Matins, are replete with these hymns "strung together with Glorias and broken verses from the psalms like pearls on a string."4 Even in the more rare cases where the personal pronoun "I" appears (as more often in the Lenten Triodion), the hymns maintain their basic objectivity.

Just as there is no liturgical music without words, so too there are during worship no words without music. Besides the formal hymnology itself, everything else is chanted "psalmodically" - all psalms, all readings, all prayers, the Creed, everything. The phenomena in American churches of reading in an unpitched monotone or in a dramatic voice, or of congregational recitation of portions of the Services are influences from protestant worship, having no basis or precedent in the whole history of Orthodox corporate worship. This unfortunate development may be seen as a move towards the secularization of the Orthodox liturgical tradition.

Two aspects of Orthodox sacred music which have all but fallen out of use in American parishes must also be mentioned. The first is: singing antiphonically. The practice of two choirs singing alternately is a tradition which became firmly established in the early Church. It has both practical and spiritual advantages. Practically it enables the chanters to sing a long time without fatigue since they alternately sing and rest throughout the services. And spiritually this practice brightens and enlivens the services, keeping the congregation, as Constantine Cavarnos points out, "in a state of inner wakefulness,"

Secondly, though much of the liturgical music in use in Orthodox Churches today is harmonized, the traditional Byzantine and early Slavic chants were monophonic with the addition at times of the drone or holding note. Polyphony appeared in Russia in the late 16th Century as a natural development of the Russian musical "soul" and paralleled the pattern of the multi-voiced folk singing. Later the harmonies became more sophisticated as professionally-trained composers harmonized chants and wrote original music of a high degree of esthetic beauty. The process, however, became more and more dominated by "western" influence and opened the door to music-for-music's sake. Those who continue to argue for strict monophonic chant assert that harmony destroys the purity, holiness, and power of the simple chant. Those who prefer harmonized music insist that there is the possibility of simple part-singing which is not ostentatious and which has, moreover, the effect of highlighting and beautifying the chant and its text. Each side argues that its method has greater transforming power in the hearts of worshippers. The controversy cannot be settled here. Perhaps the solution is in keeping both traditions, depending on the character of each individual chant. Harmonized or not, all sides agree that church music is most effective when it is uncomplicated and directly expressive of both the text and the liturgical moment.

Throughout the unbroken history of the Orthodox Church, whether or not these basic features of sacred music have been fulfilled totally in every local church, the ideals stand as a guide for all to follow. No individual, no local community has the right to abridge or ignore these canonical standards. Each generation must embrace anew the wisdom of the musical tradition, so that church singing may continue to fulfill (or return to) its proper and sacred role in public worship. Such a fulfillment, as this essay has attempted to show, is a fulfillment of the very nature of music. And it is the nature of music to draw mortals to the immortal Throne of God where all harmony and beauty have their beginning and end.


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