Some Personal Thoughts on the Composition of Liturgical Music
by Fr. Sergei Glagolev
All liturgical art aspires to the condition of iconography. Church art and architecture, the poetic prose of prayer, the sacred sound of singing, are all iconic in Orthodox worship. In time, space and place, in movement, sight and sound, worship itself is iconic, making manifest the Church as the Body of Christ and proclaiming the Heavenly Kingdom. In this sense the Restoration of Icons we celebrate on the Sunday of Orthodoxy applies to what we utter as well as write, to what we hear as well as see, "confessing and proclaiming our salvation in word and images." In worship, the sacred words are sung. In that sense, the sacred song must share the form and function of the Holy Icons surrounding us as so great a cloud of witnesses.
Surely, a Holy Icon is "recognizable" as something more than a "religious picture." It follows that sacred song must share some of that "recognizability" in that it shares the same iconic forms and functions. For example, what we see and venerate in the Holy Icon of the Nativity of our Lord must be sung and heard in the Christmas Kontakion. Neither the song nor the singing may contradict what the Icon and the Kontakion are called to share.
What must be iconically recognizable in liturgical music, it seems to me, is both the sense of continuity and familiarity. This does not mean there is no room for creative composition. Clearly, one can see the creative talent that is distinctly Rublev. Yet, the God-blessed creative genius of this holy iconographer never contradicts the continuity that makes an icon recognizably an icon, throughout the ages, regardless of period or style.
Now, the sense of the familiar is achieved not by "copying." The "mark" of familiarity in liturgical music may well be that contrary to the tradition of the Renaissance, composition is never meant to be the vehicle by which the composer simply "expresses him or herself." One of the greatest blessings I receive is when someone says of my writing, "yes, it's new, it's contemporary, and it's different -- yet somehow, it sounds familiar." May it please God that what is meant by this is that what has been written is recognizable in the continuum of sacred singing in the Orthodox Church -- that I did not get in the way.
In beginning to compose, lack of crafted skills gets in the way as much as one's ego. If a song is to be sung, the style of the composition must be simple enough not to attract attention to itself. Only the skilled mastery of the elements of music and poetic prose produces simplicity (lack of clumsy melodic figures, odd jumps, wrong accents, questionable voice movements, illogical resolutions, etc.). What makes a song singable is how it follows the logic of music theory, the theory of melody, and the rules of poetic structure. How the voices move and why, how the melody is wedded to the text -- this must make sense. What makes sense becomes memorable, and singable.
There is no sacred song without sacred words. In the Orthodox Church "pure music" is not melody without words, but rather the melody of the words. To compose, one must understand the poetic structure of the words to be sung as worship (the rhythm of the words, the syntax of the word groupings, the versification of the stichs, the structure of the strophes, etc.). Now, if the melody of the words suggest how the words are to be sung and the style in which they are set, then surely you will agree you cannot "copy" a melody meant to be sung in Greek, for example, and cram it into English syntax. What becomes "recognizable" is the "photographed" Greek original set to English that sounds Greek (as Casca's retort to Cassius' query: "nay...it was Greek to me..."). The creativity of the composer in this case is to understand the "logic" of the original melodic kernels, phrases and cadences, and create from these elements a hymn that is at once still recognizable AND "English."
There are two stumbling-blocks to singing English as it is spoken in America. Firstly, we have been singing in "broken English" or "liturgically manufactured English" for so long that it's become a tradition. Secondly, few composers, adaptors and arrangers have a good knowledge of the original languages from which our sacred singing comes. In facing these problems, the Latin Church in America, for the most part, tragically gave up its rich chant tradition rather than transforming it in continuum, and re-set their hymns to what sounds less like English than American jingles. Fortunately, the Orthodox Church in America has been more cautious. There are some who are impatient with the slow progress towards singable English and bold new settings. Patience. It takes a generation to develop composers who are at once musicians, poets, linguists, and theologians. Anything less is little progress.
To compose, there must be a theological understanding of the function of the particular hymn in the liturgical rite. The sacred function determines the style. Why is something called an "antiphon"? How does a didactic stichera work? If something in worship is "dialogic," how should it sound? What does a "festal shout" do? Why are some things meant to be sung by the assembly and not the cantor or the choir? (the "style" of assembly-singing is different) - and so on.
It seems to me that a composer should write for local needs (he's not writing an opus for himself). But to respond locally, one must understand the ethos of the worshipping community and possess a sensibility to what is "the sound of worship" of a particular group. The music of Orthodox worship in America today is best described as "eclectic" -- something borrowed from many periods and places, from Byzantine Chant to the Plain-Chant of the Carpathians, to Bachmetev and, yes, even Bortiansky. I am not of the purists who say only one style of singing is fit for Orthodox worship in America. Within the continuum of our incredibly rich musical heritage, there are many "styles" that reflect the character of our broad cultural diversity. It seems good to me that we borrow the best from among the many, developing a "sound" that at once becomes our own, and yet is familiar to all.
How does one "learn" to compose? Talk to anyone who writes. He or she will say "read the literature." That is to say, sing through the chant books, hum through the anthologies of liturgical music, learn to look at a partitura and hear the words and music in your head. It is not enough to listen to recordings. To become musically literate, you must learn to "hear" the sacred song by reading it. Look at the musical phrase; why does it work here and not there? Why is it written that way? Learn to read the literature.
I have one last suggestion. Develop language skills. To understand why something works in Greek or Slavonic but not in English, you have to know something about Greek, Slavonic and English. Certainly this is so if you want to work with chant forms. The "inner logic" of the chant has something to do with the nature of uttered language.
Musical skills. Language skills. One must learn to pray with both. How often it has been said that a theologian is one who prays. Father Meyendorff once said that theology is the search for words adequate for God. Perhaps sacred song is the search for the adequate utterance of these words, as the music of the heart.