Issue #5 – February-March 2002

Editor’s Page

Starting with this issue, we present short biographies of Orthodoxy’s great composers. We thank John Sutko of Burbank, Illinois, for providing that idea and some of the information.
As we prepare to enter the season of Great Lent, we pray for God’s grace in helping us meet the needs of our constituents -- the
singers, chanters, and choir directors of the Orthodox Church



Litany: A prayer form characterizing Orthodox services and consisting of priest's or deacon's petitions for various intentions with choir responses. Western Christian services also include litianies but with a slightly different format.

Prokeimenon: Literally, "What is set forth." Verses from the Psalter (Psalms) sung responsorially immediately before the reading from Holy Scripture.

Liturgy of St. Basil: A liturgy sung 10 times in the church year which differs from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in that the "secret prayers" at the Anaphora are longer, the words at the Epiclesis (see Tuning Fork Issue 4) are different, and, instead of "It Is Truly Meet," the Hymn to the Theotokos is "All of Creation," or a special hymn of Holy Week is sung.

Presanctified Liturgy: A liturgy celebrated on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent and on the first 3 days of Holy Week, with gifts sanctified the previous Sunday.



Principles of Chanting

There is today a complete consensus of opinion on all sides that good chanting is primarily good reading aloud; that the rhythms of natural speech are as essential in the singing of Psalms and Canticles as in the saying of them without music.

The notes of a chant tune have no time value of their own apart form the rhythm of the syllables to which they are sung. The chant has no fixed rhythm of its own to which the syllables are adapted, and all of its measures are of constantly changing length, sometimes of two beats, sometimes of three, sometimes of only one weak beat. The printing of a chant with a whole note for each recitation is purely conventional. If a recitation consists of only a single unstressed syllable……., the note sung should be only as long as the unstressed syllable well read. If, on the other hand, a verse begins with a long recitation ………., the whole note represents the unhurried reading of ….. syllables with their natural stresses only, and no other accent whatsoever.

The notes of the….. cadences do not indicate the slightest break in the smooth natural reading of the words, or the slightest addition of a musical measure accent to the natural stresses of good reading.

Failure to achieve good chanting is failure on the part of the choirmaster to teach the two primary principles of chanting, which are these:


  1. The pace of the reading is the same in both Recitations and Inflections.
  2. All stresses are merely those of good reading.

A sound method of teaching these principles effectively is as follows: Have the choir read the words…… distinctly and naturally, giving the sense. Repeat, if necessary, until the verse is well read. Then let them read the words in monotone, in the same rhythm precisely, and with the same stresses. …… Then have the choir sing the verse in precisely the same rhythm, with the same stresses, and the same care for giving the sense.

A canticle thus learned, or rather re-learned, verse by verse, will not readily disintegrate into the old careless reiteration of a fixed mechanical rhythm unrelated to the meaning of the words. Good chanting is just good intelligent reading in musical tones.

   It might surprise you to learn that the instructions printed above on how to chant come, not from an Orthodox source, but rather from the preface on chanting in the 1940 Hymnal printed by the Protestant Episcopal Church. As we can clearly see, it is not only the Orthodox who have problems making the words of our music understood by the listener. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, if you want to hear chant (admittedly of a very different type) sung well, listen to some of the Anglican choirs singing the psalms. Try to find a recording of one of the Anglican services done by choirs such as Kings College Cambridge. Sit down and listen, really listen to it. Think about how they pronounce the words, making sure the endings are clearly heard and how, as the instruction above tells us, they follow the natural rhythms of the words. Listen for the stressed and non-stressed (or weak) syllables and how they manage to stress the strong syllables and sing the weaker syllables, even at the ends of lines, lightly and quickly. Notice that they do not breathe between measures, such as is done too often in our choirs, but use the words as a guide to where a breath should and should not be taken. By using these techniques, we can improve our choir’s ability to chant clearly and thus, make the words of our services more understandable.



Q: There is one choir member in my parish who has been singing in the choir for many years. What should I do when a choir member refuses to come to rehearsal because they "know all the music already?"

A: You can take several approaches, singly or in combination. (1) You can try to motivate the member to feel both a desire and a responsibility to attend rehearsals. Are you providing opportunity to learn new music and to practice improved vocal technique? Can you gently suggest areas in which the member could work on improving? Can you make the member appreciate the need to work on the sound of the whole choir ensemble? Can you offer the member a leadership role in helping others learn the music? (2) And/or, you can consider making rehearsals mandatory for singing at services. If you do this, be sure you stick to it, or you will be unfair to the members who attend rehearsals faithfully.

Q: Often our choir is so small we end up with one person per part. How can I get my choir members to be more comfortable singing alone?

A: Reading (chanting) at services is a good confidence-builder. At rehearsals, it’s also useful to reinforce the learning process by having choir members sing alone or in small groups. Also, you may find it useful to have your choir members regularly stand next to different voices, not grouped by voice part.



  • Text, not meter, determines the shape of the musical phrase. Non-metric approach to conducting by maintaining textual rather than metrical pulse.
  • Study the meaning of each textual phrase and determine its musical shape, as both need to be assessed and transmitted in singing. Teach the choir staggered breathing and firmly discourage breathing in the middle of a word.
  • Try to achieve a harmonious balance of sound. No voice should be heard above another. All should fuse to create a perfectly blended sonority. This can be achieved even by the smallest amateur choir.
  • Basses should be sought and cultivated as they form the foundation, resilience and energy of the choir. A major effort should be made in the recruitment and training of basses.
  • Sopranos should be light, never overbearing as their role is to complement the altos, who serve as the foundation and support for the rich sound of the choir. High baritones are fillers and their role is to blend, not take the lead, especially if young and not yet developed voices
  • Never have the choir do any sudden crescendos or increase the sound on the last note of a phrase or cadence. That is considered highly unmusical. Cadences should be rounded off (paying particular attention to balance of parts) and fade away. Only in rare cases does a cadence call for a crescendo and those should be treated very carefully as one should not rely on high but low voices to build volume.
  • Always strive for a very smooth sound with a minimum amount of breaks (an influence of the Znamenny chant). Avoid excessive rhythmic changes. Strive to achieve a good pulse, as well as a strong sense of musical direction and overall proportion.
  • The choir director must learn to be in full control of the slightest sound and nuances coming out of the choir. He/she (not the singers) must take full responsibility for that sound. Learn to communicate with hands and eyes, never with elbows or swings of the arm.

Submitted by The Very Reverend Igumen Christopher (Calin), Dean
Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection

New York City



…was born in 1751 in Ukraine and died in 1825 in St. Petersburg. He began his musical training in his local church singing school and demonstrated such outstanding talent that he was asked to sing in the theater, court, and chapel of the Empress Catherine the Great. The Empress selected Dmitrii and other students to study in Italy, and in 1799 he returned to Russia to direct the choir of the Imperial Chapel and to introduce the western ideas and musical trends he learned in Italy.

Bortniansky composed initially in the western style, with Italianate harmonies and polyphony. However, he also felt a desire to retain traditional idioms and melodies of the Orthodox Church, and so he began to investigate the older and simpler chants of the Church. Hence, his early compositions are more elaborate and westernized; his later work uses traditional hymns and chants in harmonized settings. His greatest liturgical works are based on the old modal chants, have a free rhythm, and use single and double choirs of 4 to 8 or more parts with octave doubling. After his death, Bortniansky’s compositions were published under the editorship of Tchaikovsky. Bortniansky’s Cherubim Hymn (No. 7) is probably the best-known Orthodox hymn outside the church and is frequently performed in schools and in Western Christian churches.



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Notice: The National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians announces that the 2002 edition of the Liturgical Guidebook has been published. For more information contact: Mr. Vatsures, 68 West Cooke Road, Columbus, OH 43214 e-mail:


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