Authentic Church Music

March 20, 2009 Length: 22:58

Fr. John shares an article originally printed in Again magazine. He envisions the future of American Orthodox music—our responsibilities and the obstacles we face.





The belief that God became Man and dwells among us in Jesus Christ is at the very heart of Orthodox Christian life and worship. Orthodox worship, therefore, involves the whole person — heart, mind, body and soul. In our services of worship Christians pray and sing in liturgies that are not of this world.

Back in 2002 a conference on missions and evangelism with the theme The Gospel in Song: Music, Missions and Evangelism was conducted in Toledo California on August 30th through September 2nd. As a member of the Department of Missions and Evangelism for the Antiochian Archdiocese, I was asked to give a presentation on authentic church music. Since that time, this presentation in written form has circulated in various places and in publications, most recently in the current issue of Again magazine. So, I have been asked to present this paper as a part of my regular podcast Singing the Triumphal Hymn.

Authentic church music. Just as an authentic icon makes visible for us the invisible Kingdom of God, so too, authentic church music makes audible for us the inaudible Song of the Angels around the Throne of God. And just as an icon of Christ or the Theotokos differs in style from nation to nation, from one century to the next, so too, a musical setting of a hymn to Christ or to His Mother differs in style from nation to nation and from one century to the next. Because we respect the Tradition of the Church, and because we know that no culture or no error stands in isolation from another in church history, we seek to develop church art in a living continuity with the past realizing, however, that the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church to which we are united is not simply the church of the past, but also of the present and of the future.

Our Patriarch Ignatius IV commenting in his book The Resurrection in Modern Man, on the apocalyptic verse, Behold, I make all things new, emphasizes that God comes into the world from the future. So, too, should our music and iconography be made new from generation to generation. Not in the sense of radical innovation or novelty, but according to the renewal of the Holy Spirit in the Church. We must trust that the Holy Spirit will reveal the mind of the Church in every generation and in every nation, as the faithful apply the great commission, not only to the spread of the Orthodox faith in thought, word and deed, but also in christian art. Every nation and every generation must be taught and baptized. Every culture must be sanctified, and the effective missionary will find things already existing in the culture to illustrate the universality of the Gospel, just as St Paul did at the altar of the unknown god, found in Acts17:23, and as did the Russian missionaries with the native culture of Alaska.

In our day and age music abounds in so many forms, church music abounds in many forms. Authentic church music of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church abounds in expressions from other cultures, other nations and previous generations. We know our roots, and because we live in America we have to say “roots” and not “root”, because we live in the melting pot of the world. Concerning the Church it is no different. We live in the musical and iconographic melting pot of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

There are forces at work, however, that would prevent us from baptizing our nation with the whole tradition that has been handed down to us. We have the Bible, the Liturgy, the Councils, the Fathers, the Canons, and the lives of the Saints. All these things have been translated into English so that we can read, study and worship in our own tongue. To a certain degree our architecture, music and iconography remain in, what might be called, cultural captivity. Perhaps it is because art, more than any of these other aspects of our Holy Tradition, express our ethnic and nationalistic roots and our love for the fatherland. But what is the true fatherland? Is it not the Kingdom of God not of this world, the age to come, the eschaton? It is this Kingdom which demands our ultimate loyalty, and the culture of this Kingdom which we are called to preserve and protect.

Authentic church music is music that helps us to pray, to worship God, to enter the heavenly Holy of Holies. Authentic church music is Orthodox church music, but when we say the word Orthodox, what do we mean? Do we mean church music that finds it’s root and expression in certain geographical areas of the world? Is Orthodox church music limited to that music which, through the centuries, has been developed in the great patriarchal Sees of Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome? Should we add Moscow and Kiev and throughout Rome because of the great schism? Is Orthodox church music limited to Byzantine, Russian, Romanian, Serbian, Carpathian and Bulgarian? How did the music of the Church in Russia become Russian? Since the faith was received from Saints Cyril and Methodius, it’s roots are Byzantine — or is it? Are we not aware that the music of today’s Church in Russia was heavily influenced under the reign of Peter the Great by the Polish Ukrainian composers of the 17th century, followed by the Italian-style choral polyphony of the 18th and 19th centuries?

Is the Byzantine music that we hear and sing today really Byzantine? That is, from the Byzantine era of the 4th through the 15th centuries? Are we not aware that the church music of the See of Constantinople was heavily influenced by the demands of the Turks after the fall of the empire in AD1453? Are we aware that the authentic music of the Byzantine church lost it’s diatonic character and accepted enharmonic and chromatic intervals during this period of the Turkish yoke? Are we aware that the music of today’s churches in the Byzantine tradition throughout the entire Mediterranean region of the world is the result of the codification of these oriental elements by Chrysanthos in the 19th century, and is scarcely two-hundred years old?

Why is it necessary to point out all these things? Is it to shock us or to scandalize us? Absolutely not. Rather, it is important to note that the Church has always accepted certain cultural adaptions of it’s music in order to minister to the faithful, to further the spread of the Gospel, and to continue to baptize the culture in which it finds itself, and in order to continue living in the renewal of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Again, it’s important to ask, what is Orthodox Church music? Is it simply music that is contrasted in its sound and use in worship to Roman Catholic music, Episcopalian music, Baptist music, or mega-church music? Are we simply another denomination with our own brand of church music to be used as a kind of badge or name-tag so that people know who we are, so that we can simply distinguish or denominate ourselves from others who call themselves Christian?

In the 4th century St Ambrose of Milan, whom we commemorate on December 7th, wrote countless hymns in Latin, rhymed and metered in long-meter. Are these hymns Orthodox? If we are referring to their theological content and use in true prayer and spiritual accent and worship, the answer is a resounding Yes. If, however, we say that they’re not Orthodox because he lived in Italy, or was a Bishop in the See of Rome, we’re sadly mistaken. Rome was Orthodox in the 4th century, and St Ambrose is our Saint. And his writings and hymns belong to the body of patristic literature handed down to us through the ages. Obviously, his hymns are not prescribed for us to sing in our services since they are not found in our Typikon or in our hymnals, nevertheless, this example is used to challenge our perspective in terms of how we use the word Orthodox.

Orthodox music is not defined by its nationalistic culture or geographical origin, neither is it defined simply in denominational, that is, prejudicial terms. The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church is not a denomination. Orthodox church music is that music which raises the eyes of our hearts to see the true light. Orthodox church music lifts up our hearts to receive the heavenly spirit, and to discover the true faith as we worship the undivided Trinity in the Kingdom of God not of this world.

Orthodox Church music, authentic church music as such, transcends all cultural and denominational expressions and labels. Some may negatively assume that such a proposal must necessarily lead to the development of an American Orthodox music which will sound like Protestant music, or ‘70s rock and roll christian music of the baby-boomer generation’s surfer churches. On the contrary. We are hinting at the development of authentic sacred music for the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America. A music founded on that which has been delivered to us, but which is also the result of our interaction as Orthodox Christians with the surrounding American culture. Others may say that Western music lacks that mystical quality of the Eastern musical tradition which is so important to our worship. We should be reminded once again, however, that Orthodoxy couldn’t be defined in geographical terms.

The Orthodox faith and worship is not trapped in it’s architecture, music or iconography in the Eastern hemisphere. If it is trapped, then we need to free it from it’s bonds. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us here today, at this conference on Missions and Evangelism, to struggle with these issues, to humble ourselves before God, to lay down the sword used to attack our own and to raise it up instead against the devil. So, who is the devil? Any person who disagrees with me? Let’s hope not! The devil is the one who would foil our mission to bring America to it’s true spiritual home in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. We need to band together as a family, as brothers and sisters in Christ, for the great challenge ahead of us. We need to encourage those among us whom God has gifted with music to exercise and multiply their talents for the spread of the Gospel in this nation. In order to do this we need to look at the progress that is already being made, follow in those footsteps, and then forge ahead where the need is felt and the spirit of God leads.

A path has already been cut by Orthodox American musical pioneers such as the priest Michael G.H. Gelsinger, Prof. Michael Hilko, the Arch-priest James Meena, Frederick Karam, Basil Kazan, Raymond George, the Arch-priest Anthony Badaling, the Priest Sergei Glagolev, the priests Vladimir and Igor Soroka. These and many others have taken English translations of our hymns and set them to traditional old country melodies, transposed the Byzantine notation into Western musical notation, that is, five lines and four spaces, and harmonized Byzantine melodies. Some composers have even produced new melodies that did not belong to any eight-tone system but are, somehow, reminiscent of the long-standing church sound, that is, the sound of Heaven.

So where do we go from here? This question is being posed fundamentally to the composers and arrangers of music for the Church. What is the next step? The answer that came to me from Fr. John Namee (of blessed memory) will surprise you. He said to me, “Fast and pray. If you fast and pray, just as the iconographer fasts and prays before he or she produces an icon, you will produce music that we can use to pray.”

So we must become spiritual musicians, a Holy people, a people after God’s own heart. The king of rock and the king of pop will not likely produce the music for our prayer, but musicians who pray will produce music for prayer. Our objective is not to save our kids with musical, cultural relevancy, although we want our kids to be saved, but children respond to spiritual authenticity and repel hypocrisy. If we as musicians don’t pray, if our only experience of church is the Sunday Divine Liturgy, if we don’t understand the liturgical cycles and structure of the services of vespers, matins, Holy Week, the major feasts, and such, we may produce American music for the Church, but will it be Orthodox sacred music for prayer in America?

In addition, we need to continue working on the translations of our texts into English, and improve on the existing ones. We should continue the work of transcribing Byzantine notation into modern Western linear notation, and adopt modern Western scale intervals. We need to simplify the melodies in connection with the texts and encourage congregational participation. We should encourage the harmonization of melodies. I have heard it said that the great musical contribution of the East is it’s melodies, and the great contribution of the West is it’s development of harmony. What better place than America to bring these two great traditions together to form something uniquely American in terms of Orthodox music. This, of course, is already being done in Russia, and will undoubtedly be a powerful influence on what is done in America in this area of musical development.

Finally, we need to work on a blend of musical renderings by clergy, chanters, choir and congregation, but not exclusively any one of these. The congregation should sing the responses, acclamations and dialogues, but the fixed and variable sung hymnody and psalmnody should include this blend described above.

In conclusion, I would like to thank the Department of Missions and Evangelism, and the Department of Sacred Music of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America for sponsoring this weekend entitled The Gospel in Song: Music, Missions and Evangelism. My prayer today is that the leadership of these departments will rediscover that artistic path which has already been cut for us, and organize the construction of a musical, architectural and iconographic super-highway that will allow all Americans seeking the true faith to make their journey home to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Amen.