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Authentic Church Music

By Rev. John Finley, B.M., M.A., M.S.T. 

2002 Conference on Missions and Evangelism
The Gospel in Song: Music, Missions and Evangelism
August 30-September 02, 2002

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, and 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 era 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 and Modern Man on the Apocalyptic verse "Behold, I make all things new" emphasizes that God comes into the world from the future.[1] So, too, should our music, and iconography be made new from generation to generation, not in the sense of radical innovation or novelty, but new 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.

Each 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 (Acts 17:23) and the Russian missionaries with the native culture of Alaska.[2]

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, expresses 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 its 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 throw out 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 Russian become Russian? Since the faith was received from Ss. Cyril and Methodios, its 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?[3]

Is the Byzantine music that we sing today really Byzantine, i.e. from the Byzantine era of the 4th through the 15th Centuries?[4] 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 1453 AD? Are we aware that the authentic music of the Byzantine Church lost its diatonic character and accepted enharmonic and chromatic intervals during this period of the Turkish yoke?[5] 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 Chrysanthus in the 19th Century and is scarcely 200 years old?[6]

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 adaptations of its 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 is 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 nametag so 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.[7] Are these hymns Orthodox? If we are referring to their theological content and use in true prayer and spiritual ascent in worship, the answer is a resounding YES. If however, we say that they are not Orthodox because he lived in Italy or was a bishop in the See of Rome, we are sadly mistaken.

Rome was Orthodox in the 4th Century and St. Ambrose is our saint, and his writings and hymns belong to the body 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 (i.e. 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 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 the 70's 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 its architecture, music or iconography in the eastern hemisphere. If it is trapped, then we need to free it from its 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 has already been 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, Professor Michael Hilko, the Archpriest James Meena, Frederick Karam, Basil Kazan, Raymond George, the Archpriest Antony Bassoline, 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, (i.e., five lines and four spaces) and harmonized Byzantine melodies. Some composers have even produced new melodies that do not belong to any 8-tone system, but are somehow reminiscent of the long-standing "Church sound", i.e., 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 Namie 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, and 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 Sunday Divine Liturgy, if we don't understand the liturgical cycles and structure of the services Vespers, Matins, Holy Week, 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 existing ones.[8] We should continue the work of transcribing Byzantine notation into modern western linear notation and adopt modern western scale intervals.[9] We need to simplify the melodies in connection with the texts and encourage congregational participation.[10] We should encourage the harmonization of the melodies.[11] I have heard it said that the great musical contribution of the East is its melodies and the great contribution of the West is its 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, has already been 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, cantors, 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 psalmody 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 superhighway that will allow all Americans seeking the true faith, to make their journey home to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Amen.


[1] "Another obvious point that stands out in this biblical vision of history is that the transfiguring power of the New Creation is explained not by the past, but be the future. It is clear  that the action of the living God can only be transfiguring and creative. But the marvel of God who revealed himself in Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is that His creative act comes from the future; it is prophetic. God "comes" into the world; He is before us, and we go out to meet Him who calls us, who quickens us, who sends us out, who makes us grow, and who liberates us." Patriarch Ignatius IV, The Resurrection and Modern Man, p.32

[2] the Orthodox missionaries realized they were not entering a spiritual vacuum as they arrived from Siberia. The inua as the inner life-force of every creature did exist, according to Christian doctrine, but not conceptualized in exactly the same way as the traditional Alaskans had conceived of it. The intrinsic link between the visible and spiritual worlds also existed, the created universe being God's self-expression, a sign of His love. The ambivalence an Artic hunting society "naturally" felt toward their prey and their attempts at stabilizing and purifying their relationship with the creatures on whose deaths their lives depended were readily intelligible from the Orthodox theological perspective. The intimate relationship between the name and the person in traditional Alaskan cultures echoed an ancient biblical theme. What the mission came to contribute was the personal identity of the One who is the inua of all things: Jesus Christ. As the Way, the Truth, and the Life, He also liberates humanity from biological determinism, abolishing the terrifying sense of instability and defilement traditional peoples have always known. Without destroying their positive reverence for life, the mission set the whale hunters free, nourishing them, in the Eucharist with Living Bread and Living Water." Michael Oleska, ed., Alaskan Missionary Spirituality, p.29

[3] The period of Polish-Ukrainian influence, marked by the florid, often poly-choral "part" style, as well as the simpler "kant" style inspired by the Protestant chorale. This period extends from the second half of the seventeenth century to the mid-eighteenth or slightly later. Johann von Gardner, Russian Church Singing volume 1 translated by Vladimir Morosan, p. 145. The period of Italian influence, especially Italian-style choral polyphony. This period was relatively brief, lasting from the middle of the eighteenth through the first third of the nineteenth century. Ibid. p 145.

[4] The modern system is radically different from the medieval system. Medieval Byzantine Chant is wholly diatonic. Oliver Strunk, Essays on Music in the Byzantine World, p16. It can be played with sufficient accuracy on a modern keyboard instrument. H.J.W. Tillyard, Byzantine Music and Hymnography, p.44.

[5] The modern system includes chromatic and enharmonic scales in addition to the diatonic (Savas J. Savas,  Byzantine Music Theory and Practice, pp 41-42 [Holy Cross Press edition, 1975]).

[6] The modern Chrysanthine system developed or was introduced in 1821. The whole fabric is not Greek at all, but Oriental i.e. Arabo-Turkish. H.J.W. Tillyard, Byzantine Music and Hymnography, p. 63.


Splendor paternae gloriae,
De luce lucem proferens,
Lux lucis et fons luminis,
Dies diem illuminans."
- St. Ambrose of Milan

An English translation by Robert Bridges:

"O splendor of God's glory bright,
O Thou that bringest light from light.
O Light of light, lights living spring,
O Day, all days illumining."

[8] We need to improve existing texts and translate those not presently in English in cooperation with the Department of Liturgics and translation. We should acknowledge the immense work already accomplished by Metropolitan Antony Bashir, Archbishop Samuel David, Isabel Florence Hapgood, Fr. Seraphim Nassar, Fr. Steven Upson and others.

[9] This will, given time, effectively conform all Byzantine melodies to a diatonic equal-tempered scale. According to Byzantine Musical theorists, Medieval Byzantine Music was wholly diatonic anyway. So this could be construed as a move back toward a more pure form of Byzantine chant rather than a perversion of it.

We should further acknowledge the monumental work of Fr. James Meena, Professor Michael Hilko, Dr. Michael Gelsinger, as well as outspoken advocates of this direction: Fr. Paul Schneirla - 1954, Fr. Michael Simon, Fr. Wakeem Dalack, Miss Barbara Joseph and Peter Michaeledes.

[10] "Byzantine music will fall into disuse if serious measures are not taken...This is not to say that Byzantine Music in every detail is absolutely adaptable to the current situation of the Church especially in the Diaspora (USA). There will be some modifications necessary." N. Apostola, A Guide to the Music of the Eastern Orthodox Church, p. XII

Often manipulating the words to fit the music preserves the melodies. "This is not good Byzantine Music. In Byzantine Music the words are primary. If a hymn does not make sense in the language in which it is being sung, then it does not matter how beautiful the melody is. The music is there to serve the words; the words do not serve the music. This is theology, not simply 'taste"! The human person is first 'logical' or 'rational' being created in the image and likeness of God. The words of the hymn are the means by which we contemplate God, pray to God, and learn about God. The music is but a 'skin' if you will, surrounding the words of the hymn. Unfortunately, creating both the best translations of the hymns and the most effective melody for the hymn requires generations of effort." Ibid, p XIII

This task will require a great deal of study on the part of composers and arrangers of Byzantine Music. A knowledge of the basic melodic characteristics of each tone is required, as well as a knowledge of the particular version of a tone with respect to the particular type of hymn being set. i.e. which hymns use the fast, slow, or papadica version of each tone.

[11] We should acknowledge Fr. James Meena, Dr. Frederich Karam, and Mr. Raymond George for their pioneering work in this area.

"The problems involved in preparing such music are many. Ancient Byzantine melodies do not lend themselves easily to harmonization, however, contemporary Byzantine melodies have been strongly influenced by other cultures and, more and more, the perceptive ear can discover a definite modal harmony suggested by the melodic line. Although this is not true in all cases, it appears often enough to lend conviction to such a theory.

"Further, it is my contention that Byzantine Chant as it is known today, can be harmonized in most cases, while characteristics of the mode are still preserved. We must understand that some melodic freedom will be lost in harmonization, but that that loss can be justified by the use of rich, (and discreet) harmony.

"...I do not wish to imply that I have solved the problem of harmony as related to Byzantine Chant. Rather it is my sincere hope that this is a step in the right direction. May future generations evolve a more satisfactory system." - Fr. James Meena