ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Eastern Liturgical Music

Music in the Eastern Church is a link between the faithful and the divine.

“The chants are simple, beautiful and easy for a congregation to sing. Church music today has been invaded by the strangest melodies which take into account neither the character of the Sacred Drama of the Divine Liturgy, nor the climate of Mystery in which it is unfolded. Instead of raising us up, this type of music brings us down to what is commonplace. In order to be renewed one must, while looking at the future, not be cut off from the past, for fear of being uprooted. The chant of the Church must be ‘our own’ and not any borrowed music, however beautiful it may be.”
    — Archbishop Joseph Tawil, Melkite Apostolic Exarchate, United States

With these words, Archbishop Joseph Tawil acknowledges both the integral part which music plays in the Liturgy of Eastern Catholic churches, and the powerful influence of music on man’s soul.

Of all the Arts, music seems to be the vehicle that makes possible the ultimate aim of Eastern Rite Liturgy: the yearning of the heart for union with God.

My own response to my first experience of Eastern Liturgical music – at the Melkite Liturgy of St. Ann’s parish in West Paterson, New Jersey – was that of a musician who is a worshipper, not an authority. Having been educated in and exposed to Roman Liturgical music only, I was thoroughly unprepared for this soul-stirring experience.

More than an emotional reaction, mine was a mystical one. What I saw in the faces and sensed in the attitudes of the congregation was a “Communion of Spirit” – a unity among celebrant, choir and congregation achieved through the music which filled the Church.

Besides providing glimpses into “their own” music, the description of the unique spirituality of this particular Melkite parish reveals some insights into Eastern Liturgical music in general.

No surprise to those brought up in the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church is the intimate weaving of musical responses of priest and congregation in offering the Liturgy. As sung by the priest and people of St. Ann’s, there is no place where the music begins. Rather, it is like a river which flows and is met by streams feeding into it in an effortless fashion.

The words sung come from deep in the souls of the priest and people, and the music clothing these words is ancient Greek and Arabic. This was, undoubtedly, the music sung by the Apostles at the Last Supper. This must also have been the very style in which Elizabeth heard Mary sing the first ecstatic Magnificat announcing the presence of God’s Son within her.

While the music sung by the congregation is uncomplicated and easy to sing, the chants of the priest, however, are difficult and must almost be “bred in the bone” of the singer. Highly improvisatory, the chanting of the priest is done in the fashion of all ancient music: melismatic (or, characterized by melodic decoration of the words), and in the slightlynasal manner of ancient Irish, Jewish or Chinese chanting. The chanter becomes the living link in the unbroken chain of guardians of God’s music from the days of the young Church in Jerusalem, Antioch and Constantinople.

As the priest pauses in his chanting, a soft “Ooh” is carried on by the choir in the pitch of the last syllable given by the celebrant. This “hum” overlaps the beginning of the chanter’s next phrase. Once again, the effect is mystical, as this represents God’s word being carried on as the priest breathes.

The choir serves as a nucleus of the congregation, and as an accompanying body to it. The melodies which they sing, while beautiful, yield first place to the words. Often the last note of a phrase is prolonged in a meditative manner. And although the music is mainly vocal, the choir’s chanting is discreetly complemented by the strains of the organ.

Most of the time the congregation sings in English; and yet, they also understand the chanting of their priest, and occasionally themselves render song in the ancient tongues. This “bi-lingual” singing keeps the music of the Byzantine Liturgy “ever ancient, ever new.”

In addition to the voices of the priest, congregation and choir, those of the Apostles are symbolically represented in the Melkite Liturgy. As the priest incenses the altar, one is “lifted up” by the gentle sound of the twelve small bells attached to the censer, and signifying the twelve original Fathers of Christianity.

The music of the Byzantine Melkite Liturgy at St. Ann’s gives us insights into Eastern Liturgical music in general. Regardless of the differences in the chants and formats used in the various Eastern Rite churches, there is a characteristic insistence upon the musical “uniqueness” of each church, which is common to all the churches. They are all also united by the goal of joining man’s heart with God, through music.

Unlike the “strangest melodies invading Church music today,” to which Archbishop Tawil referred, Eastern Liturgical music does take into account both the “character of the Divine Liturgy,” and the “climate of Mystery in which it is unfolded.”

The beautiful relationship between music and the individual Liturgies of the Eastern Rite churches is due to the wisdom of each Rite’s retaining its own music throughout the centuries. The Catholicity which all share has never implied uniformity for them.

Many new musical forms and melodies found their way into the early Church as it spread from Jerusalem to Antioch to Rome to Constantinople to Alexandria and to the rest of the world. Throughout the wars and invasions of the Eastern Church, an acculturation certainly took place musically. The Eastern churches have wisely allowed the use of a variety of liturgical musical systems and customs suitable to the different areas.

The Eastern Rite Churches have also favored keeping the old white responding to the need of their people to look to the future.

It is this tradition, this characteristic reverence for what the cultural heritage of the people is and has been for all the centuries since Christ founded His Church, which keeps the music of St. Ann’s Byzantine Liturgy, as well as that of all Eastern Rite churches, “ever ancient, ever new.”

It is also this tradition which produces music which achieves that ultimate aim of all Liturgy, and of life itself: “the yearning of the heart and soul for union with God.”

Sister Eileen Dolan, S.C., holds a Masters and a Doctoral degree in music from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. She is presently Chairman of the Music Department of the College of Saint Elizabeth at Convent Station, N.J.

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