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Liturgical music in the
Western Orthodox tradition
by Right Rev. John A. Mangels

The wider culture in which we live today is motivated by sports, the spectacular effects of computer-generated movie effects, and the novel, and is all about entertainment. This seems to be the primary focus of the time in which we live.


I am reminded of what Bishop Kallistos (Samaras) of the Greek Archdiocese—of thrice blessed memory—told me several years ago: The last days of the Roman Empire were marked by a fascination with games and amusements…


With this in mind, it is a difficult task to speak about Liturgical Music in the Western Rite of the Orthodox Church. The authentic understanding has largely been lost because of the abandonment of the Rite in the non-Orthodox West and the adaptation of a kind of music that has as its model the secular ditty. A fascination with the Eastern Rite on the part of many of our people has further led to a debasement of what is rightly and authentically Western Liturgical Music. Because so many do not have continuity of the tradition, they study various manuals and ceremonials to try and recreate the Rite from books. These references are very helpful. But without continuity with the past—indeed a handing down of the tradition—and without experience of the organic development of the Rite, we end up with a sterile and contrived re-creation of what we imagine “must have been.”


Worse yet are the “romantics” who try to recreate some vague “golden age” from reading and flights of fantasy. This is clearly not what the Holy Synod of Moscow had in mind when it approved the restoration of Western Rite Orthodoxy in the 1870s. The Commission of the Holy Synod was clear in its recommendation that all that was not in contradiction to Orthodox Theology was to be maintained in the restored Western Liturgical Rites. Not a hint of mere “Liturgical archeology” was implied!


Those who did not live through the liturgical devastation following the Second Vatican Council may not understand the wholesale overthrow of 2000 years of tradition, foisted upon the Church by those who claimed a rediscovery of the early Church and her liturgical tradition. Constantly we were told that this was a “going back.” Countless sources have proved that this was an utter fabrication and that the new rites, music and ceremonies were invented of whole cloth.


Bishop Kallistos Samaras also discussed with me a number of times that those within the Orthodox Church who were involved in “liturgical archeology” were in fact denying the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church throughout the ages!


50+ years after Vatican II and its catastrophic Liturgical deconstruction, it is easy to see that this is not a good path. It has however affected, in one way or another, how any of us look at Liturgy and the Liturgical Arts—especially music.


Those of us who are involved in Liturgical Music must study and work hard on our craft. Acquiring the skills to perform the music of the Church is as important as the priest’s study of theology, scripture, liturgics, etc. A thorough knowledge of music is important. The iconographer must spend time studying the rules and learning the skills of drawing and painting in order to produce icons worthy of the service of the Church. Unfortunately, our society glorifies the amateur musician. While amateurs can certainly be trained and learn the skills of singing, directing and performing the sacred chants and polyphony, much knowledge is necessary. I do not advocate for professionalism merely for the sake of professionalism, but the truth is that long training and practice are paramount for any of the Liturgical Arts. Our goal ought not to be elitism but rather to be the best we can for the service of God. Remember the gifts of the Magi to the Child Jesus? Ought we not to offer the best we can muster for the Service of God?


If we reflect on the fact that angels are an example for Christians in the world, then the musical vocation of angels also comes into play. Today, perhaps more than ever, one of the most important practical aspects of our vocation is to use music properly in Liturgy. The best possible music we can have in our churches is an extremely important priority.  Music often expresses what the spoken word cannot, and speaks for the soul when it cannot speak for itself. Conversely, ugly, banal music is destructive. It contradicts God’s presence in the world, and if we aren’t careful, it can suggest Hell rather than Heaven.  I have been fortunate to have a professional music program with very talented musicians and the great music of the Western tradition. But that isn’t necessary or even possible for most churches. What is necessary—and I believe passionately that it is possible—is for us to see to it that the music we have is the best we can possibly offer, and that it speaks of God within the traditions of the best culture we have achieved. 


Most modern Christian music, “praise music,” “Christian rock” and other excuses for church music simply will not do. Insipid lyrics and repetitive simple melodies of a trite and commercial nature do not elevate the soul. Great hymns teach by their poetry, and their musical settings serve the texts and raise the heart and mind. It is the same with great choral music, whether it is the Church’s own music—Gregorian plainsong, Palestrina, Mozart or good hymnody. It is the priest’s responsibility and should be also that of all parishioners to ensure that music offered is suitable, that it is edifying and uplifting and that it speaks of God rather than being enmeshed in our own modern popular culture. The musicians may have technical expertise and artistic inspiration, but it is the priest and the people of God who cooperate to make certain that their talents are used to serve God and His Church. The angels taught us this on the first Christmas at Bethlehem when they sang “Gloria in excelsis Deo.”


In recent times a strange notion has developed of “active participation” in the Mass, the meaning being that at every moment the worshipper is to be “doing something”. This is not necessary, and the early Christians would have thought such an idea very odd indeed. We Orthodox do, however, actively participate in many ways: by listening, praying, meditating, singing, standing, sitting, kneeling, genuflecting, etc. My friend, the great Liturgical Scholar and musicologist, Msgr. Richard Schuller—of blessed memory—famously said: "Listening is a truly active participation. Listening both to the proclaimed word and the performed music can be full, conscious and active participation. The same can be said for watching the ceremonial as it is enacted."


What about the organ? From the primitive mediaeval examples of the organ to the Baroque organ Bach knew, to the fabulous French organs by Cavaillé-Coll, the English organs American Organs of the Classic style, to the more humble organ of the parish church, this instrument is uniquely suited to worship. Why? For me, it is because it is a breathing instrument, almost like a human being. As we think of bells speaking out—and even give them names in their consecration ceremonies—so the organ is like the Christian himself singing: it breathes and speaks. We do not sing or make music by being struck or plucked or by vibrating but by sending air through our lungs and through our vocal cords, in much the same way an organ does. (This is why it is my desire someday to restore the Hilgreen Lane pipe organ in the organ loft above the High Altar to regular use.)  


I have been extremely fortunate to have experienced the authentic worship of the Christian West since my childhood. My parents gave me piano lessons as a child. Then, as my attachment to the Church grew, I studied the organ. In addition to my Seminary studies, I studied organ and Church Music at Alverno College in Milwaukee under the great Sister Mary Theophane Hytrek, and at the Lamont School of Music under Dr. James Bratton in Denver. When I founded St. Augustine’s in the late 1970s in that spiritual wasteland following the “Liturgical Revolution” of the late 1960s, I was determined that the Liturgy and all of the Sacred Arts—most particularly Liturgical Music—would be preserved, fostered and promulgated. For many years a professional choir offered a full Mass setting every week, along with organ voluntaries, good hymnody, and regular organ and choral concerts with orchestral settings of the Mass on the great Feast days. The congregation valued music and its place in the Sacred Liturgy and in their spiritual lives. Bishop Kallistos (Samaras) and Metropolitan Isaiah of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Denver and Bishops Antoun, Basil and John of our Archdiocese praised the parish for its commitment to excellent Liturgical Music. It is an interesting aside to note, as I write, that St. Augustine’s is the only Church in Denver that fosters the great Sacred Liturgical Music—Masterworks—of the Western Church in the setting for which it was intended: the Liturgy of the Mass! Our beloved Metropolitan Antony of thrice blessed memory once said, “a Church without a Choir is like a body without a soul!” Our Metropolitan Philip of thrice blessed memory, a great defender of the Western Rite within Orthodoxy, said through the Priest’s Guide: “Every Priest must have a …choir with a competent Choir Director who is qualified to instruct and direct the choir…This must be done no matter how great the cost. The Choir and Director are directly responsible to the Priest.”


The Christian community gathers weekly, all over the world, to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—in person. We do so with the best we can offer—and we offer, actively, what we ourselves can bring to our adoration of God. This means the best we can make our church look with paint and adornment and flowers; it means the best vestments we can have for God’s Liturgy; the best sacred vessels for the Mass; it means the best of traditional Orthodox-Catholic worship; it means the best singing and music we can offer; and it means a church musician playing a real instrument that lives and breathes and sings to God, just as we do. 


Music is only one part of our tradition here and of our common life. But it is a fundamentally important part, and we mean to have the best. The organ we have installed; the organist who plays it; visiting recitalists; our chanters; our professional choir; our orchestral musicians and our people raising their own voices all combine to worship God in this place consecrated to Him. For what other reason are we here?

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