Finally, Orthodox Church Music that Sounds Truly American

"When the music we hear matches our heart music, it is easier to hear and understand the words that are being chanted. Every country that has been touched by Orthodoxy has eventually developed its own musical tradition distinct from the original Byzantine singing. I think that this is a good thing, and worthy of emulation."

The following video shows the Orthodox hymn "Christ is Risen!" sung to Appalachian harmonies, but conforming to tonal rules of the Slavic Orthodox. It was sung at a music workshop at an All American Council of the Orthodox Church in America, during a meeting in Atlanta. Unfortunately the video is fuzzy, but the singing is quite lovely:

I listened to it. I fell in love with it. I played it over and over and over, delighting in the melody and harmonies. I had tears in my eyes a couple of times. And, I found myself wishing and wanting an entire Divine Liturgy setting to be written using this type of harmonic/liturgical structure.

We speak about how the Orthodox celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the language of the people who have been evangelized. We do not as often speak about how the Divine Liturgy has melodic settings that, over the centuries, have adjusted themselves to the culture in which the Church has grown. One only has to listen to the difference between the Mount Lebanon choir singing the Divine Liturgy in Arabic, a Greek monastic choir on Mount Athos singing the Divine Liturgy in Greek, and a Russian Orthodox choir singing the Divine Liturgy in Church Slavonic to hear the differences.

Throw in the Romanians, the Serbs, the Africans, etc., and anyone can hear that the tonal principles of Orthodox music have found creatively different expressions in different cultures over the centuries. In all cases, the Divine Liturgy is carried out in a respectful fashion, but the melodic and harmonic structure varies.

Here is another Orthodox hymn sung to the same type of harmony. Not surprisingly, it also has a bit of Celtic sound to my ear:

In the long run, I hope that an American Orthodox musical structure develops that reflects something of our heritage as a nation and a culture. While I know that there are various melodic traditions that have entered what became the USA, I think that the Appalachian religious harmonies lend themselves quite well to adjusting themselves to the tonal traditions that we have received from the various jurisdictions. These videos show what can happen when efforts are made to compose using that type of harmonic structure.

I should mention that this is not merely an attempt to be American, as though it is not quite as good to be Arab, Greek, Slavic, etc. Rather, many cultural studies have shown that people in a culture respond best, and understand best, music that is written in their heart melodies and harmonies, that is in melodies and harmonies that reflect the music that they learned as children.


Fr. Ernesto M. Obregón
"OrthoCuban"

When we compose musical settings of the Divine Liturgy that both respect and honor what we have received, yet express it in melodies and harmonies with which we grew up, we contextualize the Church in the same way that we do when we adjust the language of the Divine Liturgy to the language that is spoken by the people of a particular country. When the music we hear matches our heart music, it is easier to hear and understand the words that are being chanted.

Thus, I am of the opinion that more and more we need to make use of local harmonic singing while still following the tonal rules. Every country that has been touched by Orthodoxy has eventually developed its own musical tradition slightly or very separate from original Byzantine singing. I think that this is a good thing, and worthy of emulation. I hope more musical work, like the above, happens soon.

Enjoy the singing, and join me in prayer that a full setting may yet be published to the honor of God and the spiritual profit of the Church.

~

Adapted from two articles:
Appalachian Orthodox Paschal Hymn
& More Appalachian Orthodox Music

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