Words and Music in Orthodox Liturgical Worship:
An Historical Introduction
Professor David Drillock / ARTICLE /
Reprinted from: Jacob's Well, Fall-Winter 1998-99
[On October 17, 1998, Professor Drillock presented a workshop, sponsored by our
Diocesan Liturgical Music Commission, at Christ the Saviour Church, Paramus, NJ. In his
talk he showed through numerous musical examples how the settings of Orthodox hymnography
have struggled historically with the balance between words and music. While not originally
intended for publication, his prepared notes offer an excellent and concise history of
Earthly worship is an imitation of heavenly praise. The earthly church at prayer unites
the faithful with the prayer of the angelic praise. This thought is not simply a Byzantine
theoretical supposition combined with platonic imagery, but is the vision of the Prophet
Isaiah and the account of heavenly worship expressed in the fourth chapter of the book of
Revelation. That the song of the church on earth is united with the praise in heaven is a
theme found in the writings of many of the church fathers. St. John Chrysostom writes:
"Above, the hosts of angels sing praise; below men form choirs in the churches and
imitate them by singing the same doxology. Above, the seraphim cry out in the thrice-holy
hymn; below, the human throng sends up the same cry. The inhabitants of heaven and earth
are brought together in a common assembly; there is one thanksgiving, one shout of
delight, one joyful chorus." 
Byzantine mystical thought developed the idea of the angelic transmission of the chant
itself. In the sixth century Pseudo-Dionysios articulated the concept of the divinely
inspired "prototype"; the idea of an "intuitive divine inspiration ... in
which the hymns and chants are echoes of the heavenly song of angels, which the prophets
gave to the people through a sense of spiritual hearing."  These divinely inspired
hymns and chants, which were viewed as models of the heavenly songs, serve as the
foundation for all creativity. God and beauty are interrelated, and in the words of
"Divine beauty is transmitted to all that exists, and it is the cause of harmony
and splendor in all that exists; like light, it emits its penetrating rays onto all
objects, and it is as if it called to it everything that exists and assembles everything
within it." 
The task, then, of the church artist or musician is not self-expression, not creation
that reflects individual, personal feelings, attitudes, and principles, but "the
comprehension and reproduction of heavenly songs, the re-creation of divine images that
were transmitted by means of ancient religious archetypes."  These songs are not
his, they do not belong to him. They have been revealed to him and he transmits this
revelation to the collective body of the church. This explains why the names of the
composers during the early Byzantine and Slavic periods remain anonymous; their works are
not their self-creations which they personally own, but are the inspired revelations which
they transmit to all of humanity. The artist submits his will to the will of God in order
to be able to receive and to transmit the divine revelation.
Is not this the essence of the story of the writing of the Nativity Kontakion by
Romanos? In his recorded "Life" we read that the great poet-hymnographer
"received the gift of composition of kontakia when there appeared to him in a dream
the likeness of the Holy Virgin who gave him a piece of paper and commanded him to eat it.
He thought it best to eat the paper. This was the feast of the eve of the Nativity and,
straightway from arousing from sleep he mounted the ambo and began to sing 'Today the
This is the concept that has served as the root for the development of both music and
icon painting in the church and has much to offer us today in understanding the function
of the artist in the life and work of the church. It strongly emphasizes that the artist,
the iconographer or the composer -- does not work in a vacuum. There are patterns, models,
prototypes that serve as the foundation for the creative process. These models are the
collected treasury of the church and the prototypes which serve as the artistic canon or
rule. "The more lasting and firm the canon," writes Pavel Florensky, "the
more deeply and purely it expressed general human spiritual need; the canonical is that
which belongs to the church; that which belongs to the church is collective, and the
collective belongs to all humanity." 
For the early church musicians, then, the compositional process consisted in fitting
together, with slight modifications dependent on the text, such transmitted short melodic
patterns (called by musicologists music formulae or kernels) which constitute the melodic
substance of the hymn. These formulae came into existence as a result of constant oral
repetition so that in the course of time, they became crystallized into fixed melodic
patterns that were organized and then associated or assigned to a certain church mode, or
echos. In church iconography, the icons beauty is understood to be a reflection of
the holiness of its prototype. When the artist lost this understanding and replaced it
with the goal of representing people and objects in their visible, daily condition, that
is, what is disclosed to the eye alone, to the emotions, and to human reason, not only was
the spiritual value lost but the aesthetic quality itself deteriorated. 
The music of the Greek Orthodox Church developed in Byzantium from the founding of
Constantinople in 330 until its fall in 1453. Although Byzantine musical manuscripts exist
from the 10th century, the earliest notation which is readable and can be transferred into
the modern Western system dates from only the last quarter of the twelfth century.
Evidenced by these manuscripts, Byzantine psalmody and hymnody were organized and
transmitted in a system of eight church modes (echos, echoi, pl) referred to
as the Octoechos (lit. eight echoi or modes). While in the West the modality
of the tonal system is predominantly associated with a certain scale, in the Byzantine
tradition, the echos or mode is defined on the basis of the types of melodic patterns that
are grouped together, and make up the material for a complete mode.
On the basis of these manuscripts, the early Byzantine chant can be defined as a unison
chant whose melodies are diatonic. The music is closely related to the words and, with the
exception of the final cadence, very seldom, if ever, do any of the words appear
The compositional process for the Byzantine church musician consisted in fitting
together, with slight modifications dependent on the text, short melodic patters of
formulae which constitute the substance of the hymn. These formulae came into existence as
a result of constant repetition so that, in the course of time, they became crystallized
into fixed melodic patterns. Basically a pattern is assigned to only one particular mode.
However, there are instances where several modes are employed in the chanting of a
particular hymn. Musicologists frequently refer to the chant tradition of the Greek Church
after the fifteenth century as neo-Byzantine.
In this tradition many of the old Byzantine melodies have survived, though often with
considerable modifications, including the use of chromatics in the basic melodic patterns
and the employment of the ison, one pitch or sound sustained throughout a musical phrase
to support the modal identity of the melodic line.
The development of the early unison Slavic chant (called znamenny, from the Slavic word
znamia, or "sign", referring to the neumes or musical signs used in
notating the chant) reached its apex in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth
centuries. Trained singers associated with singing schools of city cathedrals embellished
the simple chants with the creation of new and more elaborate musical patterns -- a single
tone might have as many as ninety or more short melodic patters (called popevki)
which could be selected by one singer as he was "creating" the music for a given
The developed melodies of the later znamenny form reveal a deep emotional
expressiveness. Musical "picture painting," the highlighting of strong or
important words in a text, is accomplished with the fita (from the Greek, theta),
an extensive melismatic passage sung on a single syllable, which not only emphasizes a
particular word but draws attention to the exceptional vocal talents of the
Although Bulgaria accepted Christianity almost one hundred years prior to the baptism
of Rus, no Bulgarian musical manuscripts contemporary with the Christianization of Rus
have as yet been discovered. Present-day Bulgarian liturgical singing is late-Byzantine,
adopted to the Church Slavonic language with Bulgarian pronunciation. In the seventeenth
century hymns with the inscription "Bulgarian Chant" appear in western-Ukrainian
singing books. Some musicologists see in this chant melodic kernels with Bulgarian folk
song characteristics, others find it to be closer in spirit and character to Russian
singing, although the melodies are quite different from the znamenny symmetrical
movements. The Bulgarian chants are more melismatic in character than recitative. It is
not unusual that a melodic line is repeated precisely in succession throughout several
textual lines of the work, as evidenced in the setting of "The Noble Joseph"
sung in so many of our churches on Holy Friday.
Similar to the Byzantine and the Znamenny, the Carpathian chants, whose origins date at
least to the second half of the seventeenth century, are subordinated to a full eight-tone
system, called osmoglasnik (lit., eight tones) and the principle of composition is
formulaic, that is, existing musical patterns are used which are identified with the
particular tone or mode.
The eminent Slavic musicologist, Johann von Gardner, after 1917, spent four years
living in Subcarpathian Rus and was particularly amazed at the religious knowledge of the
simple peasants, acquired simply by singing in church. He describes the singing which he
heard in the churches of the Carpathian regions: "In Subcarpathian Rus in all
the villages both among the Uniates and also among the Orthodox, there was always
practiced only congregational singing of the complete services, not excluding the
changeable (proper) hymns in all the varied chants. They sang according to the Great Zbornik
(collection of prayers and liturgical texts) which contained every necessary text. The
numerous chants (including all the podobny, not even found in the Synodal notated
liturgical books) were known by everyone, even the children of school age. The leader of
song -- the most experienced singer from the parish -- standing at the kliros and sang the
chant. As soon as the worshippers heard the beginning, they would join in the chant and
the entire church sang; they sang all the stikhery, all the troparia, all the irmosy -- in
a word, everyone sang properly." Usually when the worshippers join in the singing, a
second part, sung in parallel thirds to the melody, occurred.
A new style of polyphonic church music, developed in the Ukraine and Byelorussia under
the influence of Polish religious vocal music, was adopted in the Orthodox churches of
southwestern Russia in the seventeenth century. This new style of singing was called
partesny singing (from the Latin partes, meaning parts) and was taught in the
schools established by the Orthodox Brotherhoods. Its development in northern Russia was
greatly promoted by Patriarch Nikon who encouraged its use in churches, cathedrals, and
monasteries in Novgorod and Moscow. Its spread throughout Russia was greatly facilitated
through the publication of Nikolai Diletskys Musical Grammar. Dilelsky, a
Kievan musician who studied in Poland, first at Warsaw and then at the Jesuit academy at
Vilnius, was recruited from the southwest and taught the art of composing western-style
polyphonic music in Smolensk and Moscow.
Diletsky presented two musical styles in his grammar, the kontsert and the kant. The
chief stylistic features of the kontsert were continuous alternation of musical motives,
canonic imitation, contrasting passages of solo voices (concertino) with full choir
(tutti) and a clear tonic-dominant harmonic relationship. In time the kontserty
grew larger and more complex, employing dynamic and polychoral effects that many
musicologists are fond of comparing to the Gabriellis Venetian works (without
instruments, of course).
The powerful injection of Western influences, culture, and traditions begun with Peter
the Great and the move of the Russian capitol from Moscow to St. Petersburg resulted in a
vast cultural transformation of the Russian mode of life and had immense consequences for
the development of Russian church music. A stream of foreign craftsmen came into Russia
during the first half of the eighteenth century - French, Italian and German
architects, German actors and musicians, Italian painters and composers -- in order to
teach the Russians the elements and techniques of their skills.
Of the Italian composers who were brought to serve at the Imperial Court, Baldassare
Galuppi and Giuseppe Sarti were the two most prominent and both had a lasting influence on
Russian church singing. Both trained a number of Russian church composers and both wrote a
number of compositions based on Russian liturgical texts. Galuppi was the first to
introduce to the Russian Orthodox Liturgy the singing of a special musical composition, in
the form of the sacred concerto, during the priests communion. Although some of
these concerti were composed on the texts of the prescribed Communion Hymns, many were
simply selected freely by the composer and had no relationship whatsoever with the
The works of these Italian composers were adorned with arioso solos, bold or daring
passages of extraordinary leaps or runs, trills, and grace notes, in general, all of those
vocal devices which gave the greatest possibilities for a vocal soloist to display his or
her beautiful, voluminous, and cultivated voice. The religious idea was certainly
animated, but the required correspondence of text to music was clearly lacking. "All
of the sacred works of the foreign kapellmeisters," wrote the Archpriest Dmitry
Razumovsky, "were acknowledged in their time and even now are recognized as truly
artistic and classical in a musical sense. Yet not one of these works proved to be perfect
and edifying in a church sense, because in each work the music predominates over the text,
most often not at all expressing its meaning." 
The first Russian composers influenced by this "Italianate" style of sacred
music -- Artemy Vedel, Maxim Berezovsky, Stepan Degtiariev, Stepan Davydov, Dmitry
Bortniansky, and the Archpriest Pyotr Turchaninov -- were all students of Italian maestri
and produced hundreds of compositions for use in the church services. For the most part,
they are all in the same Italianate style and are distinguished primarily by the relative
artistic talents of the individual composer. Many of these works have not only survived
but still can be heard on any given Sunday in the cathedrals and city churches throughout
Particular note must be made of Bortniansky, the most renowned personage in 18th
century Russian music, for his prolific compositional activity -- 72 liturgical hymns (26
of them for double chorus), 45 sacred concertos (10 for double chorus), 10 Te Deums, the
Liturgy for three voices, and eight sacred trios. He also was the first director of the
Imperial Chapel who was given the right of censorship in the field of church music, a
"circumstance that greatly affected the direction of church music in the 19th
Although the works of Bortniansky have been acclaimed by many musicologists, both
Russian and non-Russian, secular as well as sacred, the words spoken by Metropolitan
Eugene of Kiev, delivered in a speech presented while still a professor at the semminary
in Voronezh in 1799, might serve as a summary of this period in the history of Russian
church music. The Metropolitan said:
"Besides this famous Russian choral director (Bortniansky), the works of many
foreign kapellmeisters have in our time been adopted as compositions of the Greek-Russian
Church, for (example, Galuppi (teacher of Bortniansky), Kerzelli, Dimmler, and the eminent
Sarti. But even so, the truth must be stated that either because of their unawareness of
the power and the expressiveness of the texts of our church poetry, or because of a
prejudice only for the laws of their music, they have often disregarded the sanctity of
the place and subject of their compositions, so that, generally speaking, it is not the
music which is adapted to the sacred words, but instead the words are merely added to the
music and often in a contrived manner. Apparently, they wanted more to impress their
audience with concert-like euphony than to touch the hearts with pious melody, and often
during such compositions the church resembles more an Italian opera than the house of
worthy prayer to the Almighty." 
Nationalism and the Return to the Old Russian Chant
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, a search for new ways of liberating
Russian liturgical singing from foreign influences emerged. The Moscow Synodal School was
the center for this new movement, at the head of which stood such church music historians,
composers, and directors as Stepan Smolensky, Alexander Kastalsky, and Vasily Orlov. The
leaders of the Moscow school attempted to establish a new direction in church music by
returning to the indigenous Russian church unison melodies and using those melodies as the
basis for the composing of church music, as Palestrina and others would use Gregorian
chant melodies as cantus firmi for their polyphonic compositions.
At the same time scholarly studies and investigations on many and varied aspects of the
old Russian Chant appeared. Such studies were concentrated on three areas: 1) the history
of church singing, 2) semiogaphy, that is, the study of the various notations used in
chant, and 3) the forms and style of canonical church singing. A chair in church music was
created at the Moscow Conservatory. Archpriest Dmitry Razumovsky, author of a three-volume
work on "Russian Church Singing", published in 1877-79, was appointed to this
Simultaneous with the development of research in the area of the old Russian chant,
Russian studies in historical lituriology laid the groundwork for later theological
evaluation of Orthodox worship. Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian theological
schools produced a number of first-rate scholars and studies of Byzantine liturgy, the
archeological investigations of Alexander Dmitrievsky standing at the forefront. As Fr.
Alexander Schmemann has acknowledged, "as a result of their work not only did Russian
liturgical study win a recognized and glorious position in the realm of scholarship, but
also a solid foundation was laid without which it would be impossible to speak of
liturgical theology in any real sense of the term." 
In a very short period, from the 1880s to 1917 and the Bolshevik Revolution, a
vast repertoire of Russian church compositions was created, numbering into the thousands.
Well-known composers such as Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Grechaninov, Chesnokov,
Ippolitov-Ivanov, and Rachmaninov, as well as a host of other lesser known musicians wrote
church music using the old Russian chants as thematic material. Still others wrote free
compositions. But it was Alexander Kastalsky who was generally recognized as the source of
inspiration for this movement.
In his later years, however, Kastalsky became disenchanted with much that was being
written for the church, even if such compositions were based on the old Znamenny chant
melodies. In 1925, in an interview entitled, "My Musical Career and My Thoughts on
Church Music" (published in The Musical Quarterly), Kastalsky said:
Of late (church music) has tended to become complex, To disregard the difficulty of
performance for the sake of effective sonority, to choose harmonic and melodic means
without any discrimination, provided only that they be new and beautiful, and if this
tendency continues to develop, church music will end in becoming like any other, except
that it will have a religious text. This would be extremely unfortunate. ...
He continued: And what about style? Our indigenous church melodies when set chorally
lose all their individuality: how distinctive they are when sung in unison by the Old
Believers, and how insipid they are in the conventional four-part arrangements of our
classic (composers), on which we have prided ourselves for nearly a hundred years: it is
touching, but spurious. ... In my opinion it is first of all necessary to get away From
continual four-part writing ... The future of our creative work for the church can ... be
merely surmised, but I feel what its real task should be. I am convinced that it lies in
the idealization of authentic church melodies, the transformation of them into something
musically elevated, mighty in its expressiveness and near to the Russian heart in its
typically national quality. ... I should like to have music that could be heard nowhere
except in a church, and which would be as distinct from secular music as church vestments
are from the dress of the laity.
- Homily I in Oziam seu de Seraphinis I; PG lvi, 97.
- Vladyshevskaia, Tatiana, "On the Links Between Music and Icon Painting in Medieval
Rus" in Christianity and the Arts in Russia, edited by William C. Brumfield,
and Milos M. Velimirovic (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991), 18.
- Pseudo-Dionysious, The Divine Names (Mahwah NY, Paulist Press, 1987) 76. This
translation in Vladyshevskaia, op. cit., 18.
- Vlaldyshevskaia op. cit., 18.
- Germanos, Life of Romanos.
- Florensky, Pavel, Iconostasis (Crestwood NY, St. Vladimirs Seminary Press,
1996), 87. This translation in Vladyshevskaia, op. cit., 19.
- Ouspensky, Leonid, Theology of the Icon, Volume II (Crestwood NY, St.
Vladimirs Seminary Press, 1992), 345.
- Razumovsky, Dmitry, Tserkovnoe Penie v Rosii [Church Singing in Russia].
- Morosan, Vladimir, One Thousand Years of Russian Church Music (Washington DC,
Musica Russica, 1991), 756
- Preobrazhensky, Anton, Po Tserkovnomy Peniiu [Church Singing]
- Schmemann, Alexander, Introduction to Liturgical Theology (Crestwood NY, St.
Vladimirs Seminary Press, 1986), 11.
- Conomos, Dimitri, Byzantine Hymnography and Byzantine Chant, (Hellenic College
Press, Brookline MA, 1984).
- Gardner, Ivan (Johann von), Russian Church Singing, Volume 1 (St. Vladimirs
Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1980).
- Roccasalvo, Joan L., The Plainchant Tradition of Southwestern Rus (Eastern
European Monographs, Boulder, 1986).
- Uspensky, Nikolai, The Early Russian Art of Singing (in Russian) (Vsesoiuznoe
Izdatelstvo, Moscow, 1971).
David Drillock is Provost and Professor of Music at St Vladimir's Seminary