Music: Prayer and Performance

“He who sings prays twice.”


I’m sitting here listening to Alexandr Nikolsy’s setting of the Divine Liturgy, having just been reading a chapter in Vladimir Morosan’s superb book Choral Performance in Pre-Revolutionary Russia (Musica Russica 1986).  I’ve been preparing for the launching of a new project called “Kliros,” a semi-professional chorus with the aim of preparing and presenting quality choral music for the Orthodox liturgy.

This type of project raises questions, primarily, “Isn’t this mixing performance with the liturgy?”  It’s phrased in different ways, but that’s the gist of it.  And it’s a good question.  It’s also one I have.  I’ve decided that the answer is, “Yes.”  I’ve also decided that this is not only normal but unavoidable.

What is “performance”?  Simply put, it is the presenting of a thing in a public manner in order to be heard, seen, understood and appreciated.  The manner of its presentation matters; it’s part of it.  Presenting something for another to see, hear, understand and appreciate requires “performance,” some amount of craft in the actual presentation, some amount of inviting engagement.

A sermon is a presentation.  It requires performance.  The pastor must speak in order to be heard.  He must also speak in order to be understood.  The flow of his thought matters.  The manner of his presentation matters.  This includes rhetoric: artfully starting at one point, going through others in order to arrive at his desired place, hopefully with the listeners joining him.  This includes modulation of the voice as well as the use of illustrations and anecdotes.  The style of this mixture varies according to time and place, and each preacher brings his own personality and skill to bear.  No matter how spontaneously conceived, prayerfully prepared and piously delivered, it is still a performance.  It is meant to be heard.  Even the most hard-hitting sermon asking for extreme repentance to some extent must be enjoyed by the listener.  There must be a cogent flow of thought.  There must be enough delightful ideas to encourage a positive response.

Sacred music is no different.  Music was allowed in the Church, even encouraged, in order to “sweeten” the practice of prayer and psalmody.  The Fathers understood that we live in the body and that the senses are designed to perceive and exult in beauty; and that beauty not only can but should lead to humility and penitence as well as joy and praise.  The truths of the Faith can be dryly taught or, like medicine mixed with honey, sweetly imparted, so that instruction can be combined with enjoyment.  Instruction, even exhortation, need not be unpleasant.  Still less should it be boring.

So, the music of the Church, indeed, the entire liturgy, is, in fact, a performance.  It is meant to be heard.  Now, “performance” often implies a passive listening, rather than an active participation.  This is unfortunate since even classical music concerts in which everyone sits quite still (as opposed to a rock concert in which no one does any such thing) is meant to invite contemplation and active emotional involvement.  I have, in fact, “listened” to concerts that exhausted me, or at least drained me.  (I can’t imagine the physical strength of the performers who had to perform!)

The liturgy of the Church is both physically active (bowing, crossing, singing) and passive (listening, contemplating).  But contemplation is not actually passive.  The pray-er has to actively attend (a command frequently given in Orthodox worship), exert strength (standing, not fidgeting) and oppose distraction (quell negative thoughts, ignore irrelevant ones).  The manner in which the celebrant is declaiming, the psalmist is chanting and the choir is singing is either helpful or distracting to this activity.

I suggest that what is often called “prayerful singing” in Orthodox churches is simply a manner of singing that is common (expected) and un-intrusive on the worshiper’s thoughts.  Neither too soft or too loud, too fast or too slow, too enunciated or too mumbled it is gray; it attracts no attention.  It is not especially beautiful, nor is it ugly.  Furthermore, it all sounds the same, so it provides a familiar if unremarkable background or soundtrack to the familiar actions of the clergy.  It ebbs and flows in a predictable manner, and this predictability allows for no intrusion on what the hearer expects.

Now, there is some virtue here.  This describes something common and repetitious, repetitious in the sense that God is “the same yesterday, today and forever” and that the Church’s proclamation is the same as it always has been.  The repentance to which we are called today is not a different repentance than those in Kievan Rus’ in the 11th c.  “Christ is risen!” does not mean something today that it did not in 19th c. Alaska.  This is a very important aspect of liturgy.  It does require an ascetic discipline.  The Church is not going to proclaim some new thing next Sunday.  Your sins are not going to magically be redefined.  Until you die, you’ll be saved, in part, by a constant repetition of and return to “Lord, have mercy,” “Holy, holy, holy…,” “Glory to You, O God, glory to You.”

Even as the sea constantly ebbs and flows, swells and rolls, storms and calms, so too does the liturgy of the Church.  But who tires of contemplating the sea?  When do people not play in it?  When do its storms not thrill and frighten?  When do its depths not invoke awe?  When do its bright blue and its steel grey not delight?  Never.  We may only be equipped to contemplate it for so long and understand so much.  We may only dip our toes in its edges.  But who goes to it and never returns?

The liturgy of the Church, in its rolling throughout the day, the week, the year invites contemplation of just such depths, calms, storms, promises, threats.  But the sea’s liturgy is just there.  The Church’s liturgy requires performance.  We must do it.  And we must bring our human selves to it – our understanding, our obedience, our creativity, our ability.

The question, then, must be how do we perform, and not do we perform.  It’s like the music of Bach: It’s a pious thing to think that it interprets itself, and a musician need only mechanically reproduce it.  Not so.  That approach lasted for a few decades, at best, until overturned by the music itself, which demanded more.  The liturgy’s beauty and power and depths exist, but they won’t reveal themselves.  The manner in which we perform the liturgy allows that revelation – or not.

What are the boundaries of this performance, its limits?  When does obedient performance become something dis-obedient?  When does creativity become pomposity or sentimentalism?  When does expressiveness become narrowly personal versus broadly communal, subjective rather than objective?

That sounds like fodder for another blog.

About Rdr. John

I'm a musician: I teach piano and am a professional Accompanist (University of Portland). I'm also a music director. I direct the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church choir (Portland, OR), the Francis Street Singers (Community Music Center) as well as for Mock's Crest Productions, which puts on an operetta at the U of P each June. I care deeply about the music and worship in the Orthodox liturgy, and most of my postings will be concerned with that.
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