Performing the Liturgy

Performing the Liturgy

Published: Dec 30, 2011 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

Permit me to tell two stories. First, a passing conversation. At a recent choir rehearsal we were rejoined by our organist who had taken a Sunday-morning position playing for a nearby Catholic church. I entered the conversation just as she was describing a recent multi-cultural Mass which featured, among other things, hymns from around the world and a liturgical dance with lighted candles. She said, with a sigh, that it was “all a performance.” The sympathetic reaction of a number of choir members consisted of relief on her behalf, relief that she was worshipping with us once again, and relief that she was singing the Orthodox liturgy, which, we were reminded by another choir member, does not require experimentation and is never a performance.

Juxtapose this event with another, only a few days later, in the same choir loft. A guest choir joined our Sunday liturgy, singing the entirely Greek composition by Theodore Bogdanos, a Greek-American composer. Bogdanos threads the single melodic line of traditional Byzantine chant through the complicated harmonics of a multi-part choir (four parts is a minimum in his score). The harmonies are so complicated in fact, that the traditional melodies are often absent to all but a very well-trained ear. This was my first encounter with this liturgy. My introduction was the Doxology, the text which concludes the morning Orthros (matins), after which the liturgy proper begins. The Doxology is one of the older hymns of the Church, borrowing freely from Psalms 145 and 119, and Luke’s announcement of the Nativity of Christ (Luke 2:14). It is, above all things, a liturgical expression of praise and glory, doxos, which exultantly moves worshippers into the liturgy of the Resurrection.

Imagine my surprise then, when the musical mood of praise suddenly shifted to stately sobriety, back to rejoicing, then to a sort of strange, somber discordance. I kept having to check where we were in the English to see if the meaning matched the musical mood. In this single piece, I heard the open chords characteristic of American classical compositions, a layering of melodies typical of Bach’s fugues, the discordant juxtapositions of some modern composers, and resolutions at home in Mozart. Putting aside questions of musical quality, the emotional range of the piece was simply all over the map. I kept trying to find a word for this auditory experience, feeling like I was sitting through the overture of Porgy and Bess, or Oklahoma (which I saw the week before). That was it, “overture”! Nothing against Porgy and Bess, opera or musical theater in general, but this version of the doxology played exactly like the overture to a musical story in which we are given little tastes of each upcoming liturgical ‘course.’ The problem is this: the doxology is not multiple different moods or courses, it is primarily one (even in its repentant moments): praise, rejoicing, glory!

This brings me to my real concerns, the place of ‘performance’ and ‘emotion’ in worship. As indicated by the first story, many Eastern Orthodox in the United States are immensely disdainful of the idea that worship is a “performance.” This disdain almost always arises when contrasting the Orthodox liturgy with any other form of Christian worship. Large professional choirs or soloists singing old favorites while the basket is being passed around create a ’spectator’ atmosphere. The presumption here is that Orthodox liturgies are more participatory. After all, the choir is, in most liturgical books, referred to as “the people.” Their responses are supposed to be the responses of all the non-clergy, not simply the ones in the loft or at the chant stand.

Accompanying this disdain for performance is an equal disdain for the “emotive” nature of so much Western Christian music. Guitars, after all, simply reduce worship to pop sentiments, and the drastic changes from majors to minors or the reading of biblical texts with passion (rather than an appropriate chanted style) are simply ways of getting an emotional reaction. In this case, the presumption is that the Orthodox liturgy is above such base tactics, or, if people are a bit more honest, that these styles are evoking the ‘wrong’ emotion. Phenomena such as liturgical dance is simply beyond-the-pale for most Orthodox, perhaps a consequence of the lamentable liturgical ‘reforms’ of Vatican II.

Let me reassure my non-Orthodox readers by saying that Orthodox are just as willing to fling these criticisms across jurisdictional lines. Byzantine melodists critique the Russian liturgies as operatic, deviating from the ‘appropriate’ mood of the liturgy. Four-part harmonists (an ‘innovation’ actually condemned by a Greek patriarch in the 19th century) fire back that the flowery melodies of a single chanter is no less of a performance and are impossible to follow. Each group claims that the other type of music cannot be shared by the laity, it is too complicated, too high or low, too flowery and unpredictable, too loud or too somber, all evoking the wrong emotions.

The irony is, each group is right. Music and its emotive qualities are deeply culture-bound. While I remain unconvinced that this particular doxology is a good reflection of the emotive ‘call’ of the text, there were other points where, for me, music, text and emotion matched. The soaring soprano line at “holy holy holy” flashed me back to my childhood parish where the (sometimes shrill and wobbly) high soprano line supported by the genetic anomaly which is the amazing rumbling Russian bass were typical of my Sunday liturgy. I did not grow up in the Byzantine chant tradition of a Greek parish, but the many-part harmonies of the Slavic churches. This moment felt like home to me, like we were singing with the Cherubim and Seraphim.

With this elevated experience in mind, I glanced down at the pews below and had to stop myself from laughing aloud as I watched a little girl vehemently plug both of her ears in alarm as she turned around to watch the sopranos ascend in both scale and volume. Her adorably frank reaction at a sound she rarely hears in our parish reminded me that not many local parishes have a soprano section that can do what this group did quite well. Nor do most choirs have the tenors or basses to support the harmonies of the Bogdanos liturgy. In other words, this liturgy is simply not singable by most Orthodox parishes. It is a liturgy for performance purposes. It requires extensive practice, and strong, experienced voices. It also makes no pretenses about being a participatory liturgy since not even the “Kyrie Eleisons” were easily singable by the people.

The little girls plugged ears also reminded me that the soaring soprano lines of some of my favorite music is simply strange to a little girl who has only ever heard the more subdued Byzantine melodies, accompanied by a few supporting ison (a Greek word meaning “the same”) notes, what Westerners might call a drone. Indeed, I had a few moments in the liturgy where I was relieved by the introduction of a few hymns sung, in English, by the three sisters who form the Byzantine chant group Eikona. The large and operatic style of the Bogdanos liturgy was, frankly, a bit exhausting. It was so unfamiliar. The chant of this group of women was simply a break from the big emotion of this big liturgy. There is irony in my relief. Only ten years ago I found Byzantine chant jarring, monotone, dirge-like and all-round depressing. Today however, it was the only part of the liturgy in which I could join. It was not somber, it was clean and simple, clear and calm. It was so familiar.

Which leads me back to my first story. Isn’t it possible that sometimes what we dismiss as ‘performance’ is really more about what feels familiar or unfamiliar? The Bogdanos liturgy felt to me like a performance. While I recognize the skill of the choir in singing the liturgy, I simply didn’t like it. I didn’t like it because I couldn’t sing it without extensive practice, it was entirely not in my language, and it was not what I have become used to. It was just so jarring. A loyal Byzantinist might say that it was jarring because the music itself was jarring (a real possibility, Bogdanos is better on special pieces I think), or that the very existence if multi-part harmonies was a poor fit for an Orthodox liturgy. Yet I have stood through painful performances of Byzantine chant where the chanter’s goal seemed to be to see how quickly he could lose the congregation by riffing so extensively on the melody that any recognizable core is lost to those trying to sing along. I have also heard chant done in a style so militaristic it completely undercuts that we are asking offering “a mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise.” Emotion is an inherent part of our liturgical life. Orthodox liturgies are among the most ‘sensual’ of Christian liturgies. Over time, we are trained to understand the emotion that is meant to accompany the musical style. The truth is, I have come to love Byzantine chant not because I think it is the ‘right’ way of worshipping, but because I have spent enough time with it to begin to understand how this music is supposed to make its participants feel. It is not that one type of music evokes one sort of feeling, and another style evokes a different feeling. Rather, it is that the same emotion can be evoked by completely different styles of music, depending on the experience of the participant.

Yet, as if to highlight that the emotive quality of liturgical music is so much more complicated than chant versus harmony, the visiting choir tagged on two pieces at the close of the liturgy. The first was one of the many versions of Ubi Caritas (yes, they did it in Latin). I love this piece, so much so that I grabbed a book and sang it with them. I mean, when else am I going to get to sing this piece as a part (albeit the end, when everyone is leaving) of my liturgy rather than at some choral performance? Of course, my eye caught the title of what turned out to be the next piece, “Ave Maria.” What in the world was an Orthodox choir doing with an Ave? Then I noted the composer. We were about to sing my all-time favorite piece of choral music, a piece which, no matter where I hear it, concert, movie sound-track or worship, transports me into church: Bogoroditsye, the Magnificat, the Ave Maria by Rachmaninoff. And we sang it in English. I could not have had a better end to a liturgy.

But the truth is, Bogoroditsye is familiar. I have heard it all of my life, and sung it many times. It, like the liturgy of the morning, is a piece that swells from quiet simplicity to operatic grandeur. I can sing it because I know it. The little girl with her fingers in her ears doesn’t know it. To her, this piece just sounds like a performance. To me, Byzantine music used to sound like a performance because all I could do was listen. I could not participate. It was unfamiliar, different, strange.

All of this brings me to the following point: it would behoove all of us, but since I am Orthodox I am chiefly addressing my co-practitioners, to spend some time trying to learn the love that underlies the devotion of others to their own musical and liturgical tradition. Liturgical music, motion and emotion spring from deep within the sensibilities of a people, a culture, a time and a place. This is true for us Orthodox, whether we admit it or not. We would be better at loving across our jurisdictional lines if we could, literally, listen to one another a bit better. We also might not be quite so judgmental of other traditions. If, the first time I encounter an Orthodox liturgy in a different musical tradition or even language than my own, I feel like I am at a performance rather than participant in a worship service, what makes me think that I would feel anything different encountering shape-note hymns or liturgical dance? It is a “performance” because it is strange, new, because I cannot join in. Now, even the most performance oriented Byzantine chanter cannot completely lose me, because I am familiar enough to follow along, even if I might be annoyed at how difficult the chanter is making my participation. And while I recognize that the Rachmaninoff Vespers is neither for the faint of heart nor minimally skilled (it really is written for a large Cathedral choir not a forty-family congregation), it still transports me to my childhood parish home, no matter where I hear it. It is a blessing that my travels have exposed me to such a wide range of Orthodox liturgical music. It is a curse though, in that I cannot comfortably condemn styles that I find strange, because someday, I might come to love and appreciate them as well.

Which brings me back to the issue of liturgical dance. Liturgical dance is, for most Eastern Orthodox, the utterly bizarre consequence of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II (even though it is hardly limited to Catholics in its practice). My few encounters with it have made me very uncomfortable, it is so strange, so emotional; so, well, different. But what of the non-Chalcedonian churches? Few Orthodox know that after fourteen hundred years, we have hammered out our theological disagreements with the Coptic and North African churches. The reason many Orthodox don’t know how close we are to a complete rapprochement between the two groups is that while we agree that we were all saying the same thing the whole time, we apparently weren’t all singing the same thing. The liturgical development of the two groups diverged, and while there is considerable similarity (rather surprising given the many years of estrangement, though perhaps not, given the ancient sources for both liturgies), there are enough differences in worship that we are just not quite sure what to do. How do we bring them together? Imagine my surprise when I walked in on an Ethiopian feast day, and discovered a circle of women dressed in what I was told were “choir robes,” dancing. Dancing during the liturgy. Dances they they have danced for centuries. For the first time, all I could think was, “I wish I could dance in my liturgy.”