Father Michael Carney, on the music work of Fr. George Johnson and the St. Romanos the Melodist Society
If English-language liturgical singing was once in its infancy in our parishes, it now finds itself at the beginning of all the insecurity and promise of adolescence. English speakers can now “sing praises with understanding,” making use of an ever-growing collection of vernacular service books. It has been proven: Orthodox liturgy can be done in English. Yet there are some, perhaps many, who still say: “but it just sounds better in Russian.” And half the time they are right.
What is it that gives the best of Russian/Slavonic church music its tremendous power? Part of the answer lies in the clothing of the sacred written text in a musical garment so perfectly tailored that it becomes transparent, inseparable from the text. The best hymnographers of the Church, inspired by the Spirit, have often been poets as well as church singers. They multiplied the divine gifts given them by spending long years absorbing the Scriptures, the services, the chants of the Church. Thus, the works that they themselves produced were not innovative, self-conscious, or revolutionary, but new expressions of the same unchanging tradition of Life.
For Orthodoxy to express itself in English in all the fullness of its life-changing power requires that we English speakers begin to trod the same path as the hymnographers of old. We need men and women who have a deep grounding in the life of the Church, particularly its hymnography, and who in addition have long familiarity with the English musical and poetic tradition.
Such people have never been common but, fortunately for us, Fr. George Johnson is one of them. Having served a long and exacting apprenticeship in both academic and Anglican church circles, he also has an innate sensitivity to beauty that no education could have provided. Fr. George was the English choir director and then assistant priest at St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Washington, D.C., from 1986 until 2001. Then he was among the founders of Holy Apostles Orthodox Church in Beltsville, Maryland, and is the rector of this mission parish. He has made his own the living tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church. He has sought out some of the best examples of the Russian musical tradition as the basis for his English settings. Word placement is informed, not just by his superb musical/linguistic intuition, but by a developed theory of textual articulation (outlined in the first part of his work in progress, A Church Singer's Companion). The end result? His work sounds like English – and like genuine Orthodox church music.
“The hand of the giver will not be empty” says the Russian proverb. If we do not have the gifts of a translator or composer, we can support those who do. In a previous age, Fr. George's work would have been given the patronage and financial support of the Tsar himself (as was given to Miss Hapgood and Fr. Orloff). Support nowadays must come from other sources. A donation to the St. Romanos the Melodist Society can help support Fr. George’s music work, to allow him to do this work for which he is so uniquely qualified. To do so is to call down upon ourselves God's mercy, Who richly blesses those who love the beauty of His house.
Please make a donation to support the work of Fr. George and the St. Romanos the Melodist Society. The work of the Society, which is a sodality of Holy Apostles Orthodox Church, is now being offered to support the missionary work of Holy Apostles in Beltsville, Maryland. (www.HolyApostlesOrthodoxChurch.org) The little mission church is working on establishing a permanent church home for their parish.
The parish has recently been given a wondrous gift: a beautiful historic church on two acres of land in Beltsville. Before the parish can occupy the new church they must restore and renovate it, and build a parish hall. The project cost of this will be about three million dollars. In the meanwhile, they are meeting in the Twin Chimneys Office Park in Beltsville, Maryland.
Thank you for your prayerful support of this missionary endeavour.
Priest Michael Carney
St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Mission
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Day of the Holy Spirit, May 11/25, 2010