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Introduction - How to sing Orthodox chant in English

The following is the Introduction to A Church Singer's Companion, Part One: The All-Night Vigil, Volume 1: Vespers – Revised, published in 2003.

Almost all of the music on the Vespers page of this site is drawn from that book. However, much of the material presented here is applicable to all of the music on this site.

  • Those who wish to learn about techniques to improve their church singing are especially encouraged to read sections V and VI.
  • Choir directors and those who wish to learn more about musical principles and performance practice should also read section III.
  • Those who wish to learn about the texts used in the music on this site should read section IV.
  • This Introduction is unaltered from the version published in the book, except to provide links where they were deemed useful.
  • The future volumes of A Church Singer's Companion referenced below will eventually be published on this site, God willing. 



I.    The Musical Sources
II.   The Musical Selection Criteria
III.  The Musical Format
                IIIa. The Vocal Distribution
                IIIb. The Harmonic Structure
                IIIc. Pitch
IV.  The Texts
V.   The Rhythm of Prose
VI.  Sticheron and Troparion Melodies

Note to the Revised Edition



I. The Musical Sources

Five sources were used for the music of this volume.

  1. Sputnik Psalomshchika, Novgorod, 1911, referred to as Sputnik
  2. Obikhod Notnago Pyenia, Moscow, 1909, referred to as Obikhod
  3. Tserkovno Pyevcheski Sbornik, St. Petersburg, 1903, referred to as Sbornik
  4. Notni Sbornik Pravoslavnago Russkago Tserkovnago Pyenia – Vsyenochnoya Bdyenia, London, 1962, referred to as the London Book
  5. Oral Tradition or unprinted manuscript sources, referred to as Traditional

As the list below indicates, a rich and diverse group of “families” of chant melodies as well as free compositions and composers’ arrangements are represented in the book. Diversity was not sought for its own sake. It naturally occurs from the attempt to fairly represent a common general practice, even at a basic level. The list below is of the entire contents broken out by chant group. The assignment of a piece to a chant group comes from one of the sources listed above. The phrase “Common Chant” may simply mean “frequently used,” and in that connection often is used to identify melodies of a more specific derivation. In the list below, both the indicator of frequent usage and the derivation are included. The chant designation refers to the melody only, not to its harmonic setting.

Znamenny Chant (including the Abbreviated designation)
         The evening prokeimenons – Sputnik
         The second setting of “O Theotokos and Virgin” – London Book
         The first setting of “Blessed be the name of the Lord” – Sputnik

Kievan Chant (including the Abbreviated designation)
         All the Litanies – Obikhod & Sputnik
         The first setting of “Blessed is the man” – Obikhod
         The stichera on “Lord, I have cried” & the “Aposticha” of tones 1 & 3 through 8 – Sputnik
         The stichera on “Lord, I have cried” & the “Aposticha” of the 2nd tone – Obikhod
         The “Stichi” or psalm verses of “Lord, I have cried” and the “Aposticha” of tones 1 through 4 & 8 – Sputnik
         The “Stichi” or psalm verses of “Lord, I have cried” and the “Aposticha” of tones 5 through 7 – Traditional
         The Sunday Dismissal Troparia & Theotokia of the 5th & the 8th tones – Sputnik
         The second setting of “O Gentle Light” in the second tone – Traditional

Greek Chant (comprehending also the Abbreviated and Common chant designations)
         The first setting of “Bless the Lord” – Sbornik
         The first setting of “O Theotokos and Virgin” – Traditional
         The third setting of “O Theotokos and Virgin” – London Book
         Sunday Dismissal Troparia & Theotokia of the 1st & 3rd tones – Sputnik
         The Sunday Dismissal Troparion & Theotokion of the 4th tone – Traditional

Abbreviated Bulgarian Chant
         The Sunday Dismissal Troparion & Theotokion of the 6th tone – Sputnik
         The Sunday Dismissal Troparia & Theotokia of the 2nd & 7th tones – Traditional

Trinity – St. Sergius Lavra Chant
         The second setting of “Bless the Lord” – Traditional

Common Chant – Traditional
         The second & third settings of “Blessed is the man”
         The second setting of “Blessed be the name of the Lord”
         The Ending and “Many Years” of the Dismissal II section

Free Compositions (without reference to a chant melody)
         The second setting of “O Gentle Light” – Sbornik
         The fourth setting of “O Gentle Light”
         The fourth setting of “O Theotokos and Virgin” – from a manuscript copy

The editor has aimed for this collection to represent just one example of general practice. No attempt has been made to include all the possible ways that the concept of general practice might manifest. Neither is there any desire to advance this representation to the exclusion of any other. This is one reason why the book’s title, “A Church Singer’s Companion,” begins with the indefinite article, “a.” It is a source of regret that more of the available literature could not be included because of considerations of practicality and the criteria which were the impetus for making the book. These criteria are described in the next section.


II. The Musical Selection Criteria

All but a few of the selections represent general practice as it can be found among the parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR). This criterion recognizes that among the likely recipients and users of this collection are: 1) the growing number of congregations within that body whose primary language of worship is English; and 2) those for whom English may not be their usual language of worship, but for whatever reason, find themselves either directing or singing in English. It was thought best, therefore, to create a collection which is faithful in content to the general musical usage of ROCOR congregations worshipping primarily in Church Slavonic. It is hoped also that other Orthodox musicians may find herein material which is useful for adorning their worship as well. Selections that are not in general use are always accompanied by more commonly used alternatives.

Another criterion for inclusion of an item was its adaptability to English. Two cautions were kept ever in mind, namely: avoid doing violence to the English text, and, avoid doing violence to the music. If, in the opinion of the editor, either of these pitfalls could not be avoided, then an item was not included. Since the built-in capacity to handle the needs of prose is a prominent feature of much of traditional chant, that body of music is therefore easily adaptable. This is less true of the class of free compositions. This is one reason why settings based on traditional chant predominate.

Another condition for inclusion was that the item should not be of more than moderate difficulty. Some settings may present a greater challenge, but most of the music will be found to be quite easy to learn, once the basic principles in play are understood and practiced. It is often the case in newer congregations that there are those approaching choir singing with very limited prior musical experience. The complete spectrum of skill levels has been represented in the singers of the choirs at St John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, D.C. and at Holy Apostles Orthodox Church in suburban Maryland. The utility of this music has been proven by thorough “field testing” in these venues, some of it for seventeen years. Obviously, the ability to read music is assumed for the optimal use of this book, and this basic skill should be acquired as soon as possible, at least by some of the choir members. It has been our experience that it is possible to bring others along if a core group can read. Without this ability, the capacity for growth in comprehension of the musical task to be undertaken will remain limited.

A featured element of this book is the setting out in full of all the Saturday Vespers stichera. So as not to go past the limits of practicality, alternative settings are kept to a minimum.


III. The Musical Format

In the material that follows, musical technical terminology is used. It is hoped that the references to well known music may be helpful in connecting these terms to common knowledge. These simple reminders, however, are in no way intended to supply a working knowledge of music theory. While it is our conviction that such knowledge is useful and directly applicable to the task which this book supports, a sufficient exposition is outside the scope of this book. Therefore, the reader is referred to Basic Materials in Music Theory, Harder and Steinke, 7th Edition, Allyn & Bacon, Boston 1991. This excellent text is used by the Summer Choir School at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York. Its subtitle indicates its format as a programmed course suitable for individual study.


IIIa. The Vocal Distribution

All the music in this book is set for a four part mixed choir made up of soprano, alto, tenor and bass (SATB). This layout assumes the generally accepted compliment in a Russian Orthodox parish choir. This layout does not prevent the book from being used by fewer resources if necessary or desirable. Any manner of performance, of course, needs to feature the melody. The four parts uniformly appear distributed over a two line staff made up of a treble, or G, clef to hold the soprano and alto parts and a bass, or F, clef to hold the tenor and bass parts.

In most cases, the chant melody is found in the soprano or top part. There are a few exceptions: the second setting of “Bless the Lord,” the second and third settings of “O Gentle Light,” the three settings of the simple 4th tone troparion melody, and the second setting of “O Theotokos and Virgin,” which all have the melody in the alto voice; and the second setting of “Blessed is the Man,” in which the melody alternates between the soprano and bass parts when the verses alternate.

In some cases, a common practice of doubling the bass part at the lower octave is printed out. An example is the first setting of “Bless the Lord.” Either or both of the doubled notes may be sung as available capabilities allow.

In two cases, there are non-doubling divisions of one voice part. The first instance is found in the first setting of “Bless the Lord” on the word “Lord” at the end of the second line of music. The alto part divides into two notes, middle C and the F above. If is it impossible to sing both, the C should be sung. The second instance is found in the second setting of “O Gentle Light” in the last line of music, beginning on the word “glorify” in the bass part (p. 232). If it is impossible to sing both, the bottom part should be sung.


IIIb. The Harmonic Structure

Except for the settings attached to composers’ names, the way in which the music in this book is harmonized is uniform and is shared among all manifestations of general practice where harmony is used. In this structure, each part is known by its function. Only one of these functions is indelibly connected to a certain voice part.

The Melody

The “melody” part carries the traditional chant melody. As mentioned above, the melody function is commonly carried in SATB settings by the soprano, or top, voice. In settings for only either men’s or women’s voices, the chant melody is most commonly carried in the second voice. The practice of placing the melody in other than the top voice is familiar in American music in the popular choral and small group activity known as “Barbershop” quartet singing and has ample historical precedent going back as far as harmony to be described as such is found. Again, as mentioned above, this book contains a few instances where the melody function is not carried by the soprano part in the SATB context.

The Descant

The second part of the standard structure is called the “descant.” The term is borrowed from a practice, most recently encountered in Protestant “hymnbook” hymnody, of superimposing a decorative vocal line above the hymn melody. The term itself, in the form “discantus,” goes back to the application of highly ornamental melodic layers over the chant melodies of the Roman Church in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.

As applied in our current usage, the descant part moves parallel to the chant melody at the interval of a third. In all but one case, the descant is a third above. The one exception is the third tone sticheron melody where the descant is in the alto, a third below the soprano melody.

There are two types of “thirds”, major and minor. The major third is illustrated in the carol, “Hark! The herald an-gels sing,” being the interval between the notes sung to the syllables “an-gels.” The minor third is illustrated in the carol, “Silent night,” being the interval between the notes sung to the syllables “lent night.” The interval between the melody and descant may also be a sixth, which is the inversion of a third. The relation between the melody and the descant is “turned upside down” like this when the tenor carries the descant and the melody is in the soprano. Like its inverse, a sixth appears in both major and minor forms. The carol that begins, “O little town of Bethle-hem, how still we see thee lie” illustrates both forms. The interval between the notes for “le-hem” is a minor sixth. The interval between the notes for “thee lie” is a major sixth.

In the course of parallel motion between the chant melody and its descant, there is constant alternation between major and minor intervals because of the changing relation between any pair of notes which make up the interval. For instance, see the first response of the Abbreviated Kievan Chant setting of the Great Litany (p. 15). The melody is in the Soprano and the descant is in the Tenor. The interval between them is a minor sixth on the word “Lord;” it changes to a major sixth for the next two syllables, “have mer,” returning to the initial minor sixth on the syllable “cy.” These changes in interval arise from the parts using the notes or pitches that make up the key of the piece, in this case, F major. While the melody and descant alone imply a key, the key is “cemented” or set in the ear by the presence of the next part in the structure.

The Bass

The bass part provides the foundation of the harmony; a natural outgrowth of being on the bottom of the structure. This foundation function is filled by stating the root of the harmony or chord, the term “root” referring to the note or pitch for which the chord is named. For instance, in the Kievan Chant Great Litany, the first harmony is an F chord and the bass sings the note F. The bass does not always have to state the root of the chord, but, in this context, always does at the beginning and ending of every phrase or piece.

Unlike the melody and descant, the bass part does not generally move in smooth, step-wise motion. Since the bass often moves from the root of one chord to another and these roots are often more than one step apart, the resulting movement is often angular and full of leaps. Again, noting the Kievan Chant Great Litany, the first two harmonies are the F and C chords of which the bass states the root in each case. This results in the downward leap of the interval of a fourth, the distance covered going from F down to C. Since this movement can be in either direction, the inverse of a fourth, a fifth, will also often be found. From all this it follows that the bass part is more difficult to sing than either of the other previous parts until the function becomes familiar to the ear.

Referring again to a familiar carol, in “O come, all ye faith-ful” the interval of a fourth occurs between the notes for the words “come, all” and its inverse, a fifth, occurs between the notes of the syllables of “faith-ful.”

The Filler

As the name implies, the “filler” part is assigned to complete the harmony when a member of a chord is missing. Again referring to the Kievan Chant Great Litany, the first chord is structured with the first three described parts distributed thus: melody (soprano) has F, descant (tenor) has A (the major third above, or, in this case the minor sixth below), bass has F (the root of the F major chord). The basic F major chord has 3 members. A chord in this form is called a triad. The F major triad consists of F, A and C. None of the three other parts is singing the C, so this missing note is “filled” in by the fourth filler part.

This part is both last and least regarding its independent character. By itself it suggests little. For instance, in our much cited example of the Kievan Chant Great Litany, in the first response, the filler part is in the alto and consists of four repetitions of middle C. In fact, it is possible for most of these settings to survive without it. The filler cannot stand alone. However, the lack or presence of the filler spells the difference between a merely adequate sound and a sound that is full and complete, at least to our modern ears. It is instructive that two of the greatest musicians, Bach and Mozart, both preferred to play viola when playing in a string ensemble. The viola often occupies a position in a string ensemble analogous to this filler function. (Pacem, violists.)

In the standard SATB format and in most of the settings in this book, the filler responsibility falls to the alto voice. Since it derives its content exclusively from the harmonic implications of the context, the part can be the most difficult of execution. The singer has to have this context, so to say, “in the ear,” since the part is scarcely coherent of itself. It has been my experience that, when stichera are improvised, if there are enough independent singers present, the most adept are called upon to provide filler because the less adept can’t pick it up.


IIIc. Pitch

The pitch of composed settings not of the editor’s arranging is from the composers. For the rest, care was taken, especially in stichera settings, to avoid strain for average amateur voices, particularly the tenors. As a result, the keys of the stichera settings are lower for most of the tones than in other collections. Since this music is not performed with any kind of fixed-pitch requirement, it would be easy to obtain added brightness as desired by simply raising the pitch. For most of the tones, the bass part is doubled at the lower octave, and this lower note should be used to avoid strain if the pitch is raised very much from that which is printed. Alternatively, since the lower note in the bass can be uncomfortable for those of lighter or younger voices, it may be left out altogether. As in all cases in this book, octave doublings in the bass are completely optional.

It is perhaps not out of place to express here a conviction that the desire for brilliance or any other sort of choral or vocal display pursued purely for its own sake can be antithetical to the spirit of the activity of singing in Church services. We do not, of course, refer to the proper fruits of careful preparation: good ensemble, intonation and articulation of the texts. These foundational techniques provide strong and beautiful support for commending the truths of our Faith to those who would hear them.


IV. The Texts

Since the primary intended audience is a body of congregations within the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, the translations used in this book were all created under the auspices of the ROCOR. Psalm texts are from The Psalter According to the Seventy, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Brookline, MA, 1974. Texts for fixed portions of the service and the dismissal troparia are from The Unabbreviated Horologion, Rassophor-monk Laurence, ed., Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY, 1995. Most of the texts from the Octoechos are from The Sunday Octoechos, Reader Isaac Lambertson, translator, The St. John of Kronstadt Press, Liberty, TN, 1997. The versions of the texts of the Dogmatic Theotokia for tones 1, 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8 originate with this book. These versions are centos arranged with the idea of supporting the Znamenny melodies. Their accuracy was validated by a committee of clergy and people known to the compiler. It is thought that at some future time these great melodies might be made available to English speaking congregations and that, since they were carefully constructed to set the text, it might be worth some little trouble to craft versions to match, if it were possible to do so in fluid English.

These translations all use as their model the English of the Bible of 1611, commonly called the King James Version in the United States, or, in places influenced by British tradition, the Authorized Version. While it is understood that this model embodies elements which have passed out of common use, most notably the familiar form of the second person singular (thee, thou) and its dependencies, these elements do not impede comprehension. Indeed, the depth of our prayer is enhanced as we familiarly address Him to Whom we owe all with these ancient pronouns of endearment; and thereby, we rekindle that spirit of sonship, enjoined on us by the Holy Apostle, “whereby we cry Abba, Father.” It has been said that we should not use this older level of the language because we do not commonly speak this way. In every department of our life, even if we live and work alone, it is necessary for us to become conversant in many ways of using our language. We adapt to all these necessities without thought or question. It must not be that in this, the most exalted purpose for which we would “open our lips,” we would cut off as refuse the richest manifestation of our language, especially as we have in the 1611 Bible a model for our foundation and striving to which there is no superior in prayerful dignity and stateliness of expression.

The core of Orthodox hymnody rests on Greek originals. Many of these Greek texts are governed by poetic metrical schemes. To illustrate the point yet once more from familiar carols, we will show the number of syllables per line in the first stanza of Phillips Brooks’ hymn to indicate its metrical scheme:

O little town of Bethlehem,   8
How still we see thee lie.   6
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep   8
The silent stars go by.   6
Yet in thy dark streets shineth   7
The Ever-lasting Light;   6
The hopes and fears of all the years   8
Are met in thee tonight.   6

The pattern for the hymn is a stanza of 8 lines with the scheme of 8, 6, 8, 6, 7, 6, 8, 6, governing the number of syllables per line. With knowledge that this meter is close to a commonly used meter, and under the poem’s inspiration, Bishop Brooks’ choir master, Mr. Redner, directly and apparently effortlessly set down the tune by which it is sung today. The carol is known as much by its melody as by its words. Because it is so well known, it is entirely possible, if we disregard the disturbance of associations, to sing other words in the same meter to this melody by only saying, “to the tune of ‘O little town of Bethlehem’.” This capacity to replace words under a tune in like meter is at the root of the concept of “Prosomion,” “Podoben” or “Special Melody” as the term is commonly rendered in our English books. The structure of Greek hymnody is generally more varied and complex than the above scheme, but the principle remains the same. A text constructed according to a pattern, together with a melody that follows that pattern, creates a framework of familiarity that eases learning and retention.

A practice arose in the Russian Church in the transition from Greek to Slavonic of translating Greek poetic texts into Slavonic prose texts without regard for the meter of the original. This practice reflected the idea of the translators that conveying exactness of meaning is more important than keeping the poetic framework. We are familiar with prose translations of sacred poetic texts in the common renderings of the Psalms, including the Psalter which we use. The problems of metrical translations are illustrated by these examples, starting with this from the King James Version’s literal rendering of the Hebrew of Psalm 100 (99 in the Septuagint numbering):

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.
Serve the Lord with gladness: come before His presence with singing.

And, a metrical rendering of the Hebrew, found in the Psalter of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland of 1664:

All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.
Him serve with mirth, His praise forth tell,
Come ye before Him and rejoice.

Of this famous lyric it is difficult to make an objective assessment since it is loved among those conversant with hymns of this type. The rhyme-supporting syntactical inversions are unambiguous and do not adversely affect translation, but the metrical requirements force the translator to pad the text with words not reflecting the original. In other cases, the poetic result is not as fortunate; this from (KJV) Psalm 69 (68 LXX):

Save me, O God; for the waters are come in, even unto my soul.

And, from the Scottish Psalter in meter:

Save me, O God, because the floods
do so environ me,
That ev’n unto my very soul
come in the waters be.

English is not enriched, and one wonders if the meaning of the second clause could be determined if the verse from the prose translation were not known. The following is a cautionary example. The author is Christopher Tye, a mid-Renaissance British composer who, in the fervor of his new conversion, produced for domestic consumption a metrical version with music of the first 14 chapters of the Acts of the Apostles! The fourth chapter begins:

When that the people taught they had,
There came to them doubtless
Priests and rulers as men nigh mad
And eke the Sadducees.

Although some translators have made valiant efforts at metrical translation of Orthodox hymns to preserve for use in English the beauties of Byzantine Chant, the resulting renderings are plagued with the same problems of text padding and ambiguous syntactical disorder. The ancient Slavic translators avoided these problems. Our translators, following the Russian practice, have opted to preserve and convey as much as possible of the meaning of the originals in English prose; replete with exalted and poetic imagery it may be, but it is none the less prose.

Having abandoned the meter of the original, the music of the original must also be abandoned. We will see in the course of what follows how this vacuum is filled. First, however, we will consider the subject of rhythm in relation to English prose.


V. The Rhythm of Prose

The most daunting task confronting the newcomer to Russian Church music is mastery of singing in free rhythm, that is, the varying rhythm of prose. The rhythm of prose is simply the rhythm of speech, that sequence of stresses and releases within individual words and phrases, those stretches and compactions, those inflections which make up the pattern of our talking. We are not often made conscious of this rhythm, except by its absence. When, for example, we hear monotonous, uninflected or over-uniform speech, we know that, 1) the speech is not from a human, or, 2) if from a person, it is in jest or from disorder. But under normal circumstances, because we learned everything about our language before we were conscious in the adult manner, we just perform the requirements of speech at that same, unreflective level of consciousness. However, so that we might become effective singers of speech, we need to make ourselves quite conscious of its rhythmic dimension.

To come to a more conscious apprehension of the subject, we will examine in some depth the text of “O Gentle Light” and build up a graphic representation, to the extent possible, of its spoken rhythm. As a first step, we will insert hyphens to represent each pronounced syllable as a unit, and indicate all the stresses of word and phrase that might occur by inserting a inverse apostrophe before each stress.

O ‘gen-tle ‘light of the ‘ho-ly ‘glo-ry of the im-‘mor-tal, ‘heav-en-ly, ‘ho-ly, ‘bless-ed ‘Fa-ther, O ‘Je-sus ‘Christ;

‘hav-ing ‘come to the ‘set-ting of the ‘sun,

‘hav-ing be- ‘held the ‘even-ing ‘light,

we ‘praise the ‘Fa-ther, the ‘Son, and the ‘Ho-ly ‘Spi-rit: ‘God.

‘Meet it ‘is for Thee at ‘all ‘times to be ‘hymned with ‘rev’-rent ‘voic-es,

O ‘Son of ‘God, ‘Giv-er of ‘life.

‘Where-fore, the ‘world doth ‘glo-ri-fy ‘Thee.

Next, we will equate each syllable with an arbitrary unit of time, for instance, 1/4 of a second. Calculate this value from observing and tapping 4 times per click t of the second hand on an analog time piece. If a metronome is available, to hear a 1/4 second pulse, set it to 120 and tap twice for each beat of the metronome to obtain the pulse. Then, turn the metronome off and put it away. Any kind of mechanical, clock-like rendering is to be studiously avoided. Not only does such a thing reflect inadequate speech, but an inadequate understanding of music as well. The metronome should be used to set and check, not to maintain, the pace or tempo.

Our pronunciation is often imprecise because of variations in dialect and other reasons. We should therefore make an effort in this next part of the exercise, to recite the text from the above copy at about the speed of the 1/4 second pulse, with all the pronounced parts sounding as prescribed by the dictionary, with a slight break after each clause (at each blank line), but resuming the same 1/4 second pace when reciting, all the while making slight stresses according to the above scheme. It may be profitable to practice this the first time alone, but, if a group of singers is going to sing together for church, then as soon as possible, this exercise should be done in the group.

Having done this, you may have found it difficult to both correctly articulate the words and keep the pace without a sense of artificially crowding the words. One reason is because all syllables are not “created equal.” Some possess features that may require more time to allow them to fully sound. Following is a list of some of the words from our example with their complexities.

lightthe voiced consonant “L,” and the long “I,” a diphthong made up of “ah” and “ee”
(first syllable) 2 voiced consonants, “G” and “L,” produced in different parts of the mouth
bless-ed(first syllable) 2 voiced consonants, “B” and “L” and the double “S”
When this word is used, as here, as an adjective, it is pronounced with two syllables. It is said in one syllable if used as a verb. When writers collapse the adjectival form for poetic reasons, they generally change the “ed” to a “t.”
Christanother long “I” surrounded by consonants produced in different parts of the mouth and the voiced, open “R”
comethe voiced ending consonant “M” needs time to clearly articulate because the lips are closed
the voiced ending consonant “N” likewise needs time because the tongue pressed to the hard palate creates a closure as in “M”
beheld(second syllable) 2 voiced ending consonants, “L” and “D”
praisethe voiced consonant “R,” the long “A,” a diphthong made up of “eh” and “ee,” and the voiced ending “S” (as “Z”)
Godthe vowel is surrounded by two voiced consonants, “G” and “D,” produced in different parts of the mouth
allthe voiced ending consonant
timesthe long vowel and 2 voiced ending consonants, the closed “M” and the open “S” (as “Z”)
hymned3 voiced consonants, 2 closed and 1 open
voices(first syllable) the voiced consonant “V” followed by two vowels “O” (“Aw”) and short “I” (“ee”)
lifethe voiced “L,” the long “I” and the voiceless “F” which requires time to push through enough air for clear articulation
world4 voiced consonants, “W”, “R”, “L” and “D”

From this selection, we learn that the following elements can extend the time it takes to properly articulate a syllable:

    1. Complex vowels - diphthongs, vowels elided together, or multiple vowel sounds when open voiced consonants are neighboring a vowel,
    2. Consonant combinations including voiced consonants, and,
    3. Consonants at the ends of words.

The obvious element of language for which we pause, therefore add time, when reciting is punctuation. Significant punctuation has been accounted for in our breakup of the text into clauses. There is generally no ambiguity about the treatment of half stops (colons, semicolons) and full stops (periods, question or exclamation marks). In normal speech, these require a break in sound. However, responses to commas should distinguish between list delimiting and sense delimiting. For example, for the commas in the list of adjectives in the first clause (“immortal, heavenly, holy,” etc,) we should scarcely impede the flow, in any case, we should not put in a break in the sound; whereas, for the comma after “sun” at the end of the second clause, we should.

There is another factor which conditions the effect of individual elements of articulation. This is the relation of the individual word or syllable to its context. Consider, for example, the case of “sun”/“Son.” There being a pause at the end of the second clause, “sun” stands alone and therefore, time is needed to properly articulate the “n”. “Son” in the list of the persons of the Trinity is followed by the “short” comma discussed above which should entail no break in sound but perhaps a slight broadening of the “n.” “Son” as in “Son of God,” however, is elided to the following “o” in “of” with no impediment. This makes the “n” to function, not as an ending, but as a beginning consonant. The articulation of beginning consonants is, as it were, impelled in the act of getting the rest of the word out.

For this part of the exercise, in the representation below, we will underline the words that, as we have found in the above process, take more time to properly articulate. Other words are underlined, however, in the fifth clause beginning “Meet it is,” because of editorial interpretation. The writer conceives a need to linger on the two syllables, “is” and “Thee,” to add emphasis to the thought and to provide balance against the emphatic monosyllables “all,” “times,” and “hymned.” Recite the text again at about the 1/4 second-per-syllable pace, observing everything done in the first recitation, and adding a slight elastic broadening for the underlined syllables. By “elastic” is meant that, once you have taken time to articulate, snap back into the pace.

O ‘gen-tle ‘light of the ‘ho-ly ‘glo-ry of the im-‘mor-tal, ‘heav-en-ly, ‘ho-ly, ‘bless-ed ‘Fa-ther, O ‘Je-sus ‘Christ;

‘hav-ing ‘come to the ‘set-ting of the ‘sun,

‘hav-ing be- ‘held the ‘even-ing ‘light,

we ‘praise the ‘Fa-ther, the ‘Son, and the ‘Ho-ly ‘Spi-rit: ‘God.

‘Meet it ‘is for ‘Thee at ‘alltimes to be ‘hymned with ‘rev’-rent ‘voic-es,

O ‘Son of ‘God, ‘Giv-er of ‘life.

‘Where-fore, the ‘world doth ‘glo-ri-fy ‘Thee.

To conclude the exercise, we will take the last and largest step of connecting what we have learned to a musical setting. Recite the text exactly as before, at the pace of 1/4 second per syllable, emphasizing for stress, broadening for underlined syllables, but this time, hold the syllables in bold type for the number of quarter-seconds shown just before them. This may seem very artificial, so repeat this until you are accustomed to it.

O ‘ gen-tle ‘ light of the ‘ ho-ly ‘ glo-ry of the im- ‘ mor-tal, ‘ heav-en-ly, ‘ ho-ly, ‘ bless-ed ‘ Fa-ther, O ‘ 2 Je- 2 sus ‘ 4 Christ;

‘ hav-ing ‘ come to the ‘ set-ting of the ‘ sun,

‘ hav-ing be- ‘ held the ‘ even-ing ‘ 4 light,

we ‘ praise the ‘ Fa-ther, the ‘ Son, and the ‘ Ho-ly ‘ Spi-rit: ‘ 4 God.

‘ Meet it ‘ is for ‘ Thee at ‘ all ‘ times to be ‘ hymned with ‘ rev’-rent ‘ 2 voic- 2 es,

O ‘ Son of ‘ God, ‘ Giv-er of ‘ 4 life.

‘ Where-fore, the ‘ world doth ‘ 1 glo- 1 ri- 2 fy ‘ 4 Thee.

Next, equating our 1/4 second to a quarter note, turn to page 233 in this book and sing “O Gentle Light” exactly in the now much-practiced manner of recitation, adding the pitches of the setting (if alone, sing your accustomed part). If you find the pace of recitation to have slowed from the 1/4 second pace, try to trim from your vocal execution any mannerism, such as vibrato, which will tend to slow you down. If necessary, return to unpitched recitation until the prescribed pace is restored, then sing it again. Repeat this procedure until it feels natural to sing with correct articulation at the 1/4 second pace. When it does, you have arrived at the practice of musical recitation of spoken rhythm.


VI. Sticheron and Troparion Melodies

Commonly, a term borrowed from Italian Opera is used to refer to that which we have been practicing: recitative (recheetahTEEVE). It is popularly known about in solo manifestation because of frequent repetition of Handel’s masterwork, “Messiah.” Recitative by the choir is the essence of the singing of stichera.

Sticheron melodies accommodate recitative by containing in each phrase a pitch on which a varying number of words may be recited. We will call this the reciting note. This reciting note, while central to the effort, is commonly represented and recognized by its absence. Looking at the example of “O Gentle Light” that we used in the previous exercise, we see that, in the first line of music, there is a quarter note, followed by nothing visible for quite a stretch, except words, until we come to another quarter note at the end of the line. It is understood that the words with no visible notation are to be sung to the first pitches, continuing at the pace of the first note value, until a different pitch and value is encountered. As we just labored to establish in the previous section, the basic unit of pace, in this case the quarter note, is maintained throughout, but elastically, with liberal allowances for the requirements of the text.

In addition to the reciting note, each phrase of a sticheron melody contains at least one melodic “stress.” It may contain two. Melodic stresses are at the ends of phrases, enclosing the reciting note. They may be characterized by broadened note values, melismas or multiple note values per syllable, or a simple change of pitch. There may be other characteristic turns of melody which build toward or recede from the stress. These we will call “flex.” To aid in the conceptualization of all this as it relates to each tone, the texts of all stichera are pointed, or marked, with indicative type style alterations. Every syllable which is associated with a stress is set in bold type. Every syllable which is associated with a flex is set in italic type. Once the melodies of the tones are learned and the associations are established, they may be recognized by this “typographical shadow.” In future volumes of this collection, since the emphasis will shift away from the learning of stichera, these type faces will be used without musical notation where stichera to these melodies are called for.

This is the place to state the rationale for the setting out of music in full for all the stichera in this book. The explanation is needed because the practice is somewhat unusual. Consultations were held with some of those who are likely to be the users. A desire was expressed to have more examples of the melodies fully set out than had been previously available. In this book, all thirteen possible examples of each tone are completely set out. The need is there, also, because the cultural framework in which the simpler methods were sufficient is, for many of our intended audience, simply not there. From this realization came the desire to include as much as could be contained within the covers of this book, consistant with practical size, if a helpful use was perceived.

Another main feature of sticheron melodies is the open-ended rotational principle. Every melody contains a set of melodic phrases which are used in rotation for successive text phrases through the second to last text phrase, then a designated ending melodic phrase is used for the last text phrase. The rotation set is used in order, but the sequence may be stopped after any phrase of the set, and the ending phrase is directly approached from the rotation phrase last used. There is no element of fixity in the number of phrases. This is the freest possible template for treatment of texts. Variations on the structure of sticheron melodies may also include preceding the rotation set with a set of phrases used only once, and truncation of a phrase in the rotation set after its first occurence. Brief instructions explaining the structure of the sticheron melody of each tone precede the first presentation of the melody in “Lord, I have cried.” They are also gathered together here with a few other comments.

The melody for tone 1 has five phrases.  Phrases 1 through 4 are used in rotation as the text requires.  Phrase 5 is used for the last phrase of text.

The melody for tone 2 has four phrases.  Phrase 1 is used for the first phrase of text.  Phrases 2 and 3 are used in alternation as the text requires.  Phrase 4 is used for the last phrase of text.

The melody for tone 3 has three phrases.  Phrases 1 and 2 are used in alternation as the text requires.  Phrase 3 is used for the last phrase of text.

The melody for tone 4 has six phrases. Phrases 1 and 2 are used for the first two phrases of text. Phrases 3 through 5 are used in rotation as the test requires. When phrase 3 recurs after phrase 5, it begins on the reciting note. See this illustrated in the Dogmatic Theotokion (p. 118). Care must be taken not to stretch too much the melismatic flourish in phrase 5. Its rendering should convey a sense of sweep.

The melody for tone 5 has four phrases. Phrases 1 through 3 are used in rotation as the text requires. Phrase 4 is used for the last phrase of text. As with tone 4, do not over-stretch the melismatic flourish in phrase 3.

The melody for tone 6 has four phrases. Phrases 1 through 3 are used in rotation as the text requires. Phrase 2 ends with a descent if it is used for the second-to-last phrase of text. See this illustrated in the phrase “when I cry unto Thee” (p. 159.) Phrase 4 is used for the last phrase of text. As with tones 4 and 5, beware of dragging the flourish in phrase 3.

The melody for tone 7 has three phrases. Phrases 1 and 2 are used in alternation as the text requires. Phrase 3 is used for the last phrase of text. As with tone 3, the simplicity of this melody sets in relief some common characteristic features. It is the least used of the sticheron melodies.

The melody for tone 8 has four phrases. Phrases 1 through 3 are used in rotation as the text requires. When phrase 1 recurs after phrase 3, it begins on the reciting note. See this illustrated in the phrase “attend to the voice” (p. 205.) Phrase 4 is used for the last phrase of text.

The numbers in the phrases throughout the music of the stichera correspond to the numbers used in the above discussion. In the section containing the stichera for “Lord, I have cried,” between the sections containing the first seven stichera for all tones and the Dogmatic Theotokia for all tones, the 10 psalm verses for all tones are gathered for ease of use with other stichera. Both within the stichera and in the psalm verse section, the verses are numbered in reverse to correspond to the typical references in the liturgical service books, where the number of stichera to be sung is referred to as “on 10” or “on 8,” meaning “10” or “8” Psalm verses from the end (not including “Glory” or “Both now”.)

Troparion melodies, of which there are at least two examples for each tone, share the open-endedness of sticheron melodies to large degree. However, they have varying structural principles, some of which set certain conditions on the text setting.

The troparion melodies for tones one, two, six and seven all consist of a pair of phrases repeated as the text requires. This structure requires texts to be divided into an even number of phrases. In tones two and seven, the second phrase of the final pair is varied.

The troparion melody for the third tone uses the sticheron rotation principle in a unique way. The rotation set of phrases is used as a once-only beginning set by leaving out the middle phrase (pp. 327 & 328).

The troparion melody for tone four consists of a pair of melodic phrases, repeated as the text requires. The second phrase of the pair is set to the second to last text phrase, and a third phrase is set to the last text phrase. Texts in this tone must be divided into an odd number of phrases not less than three to keep the integrity of the melody.

For troparion texts in the fifth tone, the sticheron melody is used.

The troparion melody for the eighth tone consists of one phrase repeated as needed. Care should be used in dividing a text so the phrases are not too short. A sort of nursery-see-saw effect will result. In fact, particular care in the execution of this melody should be taken in order to avoid this problem.


This book contains the revised edition of the Vespers volume of “A Church Singer’s Companion.” Some changes have been made of necessity, but the main reason for the revision is the enhancement of its practicality and usefulness.

Since the appearance of the book, many comments and suggestions have been received. All ideas for changes have been studiously considered, and it is hoped that the current revision profits by them.

One set of revisions arises from necessity. In the years since the book’s appearance, changes have been made to the translations used in it. These changes have been incorporated in the revision, and the music has been re-set accordingly.

Suggestions were taken and applied with regard to the form of some of the melodies of the tones and, in fewer cases, the harmonization. These changes were made to bring the book more in line with the wider practice. It is hoped that those who have been using the book will not be too much discommoded by these changes; and it is further hoped that those coming to use the book for the first time will not likewise be discommoded by too great changes from what they may be used to.

A suggestion was made that the pitch at which the hymns are set should generally be raised so as to be consistent with some earlier standard compilations and for the sake of sonority. Here is a list of pieces that were raised in pitch:

“Bless the Lord” – Trinity–St. Sergius Lavra Chant    D minor to E minor
“Lord, I have Cried” Tone 3    C major to D major
“Lord, I have Cried” Tone 5    F major to G major
“Lord, I have Cried” Tone 8    G major to A major
Sunday Evening Prokeimenon    G major to B-flat major
Monday Evening Prokeimenon    F major to G major
Tuesday Evening Prokeimenon    G major to A major
Wednesday Evening Prokeimenon    G major to B-flat major

It was suggested that more needed to be raised, and to a greater degree. To do more would have been to forego a governing principle of the book; namely, that the pitch at which hymns are set should not cause strain for amateur, untrained voices. Adherence to this principle is especially important in the setting of stichera, the music of which is frequently and uninterruptedly repeated for long stretches in the service. While the traditionally prescribed method of antiphonal singing of stichera can mitigate the potential strain, it must be admitted that the resources are not often available to apply this practice. Also on the other side of the question, comments about the pitch settings by the users of the book have been very favorable, thus demonstrating the utility of the principle.

One common element in the traditional application of harmony to the melodies of the tones is the presence of a part that moves in parallel thirds (sixths) with the chant melody. The parallel part is called the “descant” in the main introduction. This practice was strictly adhered to in the initial edition and the practice is retained in its entirety in this revision. Mention of this arises because of a point made in the comments, which is, that in the cases of a few tones, in mixed choir situations, where the soprano has the melody and the tenor has the descant, the descant is occasionally adjusted from the strict parallel motion for the sake of sonority and, to a lesser extent, considerations of voice leading. These considerations are over-ridden by yet another guiding principle of the book, which is, immediate adaptability to multiple choir configurations. Again, it was reasoned that the intended users of the book would welcome adherence to this principle, and this has been borne out by their favorable responses.

The main feature of this revision is the rearrangement of the contents of the book. This rearrangement means that, in the course of its use in Vespers, one will never have to turn back to a previous page. This result was arrived at by re-grouping the sections containing stichera and troparia. The main framework is that all the stichera (or troparia) for all tones precede all the theotokia for all tones. For example, in ‘Lord, I have cried,’ in the first edition, the stichera for Tone 1 with the appropriate verses were followed by the psalm verses by themselves for Tone 1, followed by the Dogmatic Theotokion for tone 1, followed by the stichera for Tone 2, etc. In this revision, Tone 1 stichera are followed by Tone 2 stichera,... followed by tone 8 stichera, followed by the psalm verses for all Tones, followed by the Dogmatic Theotokia for all Tones. The psalm verse section is so configured that all the melodies of the tones for each verse of text are presented on facing pages. For example, all the melodies, tones 1 through 8, for “Bring my soul out of prison....” are on facing pages, 1-4 on the left, 5-8 on the right.

The psalm verse reconfiguration just described, and the removal of items of limited utility resulted in a significant space-saving. This was welcomed because it was noted that the book in its first edition presses the boundaries of practicability because of its size. Advantage was taken of the regained space, however, to insert a few items that did not appear before that are either intrinsically lovely or very useful under special circumstances and fit well into the scheme of the book, but were earlier left out for lack of space. These are the Kedrov setting of “Blessed is the Man,” a setting of “O Gentle Light” by the same composer, a coupled setting of “O Gentle Light” and “The Lord is King” composed for a complement of singers without tenors, and two additional settings of “O Theotokos and Virgin” by Smirnov and Strokhin.

The main introduction is almost intact except for some corrections and changes to reflect changed circumstances.

It remains only to mention those without whose help the book would not have been produced. Locally, Claire Mendis, Natalia Mulligan, and Mary Baumann contributed greatly to the editing and physical preparation of the book. Dr. Vladimir Morosan and Dr. Nicholas Schidlovsky, recognized experts in the field of Russian Liturgical music, provided much helpful comment and encouragement. The Liturgical Music Advisory Board of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, under the prayerful nurture and blessing of Metropolitan Laurus, are here gratefully acknowledged for their contribution. Reader Nicholas Park came up with the idea of how to arrange the material for the greatest usefulness. Last, but really first because it is for whom the effort is made, the choir members who have been the ground for testing and proving the material must be held up in gratitude for all they have done (not to say, put up with) down the years.

This book is offered to help fulfill a long-standing desire: that God may be more fittingly glorified by those who worship in English. Please remember on occasion in your prayers, the compiler and his family and flock.

Priest George Johnson
Holy Apostles Orthodox Church, Beltsville, Maryland
May 26 / June 8, 2003, Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council

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