The Seraphim above: Some Perspectives on the Theology of Orthodox Church Music
“If music is an integral part of what it is to be human, then it ought to reflect something of the image of God in which we are made. If part of the imago Dei is the relationship of love that lies at the heart of the Trinity, then perhaps music can open up a way of thinking about how we relate to the world and to God in a manner where love, rather than reason, dominates. After all, music is inherently relational, both internally in the way its notes are put together and externally in the way in which it is used to communicate in everyday life.”(, p. 161)
“Canonising pictures is one way of killing them. When the sense of familiarity becomes too great, history, popularity, association, all crowd in between the viewer and the picture and block it out. Not only pictures suffer like this, all the arts suffer like this.”(, p. 12)
“Liturgical music, like the icon, is only found in actual liturgy and in the Christian home, that is, the manifestation of the Kingdom in the church. Its impact on the faithful is immediate. It does not seem to be a mediator between the sung word and its reception by the listener. Music that resonates may thus be compared to a stained glass window which filters and colours, but does not halt, the daylight. Its emotional impact is sometimes considerable.One should not be mistaken, however. Music is the work of mankind, and as such, it can also be subject to the fall, be made opaque, ugly and become a screen. We shall discuss later the conditions of its transparency. But, a priori, at its birth and in the perfection of its creation by an omnipotent God, music is pure by definition, even though perfectible in the use to which it is put by man.”(, p. 1)
“The theological study of chant in its organic union with the Biblical and patristic word passes initially through an intuitive path with the aim of tracing the axes of theological examination, hypotheses which must subsequently be confirmed by a more formal analysis with the aid of precise musicological criteria established at the outset. The theological character of liturgical chant obviously derives from its intimate association with the sung word, just as the word takes its theological character from the thought that expresses the Orthodox faith. Everything, in creation, may become a vehicle for theology; man and the universe are called to be transfigured.”(, p. 1)
“If one takes seriously the consequences of the Incarnation, ‘real and not imaginary, of the Word of God’, as stated in the definition of Nicaea II, then all liturgical art must reflect the reality of this new creation—or, at the very least, must not contradict it. Indeed, the definition of Nicaea II speaks of art ‘which is in accordance with the narrative of the Gospel’ (…) Liturgical art should of necessity participate in this preaching (of the Gospel), be at service, be one with it, be in harmony with it”(, p. 39)
“Now, those who sing the Gospel to senseless people seem to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, of which Christ is not the husbandman; but those who have put on and shone in the most pure and bright, and mingled and pious and becoming, ornament of virginity, and are found barren and unproductive of unsettled and grievous passions, do not sing the song in a strange land; because they are not borne thither by their hopes, nor do they stick fast in the lusts of their mortal bodies, nor do they take a low view of the meaning of the commandments, but well and nobly, with a lofty disposition, they have regard to the promises which are above, thirsting for heaven as a congenial abode, whence God, approving their dispositions, promises with an oath to give them choice honours, appointing and establishing them ‘above His chief joy’.”
“For [life] so to abide [without the Spirit] were as likely as that an army should maintain its discipline in the absence of its commander, or a chorus its harmony without the guidance of the coryphaeus. How could the Seraphim cry ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’, were they not taught by the Spirit how often true religion requires them to lift their voice in this ascription of glory? Do ‘all His angels’ and ‘all His hosts’ praise God?”
“But let us (…) speak of repentance and the coming judgement. For we should always meditate on these things, because the day of the Lord is coming like a thief in the night. Therefore by night and day, look to your last hour and meditate on the law of the Lord day and night. Say many things to God and few to humans. If you stretch out your hand to work, let your mouth sing psalms and your mind pray. Let psalmody be continually on your mouth, for when God is being named he puts the demons to flight and sanctifies the singer.Psalmody is calm of soul, author of peace. Psalmody is convenor of friendship, union of the separated, reconciliation of enemies. Psalmody attracts the help of the Angels, is a weapon in night-time fears, repose of the day’s toils, safety for infants, adornment for the old, consolation for the elderly, most fitting embellishment for women. It make deserts into homes, market places sober. It is the ABC for beginners, progress for the more advanced, confirmation for the perfect, the voice of the Church. It makes festivals radiant; it creates mourning that is in accordance with God, for psalmody draws tears even from a heart of stone. Psalmody is the work of the Angels, the commonwealth of heaven, spiritual incense. Psalmody is enlightenment of souls, sanctification of bodies.Let us, brethren, never stop making psalmody our meditation, both at home and on the road, both sleeping and waking, speaking to ourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Psalmody is the joy of those who love God. It banishes idle chatter, brings laughter to an end, reminds us of the judgement, rouses the soul towards God, joins the choir of the Angels. Where there is psalmody with compunction, there God is, with the Angels. Where the songs of the opponent are, there is God’s wrath, and ‘woe!’ is the reward of laughter. Where sacred books and readings are, there are the joy of the just and the salvation of the listeners. Where there are harps and dances, there is the darkening of men and women, and a festival of the Devil.O the wicked cunning and contrivance of the Devil! How he trips each one through craft, and deceives them and persuades them to do evil as though it were good! Today they decide to chant, tomorrow they dance with enthusiasm. Today they are Christians, tomorrow heathens. Today of good repute, tomorrow pagans. Today servants of Christ, tomorrow rebels against God. Do not be deceived. No one can be servant of two lords, as it is written. You cannot serve God and dance with the Devil.”
“How do I understand that words proceed into deeds? (…) from the fact that imitating the angelic choir, and endless hymnology is offered to God (…). Above, the armies of angels praise while below the people are standing in the choir of the church and imitating their praise. The Seraphim above cry the thrice-holy hymn and the people below raise the same hymn.”
“What is more blessed than to imitate the chorus of the angels here on earth; to arise for prayer at the very break of day and honour the Creator with hymns and songs; and then when the sun shines brightly to turn to our work, and, with prayer as an ever-present companion, to season our tasks with hymns as if with salt? For the consolation of hymns favours the soul with a state of happiness and freedom from care.”
“We will that those whose office it is to sing in the churches do not use undisciplined vociferations, nor force nature to shouting, nor adopt any of those modes which are incongruous and unsuitable for the church: but that they offer the psalmody to God, who is the observer of secrets, with great attention and compunction. For the Sacred Oracle taught that the Sons of Israel were to be pious.”(, p. 398)
“…the Fathers of the Church (…) regarded the musical riches of the Old Testament and Graeco-Roman culture as a part of the sensible, material world which was to be overcome in the spiritual world of Christianity. They understood spiritualisation to mean dematerialisation and hence understood it in a manner which more or less borders on iconoclasm. That is theology’s historical mortgage in the question of ecclesiastical art, and it is a mortgage which comes to the fore over and over again during the course of history.”
“Nothing so uplifts the mind, giving it wings and freeing it from the earth, releasing it from the prison of the body, affecting it with love of wisdom, and causing it to scorn all things pertaining to this life, as modulated melody and the divine chant composed of number”(, II:13)
- “saw that women were silent from praise
- and in his wisdom he decided it was right that they should sing out;
- so just as Moses gave timbrels to the young girls,
- thus did this discerning man compose hymns for virgins.
- As he stood among the sisters it was his delight
- to stir these chaste women into songs of praise;
- he was like an eagle perched among the doves
- as he taught them to sing new songs of praise with pure utterance”
“You have it here on biblical authority that the three praised the Lord together ‘as if from one voice’, just as all of us must exhibit the same intention and the same sounding melody as if from a single voice. Those, however, who are not able to blend and adapt themselves to the others, ought better to sing in a subdued voice than to create a great clamour; and thus will they fulfil their liturgical obligation and avoid disrupting the singing community. For it is not given to all to possess a supple and pleasant voice”(, p. 21)
“The singing of the chanter passes over to the hearts of those who are praying; if the singing proceeds from the heart, it meets the heart of the listener and so influences him that it is able to rouse him to prayer, to incite reverence even in those minutes when the heart itself is distracted and hard. Often it happens that those who enter the church without any eagerness toward prayer, from compulsion or from propriety, begin to pray fervently and tearfully, and leave the church in quite another frame of mind, in a spirit of tender feeling and repentance. Such a revival is produced in them by the magnificent service and fine singing. And, conversely, often it happens that those who enter the church with the intention to pray from the soul, to pour out before the Lord their sorrowful soul, when they hear scattered, careless singing and reading, themselves little by little become distracted, and instead of profit they find harm, they receive no consolation and, having been tempted by the conduct of the singers, involuntarily fall into the sin of condemnation.Strive with all your strength to concentrate attentively on the words which you pronounce; pronounce them in such a manner that they come from the depth of your soul, which is singing together with your lips. Then the sounds of the vivifying current of your hymn will pour into the souls of those who hear them, and these souls, being raised from the earthly to the heavenly, having laid aside all earthly care, will receive the King of Glory Who is borne in triumph by the Angelic Hosts.”(, p. 57)
“In church music (Kastal’sky) is a type of Vasnetsov. One would like to hear his arrangements and compositions under the arches of the Kievan St Vladimir Cathedral, so permeated are they with incorporeity and asceticism, so dissimilar are they to the extravagance of a lone individual, sounding more like an echo of a composition by an entire people…Listening to his works, it seems at times that they have burst into this world of their own accord, without will and effort on the composer’s part. It appears that (Kastal’sky) has wholly mastered the inner essence of ancient singing; his instinct has not misled him.”
“And style?...Our original church tunes when laid out chorally lose all their individuality; what distinction they have when sung in unison as they were by the old-believers, and how insipid they are in the conventional four-part arrangements of our classics, on which we have prided ourselves for nearly a hundred years: it is essential but… spurious.”(, pp. 237–38)
“The future of our creative work for the Church can also be merely surmised, but I feel what its real task should be. I am convinced that it lies in the idealisation 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 which 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.”(, p. 245)
- 1The term kratema comes from kratein, “to hold”, and refers to the holding, or prolongation, of a liturgical chant melody. The term terirem is also found, referring to the nonsense syllables “te-ri-rem” that were the text of the kratemata, whether as independent compositions or sections of other chants.
- 2I am very grateful to Sydney Freedman for drawing my attention to this source.
- 3The reference to Vasnetsov is to Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov (1848–1926), a painter who synthesized modern painting techniques with nationalistic subjects and iconography, and painted most of the frescos and icons of the neo-Byzantine St Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev.
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Moody, I. The Seraphim above: Some Perspectives on the Theology of Orthodox Church Music. Religions 2015, 6, 350-364. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel6020350
Moody I. The Seraphim above: Some Perspectives on the Theology of Orthodox Church Music. Religions. 2015; 6(2):350-364. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel6020350Chicago/Turabian Style
Moody, Ivan. 2015. "The Seraphim above: Some Perspectives on the Theology of Orthodox Church Music" Religions 6, no. 2: 350-364. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel6020350