Notes and Editorial Reviews
The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
Alexander Lingas, cond; The Very Rev. John Bakas (celebrant); The Rev. John Kariotakis (deacon); Cappella Romana
CAPPELLA ROMANA 410 (77:58
Text and Translation)
This has been a voyage of discovery for me, and I suspect that for most readers of Fanfare, the music of the Greek Orthodox Church is as much of an unknown. The fifth-century Divine Liturgy of
St. John Chrysostom, the primary liturgical service of the Eastern Orthodox Church—comparable to the Mass in Roman Catholicism—is known to classical music collectors primarily through the settings by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. As I discovered in my conversation with the composer of this setting, Dr. Tikey Zes, and in later research, these belong to a significantly different Russian tradition, if inevitably the same historical root. The setting of the Divine Liturgy recorded here draws on the musical traditions of the Byzantine Empire, as developed between 330 and the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. These traditional chants and hymns are the most ancient still in use, with styles derived from the practices of the early Christian church and from classical Greek music.
What is heard in this release, however, is an example of a newer school of composing for the Greek Orthodox Church, derived from the tradition forms, that has developed in the United States, and particularly on the West Coast, over the last 60 years. Zes, who has himself played a significant part in the development of this school, writes in the interview above of these changes and of the seminal role played by Dr. Frank Desby, a fellow California Greek-American, in the rediscovery, research, and renewal of the Byzantine traditions for a new audience and time. Among the innovations introduced by Desby is the use of post-Byzantine Western harmonization in the treatment of the ancient chant modes. It is this approach which Zes also takes in his work, treating the choral parts of the liturgy in a manner strongly influenced by Renaissance polyphony.
In this liturgy, however, he innovates further by composing his own melodies using the Byzantine formulas, but not the actual chant melodies. When I first listened to the service, I was not aware of anything unusual, either in the harmonization or the melodies. Even after listening to other settings of the Divine Liturgy, by other composers of this Greek-American school who do use the traditional chant melodies, I missed the significance of the differences. It wasn’t until I immersed myself in the recordings of the traditional chants made by Portland, Oregon-based Cappella Romana—The Fall of Constantinople and Mt. Sinai: Frontiers of Byzantium proved quite useful—that I understood the significant departures from tradition in this new style. I must admit, though, I never became so familiar with the traditional melodies that I could tell that Zes’s chants were new compositions.
Still, I am sure to someone who had heard these chants all his or her life, this setting could seem, as Cappella Romana founder and director Dr. Alexander Lingas suggested in his informative notes, a radical departure from prevailing norms. I suppose in some circles this makes it controversial, but that need not concern the average listener. The combination of monophonic chant—which makes up a significant part of the service, it should be noted—and the richly harmonized choral responses and hymns creates such a sense of other-worldly peace and transcendence that such issues seem inconsequential. It is not unlike Gregorian chant in this effect—though the chant style is quite different—interspersed with Renaissance motets.
Despite the splendor of Zes’s music, the flawlessness of the performance by Lingas and his 14 singers and accompanist—though I find it hard to believe that the organ is a Casavant, however well Douglas Schneider plays it—the heartfelt chanting of the two clerics, and the excellence of the engineering, not everyone will find this to his or her taste. It sounds like I’m in church, was the response of one auditioner I played this for. I wish it were so. Too many churches, liturgical as well as non-liturgical, have traded pop/rock-based praise music for the spiritual music of the past. It is just about as far from the experience of singing with the angels—an Orthodox concept, if I understand it correctly—as can be imagined. Cappella Romana sings this music as if already in the heavenly realms, and can transport the listener there, as well.
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