By Karen J. Hammer
“Let’s sing the Kedrov.” whispers Joseph, our choir leader at St. Basil’s Russian Orthodox Church in St. Louis, shortly before Communion on Palm Sunday last year. “Let’s try it.” He is taking a big risk in having us, an American choir of non-singers seeking its voice (let alone a Russian Orthodox sound), sing in Church Slavonic a beloved version of “Otche Nash” (“The Lord’s Prayer”) composed by Russian émigré Nikolai Kedrov, Sr. We turn to the page, and he quietly tunes us first, pointing to the sopranos, then to the altos, then the basses—“tah---tah---taaaah.” A soft, pleasant hum rises from us, a hopeful sign. He signals for our hushed attention, whispering: “Before you sing, think the note…”
We, the choir of a dozen people had already heard this restrained--“this fragile, where ‘less is more’ chant”--as Joseph termed it, but had never sung it together before, making our debut of the Kedrov piece unpredictable. Perhaps Joseph, who had volunteered his vast liturgical knowledge to improve the choir, chose this delicate adagio of prayer to test how far we’ve really come or could still go; or how it would sound in the new, expanded St. Basil’s. The Great Lent fast had cleared our voices, and we sounded tuned, so maybe he decided this was the time to expand us as well, that maybe now more from us was possible.
Not much was possible in the old St. Basil’s, a converted 1½ car rented garage that we jokingly called St. Basil’s Cathedral. For fifteen years, it had housed an altar and a congregation that had grown from six to over fifty people. Our traditionalist church lacks pews, enabling half of us to cram in like sardines, while the other half spilled out of the door to stand in all weather for the two hour service. Normally, this pewlessness was to continue the old Jewish custom of “standing before the Lord”, and is considered an uplifted, festal posture, while sitting during the long Psalm readings of vigils or Lent, signifies the weary penitential. The congregation can freely move about the nave to perform their veneration before icons, prostrations during Great Lent, and incensing of the interior. In our minuscule circumstances, though, free movement proved impossible, and exhaled breaths and burning candles depleted the air needed to sing the required liturgical responses, praises, and prayers.
The space problem prevented our choir from adding new voices, but on Pascha extra sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses joined us anyway, squeezing themselves anywhere they could. The poor acoustics and a noisy air conditioner muddled our tuning, and strong voices overpowered weak ones frustrating most attempts to sing in unison either Byzantine or Russian znammeny one-part or Russian Kievan four-part harmony. The result was cacophonous. “We’re supposed to sing with one voice.” as Maritsa, a Greek-American parishioner, once told me when comparing the virtues of Byzantine chant over western-influenced Kievan, though our forays into polyphony hadn’t really hindered our singing in unison. “The Church is ONE.” she said, pointedly. “So we really should sing as one.”
The most vulnerable of notes of our liturgical response, the very first note—“Amen”—almost always staggered in off-cue accompanied by scratchy throat clearings. Succeeding notes thudded either too sharp or flat. “Don’t sing the notes one at a time--thump-thump-thump.” Joseph said, interrupting one choppy rendition. “Sing them as phrases. The different vocal parts are all conversations with God. You don’t talk to each other in chopped-up verticals. Sing horizontally! Let it flow in a line!”
We always fumbled the melodies of the Ochtoechos rendering any unsupervised chant of troparia or kontakia as disjointed mumblings trailing off in perplexity. As the liturgy progressed, we might partially redeem ourselves (on a good day) by singing the better-known hymns marginally well, but even so, we would still lose a half note or more between the hymn’s beginning and ending. Our poor singing greatly distracted the worship that was to help the devout pray with monastic concentration of “mind and heart together.” To keep a congregation focused, the Liturgy is punctuated by the priest’s calls to attention--Wisdom! Let us attend--but our flawed performance would effectively countermand this summons. Joseph, a tenor, kept us tuned by singing with us, sometimes changing octaves to guide a wandering soprano or bass back on key, or casting a lemony look at whoever hit a sour note. When voices careened off course, he would frantically wave off the clash of notes, halting our discord. Then running his fingers through his curly red hair, he’d fix a determined but forgiving eye on us, and bravely command: “Start again…”
“It’s part of our podvig on this earth.” lamented Fr. Martin, another non-singer and our parish priest, after one memorably mangled singing of Vespers, podvig being a Russian word for a step-by-step struggle, often a suffering one. Joseph was absent that Vespers, so without his direction we bleated awfully, raising a stink rather than a “sweet odor of praise” to heaven with some of the congregation looking steamed. I glibly tried to cheer my disheartened and embarrassed fellow choristers by quoting my Pentecostal friend who flattened gospel songs with his singing: “Remember, in heaven we’ll all sing on key.” They smiled wanly, being little comforted, as good intentions alone will never substitute for a good service even though too many Orthodox choirs, perhaps reflecting Orthodoxy’s marginal existence in the West, sing so lamely that the experience of attending worship is more resignation than celebration. Though St. Basil’s failings required great forbearance from us all, still, we all came here to learn and practice true worship. But the Liturgy’s celebration of salvation deserves an offering of our best as for any other pursuit of excellence, wherein lay its challenge to us. If we never attempted to discover and give our best, much of this celebration’s intended beauty would remain untasted, and the dearth might lead us to feed on husks. So it was with a knotted brow of concern that Fr. Martin served the liturgies he loved accompanied not by angelic voices, but through the ordeal of our caterwauling. A real podvig for him, indeed.
O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness (Ps. 96:9) demarcates the sacred ground where God in His Beauty enters the human heart to be glorified there. Here, even human speech is rarefied, altering its worldly cadence to chant--let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it. (Ps 90.17) Our desire to worship in His beauty is an activity fundamentally different from an exercise in mere aesthetical good taste. Worship awakens the soul to God’s Beauty so that He may be mirrored there. To this end, Orthodox culture produced much of the greatest spiritual art and music in Christendom centered on a masterpiece of devotion, the Divine Liturgy.
For the Russians, the journey toward Beauty began in the 10th century, when Prince Vladimir of Kiev sent his emissaries to other lands to find a suitable religion to unify his nascent kingdom. They visited the Moslems, the Jews, and the Catholic West; and not finding satisfaction in their forms of worship, they traveled to Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium, attending the mystical Divine Liturgy in the Hagia Sophia, then the greatest basilica in Christendom. “We could not tell whether we were on earth or in heaven. For on earth there is no such splendor or beauty…” they had reported after seeing its grandeur and hearing the ethereal choirs. For Beauty’s sake, Russia entered the baptismal waters, and in turn, they would produce even more fabulous Christian art, especially excelling in music. In the opinion of visiting 19th century Western musicologists, the Russian choirs far outshone any choir in the West, being renowned for their superlative vocal orchestral sound supported by astoundingly deep basses, and their ability to hold extremely long notes. These great choirs drew their talents from a whole culture of liturgical vocal orchestras lovingly nurtured in every Russian parish before the dark years of Communist purges.
St. Basil the Great parish in St. Louis is a humble part of this heritage, belonging to a jurisdiction called the “Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia” which was sent by martyred Patriarch Tikhon to the West to preserve Russian Orthodoxy. During its eighty year diaspora, many English-speaking parishes and monasteries have sprung up, ours among them. For the benefit of our Russians, a few litanies of the Divine Liturgy are sung in the inflected beauty of Church Slavonic. Mostly we sing in the preposition and article-loaded English that make some translated Slavonic or Greek chants sound jumpy and making me wonder if English could ever qualify as a sacred language.
Even when I hear a badly sung Divine Liturgy at little St. Basil’s, I can still detect in the words how beautiful and momentous is this liturgical dialogue with God. The call O come, let us worship God our King. O come let us worship and fall down before Christ, our King and God…begins the descant of the poor, small and ordinary into the sacramental realm where simple bread and wine transform to food and medicine for the soul. In the Divine Liturgy, time ticks supernaturally, being unmeasured by the natural cycles of the sun and moon. “The Divine Liturgy occurs outside the liturgical cycles of lunar and solar time, its Eucharistic event having happened once in history--and yet it works its supernatural saving grace always.” Joseph taught us in liturgics class. It’s where chant might allow the earth-bound and care-worn singing Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim... lay aside earthly care. Here, one can expect transfigurations, even see them. Once, while watching Fr. Martin reciting liturgical prayers at the altar, I found myself listening with strangely rapt attention. In this heightened state, tiny St. Basil’s, to my eyes, mystically expanded until it seemed to be the most colossal basilica on earth.
“We simply need more space.” said Fr. Martin. Too many parishioners stood in the rain and snow, while the choir and others packed inside suffocated. The lack of space and a water heater tested new converts who endured heart-stopping immersions in the iceberged baptismal trough. Fr. Martin feared that “one day I’ll trip over a crawling child while carrying the Mysteries and spill them. It’s an accident waiting to happen.” Our Housing Committee failed to find affordable property within reasonable distance, and once our tax-exempt status made a city alderman nix our bid on a property in one depressed neighborhood as being “bad for the neighborhood”. We shook our heads. “Well, this isn’t Byzantium or old Russia where the whole village would turn out to build a cathedral.”
Our landlord offered to expand our garage/church’s nave westward by thirty feet, tripling its size, with construction starting in December, laying new sewers and water lines. Every Sunday we inspected the progress—it couldn’t go fast enough as Fr. Martin wanted it finished by Pascha in April. But plumber’s delays postponed the work schedule, and when at last his work ended, pouring a new concrete floor had to wait until warm weather. On Good Friday, plywood was laid over the roof’s truss work and new walls were raised, stabilized temporarily with two-by-fours crisscrossing the dusty, bare concrete of the new nave. The old back wall of the church still separated the old and new section. Arriving early to prepare for the Good Friday service, our reader Gennady was the first to see the shell of St. Basil’s CATHEDRAL, now no longer a joke but a hope. Tantalized by this prospect, he couldn’t wait for the work’s completion after Pascha; instead he borrowed a carpenter’s crowbar and attacked the old wall, and within an hour he swept it into a dumpster as rubble. As parishioners drifted in for the night’s service and stepped into a dimension increased seemingly a hundred-fold, a thrill ran through everyone. Our formerly toy-sized church now felt as grand as the Hagia Sophia; even though the interior was rude, unfinished, and still somewhat opened to the elements. But every new cubic inch elated. And resonated.
As usual, Joseph tuned the choir now assembled properly in vocal sections. On cue, we began, and instead of our usual stumbling that ruined a worshipful effect, the first “Amen” came out tunefully, in unison, nearly faultless. Joseph’s eyes lit up with a smile, and we glanced at each other with happy surprise. Although we didn’t perform perfectly, we could hear new possibilities in the improved acoustics. So could the congregation, swelled to a crowd of a hundred people for Holy Week, who often turned to look at us as we sang. Many joined our singing as we all stood in the dark new nave, our faces aglow by the warm light of the sweet-smelling bees’ wax candles we held, as a bit of the beauty of heaven descended with the ascension of our chant.
By October, our church expansion was completely finished. The inside was beautifully, but simply decorated, thanks to a team of visiting monks from Detroit who volunteered their talents in liturgical arts. To the delight of our Russian parishioners, the monks copied the interior of a Russian country church, laying a wooden parquet floor, painting the walls, constructing icon shelves and a more elegant iconostasis. Gilded millwork and icons of the four Gospel authors colorfully adorned the new royal doors replacing the red swinging saloon doors of the old iconostasis. A power company’s crane lifted the bearded, black-cassocked monks to the roof to cap it with two onion domes, giving St. Basil’s exterior a distinctly Orthodox appearance. “Some churches have icons that stream myrrh; some have icons or relics that work miraculous healing. I’ve always wished we could have some miracle. But maybe this is our miracle.” reckoned Fr. Martin, beaming with pleasure as he surveyed the newly transformed church.
By now, too, our choir was having its “moments” of harmony, sometimes eliciting an enraptured look from Joseph as he directed us through those moments, but he never overtly rewarded us by telling us that we sang well that day. At best, while Fr. Martin sang during the Ectenia litany the prayer “and bless those who chant”, Joseph might point at us and silently mouth those words, nodding with an affirmative smile. Fr. Martin ventured a cautious appraisal: “You have your moments, but you’re getting to have more and more of those moments.” We still went off-key, mixed up the Tones, fumbled hymn sheets, and got lost when Joseph wasn’t there, but as more voices joined us, we began to smooth out, tripping over ourselves less often. We had progressed to barely adequate, but still a very long way from sounding like the cherubim we mystically represented.
As our first Holy Week in our renovated church approached, Joseph began rehearsing us every Sunday afternoon during Great Lent to prepare us for that most important liturgy cycle. One afternoon, while rehearsing us in a Greek hymn, he commented on Orthodox music. “Compared to Russian music, it’s very hard to sing Byzantine music well. It doesn’t forgive bad singing. You must have a very well trained choir to sing Byzantine chant, and we have enough to do trying to sing the Russian. But Byzantine music, if you can do it, is wonderful. And Greek 5ths are sublime! Ah yes, the perfect 5ths!” Overcome by the thought of its beauty, he spontaneously launched into the Greek 5th tone, singing in Greek its Paschal setting-- “Death where is thy sting? Grave where is thy victory?” Maritsa, our Greek soprano, lit up with a smile at the very sound of Greek and soon added her voice, followed by Diane, our Lebanese-American alto, this being a loved and familiar melody to them. The trio sang with enthusiasm, Joseph beating time with his right hand, his eyes sparkling with whole-hearted pleasure and focused at times somewhere afar off. I could hear in their unrehearsed, untrained performance a faint, but exotic drone underscoring the music. Above that, freed by the spontaneity of its singers, descanted the joyful triumph of the melody. The otherwise modest scene grew steadily luminous, and I felt the Greek fifths, though imperfectly sung, verge on the sublime even at little St. Basil’s.
“A good singer, if he or she doesn’t pay attention to the music, can sing badly. A great voice won’t sound good at all, if it’s missing notes or losing the key. A poor singer can sing well, if he or she pays attention. That’s the main thing, paying attention. It’s what you must do to get anything out the Liturgy, or when you pray. Remember hymns are prayers, too. Ok--altogether now--from the top.” said Joseph at one rehearsal during Great Lent.
St. Basil the Great, our parish’s patron saint, had taught that “man becomes the temple of the most Holy Spirit.” Living life as a beautiful temple means removing ourselves from the world’s enmeshments of numbing distractions or soul-darkening temptations. To do this, we bring body and soul to attention, directing our whole self God-ward, which purifies us. In our homes, we mark morning and evening with prayers before our icons that window onto heavenly things. We count off on the knots of our prayer rope to fill our day and thoughts with unceasing prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.” We prepare ourselves for Communion by attending Vigil and confessing our sins, followed by prayers and fasting until Communion. Upon crossing the threshold of the church, we cross ourselves-“We touch our heads to bless our minds; we touch our stomachs to bless our internal feelings; we touch our shoulders to bless our bodily strength” reads our children’s Sunday school lesson. By doing these things, we put off our shoes, so to speak, as Moses did when he was told he had entered a sacred place. Our finiteness must expand to temple proportions in imitation of Mary, the Theotokos, in whom the Lord of the Universe in Christ made his fleshly dwelling. “To take Communion, you must prepare. You cannot approach the Mysteries casually off the street. You must bring your whole self to it.” catechized Fr. Martin. To bring the whole self to daily prayers, to the liturgies, to the Eucharist is like learning to breathe and vocalize properly, immersing oneself in a song until it emerges clear and pure. “Praying with head and heart together is hard. So much pulls me apart. I’m afraid I’ll fail.” I once complained to him. “You won’t fail, if you keep praying. Make it a way of life. God will give you the grace and the help you need. But bring yourself to prayer so that the life of prayer will make you always present to receive His grace.” he counseled.
Let us stand well, let us stand with fear, let us attend that we may offer the holy oblation in peace, sings Fr. Martin, beginning the Anaphora litany on this Palm Sunday. The Kingdom opens with the lifting up of the Eucharistic Gifts, as bread and wine transforms into the Body and Blood of Christ, and we sing Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabaoth, glorifying it. The Liturgy invites us further in. At this point that Joseph whispers to us, “Let’s sing the Kedrov.”
And vouchsafe us, O Master, with boldness and without condemnation to dare to call upon Thee the heavenly God, as Father, and to say:
Joseph cues us for the Kedrov piece and we begin--Otche nash. Not just “Our Father” as only a salutation. Instead, Church Slavonic uses the vocative case to beseech--“O Our Father”. The adagio softly begins on E and the prayer’s seven petitions remains mostly on that humble, reverential note in a voice emanating from us as one, with no one ahead or anyone left behind, and all on key. By the eighth measure, the prayer climaxes movingly on C --and forgive us our debts—which resolves its poignancy in the gentle cascade back to worshipful E, where Joseph ends our sweet odor of prayer. He nods with a smile at us.
Throughout the hymn, stands Fr. Martin at the altar, washing his hands in preparation for the anaphora. His eyes well with tears listening to us as the hymn’s beauty unites the mind of God and the heart of man at lowly St. Basil’s. “I remember,” he told us later, “thinking this is how the emissaries of Prince Vladimir must have felt the first time they attended an Orthodox Liturgy at Hagia Sophia--"heaven was coming down to meet the earth."
He sings his response:
For thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory: of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.
And we, the choir of St. Basil’s, at last mystically singing like Cherubim, chant: