Church Renewal and Music, Yesterday and Today

The following is an expanded version of the pre-concert lecture I presented at three performances of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Vigil performed by the unparalleled ensemble Cappella Romana under the direction of Mr. Mark Bailey, director of the Russian Yale Chorus, American Baroque Orchestra, and a teacher of composition and choral performance at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary for many years. I am posting the lecture here by the request of numerous colleagues and friends.


Good evening. It is a tremendous honor and pleasure to be with all of you this evening. You are blessed; you will hear a first-rate choral ensemble sing one of the most significant services composed in modern Eastern Orthodox musical history. The program for tonight’s performance contains biographical information and some of the history of Serge Rachmaninov’s Vigil, so I am not going to repeat the text you have before you. Instead, I want to speak a bit about the larger environment surrounding this composition.

The most convenient and straightforward explanation one could propose is that Rachmaninov’s Vigil was composed during a golden age of creativity. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed to the emergence of a vibrant intelligentsia in Russia. One does not need to study the literary giants with a well-known professor to become familiar with names such as Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pushkin, and Dostoevsky. A quick stop at Barnes and Noble or a cursory search on your kindle or ipad permit you to download a masterpiece in a matter of seconds. Turning on the classical channel in itunes can bring the music of a Rimsky-Korsakov to your ears. An abbreviated tour of a gallery of images of medieval edifices from Kyiv or Moscow yield the familiar golden onion domes which once held hegemony among the CD slip covers and now appear on our smartphones when we instantaneously download an album.

But I am not going to take the straightforward, convenient path of explanation. You see, if we pause long enough to consider what life was really like in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in Russia, we’ll find an economically depressed and largely peasant population only recently liberated from serfdom; we’ll find an emerging intelligentsia in urban areas questioning the authority of existing institutions and the ideologies they promoted; we’ll find a collision of classes during the sunset of an empire which championed a messianic vision rooted in the divine appointment of a sovereign. In short, we will find that life was just plain hard for the ordinary person, and that tensions within civil society were on the rise. Historically, there are few parallels between the situation in Russia and the one we are experiencing on a global level today. Eventually, we will see a parallel emerge on the larger scale, one that is only nascent now: the inner tension within society elicited multiple responses from the intelligentsia, which yielded works of art expressing beauty. I did not use an adjective to describe the artistic beauty because, in my estimation, any description would limit it. I’ll say only that the artistic beauty revealed a vision of a humanity longing and desiring something better. In the Church world, the works of art were produced by humans who responded to the divine invitation to be with God. One might describe these works of art as manifestations of God with us. The work performed by the poets, writers, historians, and musicians came from a creative process that was inspired, in part, by the societal crisis and the tension amongst classes of people.

This golden age of creativity is not suitable for a society that has figured everything out. The golden age emerged from a time of questioning and seeking change. It might surprise some in this audience that one of the institutions in Russia that was most proactive in seeking change was the Orthodox Church. Furthermore, the Orthodox Church in Russia did not hesitate to question the effectiveness of its existing structures and institutions; the Church and her leaders expressed concern for the burdens carried by the people, the quality of living conditions for her clergy, the nature of her relationship with the Imperial Throne. So from the end of the nineteenth century up until the Revolution, and some would say far beyond it, the Orthodox Church in Russia embarked on an impressive program of renewal.

Some of the more influential thinkers within the Russian Orthodox communion had coalesced around the idea of “sobornost.” “Sobornost” is a Russian word with numerous connotations, a direct translation of the Greek (“katholikos”) – in the Russian Church renewal movement, sobornost is perhaps most frequently interpreted as “conciliarity” (here, I am following Hyacinthe Destivelle’s recent discussion of sobornost in his book on the Moscow Council of 1917-18; see The Moscow Council (1917-1918): The Creation of the Conciliar Institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church. Foreword by Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), Ed. Michael Plekon and Vitaly Permiakov, Trans. Jerry Ryan (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015, 18ff). This notion of sobornost evokes the notion of a council, or more specifically of the Church as a council of people inclusive of its appointed leaders, encompassing its constituencies from the highest-ranking bishop to the most fragile infant just baptized and yet enjoying all of the privileges of citizenship in the kingdom of God. The ideal of sobornost could translate into a vision of Church in which all of the Church’s people would be attentive participants, interiorizing and exteriorizing the life of Christ. In other words, even the most ordinary lay person would be like Christ in the daily business of his or her ordinary life. An animated, rejuvenated Church where the people actually activated the spiritual gifts they had received could transform civil society and contribute to the easing of tensions amongst classes. In other words, an empowered laity in the Church could sympathize with and be at ease among an empowered working class in the city and the countryside. The leaders of the Russian Church implemented a paradigm shift designed to equip the ordinary believer to contribute to societal common good on the basis of increased participation in Church life; especially the liturgy. This process of implementation was by no means simply or seamless – we’re talking about several years of deliberation involving bishops, imperial officials, academy professors, learned clergy, and laity. The All-Russian Council finally met in Moscow in 1917 to take up the proposals presented by the deliberations, and began the process of implementing some of the proposals.

It is here that I would like to pause for a moment and reflect on the role of music in Russian Church renewal. Liturgical music was one of the concerns of leaders from the very beginning of the process. Before the principalities of Rus’ evolved into the Russian empire and the nations of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, Rus’ inherited the Byzantine system of chant, which was employed for liturgical singing. One of the oldest city-states of Rus’, Kyiv, fell under Lithuanian and Polish rule in the fourteenth century, and the kingdom of Poland by the sixteenth century. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Catholic Church in Poland was influenced by the liturgical developments of the Reformation, which permitted the composition and singing of anthems in the vernacular. The Counter Reformation included the appearance of polyphonic music in the liturgy of the Western Church, and the same kind of polyphony eventually entered the Orthodox Church via Ukraine. For our purposes, the transition from chant-based singing to part singing began in Ukraine; the bishops of the Orthodox Church under Kyiv entered into communion with Rome at the Union of Brest-Litovsk in 1596, and the Orthodox who rejected this union were without bishops until 1620. During this period, lay brotherhoods adopted and cultivated Western models of education, and even after the Orthodox Church had bishops again, the Kyivan Church adopted Western styles of music, iconography, and architecture. The same style of music permeated Russia as well through Ukraine. To put it in very simple terms, the new part singing of the West became the preferred style of singing in the Orthodox Churches of the Russian empire.

The entrance of new music sung by trained ensembles was not merely a musical phenomenon. The adoption of the new style significantly altered the people’s participation in the liturgy of the Church. The chant-based system called upon the people to sing many parts of the liturgy, especially short refrains and responses to calls to prayer in the litanies. The service books themselves appointed the singing of such responses to the people. Under the new system, choirs sang all of the responses, and often stood in a gallery above the people. The people’s role shifted from participatory to auditory – they no longer came to sing the liturgy, but to hear it sung by choirs.

This situation persisted in the Orthodox Church under the Russian Empire up until the modern period. The work of ressourcement theologians (those who studied sources of the early Church) in this period of imagining the restoration of a part of the Church that had disappeared included the recovery of chants that had been overtaken by part singing. The restoration of chant was a priority of the Moscow Synodal School in particular (keeping in mind that the imperial and Church center was in St. Petersburg). Under the leadership of pioneers such as Alexander Kastalsky and Stepan Smolensky, among many others, the Moscow Synodal school sought to restore the ancient chants as a way of restoring the people’s participation in the liturgy they offered to God. The Church had evolved during this period, so it was not realistic to simply eradicate choirs and part singing, but it was possible, and some would say desirable, to modify part singing so that it was based on chant. The chant would emphasize the meaning of the text and the role of the choir could change in such an arrangement; instead of being a separate group of people whose only role was to sing, the choir would lead the people who would sing the responses to the liturgy with them (with the exception of hymns that were appointed to the choir alone). Dmytro Khodzitsky, the leader of the liturgical music movement in Ukraine, was an enthusiastic advocate of assembly singing (see P.S. Sohan, Serhii Plokhy, and L.V. Yakovleva, eds., Перший Всеукраїнський Православний Церковний Собор УАПЦ, 1921 (Kyiv: M.S. Hrushevsky Institute of Ukrainian Archeography and Source Studies, 1999), 320ff). He said: ”Now, concerning what is to be done in the church itself: here, another principle is operative. This is the principle of assembly singing. We must acknowledge that when the entire people is going to sing, then singing is going to be a living act for it. Thus, we must seriously weigh the idea of assembly singing. It is not necessary to fear that artistic aspects will harm this singing.” Khodzitsky himself established a choir at St. Sophia cathedral in Kyiv which led assembly singing. Such a vision of an assembly singing together would fulfill the parallel vision of the a restoration of Roman Catholic music in the milieu of Vatican II: The composer and theologian Michael Joncas mused that the assembly does not merely hear the angels singing the Thrice-holy hymn in praise of God – the assembly itself sings the thrice-holy hymn to God without needing the mediation of angels because each man, woman, and child of the assembly is one of God’s priests anointed with holy oil in the image of Jesus Christ (by the grace of God, from Joncas’s essay “A Tale of Two Acclamations,’ Pastoral Music 28:6 (2004), 20). In the Orthodox variation of this arrangement – note the parallel between the Orthodox and Catholic restorations – the choir neither performs nor exercises a function, but it has a ministry of leading worship. On the topic of the power of chant, a story told by the Jesuit scholar Bruce Morrill about the removal of chant from a Benedictine monastery is relevant to this topic (see Bruce Morrill with Andrea Goodrich, “Liturgical Music: Bodies Proclaiming and Responding to the Word of God,” in Bodies of Worship, ed. Morrill (Collegeville, 1999), 157-72). The brethren of the monastery were accustomed to the rhythm of praying the daily offices, and they sang the office using Gregorian chant. The abbot decided to revise the structure of daily life and reduced the time the brethren spent in Church so they could use be productive in other ways, by performing other tasks. The revision required excising the Gregorian chant, to shorten the offices. The abbott became concerned with the monks, who seemed exhausted, lethargic, and completely unengaged from life. The abbott consulted the famous French neurophysiologist Alfred Tomatis, who explained that eliminating the chant used to sing the office had removed the bodily animation that energized the monks to actually perform their daily tasks. The music was not merely decorative, but an essential aspect of community life; the chants offered produced the overtones of the abbey’s worship space that provided rhythm – one might say divine rhythm – that contributed to the animation of the people to do good within their community. Morrill’s story supports Dmytro Khodzitsky’s assertion that an assembly praising God in one voice performs a living act which gives life; even if the untrained voices in the congregation cause some slippage in the tight harmonies musicians demand from their church music.

Returning to Russia, the recovery of native chant traditions by the Moscow Synodal school was elevated by composers who used the motifs of the chant and set them to music for a choir; Rachmaninov’s Vigil is one of the masterpieces of integrating chant into a piece for a choir. In this case, the composition is truly designed for a concert, but one should not understate its contribution to the Church: the Vigil shows the parish choir what is possible, and establishes a benchmark for the way choirs can cultivate chant in the parish without relinquishing part-singing and encouraging the people to participate by their own singing.

Many leaders of the Russian Church understood the importance of good liturgical music for the renewal of the Church. One of the best-known leaders of the Russian Church before, during, and after the revolution was the erudite Metropolitan Antony Khrapovitsky, who had presided over the Church in Volyn’, Kharkiv, Kyiv, and later, in Karlovci, the forerunner to what is known today as the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). He was especially sensitive to the tendency among many clergy to create a liturgical environment of entertainment. Metropolitan Antony argued that the ministry of leading liturgy was one of engaging prayer to God, and not entertainment. Speaking of the role of priest as a liturgical leader, Antony complained: ‘Aware that all of their prayerful actions are visible to the people, priests will no longer be concerned with the fact that the Lord God, and the angels, and the saints see them, but will think about how to pray affectively, and like the Polish Catholic priests, gradually convert from prayerful men into actors, into affected people, and in this way make their service loathsome before God. Antony states that this style of liturgical presidency was adopted among the Latins and was akin to religious theater, resulting in the people’s boredom and consequential decision to leave the Church.’ (See On the Pastor, Ministry, and on Confession, ed. Archbishop Nikon (New York: East American and Canadian Eparchy, 1966), 285-91). Antony expressed thanks that the churches of Rus’ had preserved canonical forms of the temple, and a purely ecclesial spirit of iconography, singing and chanting, and the possibility of observing the entirety of the liturgical requirements of the office. In short, there is a significant difference between the ecclesial style of architecture and music and that belonging to the world.  Antony presented parishes that cultivate Church chant traditions as modular, as opposed to those that rely on the music of “contemporary composers.”

When Russian theologians left the Soviet persecution and came into Europe, they envisioned the implementation of the new mode of parish singing to occur in Europe and the United States, and eventually returning to Russia. Johann von Gardner was one of these theologians those two-volume series on chant has become a classic in Orthodox theology. Gardner was one of a handful of influential theologians who believed that the region of Carpathian-Rus’ had faithfully preserved an adaptable model of good music that could be sung by everyone. He had concentrated his own research on the Greek Catholic churches of this region. Gardner established that the practice of congregational singing was not only rare, but even discouraged among Russians, though the practice was introduced to some Great Russian churches at the end of the nineteenth century (“Several Observations on Congregational Chanting During the Divine Services,” in Russian Liturgical Music Revival in the Diaspora: A Collection of Essays, ed. Marina Ledkovsky and Vladimir von Tsuripov, Readings in Russian Religious Culture, vol. 4 (Jordanville, NY: Foundation of Russian History, 2012), 263-71). The practice of having the entire assembly chant the entire liturgy was particular to Carpathian Rus’, as described by Gardner:

In Carpatho-Russia, in all village churches (both Uniate and Orthodox), congregational chanting at all the services in their entirety has been practiced exclusively, including singing the hymns of the ‘proper’, utilizing the full range of tones and melodies. The people chant from the Great Anthology (Velikii Sbornik), which contains all the necessary texts. The chants, which are quite diverse…were well-known to all, even to schoolchildren. The cantors…who stood on the kliros began the chanting. As soon as those present recognized the melody, the whole church sang: they sang all the stichera, all the troparia, all the irmoi—in a word, everything that the Typikon indicated was to be sung.”

Gardner remembers this experience as one of “extraordinary power.” Gardner explained his sense of the profundity of a singing congregation when he reflected on the deeper significance of an assembly that performs the singing. He acknowledges that it is difficult for a typical observer to receive because of the absence of trained choristers, but once one has been exposed to the singing and has a sense of its unitive power, one experiences singing not only with one mouth, but also one heart. This kind of active participation is not limited to performance, but also concerns the process of receiving and understanding Church doctrine, since the peasants’ ability to sing all of the chants exposed them to the theology communicated by the hymns.

For almost eighty years, the Orthodox Church in Russia was persecuted and unable to continue the cultivation of the new model of Church music envisioned by Metropolitan Antony, Kastalsky, and Gardner, among others. But the Russian immigrants who came to America continued the tradition of restoring chant-based singing that could contribute to the active participation of the people in the liturgy. Boris Ledkovsky, a student of Kastalsky’s, was one of these pioneers who cultivated the tradition at the ROCOR Manhattan cathedral, his own cultivation of musical disciples, and his teaching at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, a tradition continued by Professor David Drillock for many decades. In fact, the phenomenon of using chant to enliven Church renewal has been shared cooperatively among Orthodox groups in the United States. The conductor of tonight’s concert, Mr. Mark Bailey, not only taught this approach to liturgical music at St. Vladimir’s Seminary for many years, but has shared it through a network of Orthodox musicians transcending ethnicity. A parallel movement is alive and well among the large Greek Orthodox population of America. Again, the significance of their work cannot be understated: the experience of worship in the American Orthodox parish has changed on account of the people’s ability to sing good, chant-based music with the choir. Orthodoxy celebrates martyrdom as a birthday, not a mournful death; the dissolution of the Moscow Synodal School in Russia resulted in the gift of Church renewal in Western Europe and North America, a renewal which is very new and needs hundreds of years to develop, grow, and mature. And it is a gift for which the Orthodox people of North America are abundantly thankful.

What you are about to hear tonight is a magnificent musical masterpiece. You are blessed to hear it, and I hope your children and grandchildren will follow your lead and come to hear Rachmaninov’s magnum opus. My hope is that in hearing this music tonight, you will find space for renewal in your life and religious tradition. I also hope that you will remember that Rachmaninov’s masterpiece represents a movement that was much more than music and choral performance: it was a movement that envisioned lay men, women, and children who sing the thrice-holy hymn to God and exercise the priesthood God gave them at Baptism. One can also say that the school to which Rachmaninov’s Vigil belongs envisions that these same men, women, and children will become what they sing: God’s priests who bring God to the widow and orphan and do good in this divided world with all of its wars, illnesses, and alienation: may this vision of music empowering people to do good in this world become a reality in our lifetime. Thank you for your attention.


  1. From what I understand (as an American of n-th Polish descent who has never been to Poland), the Polish vernacular chorale paraphrased the propers of the Mass. This is similar to the hymnodic paraphrases of the propers often found in Lutheranism, as you note. Could you clarify for me Prof. Denysenko whether the chants often used in Byzantine liturgy in general literally correspond to the Slavonic or a vernacular? There is a difference between singing a paraphrased hymn and chanting the congregational parts literally.

    As I have said before, I am completely open to a revival of vernacular chorale at the EF in anglophone countries. The preference (to put it nicely) of many in the EF movement for an static liturgy greatly challenges even more pressing reforms, such as that of the sanctoral calendar. With that, no more.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo:

      I do not think we have an apples-apples comparison for a paraphrase. Some Byzantine chants are quite melismatic, so nonsensical words are added to fill the space. The native chants were designed to communicate the text for the Slavonic, and in translation to vernacular languages in the Slavic family, it is possible to retain the model. The work of musical transposition is much more challenging for applying chants to texts translated into English; the musical faculty at St. Vladimir’s excelled in this method for decades.

      We do have what I consider to be a problem in the abbreviation of appointed psalms to the liturgy. For example, if one is to sing Psalm 103, only some verses will be selected from the psalm. And sometimes, parishes won’t sing any of the psalm verses at all, but only the responsorial refrain, which does violence to the liturgical component…at least in my opinion.

      1. @Nicholas Denysenko:
        And yet, in the revised Divine Liturgy put out for the Byzantine Catholic (Ruthenian) Church of Pittsburgh several years ago, the revisers did just that: they cut the 3 psalm verses of the 3 antiphons at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy down to 1 psalm verse only. I know in parochial practice the 3 psalm verses are not often used, but at least the last version of the Divine Liturgy had them all, and gave the cantor or choir the option of singing them all. I know that many cantors cried “latinization” at this change because they had been restoring singing all the verses in the last decade or so.
        However, in my experience in parochial practice in the Byzantine Catholic Church of Pittsburgh, Psalm 103 is usually sung in its entirety at Vespers (when served, which is not often) or the Presanctified Liturgy during Lent.

  2. We’ve enjoyed cross fertilization for centuries…..from the Gomolka (Polish) Psalter up to the works of Andres Gouzes, Richard Proulx (Oecumenica) and now Paul Jernberg’s truly inspired “Mass of St. Philip Neri.”

  3. I was blessed to be in attendance at the performance of the Rachmaninoff All Night Vigil (and a few other composer thrown in, very adroitly) last weekend in Portland. Deacon Nicholas’ pre-concert lecture certainly gave the audience a background not only in Russian Church approach to chant and polyphony, performance and participation, but also a context within which to approach it.
    I am a convert to Orthodoxy and also a long-time Catholic Church organist, and my entire life has been spent with the challenging issues presented in this lecture. Before Vatican II I sang in choirs which were disbanded thereafter; and since then I’ve dealt with trying to engage congregations in more involved vocal participation in the liturgy. I have the joy of playing at Catholic Masses, leading the people with the help of a cantor (song-leader). I also have the joy of singing in my Orthodox church choir mid-week.
    I cannot help but agreed totally, without reservation, that there is no better experience than when the congregation joins in with song, joyfully, fully. We are then fully the Body of Christ.
    I would wish that Catholic priests could receive more training in singing and its importance in leading liturgical actions. It just does not make sense to respond in music to a invocation that is stated. If this could happen, I can’t help but think that the music of the people would be vitalized.
    I’m grateful for the “leading the congregation” role of Orthodox congregations in my experience in Portland. Certainly, entertainment has no role in liturgy.
    Thank you very much, Deacon Nicholas, for your wise words and historical review. May our musicians and leaders rise to the challenge of beautiful music sung by all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *