A Liturgical Rubic’s Cube: Propers in the Byzantine Rite

I just realized that I graduated from St. Vladimir’s Seminary with my M.Div. sixteen years ago, in 2000. The most consistent refrain I heard as a seminarian was that the liturgy we celebrated daily in the Chapel was our primary teacher.

As I reflected on my short time as a seminarian, I remembered one of the many exams I had to master: assigning the propers for the Feast of Annunciation when it occurred on Holy Thursday. It was challenging to figure out when to sing the hymns assigned to Annunciation: are they merely added to those already assigned for Holy Thursday? Are some Annunciation hymns omitted in favor of the solemnity of Holy Week? What is the formula one uses to decide which propers are included? What happens to the psalmody and the readings when a seasonal feast falls on a Sunday? Perhaps nothing is more important than the following practical reality: are the readers and singers capable of managing multiple psalms and hymns with varying melodies and harmonizations?

The Church musician has to know what to sing and when, and is often the person responsible for preparing the reader. There is a book which manages the appointment of readings and hymns called the Typikon. Typically, a regional Church will publish an annual version of the Typikon that establishes an ideal pattern of what to sing, and when. It’s important to note that the annual calendar books published by archdiocesan or diocesan offices are not translations of the Typikon, but generally consist of the list of appointed lections for each day in the liturgical year, along with the propers for each Sunday, feast, and prominent days of a holy season (especially Lent, Holy Week, and Pentecost). A typical Sunday is managed by the Octoechos, a collection of propers and hymns based on eight tones or melodies. A parish would consult the Octoechos for the hymns of the resurrection appointed for Vigil (Vespers and Orthros), and the Divine Liturgy. For the Divine Liturgy on Sundays, the person who leads the music, usually a choir director, cantor, or some combination of liturgical personnel, needs to know the verses for the Prokeimenon (the responsorial psalmody introducing the first reading from the New Testament), the appointed New Testament reading, and the responsorial psalmody introducing “Alleluia” (in the Byzantine rite, Alleluia is sung as the common refrain for the responsorial psalmody at every Divine Liturgy, except the one on Holy Saturday, which instead uses verses from Psalm 81 (82)). In parishes, some cantors and readers have sufficient musical and liturgical formation to find the appointed verses and readings, whereas in others communities, the choir director or cantor has to coach readers in preparation for the reading. Ideally, the reader will sing the Prokeimenon in such a way that the assembly can respond by repeating the same melody, without having to consult music. In practice, the choir will often lead the singing of the Prokeimenon, and in some parishes, the psalmody is recited with no response. The psalmody can become more complicated when a major feast coincides with the Sunday: in this case, the Typikon appoints two Proekimena, but the second Prokeimenon  – appointed for the feast – is usually sung one time, often in a different tone or melody. As a rule, Sunday propers take precedence over festal ones, unless a dominical feast happens to fall on a Sunday (e.g., if Christmas falls on a Sunday, only the Christmas propers are taken). In parish practice, some rectors will replace the Sunday propers with the festal ones, if the feast fell during the week, so the assembly will hear the festal narrative communicated through the propers. When rectors make this kind of decision, it is a matter of unofficially “moving” the feast to Sunday. The rationale for moving a feast to Sunday is based on the repeated Sunday propers: the assembly hears the propers for the eight tones throughout the year, so the festal ones introduce different readings and hymns, presumably to a larger assembly. The Typikon will usually add festal propers to a Sunday, and not have the festal propers replace the Sunday ones.

Choir directors and cantors also need to know the assigned hymns following the Introit at the Divine Liturgy. The most common hymns are the Troparion and Kontakion, relatively short hymns which introduce the theme of the day. A typical Sunday without additional festal propers would appoint the following pattern: Resurrection Troparion of the tone (from the Octoechos), Troparion for the saint of the day, Troparion for the patron saint or feast of the Church, Resurrection Kontakion of the tone (from the Octoechos), and Theotokion (usually “Steadfast Protectress of Christians”). But again, there is some variation from one parish to another on the order and content of the hymns taken after the Introit. I have been in parishes where only the one Resurrection Troparion is taken, and in others where the choir sings the Troparion and a cantor chants the Kontakion recto tono.  Like the psalmody appointed for the Prokeimenon and the Alleluia, the choir director needs to know how to find the hymns appointed for each Sunday. Again, the pattern can change if the Church has just celebrated a feast that has an afterfeast period (like an octave, but not always eight days). If a Sunday falls during an afterfeast period, the pattern will include propers appointed for that feast. Experienced choir directors and cantors tend to find their “zone” and have these patters memorized; the challenge is leading the singers through shifts in melodies, and it is not uncommon to hear the shuffling of papers in the choir and to hear the director giving a new pitch corresponding to the appointed tone (in this case, cantors tend to transition from one tone to another more easily).

All of this can sound very complicated, which is why I described it as a Rubric’s cube or a complex puzzle. And here, I have only described the propers for the Sunday Divine Liturgy with a few examples of how one might experience a Sunday during an afterfeast period. The appointment of festal or other seasonal propers to the Resurrection Vigil is even more complicated, because Vespers and Orthros have several liturgical units consisting almost exclusively of hymns intercalated in between psalmody. Also, this brief summary just barely scratches the surface of the received tradition of the Byzantine liturgical year as one might encounter it in a parish. There are many more levels of detail one could present on this topic.

In summary, the choir director, cantor, or other person in charge of managing the propers needs to be familiar with the following liturgical books, in addition to the abbreviated Typikon published by regional dioceses:

The Octoechos (weekly cycle);

The Menaion (fixed cycle of liturgical year; expanded Menaia include sanctoral propers in addition to dominical and Marian feasts);

The Lenten Triodion (propers for pre-Lenten Sundays, and the period of Lent);

The Flowery Triodion or Pentecostarion (includes Pascha and the Sundays of Pascha through the Feast of All Saints, which falls on the first Sunday after Pentecost).

Besides the patterns dictating the order of the propers, the choir director or cantor needs to know the melodies functioning as the fundamental chant motifs for the hymns, including the eight tones, and often extending to regional chant traditions native to some parish communities.

Why have the Churches of the Byzantine rite retained this tradition? For many reasons, and here, I will paraphrase Constantine Andronikof and Christian Hannick, who described the hymns of the Byzantine rite as the living repository of Orthodox theology, synthesizing the patristic homiletic tradition and proclaiming the Orthodox spirit of joy that Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).


  1. An article in Liturgy and Worship described Anglican worship as the ordered reading of scripture while Orthodox worship was like a brilliant mosaic.

    The above rules make Cranmer’s complaint about the hardness of the Pye seem like the petulant whining of a young child.

  2. Which is why every priest out to have a copy of the The Typikon Decoded book by Archbishop Job(Getcha)!

  3. The Digital Chant Stand (DCS) by AGES Initiatives makes it possible for one knowledgeable person to order and prepare and publish all these texts in complete services for the benefit of the many who have neither the knowledge nor the resources to do so themselves. The DCS can be customized to follow any rubrics and use any language or translation.

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