The Right Wing and 24
Sunday Night Journal — March 18, 2007

Music of the Week — March 18, 2007

Choir of St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church: This Is the Day

This disk was a gift from my friend Daniel Nichols and is the work of the choir where he is a parishioner: St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church in Barberton, Ohio. The subtitle describes the music: Seasonal Chants of the Eastern Christian Church. It’s a series of pieces that cover the liturgical year. If it’s representative of the music to be heard in a typical Eastern Catholic or Orthodox church, the reaction of Latin Rite Catholics may be, or should be, envy. This is very beautiful music, a cappella, as I understand is the Eastern custom, performed by a choir which I assume is composed of people who are not professionals but who sing well and enthusiastically.

As best I can tell—the package does not include notes on the music—the selections are a mix of the traditional and the composed. One or two sound to me as if they could be folk tunes. Some are in English, some in Slavonic, with a couple rendered in both languages, providing an interesting contrast. Modern English simply isn’t particularly well suited to music and poetry. It sounds somehow dull and out of place, and although one appreciates being able to understand the text, there’s a certain sense of disjuncture between it and the music.

Of course I don’t know how representative of the Eastern tradition at large this music really is, but I can’t help comparing it to that of the Western Church. The first thing that comes to mind, naturally, as I alluded to before, is the enormous contrast between this and the usual pop style of the average American Catholic parish. In that comparison there is no contest: the Byzantine music is in an altogether different and superior class, suited for serious worship, and I can see why so many Latin Rite Catholics switch over to one of the Eastern rites. (I notice a lot of decidedly non-Eastern names in the St. Nicholas choir: Miller, Baker, Keegan, Smith, Chadbourne.)

A digression: sometime recently I ran across a statement on liturgical music by (I think) a 19th century pope who mentioned, among several things that liturgical music should not sound like, “the music of the theater.” And it hit me that the style which much of the contemporary Catholic hymnal most resembles is not folk music, not even the somewhat ersatz commercial folk-style music of the ‘60s, but rather “the music of the theater”, i.e., Broadway-style show tunes. Exhibit A: “Ashes,” which often gets Lent off to a grumpy start for me (yes, I do try to take it as a penance). Granted, the best of the old Broadway songs are very good indeed, but as a genre musical theater leans inherently toward schmaltz.

Compared to traditional Western liturgical music, the Eastern style (at least as represented here) seems more earthy and solid. It appears that preserving the clarity of the text for the listener is a higher priority than is sometimes the case with Western liturgical music beyond Gregorian chant. I’d say this music is simpler—there is little counterpoint, and the rhythms tend to be more regular, the melodies more straightforward. I don’t know much about harmony but I think that’s simpler, too. The music also seems in a sense stronger, and definitely more vigorous: more masculine, one could reasonably say. And although it’s beautiful and undoubtedly very effective in its liturgical setting, I think I’m an incorrigible Westerner. Fortunately I live not too far from the diocesan cathedral which makes good use of the Western liturgical music tradition (the real one, not the post-1970 one, which I have indeed heard referred to, rather chillingly, as “traditional Catholic music”).

A note on the disk insert says that additional copies may be obtained by writing or calling the parish:

St. Nicholas Church
1051 Robinson Ave
Barberton OH 42203



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