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Psalmodia Ivan Gardner

I remember the voice of Protodeacon Rozov, whose glory resounded throughout Moscow… When I was young, we would listen to this artist-protodeacon, and to this day I preserve a vivid impression of his services. He did not stray from the established traditions of psalm-singing and intonation. Without the slightest hint of dramatics, he was able to convey (but not impose!) the full power of the meaning of the text, through the use of nothing more than minimal shading, testifying to the fact that he did not invent them sounds, he did not repeat them by rote, but they were born of his grasp of the natural power of the text, while at the same time remaining strictly within the bounds of the classic psalm-singing tradition. His manner betrayed the lofty, centuries-old musical culture of divine services.

Of course, a “cultural” psalmodia [“singing to the harp” or psalm-singing] needs its own school. In Russia, in fact, they taught correct reading in church, in common schools, in religious academies, in seminaries, and especially in monasteries. In other words, this was a branch of the art of liturgical music that was being cultivated…

Some might think that there is nothing to learn of such wisdom, and that there could be no theory attached to it. Yet in the study of liturgical music there is a special offshoot: “ecphonetics” (from ecphonesis—exclamation). This includes psalmodia, which has its own laws. In ancient times, in the Russian Church (and today in the Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian and Romanian Churches), ecphonetics was subjected to specific rules and intonations during reading (especially of Holy Scripture) in specific, established traditions.

There was even a special, unlined notation system, called the “phonetic” system, which fixed on paper the intonations to be used during exclamations and readings (by the way, the most ancient of Russian books of 1057, the Ostromirovo Gospel, contains ecphonetic symbols). This tradition of intonation gave protection from arbitrary distortions originating from individual “tastes.”

The tradition of ecphonetics and psalmodia is very ancient, arising in the first centuries of Christianity, and possibly even earlier, to the Old Testament Temple services (as we know, the Jews to this day have special intonations while reading Holy Scripture, with each book having its own distinctive style).

It is very significant that all Christian Churches which preserve Apostolic succession have their psalmodia and ecphonetics, which in many details correspond to those of the Russian Orthodox Church.

I would note that certain rules and laws of traditional psalmodia and ecphonetics do not demand the slavish replication of a given model. Within the framework of traditional forms, the individuality of the reader can be expressed; the limitations of this expression are determined by the rules on one hand, and the level of the ecclesial culture of the reader himself.

Yes, this is indeed culture. A unique “metaculture,” different from the lay forms of recitation and expressive reading styles in literary circles, and in order to properly convey this art to the listener, one needs not only technical training (every schooled dramatic artist and orator knows that public speaking is no easy task, and that it demands study), but the conscious adherence to a centuries-old tradition, knowledge of its external and internal (spiritual) laws and the corresponding training of spiritual sensibility and artistic-liturgical subtlety. In other words—culture.

Many are mistaken in thinking that church singing is a matter of taste. No, this is not a matter of the preference of specific tastes, but an ecclesio-artistic, liturgico-musical level of culture and a specific school. How clumsy, how uncultured it would be if a given reader allowed himself, during a literary evening, to read, say one of Turgenev’s “Poems in Prose” in the manner that a Protodeacon intones “Many Years”!

Similarly inappropriate would it be for a church reader to use his own “feeling, interpretation, pacing,” as though at a literary evening, while reading the Six Psalms, or the kathisma, or hours. Such a reader rather desires that his listeners appreciate and acclaim his artistic expressiveness…

The ancient tradition of liturgical music, founded on thousands of years of experience, is then stifled by the rant of arbitrary “personal taste.” The culture of Russian church art is lost. There is only one means against this: education, even in the most elementary form of psalm-reading courses.

Ivan Gardner
Russky pastyr, No. 3, 1989
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