“In the Orthodox Church, the best way to learn and absorb the Church's teaching is to listen to the words of the services…”
The following is an extension of the notes in the CD jacket:
We offer this recording humbly, recognizing that it reflects our human limitations and imperfections, but with thanksgiving for the gift of the hymnody of the Orthodox Church, and with great joy that we are allowed to be a part of it.
O Lord, Save Thy People was recorded during three separate sessions during the year of our parish's 10th Anniversary, 2003, in the sanctuary of Holy Cross Church in Linthicum. (One piece, the Kontakion from the Canon of St. Andrew, was actually recorded during the service itself.) We had a different configuration of parts each time we met, and the names of the choir members reflect the total number of participants involved the three sessions. The Junior Choir also joined us for several of the hymns; they range in age from seven to fifteen. The ages of the rest of the choir members shall remain a mystery.
“…The notes we have compiled about each piece contain summaries of the Church's teachings that are conveyed in the words of that particular hymn.”
For this album, we purposely chose pieces that are used during the major feasts of the Liturgical Year. In liturgical terms, all of this music is considered variable, rather than fixed, since it is used exclusively to prepare for or celebrate one of the annual feasts of the Church. These pieces are parish favorites drawn from throughout the Church year.
The central feast of the Orthodox Church is Holy Pascha, the Feast of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is so central that it is commemorated in some way on each Sunday of the entire year. Preceding Pascha is the Lenten season of preparation, lasting 40 days, followed by Holy Week. In addition to Holy Week and Pascha, there are twelve major feasts - eight commemorating events in the life of Christ, and four commemorating events in the life of His Mother, the Virgin Mary - that mark the seasons of the liturgical year. It is this variable music that gives Orthodox Christians a sense of the progression of time throughout the year. Synchronizing ones inward life to this cyclical calendar is one of the fundamental building blocks of Orthodox spirituality, and one of the best gifts that the Church offers every Orthodox Christian. Remembering that we are almost at Pentecost, or that we have just celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration, for example, reminds us of some very important truths about Who God is, and who we are.
In the Orthodox Church, the best way to learn and absorb the Church's teaching is to listen to the words of the services. In the full cycle of services, such as practiced in monasteries, there are as many as nine services a day. Depending on the day of the year, the day of the week, and the relationship to the major and minor feasts of the liturgical year, the variable hymns and chants convey rich treasures of truth to those in attendance. Thus, by attending only one Divine Liturgy every Sunday, we are missing over 90% of content that is available to us for that week. For Orthodox Christians, the services of the Church are a huge repository of teaching to be absorbed while in the process of offering worship to God. The notes we have compiled about each piece contain summaries of the Church's teachings that are conveyed in the words of that particular hymn.
A few words about the musical forms and melodies used… As mentioned above, all the pieces on this recording are variable, meaning that they are only used by the Orthodox Church during very specific seasons, associated in some way with a particular Feast Day, or the season of fasting and preparation preceding it. The majority of this recording consists of troparia, kontakia, megalynaria, and koinonikon for feasts and fasts of the liturgical year.
Originally, in keeping with its Jewish roots, the earliest Church sang only Psalms as hymns of praise to God. During the singing of the Psalms, short verses (troparia) began to be inserted between the Psalms. These verses were created around a central theme for the day, which was then restated (troped) in a number of poetic variations. Eventually, these multiple verses were simplified into a single hymn for the occasion. Today, these Troparia are the most concise statements of the theme and central teaching of the Church about that particular Feast.
Some centuries later, another more complex musical form developed, known as the kontakion. The vast majority of these compositions have not survived. What we now use as the Kontakion of the day was in most cases the first verse of a very long work. As with Troparia, there are many Kontakia that apply to each day of the year, but for major feasts, there is a single kontakion that contains the core of the Church's teaching about the significance of the day.
Finally, in the eighth century, yet another form of composition appeared, called the Canon. This form was originated by one monk, St. Andrew of Crete, and then refined. Each Canon consists of nine odes, each of which are drawn from nine hymns or poems contained in the Holy Scripture. Odes one through eight are drawn from Old Testament poetry, and ode nine is drawn from the New Testament, specifically the songs of Elizabeth and Mary as recorded in the first chapter of St. Luke's Gospel. The Canons that have been preserved for us have survived intact, making them quite lengthy compared to Troparia and Kontakia.
Megalynaria are hymns of honor and devotion to the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary. In general about ten percent of the hymnody of the Orthodox Church is dedicated to Mary, who is called the Theotokos (Greek for God-bearer.) The Orthodox Church honors and reveres her above all other mere mortals as the first and best example of what it means to live a life totally dedicated to Christ. Even beyond that, constant references to her during worship serve to remind us of the profound mystery of the incarnation - that God the Creator became completely human and was born of a mortal woman.
The koinonikon is a hymn sung in preparation for, and immediately prior to, the Eucharist (Communion). The text is always from the Psalms.
As far as musical form is concerned, Orthodox hymnody is based on eight tones, which are a series of eight melodic modes into which the hymns of the Church fit. These vary by geographical region; there are, for example, Greek, Slavic, and Byzantine tones, among others. The number of tones (eight) is another carryover from Old Testament synagogue worship, which was simply copied by the first century Church. The number eight has great significance as it refers to the eighth day, meaning the future eternity in which we will worship God without ceasing. So in this way we are reminded every time we sing during worship that we are in a real sense practicing for our eternal occupation.