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Choral Corner #35: Why doesn't our choir sing famous Orthodox concert music?

Choral masterpieces such as Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-night Vigil are undeniably gorgeous, and can play an important evangelistic role in exposing concertgoers to Orthodoxy; reading through the English translations in the printed program makes it immediately clear that the Orthodox Church prays in a manner far different from any other Christian confession. However, there are several reasons why we don’t sing these musical selections at St. Mark’s, and why they are rarely used in liturgical settings, even in very large churches. First, these are complex compositions often requiring six to eight separate voice parts, including basso profundo, and they demand a rarified level of technical training and skill from every singer.

Some, such as Rachmaninoff’s Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, include movements scored for two separate choirs and multiple soloists. The operatic, difficult parts even extend to the priest and deacon’s material. Is this music impressive and beautiful? Yes. Is it appropriate for us to attempt it? No… and that’s okay. We sing uncomplicated repertoire to the best of our ability, rehearsed over time, believing every word we sing and trusting the Holy Spirit to fill in what we lack. When someone visits us here, the goal isn’t for them to leave at the end thinking, “Wow, that choir was incredible,” or, “I felt like I was in a grand cathedral somewhere,” but rather, “I stood, and I prayed, and I encountered God.”

When singing is simple, tuneful and humble, the divine grace in our Orthodox theology easily enters the ear and penetrates the nous, unencumbered by excessively artful, performative delivery that froths up emotions which are so often a hindrance to real, salvific sanctification. Straightforward, honest liturgical singing, where the words — the theology — have precedence, is meet not only for our parish churches, but even for the most glorious cathedral to ever exist on earth: a manger in Bethlehem, and in its simplicity truly befits the worship of almighty God, who is Himself simple — One in Essence and undivided.

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