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Choral Corner #6: Why Don't All Orthodox Use a Single Tonal System?

Why don't all Orthodox choirs use Byzantine chant, which is the original chant of the Church?

This is a vast topic more appropriate for a doctoral thesis than a short blog post or bulletin blurb, but here we go:

̶B̶e̶c̶a̶u̶s̶e̶ ̶b̶y̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶t̶i̶m̶e̶ ̶H̶o̶l̶y̶ ̶C̶o̶m̶m̶u̶n̶i̶o̶n̶ ̶r̶o̶l̶l̶e̶d̶ ̶a̶r̶o̶u̶n̶d̶ ̶w̶e̶'̶d̶ ̶a̶l̶l̶ ̶b̶e̶ ̶t̶o̶o̶ ̶O̶L̶D̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶w̶a̶l̶k̶ ̶u̶p̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶r̶e̶c̶e̶i̶v̶e̶ ̶i̶t̶.̶

It's true that the Byzantine chant tradition predates Znamenny (Stolp) chant — the original canonical chant of the Russian Orthodox Church — by centuries. When Great Prince Vladimir brought his subjects and lands into the Orthodox Church in 988, they were under the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople, who sent Greek hierarchs to shepherd the new Slavic flock. These hierarchs traveled with entourages that included liturgical singers, and Byzantine chant certainly had a tremendous impact on worship in newly-illumined Rus'.

However, various cultural, political and geographical factors led to the eventual evolution of a uniquely Slavic liturgical chant tradition (more accurately, several traditions) that retained some Byzantine influence, but were also shaped by contact with Western liturgical singing (predominantly from Lithuania and Poland, which eventually became Roman Catholic, and also from Orthodox Bulgaria, through which many Byzantine liturgical practices were filtered before they reached Kiev.

Another important factor in the musical evolution of the nascent Russian Orthodox Church was the scarcity of liturgical books. For several hundred years after the Baptism of Rus', Russia had neither paper nor the printing press, so manuscripts were hand-copied on parchment — an expensive, time-consuming process. The cost was especially prohibitive in monasteries, which were usually financially poor; their liturgical books were often written on tree bark(!), which was an affordable but decidedly fragile solution. Liturgical singing, therefore, was passed down largely by oral tradition, leaving the door open for both accidental changes and intentional innovations/improvisations that, over time, became part of the accepted canonical chant tradition in various regions of the eventually vast Russian empire.

There is another factor that influenced Orthodox liturgical singing: the musical traditions of newly-converted pagans. This may be surprising or even somewhat scandalous to some, but it shouldn't be; incorporating some elements of extant musical culture and sensibilities is a prudent evangelistic technique. It's musical bridge-building, and these bridges continue to be built as Orthodoxy spreads to the ends of the earth, connecting new souls with the ancient Faith.

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