A liturgical craft that ideally draws very little attention to itself is that of translation — particularly, the translation of hymnography. The English texts that we hear in church were translated by somebody, and that translator also had to make them natural-sounding and singable in English. In addition, there is also the question of whether or not to translate hymns according to meter — that is, to have the syllable count and word stresses of the translation match those of the original so that they can be sung to the same melody. To do this skillfully is a liturgical craft unto itself, and it is also something of a contested matter in Anglophone circles.
To demonstrate what I’m talking about and why it is important — let’s try an experiment, shall we? I want you to try to get an entire room full of people to sing this text with no score. It can even be a room of musicians. However, all you’re allowed to tell them is that it’s in F major.
You came down from on high, O Compassionate, you accepted burial for three days, that you might free us from the passions. Our Life and Resurrection, Lord, glory to you.
How well did that work? Let’s try another one, only this time you can tell everybody two words: “Amazing Grace”.
From heaven you came down, O Lord; / three days you lay entombed / to free us from our passions grave, / Lord of Life; glory to you.
You may have had to make a little adjustment at “Lord of Life”, but did that work a little better overall? Let’s try another one. All you can tell people is “D minor”.
Let us arise in the early dawn, and instead of myrrh, offer praises to the Master; and we shall see Christ, the Sun of Justice, who causes life to dawn for all.
No? Okay, how about this? What you can tell people is “Come thou Holy Spirit, Come”, and because this tune may be less familiar, you can reference this score.
Ere the morn in beauty wake, / Let us seek the Saviour’s tomb, / Not with ointment and perfume, / But with songs the silence break; / We shall see the Christ appear, / Sun of Righteousness to cheer.
How’d that go? If you were able to get a room full of people to sing it, congratulations; you just sang Orthodox hymn texts metered to a model melody, and you did so in English.
The writing of hymns to be sung to an existing library of stock tunes is a bedrock of Christian worship. The sung metrical homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian in the fourth century are labeled with the incipits of model melodies. St. Romanos the Melodist in the sixth century makes use of the device. The explosion of monastic hymnody, starting in the seventh century with the canon, gave us a voluminous body of sung worship that could never be completely written out in music notation.
And it’s not just in the Christian East or in Greek we see this, either. Don’t forget the Genevan Psalter, the Bay Psalm Book, Wesleyan hymns, and so on. Most Protestant hymnals have what’s called a metrical index for each hymn, which tells you the number of syllables for each line. You can then look up what hymn tunes match the metrical index, and any tune that matches the metrical index can be used for that hymn. “Amazing Grace” has a metrical index of 188.8.131.52 (eight syllables, six syllables, eight syllables, six syllables) so it can be sung to any 184.108.40.206 tune. That excerpt from the Easter canon, incidentally, was metered by John Brownlie (1857-1925), a Scottish clergyman and hymnographer, and it has a metrical index of 220.127.116.11.7.7.
In the system of Byzantine music, there are:
- idiomela – hymns with their own melody
- automela – hymns whose melody serve as a model melody
- prosomoia – hymns with texts metered to automela
In addition, the troparia of canons are sung to model melodies called eirmoi. One commonly encounters prosomoia in the offices of Vespers and Orthros; the stichera at “O Lord I have cried” and the aposticha stichera are often prosomoia, for example, as are apolytikia. During Orthros, the kathismata are usually prosomoia, as are the exaposteilaria, and then the stichera at the Praises.
As a practical example, I will demonstrate what this can look like using materials commonly used today.
Here are the stichera at the Praises for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers (14 October this year), in both Greek and English. To take the Greek case first — we see the mode, Plagal II (or Tone 6, if you prefer that nomenclature), and the incipit for the model melody, Ὅλην ἀποθέμενοι — a melody originally composed for the commemoration of Ss. Cosmas and Damian on 1 November. To learn that melody, the cantor consults a book called the Eirmologion — “the book of model melodies”, for all intents and purposes — and finds it among the Plagal II melodies in the section marked Prosomoia.
We will lay aside for now the question of learning Byzantine notation; suffice it to say that the assumption here is that one knows it, and that one also has access to either a cantor who knows the melody, or a recording, or both, in order to be exposed to the details of the performance tradition that may not be explicitly in the score. If it is a well-composed text, it will be intuitive to sing to the model melody without having to fix much of anything; thankfully, this is a well-composed text, and it’s very easy to sing to the model melody. Here is the result:
Are all of these steps required every time? No, certainly not. As one learns and memorizes model melodies, singing prosomoia becomes second nature, much like singing something to the tune of “Amazing Grace”.
Now for English.
Again, we see the mode, and the English incipit of the model melody, “When the saints deposited”, so we consult our English-language Eirmologion…
…well, okay, we don’t do that, since that doesn’t exist… yet. This is where things get a little complicated.
As of this writing, there are two principal sources for metered English translations: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, the non-canonical monastery in Brookline, MA that publishes liturgical books, such as the Menaion and Pentecostarion, using a King James-esque register (what some might call “traditional English”), and AGES Initiatives, which distributes metered texts in a present-day register by multiple translators on the Digital Chant Stand platform. (In the interests of full disclosure, I am the Executive Director of AGES Initiatives.) Collections of English-language scores for the most common model melodies are available from both AGES Initiatives and Holy Transfiguration Monastery, they are even in staff notation if you don’t read Byzantine notation, and model recordings are also available.
First of all, let’s be clear that this is an amazing state of affairs; when I was first starting to educate myself about these matters years ago, metered texts were not only not available, it was commonly asserted that metered texts were neither possible nor desirable nor important. None other than Metropolitan Kallistos Ware referred to metered texts for English as presenting “insuperable difficulties” (Festal Menaion, 13). Today, we have options about which ones to use, and more are being produced. What a time to be alive as an Anglophone Orthodox Christian!
However, it’s also confusing, because the model melodies have different English language incipits depending on whether you’re looking at AGES or HTM. AGES uses “When the saints deposited”, and HTM uses “Having laid up all their hope”, so if you learned your model melodies from HTM’s book and are looking at a service text on AGES, you may be at a loss, at least initially. However, Fr. Seraphim Dedes’ book has a handy index that cross references his incipits to HTM as well as to the Greek.
In any event, whether or not you learn your model melodies from a Greek Eirmologion, the HTM book, the Digital Chant Stand, or just happened to have absorbed them all by ear from standing next to a cantor who knows them like the back of their hand (the ideal way, but not reality for most of us), a well-composed English text will be easily sung to the model. Here’s the result:
This is a system that seems daunting and opaque when one is first learning about it, no question. However, the simple fact is that it makes one’s job as a church singer tremendously easier, once some initial overhead is out of the way. For English purposes, if one is using Byzantine music, the alternatives to metered translations are either to have a solo cantor compose on the spot within the appointed mode (so-called “free chanting”), or plain reading. If you know the model melody, and it is a well-composed text, then there’s so much you don’t have to do; not only that, but as I demonstrated above, metered translations are simply indispensable for choral (and, dare I say it, congregational) singing.
That’s all well and good in terms of the musical side, I have heard it argued, but there’s no getting around that the metered texts are usually impossibly awkward and clunky, with syntax that doesn’t work in English or neologisms or bizarre compose-by-thesaurus word choices. We’re having to convey the Orthodox theological concepts in the hymnody in English vernacular, and it would be better to have an understandable text rather than a singable and/or poetic text. This point of view is perhaps best represented by the position of one of the producers of intentionally non-metered texts (and I am grateful to Fr. Andreas Houpos for the reference):
…[I]t [is] possible to merge the melodic chants of our Byzantine music with words which do not blindly comply to musical syllables just to make the melody familiar. When words are inserted just to fit music it oft times makes the text unwieldy, incomprehensible and awkward. We believe the true test comes when the translated text must stand alone. Through the years we have endeavored, while remaining true to our Orthodox theology, that these translations must not be awkward, or even by word misusage, embarrassing. We have chosen the more difficult and time consuming effort of melding music and verse rather than counting syllables to fit music.
If one is going to take such a stance, however, then I think it is necessary to unpack some of the assumptions built into it. Perhaps the first assumption to unpack is that metering texts for the model melody is a negotiable option, and also perhaps the implicit understanding that the choice of model melody itself is an arbitrary matter. This is demonstrably not the case; a quick comparison of any volume of the Menaion with any standard Doxastarion (collection of office idiomela, compositions with their own melodies, for specific commemorations) that contains the same month will demonstrate that the vast majority of hymns are composed to be sung to a model melody. Model melodies are the norm, not the outlier, in other words. We Anglophones tend to perceive the use of model melodies as an outlying case because of the state of our liturgical books, but that is simply not so. Dismissing the metering of hymns as an exercise in “syllable counting” does not give proper weight to a matter taken very seriously by Byzantine hymnographers, who went so far as to emphasize the point in grammar manuals: “If someone wants to make a kanon, he must first compose the heirmos, afterwards, compose the troparia exactly like the heirmos with equal syllables and the same accent, and, thus will realize its purpose” (Theodosius Grammaticus, Commentary on Dionysius Thrax’s Grammatical Art, A. Hilgard, ed. Grammatici Graeci, vol. 1.3, p569 — and I must once again thank Fr. Houpos for the reference). In our own day, metering of texts is a criterion the Ecumenical Patriarchate uses when they are evaluating new offices for saints; they certainly do not see it as a negotiable option.
Not only that, but the selection of model melody does in fact convey important information about the text as well as the commemoration. To give but example, one notices very quickly that the model melody Ὡς γενναῖον ἐν Μάρτυσιν (known in HTM books as “As one valiant” and in AGES’ texts as “To a brave one in martyr saints”) is extremely common — one can sing a large chunk of Vespers and Orthros services throughout the year if one only knows that melody. Why? Because it is a melody commonly used for martyrs, and our liturgical calendar commemorates a lot of martyrs. To the extent that our hymnography may be said to be iconographic, the model melodies are a component of the icon pattern for particular saints and feasts.
The other problem with cynically waving away metering the hymns as “syllable counting” is that we have many genres of hymnography in the Byzantine liturgical cycle; some of them are prose, some of them are poetry. Prosomoia and canons are poetry. While there is no question that it is difficult to translate poetry, difficult does not mean impossible, and to accept a flattening of register and genre in our liturgical texts strikes me as doing ourselves, and our language, a real disservice. As a living language, it is clear that individual hearers have different thresholds for acceptable poetic language in vernacular texts, but I disagree that this means that the solution is to aim for prosaic and anodyne; the solution is rather to embrace poetic language in our hymnody and educate our congregations about why we’re using poetic language. One of the most popular pieces of music in the country right now is two hours and forty-five minutes of vernacular lyric poetry filled with references to the Federalist Papers and directly quoting 18th century letters and speeches with dense syntax; don’t tell me that people will flock to “The ten dollar founding father without a father / got a lot farther by working a lot harder / by being a lot smarter by being a self starter / by fourteen they placed him in charge of a trading charter” but somehow won’t put up with the occasional rearranged sentence. If we can tolerate it in our Christmas carols, then let’s find a way to deal with it in our Christmas hymnody, too.
“But it’s poetry written for a different language!” some might say at this point. Perhaps, but languages borrow poetic and literary forms all the time. The Greek hymnographers borrowed from Syriac poets like St. Ephraim the Syrian. The sonnet was originally an Italian form before Shakespeare got a hold of it. Present-day Anglophone poets translate and borrow from Persian poetry (see the work of Robert Bly, for example). English can handle it.
Not only can English handle it, but we’re getting better at it. I offer four different English-language versions of the eirmos for the first ode of the first canon for Christmas; the first is Fr. Seraphim Nassar’s unmetered version as found in The Byzantine Project by Basil Kazan, the second is Fr. Ephrem Lash’s unmetered version as set by Jessica Suchy-Pilalis, the third Fr. Seraphim Dedes’ metered version set to the traditional melody, and the fourth John Michael Boyer’s metrical adaptation of Fr. Ephrem’s text as heard on his recent recording Sun of Justice.
|Nassar (unmetered)||Lash (unmetered)||Dedes (metered)||Boyer/Lash (metered)|
|Christ is born, glorify him. Christ hath come from the heavens, receive him. Christ is on earth, be ye elevated. Sing unto the Lord all the earth, and ye nations praise him with joy; for he hath been glorified.||‘Christ is born, give glory! Christ comes from heaven, go to meet him! Christ is upon earth, be exalted! Sing to the Lord all the earth; and all you peoples raise the hymn with joy, for he has been glorified’.||Christ is born; glorify Him! * Christ is come from heaven; go and meet Him. * Christ is on earth; arise to Him. * Sing to the Lord, all you who dwell on the earth; * and in merry spirits, O you peoples, praise His birth. * For He is glorified.||Now Christ is born, therefore glorify! * Now Christ has come from heaven, encounter him! * Now Christ is on earth, be raised on high! * Sing your praise to the newborn Lord, all the earth; * and with jubilation all you peoples raise the hymn, * for he is glorified!|
Again, we’ve gone from the presumption that it’s fundamentally impossible to two very good options in a reasonably short time.
It seems to me that there are two additional developments that could further enrich and enhance the use of metered hymns by English-speaking Orthodox faithful. First, there are some first-class poets in the world of Anglophone Orthodox Christianity, artists such as Scott Cairns and Nicholas Samaras, and if such people could be included in translation efforts, it would only improve the good work that is already being done.
Second, English-language hymnographers need to start composing offices from scratch for American saints using the conventions of prosomoia and metered canons. Here is a real opportunity for the English language to absorb these poetic forms and have them take root. Yes, there are published English-language offices that already exist in some cases, but the examples I am familiar with do not follow any metrical conventions of this kind. Perhaps some of these existing texts may be adapted to meter, or at least used as models to some extent, but a multiplicity of offices for local and/or newer saints isn’t entirely unheard-of (there are multiple offices for St. Elder Paisios, for examples). In addition, one of the positives about metrical hymns is that they can also be sung using unmetered music if one so desires; the reverse is more difficult.
In conclusion, metered hymn texts are an indelible, non-negotiable component of the tradition of Christian hymnography generally and Orthodox hymnography specifically. They facilitate ease of individual singing, to say nothing of choral and congregational singing; they also convey iconographic information about the saint or feast being commemorated. To put it another way, as much as we Anglophones like to complain about Orthodox worship being inaccessible, we would do well to remember that metered prosomoia exist to make singing hymns easier and more accessible. The body of metered hymnody in English continues to be a work in progress, but we have come a long way since the 1960s, when it was asserted by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware that metrical translations were unworkable. Now we have at least one good option for many prosomoia and canons, sometimes more than one, and it is a repertoire that is being added to and improved by existing, as well as new, translators. There is certainly still more work to do for this tradition to take root completely in English-language worship, but there are sufficient singable metered texts at this point, as well as resources for learning the model melodies, that there is every reason to embrace the practice.