If you’ve visited an array of churches, you may have heard a variety of hymnody ranging from old campfire songs, repurposed marches, Gregorian chants and classical music of all kinds used in worship.

But there’s even more to the universe of Christian music than you may know.

Musician and well-traveled musical tourist Stephen Duncan is our guide this week, as we explore the mystery of Orthodox music. Duncan is a teacher, religious leader and author of the book “A History of the Sacred Musical Life of An Orthodox Church in America.”

Q: Can you describe the feeling that you got when you first encountered Orthodox music?

A: My first encounter was listening to music from the Russian Five (Cesar Cui, Aleksander Borodin, Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov). They all referenced Orthodox music in their works, in the modes and harmonies they used. I fell immediately in love with its sound. There is something very special about the Russian music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Q: What are its spiritual benefits? How does it fit into a worship service?

A: The fundamental benefit is that when people sing together, they breathe together, they worship, in a very real sense, together organically, as if they were one. Singing does some amazing things in attenuating people to one another by listening to match pitch and tone and volume. Orthodox worship is primarily sung prayer. Each person has their part to do — priest, deacon, chanter, choir, assembly — in the overall liturgy.

Q: Do the various Orthodox churches share the same music heritage or do they reflect the musical culture of their place of origin? How does Galveston’s Saints Constantine and Helen Serbian Orthodox Church adapt with liturgy from a variety of languages?

A: Orthodoxy used the various musics of its cultural heritages. The Orthodox have music which includes Middle Eastern, North African, Greek, Russian, Serbian, Inuit. Every place where they went to spread the church, they learned the music. We usually use English translations with these melodies, but we do use Serbian, Russian and Slavic from time to time. Our song book, which I typeset out of a sense of urgency for myself 12 years ago, has English on the left hand side and Serbian/Slavic on the right hand side.

Q: If someone wanted to begin to explore Orthodox music, what would be the best way to start?

A: Listening might be the easiest way. There are many fine recordings these days on the web and on CD. Many people find listening to Rachmaninoff a good way to begin. The Greek, the Russian and the Orthodox Church in America all have websites devoted to liturgical music. The OCA has a huge collection of typeset music which is free to use in liturgical services at http://oca.org/liturgics.

Q: Since much of the traditional liturgy seems to be a cappella, does it take more musical training to sing? Is there sheet music, parts?

A: Traditionally, all Orthodox music is without accompaniment, so singing is fundamental to the service. Sight-reading is an absolute necessity for a parish music leader. There is sheet music, though not all the parish musicians can read. Often they have learned by ear. Some have been singing in the choir that way for 70 or more years.

Rick Cousins can be reached at rick.cousins@galvnews.com.

Next week

Read about the Episcopal Diocese of Texas’ gathering in Galveston in February. More than 1,000 delegates and clergy will convene for meetings and a unique jazz service.

Next week

Read about the Episcopal Diocese of Texas’ gathering in Galveston in February. More than 1,000 delegates and clergy will convene for meetings and a unique jazz service.

Rick Cousins can be reached at rick.cousins@galvnews.com.

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