April 07, 2010

Christos anesti! Holy Week postmortem

Happy Pascha to whoever's reading this! Yes, all three of you. :-) Be warned that a somewhat technical discussion of Byzantine chant takes place in this post. I hope that someone out there will find this comprehensible, even if only in terms of a diary entry. If you have some question about what on earth is being discussed, please add a comment to that effect and I'll get back to you on it. I find the subject of Byzantine chant as a technical art quite intriguing, to say nothing of its spiritual subject matter.

So now Holy Week is over and we can say that "Christ is risen!" I made it through without getting sick and without any health problems (excepting the lack of sleep, of course). My voice came close to giving out on maybe two occasions, but I managed to keep enough control to make it through.

One of those times was during the slow Evlogitaria of Friday night. Long, slow hymns are often challenging for me, which means that I find most entrance hymns (cherubica), as well as the Eothina at the end of Matins, unusually demanding to execute. I know that if I had better physical technique, the difficulty would be less. But anyway, I soldier on. When I chant the Holy Friday Benedictions, I do so a little faster than for the entrances, but the duration of that set of six verses wears on me. And because the crowded church soaks up sound, I have to project more than usual then. Thus the near-crisis, which actually did result in my voice cracking at the very end of the last verse last year, but this year I avoided that by trying to concentrate on my technique.

I felt this Holy Week went pretty well. I've gotten more used to Byzantine musical notation--this is the second year in which I've been able to use that knowledge to advantage. The regular practice of chanting Matins every Sunday (when I'm not at a tournament out of town) has been enormously helpful in learning notational mechanics and getting comfortable with the tones. One of the things that makes Holy Week for a chanter in Byzantine music so hard is that at various times, every one of the eight tones is touched. There are a couple of services in which I think every tone is featured, some in more than one scale. The Twelve Gospels service on Holy Thursday is like this.

Because of this wide tonal palette, there are some particular spots in the Holy Week music when the chanter is called upon to make some very awkward transitions, such as from First to Plagal First, which happens in one of the Bridegroom services early in the week, for example. The scales of those are similar enough to deceive one's inner ear into staying stuck in First Tone, which leads to a melodic train wreck later on in the next hymn. Another tough modulation is to go from First to the hard-chromatic scale of Plagal Second. But this year I got both of these right, I think! I did have problems finding the tone for a hymn two or three times this year, which is much better than my failure rate from previous years.

I've been able to find arrangements that work for most every hymn now, though there are a couple that I've not been able to find the music for yet in either Greek or English. Maybe they're somewhere in the books I already have and I just don't know it. One, for example, that I'd like to have is the hymn to the Theotokos that's the second of the pair that we chant at the end of the Holy Unction service. (I did find the first one, for the Holy Unmercenaries--the melody was rather different from what I'd been sort of improvising over the past few years.) The one I felt really good about finding was one for 'Let all flesh keep silence', the Cherubicon for Holy Saturday morning. I think I still need to refine it in the sense of understanding the modulations that happen in it, but at least I have it written out now.

I had a major project in the works to copy out the entire Greek text and music for the Canon of Holy Friday and Saturday nights, , because I seem totally unable to learn the Irmoi well enough to be able to fit the other verses to their melodies without drifting off into space at some point. I got as far as the fifth ode with that. If I can get that done at some point, I'll have basically what Fr. Seraphim put in his big Holy Week music book, where he has every verse with music, not just the Irmos. Ever since I took over as chanter at my parish, my practice with this canon on Holy Saturday (the midnight service) has been to run through it in Greek completely once, then I go back to the beginning of Ode One and go in English until Father calls time. I can get to around the end of Ode Six in English in that time.

On Saturday night, I actually made the uncharacteristic mistake of skipping an entire page in Fr. Papadeas' book! It was early in the service, fortunately, before there were a great many people in church. I think I chanted the Irmos for Ode Five, and as we proceeded through the verses for that, I remember thinking, "How'd we get here so fast?" And then it came to me--I had just flipped two pages at one point, which meant that almost the entire Third Ode had simply been overleaped. Poor folks must have been confused... For a second, when I got to the end of Ode Five, I thought about going back and picking up the third ode in full, but I figured that it'd just confuse people more, and we'd get to it in English eventually anyway. This is another reason that having the canon scored out completely would be a good thing to do--I must be less likely to suffer this kind of accident if I work with larger pages.

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