“The hidden hand behind bad music” – could it happen here?: American Catholic worship and Orthodoxy in America

Some years ago, Catholic church musician Jeffrey Tucker published a piece for Crisis Magazine titled “The Hidden Hand behind Bad Catholic Music”. It was first run in 2002 but recently was recirculated through social media circles, and it caught my eye. I’d read the piece before, and am a regular reader of Mr. Tucker’s work in excellent group efforts such as The New Liturgical Movement. In the past I’ve read things like this, chuckled in a self-congratulatory manner and said to myself, “Thank God we don’t have those kinds of problems”; now, that’s not really a useful way to think about the matters Mr. Tucker is discussing to begin with, and this time, for a number of personal reasons, I wasn’t able to be quite so cavalier in dismissing the problem. So, let’s take the issue seriously — what are the problems he outlines, is there any kind of analogous situation for Orthodox parishes, and of what need we be wary? Could it happen here? Well, maybe, but it all depends on what your definition of “it” is.

In a nutshell, Mr. Tucker explains that the Catholic music publisher Oregon Catholic Press (OCP) has managed  to take advantage of the economics of music publishing and copyright, as well as the constant poverty of musical resources in American Catholic parishes, to secure a stranglehold on the repertoire of liturgical music used by over half of parishes in the United States. The “starter drug” is the missalette, the handy-dandy digest of readings and hymns for the entire calendar year, which is the first step into a total integrated system of musical and liturgical publications off of which OCP profits, most of which is geared towards “contemporary” sensibilities. OCP has no official ecclesiastical authority, but they own and enforce a lot of copyrights, which according to Mr. Tucker gives them “decisive power in determining the musical culture of most public Masses in the United States.” The system is set up, he says, so that “once a parish dips into the product line of the OCP, it is very difficult to avoid full immersion. So complete and integrated is their program that it actually reconstructs the sense that the liturgy team has about what Catholicism is supposed to feel and sound like.”

To put it one way, this is, effectively, a historical and economic problem that has given rise to a spiritual and theological problem. The ideology behind how the 1970 Missal was implemented in this country managed to gain a foothold in a particular organization, which was then able to use its resources to consolidate copyrights from other publishers. Two or three generations later, what they’re selling is simply considered normative, and as a Catholic acquaintance of mine put it once, the prevailing attitude is that if you want to hear (or make) good music, go someplace other than church. The Mass, it seems, is almost intended to be banal as a way of keeping it maximally accessible to all concerned. That’s a feature, not a bug.

So, given this two-pronged situation, with history and economics on one side, spirituality and theology on another, what are the corresponding issues in Orthodox parishes and jurisdictions? Some of the economics are, I think, roughly comparable, if needing some extrapolation — if Catholic parishes have, by and large, poor levels of musical resources, then there’s no way ours aren’t worse. There is at least some sense that one can somehow make a living as a Catholic church musician, even if it’s scraped together in a few different ways. Except for a tiny, statistically-irrelevant handful of people in very, very specific jobs, there is no such thing in this country as making a living as an Orthodox church musician. Music education is probably less than ideal in a lot of Catholic churches; I would venture an educated guess, based on what I’ve seen, that it’s basically non-existent in most Orthodox churches. In 2006, at the national conference for the Pan Orthodox Society for the Advancement of Liturgical Music (PSALM), a rather visible member of the clergy who shall otherwise remain nameless noted that Orthodox music seems to be an area where a lack of qualification is the main requirement expected of those doing it.

Publishing and copyright are completely different matters, however. OCP has been able to take advantage of the economics of music copyright because, well, there are people who actually buy copies of “On Eagles’ Wings”. By contrast, the assumption appears to be in the Orthodox world that there is no money to be made off of music publishing in this country. That’s an assessment that is to some extent oversimplified; Vladimir Morosan makes money (I think) publishing and selling scores for Russian Orthodox liturgical music, but I have to imagine that for the most part his customers are professional and college choirs interested in performing choral masterworks, not parish choirs. Each jurisdiction seems to have a selection of things they give away for free on their website and another selection of publications for which they charge, but then there are online resources such as St. Anthony’s Monastery where one can find settings of the vast majority of hymns available for free download.

It’s also a question of which office is publishing what, even within a given jurisdiction. I’m familiar with one jurisdictional situation where the sacred music wing is more than happy to give away for free whatever they have; the actual publishing office, however, is intent on squeezing every dime possible out of every print run they put out. Since it’s the publishing office, not the sacred music division, that prints and distributes the actual service books they want singers and choirs to use, it makes for some odd politics. The sacred music people can post as many settings of the Trisagion as they want online for people to download; the Matins book for the chanters requires cold, hard cash, and the version that they still have on the shelf is still a glorified Xerox of somebody’s handwritten score. The sacred music people digitally re-typeset the Matins book years ago, but officially the archdiocese won’t sell it until all the old copies are gone, and the sacred music office can’t give the electronic version away, even to people who already own the old one, because the archdiocese owns the copyright. Nobody’s actually making any money off of this; the jurisdiction in question is simply afraid that they’ll lose money somehow (which is additionally silly since the print run they’re presently selling was sponsored by donations in the first place). It’s a situation that actually makes the materials the archdiocese wants people to use harder to access.

Texts also represent a peculiar set of circumstances. Each jurisdiction wants you to buy liturgical books from them, and, paradoxically, no jurisdiction is actually publishing a set of traditional liturgical books as such — they’re mostly publishing epitomes containing the services they think you’ll probably need. You can buy the venerable “Five Pounder” from the Antiochian Archdiocese, basically a “greatest hits” of the liturgical year, for example, but you have to buy a Menaion from Holy Transfiguration Monastery and you’re probably going to buy an Octoechos from a Byzantine Catholic press. These books don’t seem to sell in sufficient volume to represent any substantial income for anybody (as the 2-decade gap between editions of the Antiochian Archdiocese’s Liturgikon suggests). Nobody actually publishes a Typikon, but just about everybody sells some kind of guidebook for the calendar year instead, which contains that jurisdiction’s “preferred edits”.

So, in terms of the economic situation Mr. Tucker’s article analyzes, no, that really couldn’t happen in Orthodox churches in this country. Not on that scale, anyway. It would require, first of all, a common English version of the service texts that all Orthodox in this country had a mandate to use, and that was also copyrighted and licensed under highly exclusive and restrictive terms. (If there ever is such a translation, my hope is that the jurisdictions would have the sense to license it under one of the Creative Commons models.) And, let’s be frank, that’s unlikely to happen simply because there isn’t any particular economic will behind it. We represent a niche market within a niche market; there’s no financial incentive, as there clearly is with American Catholic churches, to tie up copyrights in that way, because nobody stands to make the kind of money that would make such a deal worth it.

So much for economics. What about the historical and spiritual sides of the problem?

The historical side is a curious one, as a particular conversation revealed to me about a year ago. I occasionally moonlight for community and professional choirs when there is a particular need; last spring, I was helping to fill out a choir’s tenor section for a big piece they were doing, and during a break I was reviewing some scores for the coming Sunday at my parish. The gentleman sitting next to me saw what I was reading, and he said, “You know, believe it or not, I used to be the choir director at the big <name of jurisdiction> Orthodox church in <name of city>.”

I knew the church in question, and I’m sure I raised an eyebrow. “Really? Are you Orthodox?”

“Oh, no,” he said. “They just hired me for a few years back in the 1960s.”

Now, it’s not unheard-of for the jurisdiction in question to hire non-Orthodox as their choir directors (a non-Orthodox friend of mine directed the choir for one of this jurisdiction’s cathedrals, and he used to joke to me, “I’d convert except I think they’d stop paying me if I did”). I knew who the priest had to be at this parish during that timeframe (a fairly high-profile personality in the jurisdiction), and asked my colleague if he recognized the name.

“Maybe,” he said. “To be honest, as long ago as it was, I don’t really remember the names of anybody I worked with.” Well, okay. As George Carlin once said, if you remember the Sixties, you weren’t there.

I asked him what kind of music he used to have the choir sing. “Well, we did the Tchaikovsky a fair amount, but then I would drop in all of the standard Protestant choral standards during festal seasons.”

Was this guy putting me on? “Is that right?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “They loved it. The choir wanted me to do more, but the priest kept me from doing too much more than I did.”

All of this is to say, if you’re reading Mr. Tucker’s piece and asking, could that happen here? The answer is, well, in some places, it already has. The twentieth century was not a friendly age to historically- and traditionally-rooted liturgies by any stretch of the imagination, and this man’s story was evidence that yes, even we fireproof, privileged Orthodox got burned a bit. Even now, there is a reforming impulse in some circles that could become a revisionist impulse if left unchecked. A top-down revision such as occurred in the Catholic church couldn’t really happen in Orthodox Christianity as such, at least not in the same way; the urge to reform we face must, in some ways, be taken more seriously, because it seems to be coming from the ground up.

Which brings us to the spiritual question. What are we doing in our worship? There are a lot of Greek words we like to throw out — ἐκκλησία, the assembly, the gathering of those called out. To do what? To have κοινωνία, communion, community, fellowship, a common experience. However, what are we saying when we say “Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ”? The Greek verb we render as “worship” is προσκυνέω, and the noun we get from that is προσκύνησις, proskynesis. I latinize, but do not translate, proskynesis, because this is a word that meant something very specific to the Greeks; it meant to make obeisance, to prostrate oneself, before a god. Herodotus uses the word when he reports that two Spartans were taken to the Persian court and ordered to fall down and make obeisance to the Persian King; the Spartans reply that it is not their custom to do so to a mortal man (Hdt. VII.136). Alexander the Great got into big trouble with his own people when, trying to imitate Persian court ritual, he wanted his subjects to do proskynesis towards him (Arrian, Anabasis 4.10.5-4.12.5).

In a Christian context, proskynesis has a little more of a complex history. Late Antique patristic authors, perhaps uncomfortable with the classical association of proskynesis with pagan worship, start to nuance different types of proskynesis, emphasizing a difference between a kind of proskynesis that expresses λατρεία latreia, the spiritual worship due to the Christian God alone, and a kind that is (somewhat) more flexible. St. John of Damascus describes the distinction this way:

Proskynesis is a sign of reverence and honor. And we know different types: First, the type proper to latreia, which we render to God alone, who by nature is to be given proskynesis. Next is the one rendered through the nature of God (to whom is due proskynesis) to his friends and servants, as Joshua son of Nun and Daniel offered proskynesis to the angel, or David the places of God, as he said: “Let us offer proskynesis in the place where his feet stood”, or to his monuments, such as when all of Israel offered proskynesis to the tabernacle, and standing around the Temple in Jerusalem and offering proskynesis to it on all sides then and even now, or his ordained rulers, as Jacob to Esau as his older brother brought forth by God, and to Pharoah the ruler ordained by God and Joseph’s brothers to Joseph (St. John of Damascus, On the Holy Images 1.14, translation mine).

Proskynesis, one way or the other, seems to have a public, physical, external aspect, and is intended to be offered towards somebody or something of a higher spiritual station than the giver; latreia, rather, is the spiritual, internal adoration of which God alone is worthy. In the Divine Liturgy, when the priest usually says in English something like, “again and again we offer this rational and bloodless worship”, the Pauline phrase “rational worship” translates the Greek expression λογικὴ λατρεία logiki latreiaLogiki is a complicated word to translate (“rational” doesn’t really capture it), but there is certainly something of the sense that the action is internal and spiritual. As an additional point underscoring the difference, the Greek text of the Divine Liturgy, proskynesis is always used for “worship” in the portions of the service which are spoken aloud; latreia is always used in the “silent” portions of the Divine Liturgy.

What’s my point? My point is that, while there is certainly a “horizontal” dimension to our services — assembly, fellowship — the orientation is still principally “vertical”. The fellowship and assembly may perhaps be seen as acts of proskynesis towards our fellow Christians (although the notion of offering proskynesis reflexively seems rather odd to me), but we are still there, first and foremost, to offer proskynesis as an expression of our latreia to God alone. There is something irreducibly ineffable about our worship, and it is a mistake to re-orient so that we are offering proskynesis to the community itself. The unfortunate, to say nothing of wrong, parsing of λειτουργεία “liturgy” as “work of the people” only contributes to this misunderstanding. I once heard Metropolitan Kallistos Ware describe that parsing of “liturgy” as “bad etymology but good theology”; I’m not certain I agree with him. We the people are not there to contemplate ourselves, to celebrate our own identity as a community, even as a community of God. To the extent that we have any kind of a communal identity in the context of the liturgy, it doesn’t even point to us; in the Cherubic Hymn, we usually sing something like “We who mystically represent the Cherubim,” but that’s not quite right. The Greek  word we translate as “represent” is εἰκονίζω, and if you see the word “icon” in there you’re not far off — “to bear the image of”, “to be an icon of”. “Mystically” also is too vague; μυστικώς means something specific in this case too, and that’s the experience of God, not in a private, elite context, but in a communal, public context — a liturgical context in this case. In other words,  in the Divine Liturgy, we’re not really there as ourselves. We function as icons of the Cherubim in the heavenly worship, and in fact that’s our liturgical function. It’s really not about us, even in what we ourselves are doing. The Cherubic Hymn even underscores that for us by saying, “Let us lay aside all earthly cares, in order that we may receive the King of All”.

These are all ideas that are diametrically opposed to the directions that well-meaning liturgists and theologians have tried to steer things in the last hundred years or so. Those directions have given rise to the circumstances that gave Oregon Catholic Press its foothold (and if you want to know more about the specifically Catholic situation, I direct you to the book Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste by Thomas Day); even if the economics and the publishing specifics are different for Orthodox Christians in this country, there are practical issues with respect to how we conceive of music in our parishes that we have to figure out how to address, the spiritual issues are still very much part of our current cultural fabric, and we have to treat them with seriousness.

Can it happen here? The answer is, yes, maybe. And for all I know, maybe Sister Dolores Dufner has it right with the whole “sing a new church into being” idea. And, yes, musical and liturgical change has happened in Orthodox Christianity before — no question about that. As I said earlier, however, there must be caution that reform doesn’t turn into revisionism, and that musical and liturgical change is mindful of the theological change that it might provoke. I might respectfully suggest, as an alternative, that it is not we who need to change the liturgy or the music in order to fit the times or the culture; rather, perhaps that it is we who need to be changed by the liturgy and the music so that the times and the culture may fit them — that is, so that we may all be conformed to Christ through the worship of our Church.