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Language Identity and the Orthodox Composer: Some Initial Perspectives on an English-Language Tradition of Liturgical Music Composition

Kurt Sander, D.M. Northern Kentucky University

The sacred marriage between words and music in Christian worship has certainly had its fair share of contentious years. One unusually factious debate occurred in the early 20th century and concerned the proper execution of rhythmic flow in the text in Gregorian chant. There were those called “mensuralists” who argued passionately for a strict metrical rendering of the text; while others called “accentualists” advocated for a freer more “speech like” approach to the rhythmic placement of words. A proponent of the latter position was the eminent musicologist Fr. Francis Haberl who is largely remembered today for his adamant stance that to chant correctly, one must “sing the words as you would speak them.”

We Orthodox composers and chanters might find this to be a rather unnecessary admonition. After all, should not the natural inflections and accentual patterns of speech be an obvious starting point for any composer of chant? We might even find some satisfaction in the knowledge that our chant traditions supposedly blend this very principle into the compositional process itself. The job of Orthodox composer—so we are told—is to translate creatively the syntactical and stress-related elements embodied in the text into corresponding musical figurations. To put it simply, when composing chant, the text should “drive” the music.

But is this really case when it comes to the musical repertoire of we who are English-speaking Orthodox? A great deal of the music we sing in our klirosy or choir lofts was not conceived entirely in in this manner. When the early diaspora churches welcomed a new generation of native English speakers, some well- meaning musicians began to adapt pre-existing Slavonic or Greek chant into Anglicized versions. Unfortunately, this translational effort was, at its core, unilateral. In other words, the text of a particular hymn may have been converted, but the notes still maintained a structural fidelity to the parameters of the original language. While the process of adaptation preserved the musical aspects of the work, it often did so at the expense of textual clarity or naturalness. In hearing some of the less successful of these efforts, we must admit that our own house is not completely in order when it comes to “singing as one would speak.”

To be fair, adaptation is not an entirely careless process; nor are all adaptations inherently flawed. It is customary to find slight modifications of rhythm and phrasing that accommodate a stray syllable or a misplaced accent. It is a rare thing, however, to find examples of radical musical revision—the “heavy surgery,” as it were, that enables a pre-existing work sing through the idiosyncrasies of English phonology. In the absence of such editorial courage, can we really say that adaptations allow us to “sing the words as we would speak them,” or do we sing them as they were spoken in some other language? If we are to truly sing as we speak, the translator and the composer must embrace a creative process that emerges organically from the aesthetic strengths of their native language.

The ways that lexical, grammatical, and syntactical elements of language influence the aesthetic tastes of a particular culture is a complex area of study, but one that I believe is necessary if we are to nurture a living musical tradition. The renowned musicologist Gerald Abraham one wrote, “The nature of a people’s language inevitably affects the nature of its music not only in obvious and superficial ways but fundamentally.”1 Perhaps this is best understood as a kind of ethnic watermark that appears in culture’s music which is an indirect—or even a direct product of its native tongue. When we say, for example, that French music sounds “French” is it because it owes to some random aesthetic prototype, or is it, as Abraham suggests, a sonic reminder of the underlying affinities that it shares with the French language?

Others have also suggested that music and language are not only related, but were at one time intertwined in a single system before splitting into the two modes that we know today. Recent studies seem to support this idea. Scientists have determined, for example, that the cries of children—even those of infants— emulate unmistakably the melodic contours of their parents’ native language. They observed how French babies tend to cry with rising melodic patterns, slowly increasing in pitch from the beginning to the end, whereas German newborns seem to produce falling melodic patterns, each pattern consistent with their respective language identity. While we all can agree that there is a distinct melodic and rhythmic character about way we speak, is seems from this study quite plausible that even our cries distinctly musical as well.

Linguist Marc Jeannin has explored this idea in a lengthy study about a language identity in vocal music. From his work, he concludes that in order to understand fully the message of vocal music, one must have a pre-existing “cultural context.”2 If we accept Jeannin’s idea that a culture’s language imprints certain acoustical and syntactic associations onto its music, then it must follow that a culture can never fully develop its native musical style while working in a non- native language. What’s more, music adaptations, such as they are, act as poor surrogates for a liturgical music composition tradition that draws its aesthetic character from the vernacular.


This has been one of the greatest challenges to the musical tradition of the Anglophone Orthodox—a tradition that still exists in a kind of creative infancy—although perhaps now looking ahead to a restless adolescence. While there are a small, but growing number of composers writing new works for the Church, much of the English sung in Orthodox churches today remains the product of adaptation, exhibiting various degrees of inauthenticity, as if our music is “speaking” with an endearing accent.

Describing some early attempts at Byzantine chant transcription, chant scholar John Michael Boyer observes that under some of these misguided efforts, the textual meaning of these settings became “so convoluted that it seemed to matter little what the English translation actually said, as long as it could be sung to the Greek melody.”3 The problem here stems from a failure to acknowledge or perhaps even recognize that these revered chant melodies were inextricably tied to the original Greek text.

The Byzantine chant composition of the early 7th century was a model of symbiosis in terms of the text and music relationship. The process of writing both words and music together allowed each element to converge to form an artistic whole that was most certainly greater than the sum of its parts. A similar process was also central in the Russian znamenny chant tradition. Composers ofznamenny skillfully sculpted intricate melodic formulas from the syllabic features of a given text. The harmonious effect of this process is likely why Russian musicologist Alfred Swan said, “[in znamenny, we never lose the feeling of being in the presence of a very exalted reading of the words.”4

These two methods had something very important in common: they both used the intrinsic qualities of the original text to fashion the musical elements of a particular composition. It was precisely the salient features of the language that gave allowed this music to resonate with the faithful in a personal way.


In order to better illustrate this point, it would be helpful to examine some of the important differences between two traditional languages of worship, not as a linguistic study per se, but as a starting point for the study of musical style and its relationship to language. For this brief inquiry, I opted to look at the languages of English to Church Slavonic since these are the most familiar to me and most relevant to my work as a composer of liturgical music. 5  And while I must concede that the data I present here do fully representative of the language as a whole, it is my hope that they will reveal possible points of departure for future studies and music analysis supporting the notion that what we call an ethnic musical style may, in fact, be linguistic in origin.


To begin, I looked to Psalm 50 to be my laboratory of sorts, primarily for its considerable length, but also since it is one of Orthodoxy’s most commonly-recited texts.6  While there are literally hundreds of versions of this psalm in English, there is, fortunately, only one version in Slavonic. For the English, I opted for the original King James version as it is used in many Orthodox jurisdictions, and also because it is widely considered one of the most musical translations of the Bible in terms of its careful word choice and poetic tone.7

My first objective was to get a sense of how the two versions compare in terms of overall duration. To this end, I recorded the approximate time it took for a capable chanter to recite the psalm in each language. I asked several experienced readers to recite the psalm in its entirety several times and averaged the total time for each language. As shown in the chart below, it took my Slavonic chanters 18% longer to recite the psalm compared to their English counterparts.  Such differences in duration, even if anecdotally observed, is eye-opening and should enkindle a number of potential theories for how the pacing of a particular language influences musical style.


My next step was to look at the total number of syllables in each version of the psalm. Not surprisingly, the Slavonic had 18% more syllables than the English version—precisely the same ratio differential seen in the aforementioned durational analysis.






Again, this spurs the question as to how this might manifest itself musically. If we took the time to compare English and Slavonic compositions, might we find proportionate differences in the duration of specific settings; or would we discover that the syllabic efficiency of the English text necessitates a rhythmic slowing of the speech rate—perhaps leading to a preference for certain musical devices (e.g., melismas, longer note durations, etc.) that would have a dilatory effect on the transmission of the message? These are interesting questions that await further inquiry.

The next analysis looked at how these syllables were grouped into specific words. In the chart below, we can see that English makes far greater use of monosyllabic words. Here, I must inject a brief personal observation and say that I have never met a composer who is not a drawn favorably to the aesthetic beauty of monosyllabism. There is something remarkably eloquent—perhaps even mystical—about the containment of a profound idea within such a short utterance. As the American author Henry James once said, “In art, economy is always beauty.”







This is one of the distinguishing features of the English language, and one of its greatest aesthetic strengths. In English, the inherent “power” of a particular word is often disproportionate to its syllabic length causing the smallest words convey the weightiest concepts. In Psalm 50, words like “Lord,” “sins,” and “heart” have enormous potential, yet are conveyed through a single syllable. This is not at all true in Slavonic where the same words (“Góspodi” “grekhá” “sérdtsa”) appear in multi-syllabic form. In fact, in the Church Slavonic version of this psalm, monosyllabic words account for only a slight majority of the total word count. In English, however, they account for nearly three-fourths of the total number of words!

If English favors syllabic economy, one could say that the aesthetic strengths of Slavonic reside in the rich metrical play of its multi-syllabic texture. While not one word in the English psalm measures five or more syllables, the Church Slavonic regularly employs five or even six-syllable words throughout the psalm. The various patterns of these words tend to change frequently lending the Slavonic language a kind of rhythmic buoyancy that energizes the musical line.

While there is no way to draw any unequivocal musical theories from this data without an extensive study of the literature, it would be hard to fathom how such linguistic differences could not impact the stylistic features of a particular musical composition.

We need only look at one of any number of litanies adapted into English to see that music retains the characteristics of the text for which it was composed. While the word “Lord” is monosyllabic in English, most adaptations use an obligatory three beats to set this musically—an obvious a metrical artifact traceable back to either the three-syllable words Ghospodi or Kyrie in Slavonic and Greek respectively.




This is just one of many examples where the number of syllables in the original text influences subsequent adaptations. If repeated through a number of various adaptations, we begin to hear this as normal or even preferred, even when the extension of the word “Lord” could be considered an artificial construct.

This brings me to the last, but perhaps most important data set drawn from the psalm which is the element of lexical stress. In short, lexical stress addresses the pattern of strong (stressed) and weak (unstressed) syllables within a particular word. To start, I compared only the two-syllable words in each version for their strong and weak stress pattern. As the graph below indicates, the Slavonic text had three times as many weak-strong word configurations as the English version did. In contrast, the English version showed a predominance of first-syllable emphases.

Lexical Stress Patterns in Two-Syllable Words in of Psalm 50:





A subsequent analysis of three-syllable words revealed an even greater variance between the two languages. Surprisingly, the English version contained very few three-syllable words, and not one displayed a weak-weak-strong (WWS) accentual pattern. By contrast, the Slavonic version featured an extensive array of three-syllable words, most appearing in the very WWS configuration that the English version eschewed.

These data uncover what I believe is the most significant aesthetic difference between the two languages, which is how the musical character of a language derives from the unique qualities of its lexical stress. From this and other observations, it is clear that the Slavonic language is characterized by a ubiquitous presence of multi-syllabic words, and in particular words where unstressed syllables lead to stressed syllables. When setting Slavonic to music or chant, one would anticipate a preponderance of anacruses at phrase beginnings. Conversely, the economical use of monosyllabic words we find in English likely fosters an unusually large number of musical phrases that begin on the downbeat. Select examples from the literature confirm these assumptions.

The clearest and most familiar example can be found in the Paschal troparion “Christ is Risen” or “Khristós Voskrese” which is sung extensively throughout the Paschal season. In the Slavonic version the first word “Khristós” contains a WS stress pattern. The most common setting for pattern, at least in four- part harmonized chant, is the use of a “pick up measure,” most often on the dominant chord as shown below:



In the English adaptation, however, the presence of the initial monosyllabic word “Christ” in the text calls for the elimination of the anacrusis in favor of an initial tonic downbeat:




In spite of these accentual differences, we must acknowledge the effectiveness of the English setting, not only for its syntactical clarity, but for the fact that, like its Slavonic prototype, it emphasizes through musical stress the important word “Christ.”


While both the original and the adaptation of this troparion preserve a kind the natural speech like quality of their respective languages, there are other adaptations that reveal more objectionable practices. There are many occasions where the meaning of a particular text becomes lost in translation—an unfortunate consequence of irreconcilable accentual differences. A particularly troublesome example occurs in the Divine Liturgy during the short choral response just prior to communion: Here, the choir sings: One is hóly, One is the Lord Jésus Christ, or in Slavonic, Yedín Sviat, Yedín Ghospód Iisús Khristós. In the English text, the phrase begins with a monosyllabic accent on the word “One.“ Because the original Slavonic “Yedin” begins on a weak-strong two- syllable word, there exists a discrepancy between the two languages. Sadly, English adaptations will often condense the two opening words “One” and “is” in into an anacrusis, thus delaying the initial accent until the first syllable of the word “Holy.” This can be seen in example 1A below, which comes from adaptation of a Slavonic setting by composer Oleg Belayev. The Slavonic version, however, places its initial accent on the second half of the first word “Yedín” (One) as shown in

example 1B:


If we were unconcerned about theology or liturgical syntax, this accentual difference might not seem like a major issue. After all, accents occur throughout phases and should we highlight one over the other, does it impact the context of the larger phrase? A quick study of the liturgy, however, will remind us of why this text is being sung. It is actually the choir or chanter’s response to the priest’s proclamation to those preparing to take communion where he says, “Holy things are for the holy.” The most logical and theologically correct response would be to declare that none is holy save One, which is the “Lord Jesus Christ.” For this reason, the word “One” should occupy the primary focus of the phrase rather than the word “holy.” To do otherwise confounds the theological meaning of the text.

To confirm my suspicions that this is not simply an isolated aberration, I decided to look at a number of other composition and adaptations of this same text. A cursory review of eleven Slavonic settings indeed revealed no fewer than nine scores (82%) correctly brought out the stressed syllable “din” of “Edin” (One), either through metrical placement, or extended rhythmic duration. Conversely, of the seventeen English settings, twelve —a stunning 71%—did exactly the opposite stressing the word “holy” while quickly passing over the important word “One.”

Though this one example may seem like a minor issue in the larger picture of liturgical worship, we must recognize that repeated distortions such as these eventually influence how we approach this particular text from the standpoint of an original composition; that is, not through the adaptation of a previously-existing work. Over time, it may feel unnatural to hear it any other way. Poorly executed adaptations may, in fact, imprint upon the listener (or composer!) an unwitting tolerance for linguistic or accentual mutations which, at best, ingrain grammatically or aesthetically inferior products, or at worst fundamentally alter how we understand the theological meaning of a particular hymn.

Based on the all of the aforementioned points, it would seem that the process of adaption alone must be considered an insufficient surrogate for a native compositional tradition. This is because adaptations, while intrinsically familiar in terms of language, remain products of extrinsic musical construction. A culture’s sole reliance on adaptation will ultimately prevent composers from unearthing a host of musical riches buried within the speech parameters of a native language.


As a growing Orthodox culture, the English-speaking faithful must seek out their creative voices organically, within their own language identity if they truly wish to find a musical tradition of their own. We should always remain acutely aware that something heard again and again over the course of weeks, years, or generations in some cases is likely to assume a kind of default standard. How we say something influences how we sing something, and how we sing something, in turn, influences how we understand something. And for liturgical musicians, clear understanding in a language should always remain one of our primary objectives.


I thoroughly believe that the greatest challenge for the English-language Orthodox composer is not simply writing in the absence of a native musical tradition, but rather trying to cultivate such a tradition among a multitude of divergent translations, many of which are oblivious to the poetic demand for carefully-placed internal stresses. In addressing these, the American composer Virgil Thomson once wrote:

In brief, stresses are the firmest element in our language...And the composing of these for expressive purpose is an author’s job, not a composer’s, who can do little more, in setting a text, than to avoid the violation of an already fixed pattern.  8

Here we might substitute the word “translator” for the word “author” as our Orthodox world is now one primarily of translation rather than authorship. Given the experience of the last five decades of English Orthodox choral music, one wonders if it is even possible to—as Thomson says—avoid the “violation” of an already fixed pattern. Over the decades, unmusical translations have become ingrained in our aural consciousness and we find ourselves conceding to familiarity at the expense of lyricism or poetic style. The old Orthodox adage that “we’ve always done it this way,” seems to paint a bleak picture going forward.

The scope of this short article prevents me from wading into the waters of translational disquisition which are indeed quite deep and murky. And while I do not wish to disparage the good intentions of the many translators who have dedicated their lives to this important cause, I do feel the need to mention that there are many in Anglophone Orthodoxy who still feel that much of our translated hymnography does not express the full beauty and musicality of the English language. I believe we can attribute much of this to a benign disregard for the placement of internal stresses which ultimately has a dulling effect on how we hear the music and the poetry in our texts.

Language is indeed is the primordial substance of worship. It informs so many other aspects of our Christian life, not the least of which is the composition of liturgical music. The noted British hymn writer and theologian, Frederic William Faber perhaps best summed up the power of language when speaking about the eloquence and poetic tone King James Bible, a translation that for centuries has had a profound impact on so many of the world’s great composers.

“[It] lives on the ear, like music that can never be forgotten, like the sound of church bells, which the convert scarce knows how he can forgo. Its felicities often seem to be almost things rather than words. It is part of the national mind, and the anchor of national seriousness. ...The memory of the dead passes into it. The potent traditions of childhood are stereotyped in its

verses. The power of all the griefs and trials of a man are hid beneath its words.9”


While his words may come across to some as a bit inflated, from the perspective of a composer, I can truly identify with Faber’s fervency. As a composer, I am at the mercy of the text and the translation at hand. I understand that it is not simply music that has the power to elevate the content of a particular text. Just as important is the beauty of the language itself which opens speech up to elevation, and by extension, it is this elevation that imparts in music the transformative power that leads to true prayer.

More than one linguistic scholar has reminded us that we don’t actually “speak a language,” but rather that a "language speaks us." In other words, how we communicate is not a result of arbitrary linguistic evolution, but rather a language exists as a vocal and auditory representation of who we are as a people. And if we see it this way, then the act of combining music and text takes on a much deeper meaning, one that resonates all the way back to the great chant traditions of the past. If composers think of text this way, they will no longer craft works that speak through a language; but will instead allow a language to speak through their compositions. In this sense, we will truly allow our singers to, as Fr. Heberl says, “sing as they would speak.” Only then will future generations of believers come to appreciate the full beauty of their language as prayer.



1 Gerald Abraham, The Tradition of Western Music (Berkely, CA: University of California Press, 1974), 62.2 Marc Jeannin, “Organizational Structures in Language and Music” The World of Music, Vol. 50. No. 1 Music Language and Dance: The Articulation of Structures and Systems (2008),10.

3 John Michael Boyer, “The Transcription, Adaptation and Composition of Traditional Byzantine Chant in the English Language: An American’s Brief Look at the United States,” Proceedings of the 1st International Conference of the American Society of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, 571.


4 Alfred J. Swan, “The Znamenny Chant of the Russian Church, Part 2,” The Musical Quarterly Vol. 26, No. 3 (July, 1940): 369.


5 Hereafter referred to simply as “Slavonic”


6 Psalm 50 using the Septuagint numbering. In the Hebrew numbering, this would be Psalm 51.


7 Incidentally, a brief comparison of other versions of the English-language Bible showed the choice of translation did not significantly impact the differences shown in the data.

8 Virgil Thomson, Music with Words (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 13.

9 William Levering Devries “The English Bible,” The Old and New Testament Student Vol. 9, No. 3 (Sep.,1889), p. 16112

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