Wednesday, February 28, 2018

“Let My Prayer Rise as Incense” by Pavel Chesnokov - Byzantine Music for Lent

As we have noted a number of times (examples here and here), in the Byzantine Rite, the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated on the weekdays of Lent, but only on Saturdays and Sundays. (An exception is made for the feast of the Annunciation.) Therefore, at the Divine Liturgy on Sundays, extra loaves of bread are consecrated, and reserved for the rest of the week. On Wednesdays and Fridays, a service known as the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is held, in which Vespers is mixed with a Communion Rite. (It is also held on the first three days of Holy Week, and may be done on other occasions, but twice a week is the most common practice.)

The first part of this ceremony follows the regular order of Vespers, and the second part imitates the Great Entrance and the Communion rite of the Divine Liturgy. After the opening Psalm 103 and the Litany of Peace, as the Gradual Psalms are chanted in 3 separate blocks, a portion of the Presanctified Gifts is moved from the altar to the table of the preparation. There follow the general incensation of the church to the singing of 4 psalms (140, 141, 129 and 116) with the hymns known as “stichera” between the verses, then the entrance procession with the thurible and the hymn Phos Hilaron. Two readings are done from the Old Testament (Genesis and Proverbs in Lent, Exodus and Job in Holy Week), after which, the priest stands in front of the altar and incenses it continually, while the choir sings verses of Psalm 140, with the refrain “Let my prayer rise before Thee like incense, the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.” (See note below.)
This setting, sung here by the choir of the Sretensky Monastery in Moscow, is by one of the great modern Russian composers, Pavel Chesnokov (1887-1944), a remarkably prolific author of sacred music, with over 400 pieces to his name. Very sadly, when the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, where he has served as choirmaster, was destroyed in 1933, he became so distraught that he stopped composing altogether. (The church was demolished to make way for a gigantic public building that was never realized, and reconstructed on the same site from 1995 to 2000.)

Note: in some traditions, the verses of Psalm 140 are sung by the celebrant, and the choir sings the refrain. The priest may also move around the table, standing first in front of it, then to one side, than at the back etc., changing places as the choir sings the refrain. He will also incense the Presanctified Gifts at the table of preparation during this part of the rite.

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