Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Byzantine Music for Lent by Tchaikovsky

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 fairly closely, 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, the Gradual Psalms are chanted by a reader in three blocks, while a portion of the Presanctified Gifts is removed from the tabernacle, incensed, and carried from the altar to the table of the preparation. This is followed by a general incensation of the church, as the hymns of the day are sung with the daily Psalms of Vespers (140, 141, 129 and 116), the entrance procession with the thurible, and the hymn Phos Hilaron. Two readings are given 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.” (The first part of this refrain is also NLM’s motto.)

For the second part, the Litany of Fervent Supplication and special litanies for the catechumens are said, after which the royal doors are opened. The first part of the following chant is sung, then the Presanctified gifts are carried out the side-door, and back through the royal doors, followed by the second part (“With faith and love...”). This chant, therefore, replaces the hymn “We who mystically represent the Cherubim,” which is sung at the Divine Liturgy as the bread and wine are brought to the altar. The rest of the service is basically identical to the regular order of the Divine Liturgy.

Нынѣ Силы Небесныѧ съ нами невидимо служать, се бо входитъ Царь Славы: се Жертва тайнаѧ совершена дориноситсѧ. Вѣрою и любовию приступимъ, да причастницы жизни вѣчныя будемъ. Аллилуя, аллилуя, аллилуя. (Now the powers of heaven invisibly worship with us, for behold, the King of Glory entereth! Behold, the mystical sacrifice, being perfected, is carried forth in triumph. With faith and love, let us come forth, that we may become partakers of eternal life, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!)

These settings are by Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky (1840-93), who is of course best known to the English-speaking world for his Nutcracker Suite and 1812 Overture. He was a very prolific composer, and among his many choral works are complete settings of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, and the All-Night Vigil (Vespers, Matins and Prime joined together as a single service, and celebrated in most Russian churches on Saturday evenings and the day before major feasts.) These two pieces are included in a group known as Nine Sacred Pieces (or Nine Church Pieces), composed in 1884-85, whch also includes three settings of the Cherubic hymn for the regular Divine Liturgy, Truly it is fitting (from the Byzantine Preface dialog), We hymn Thee (sung after the Consecration), and the Lord’s Prayer.

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