While small segments of the Russian Orthodox Church have continued to use only traditional Byzantine chants in their worship, the larger portions of the church have allowed music that is a hybrid between traditional liturgical chants and the popular art music of a given historical period. This music has remained distinctively liturgical and Russian but has led many to lament the loss of traditional forms.
Almost the entire Orthodox liturgy is sung, most often to centuries-old melodic formulas. In addition to chanted liturgical texts, hymns play an important role in Greek Orthodox worship. Over 60,000 hymns, following one of a variety of prescribed patterns, have been written for use in these churches. Though local customs may influence the way in which this music is chanted, most singing follows traditional practice.
Music for worship in the Byzantine Orthodox tradition is thought to be a direct descendent of the music used in the synagogues during the life of Jesus. The Orthodox have a very high, almost sacramental, view of music, believing that it is a “window to heaven.” Music is intrinsic to the liturgy of the church, for it is frequently used to express the liturgical text.
The Byzantine Liturgy is the product of a complex evolution that began before the time of Christ. Like its Western counterpart, the eucharistic service of the Eastern Orthodox churches consists of two parts. The first, the Liturgy of the Word, developed from the services of the Jewish synagogue. The second, the Liturgy of the Faithful, evolved from the prayer of blessing or brakah of the Passover and other Jewish religious meals.
The churches in the Byzantine tradition are those with an historic relationship to the church of Constantinople (originally Byzantium); they are familiar to North Americans as the Orthodox churches (among them the Greek and Russian). The Byzantine rite is complex and proceeds as two interwoven liturgies, one conducted with the congregation and the other performed by the celebrants behind the icon screen (iconostasis) that separates the altar from the rest of the church. The dominant theme of this liturgical tradition is the presence of Christ, both in his incarnation and in his heavenly ministry.