Prostopinije: a lament

by abbamoses

Traditional wooden church in Slovakia

Traditional wooden church in Slovakia

From my first encounter with it, I’ve loved the Prostopinije, the distinctive liturgical plainchant of the Carpatho-Rusyn Orthodox churches. Like the old Russian Znammeny chant, it’s always seemed to me to have the sobriety and spiritual depth that we see in Byzantine Chant, the Church’s oldest music. In America it’s still the official church music of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese and of the Byzantine Catholic parishes descended from Orthodoxy.
It’s hard to deny that Prostopinije is dying, rapidly.
The “Bible” of traditional Prostopinije is John Bokshai’s Tserkovnoje Prostopinije (Church Chant), published in 1906. The bishop of Uzhorod Cathedral, the story goes, was concerned that much of the Church’s traditional music was becoming less well known, so he employed Bokshai to transcribe the singing of the Cathedral’s cantor. Apparently the cantor didn’t read music and carried the huge deposit of traditional melodies in his head. Even in 1906 it seems that there was some concern that the tradition was endangered. Since then, the decline of Prostopinije as a living tradition has accelerated. I think that several factors have brought this about.

Western-style, harmonized choral music has done a great deal to undermine the traditional plainchant. To some degree this was forcibly imposed in the United States. When St. Alexis Toth brought thousands of Uniate Catholics back to Orthodoxy early in the 20th century, the Russian Metropolia (now the Orthodox Church in America) received these converts graciously, but was not always so tolerant of their unique musical tradition. The Kievan choral music then (and now) dominant in Russian practice became the standard, even though Prostopinije unquestionably had deeper Orthodox roots, descended as it was from older Russian and Bulgarian traditions. When the American Carpatho-Russian Diocese was formed in the late 1930s, its priests and leaders had observed this suppression of Carpathian tradition, and wanted no part of it. One large reason for the decision to turn to Constantinople rather than Moscow for support was a conviction (proven correct) that Constantinople would not meddle with the beloved music of the Rusyn people.
But I’ve observed that choral music doesn’t really need to be imposed — it exerts a kind of seductive pressure of its own. (We see this in the Greek churches too, but I won’t go into that here.) For most of us who’ve grown up in western societies, harmonized music is music as we know it, whether we’ve soaked it in through Brahms or country radio. It’s something that we’re comfortable with. The group dynamics of a church make the transition from plainchant a kind of one-way street: Once there’s a choir, there’s a Choir Director, usually one of the most dedicated and respected people in the parish, whose musical choices determine what music will be heard in church, and who by training and taste is almost sure to see western-style choral music as more musical and more advanced than the Prostopinije.
Loss of transmission, lack of training. Even where Prostopinije is still the normal music of a parish, the situation is not promising. Anyone who looks through Bokshai’s Tserkovnoe Prostopinije should be struck by the fact that most of its music is never sung in our churches. Effectively it’s been lost already. In our own ACROD diocese, there’s been an encouraging, if limited, turnaround in the last decade: publications for some of our major services (Pascha, Nativity, Theophany) have re-established the traditional melodies. But during the remainder of the year, most of the music isn’t sung. One reason for this is that a large proportion of it is for the Matins services, which have for the most part dropped out of parish practice. The parish cantor was once the repository of the Church’s musical traditions. His role was professional and semi-clerical — old by-laws specify that the cantor should be paid half as much as the priest for celebration of services. Today the cantor is almost always a volunteer who has learned what he/she can of our music through personal study rather than through apprenticeship or formal training. Thus we lose the most important avenue for the transmission of our ancient music.
Dumbing down. As in Greece, a lively tradition of religious folk song exists alongside the liturgical music of our Carpatho-Rusyn churches. Dozens of these folk tunes have been collected, and many of them are charming. It’s good to be reminded that there are societies that generate Christian music at the popular level, something we haven’t seen in this country for a long time. Still, this music, appealing and useful as it is, has little of the depth of the ancient Prostopinije, and is poorly suited to singing the hymns of our church. Unfortunately many of our faithful make little distinction between these two traditions of “our” music; I’ve even heard people apply the term Prostopinije indiscriminately to all Carpatho-Rusyn religious music, folk tunes included. Some of these folk melodies have already become standard in our services (for example, over the course of the year we sing the Cherubic Hymn using tunes borrowed from various seasonal folk songs). In my darker moods I sometimes imagine that in 50 years or so, the Prostopinije will have been entirely displaced by these ditties, leaving only a few traditional responses and simple troparia.
But in fifty years, many things can happen. There may be a great renaissance of traditional Carpathian church music. The Carpatho-Rusyn branch of Orthodoxy may die out entirely in this country (not too unlikely if you look at the demographics!). Some new, divinely-guided synthesis may lead to the emergence of a distinctive American Orthodox liturgical music. It happened in Russia; it happened in the Carpathians; it can happen here. The Church’s music exists to embody and support its faith and worship, about whose health and divine protection I have no question.