The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

The Divine Liturgy bearing the name of St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) is the form of the Eucharist celebrated most frequently in the modern Byzantine rite. Like the communion services of most other Christian traditions, it features two large sections: a service of the Word that climaxes with readings from the New Testament and concludes with the dismissal of those preparing for baptism (the catechumens); and a service of the already initiated Faithful during which the Gifts of Bread and Wine are brought to the altar and offered in a great prayer of thanksgiving (the Eucharistic Prayer or anaphora) before being distributed as the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion. In common with the Roman Mass, the Byzantine Divine Liturgy also contains both invariable (ordinary) and variable (proper) chants. Choral settings of the Divine Liturgy—notionally “complete” but often consisting mainly of major hymns from its ordinary—were pioneered in Baroque Ukraine and Russia. Only during the nineteenth century did Tchaikovsky and other Russian composers establish the Divine Liturgy as a compositional genre comparable in scale to Latin Masses or Anglican Services.

Although there now exist polyphonic choral settings of the Divine Liturgy by composers representing nearly the full cultural spectrum of Eastern Orthodoxy, those produced by Greek American composers remain little known. Indeed, Orthodox Christians from Europe or the Middle East visiting Greek Orthodox churches of the United States are frequently surprised or even scandalized to hear the Sunday Divine Liturgy sung not by cantors employing Byzantine chant, but by a mixed choir singing harmonized or polyphonic music that is often accompanied by an organ. Viewed from such an outside perspective, Greek American liturgical choral music would seem to be little more than a peculiar—or, as some critics of polyphony would maintain, an ill-judged and extreme—instance of inculturation. While there can be little doubt that ideologies promoting cultural adaptation (or even assimilation) to prevailing cultural norms have influenced the development of liturgical singing in Greek America, emphasis on these aspects of its history can all too easily lead to facile dismissals that ignore its many complexities of provenance and expression. Without taking these issues into account, it is impossible to situate culturally and artistically the setting of the Divine Liturgy by Tikey Zes recorded on the present album.

— Alexander Lingas

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