Rusyn Chant (Prostopinije)

Liturgical chant became an integral part of Christian worship since apostolic times in agreement with the admonition of St. Paul: “With gratitude in your heart sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (Col. 3:16). Chant, especially in the Byzantine Rite, became an expression of liturgical piety of the faithful, who come together in their churches not only for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, but also for common prayer, offering to God their “sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13:15).

Ss Cyril and MethodiusSaints Cyril and Methodius were 9th-century Byzantine Greek brothers born in Thessalonica, Greek Macedonia, in the Byzantine Empire and were the principal Christian missionaries among the Slavic peoples of Great Moravia and Pannonia, introducing Orthodox Catholic Byzantine Christianity and writing to the hitherto illiterate, pagan Slav migrants into parts of Macedonia and elsewhere in the Balkans. Through their efforts they influenced the cultural development of all Slavs, for which they received the title “Apostles to the Slavs”. They are credited with devising the Glagolitic alphabet, the first alphabet used to transcribe Old Church Slavonic (церковно-славянскій).

After their deaths, their pupils continued their missionary work among other Slavs. Both brothers are venerated in the Orthodox Catholic Church as saints with the title of “Equal-to-Apostles”. Along with the Eastern Christian liturgical rites (уставъ), the local population also received a fascination for liturgical chant; and, during the following centuries, they applied their own musical genius and eventually developed their own style of liturgical chant known as Prostopinije (простопенїе) which translates into English as Plainchant. Carpathian liturgical chant is executed in unison by the entire congregation (monodic chant) led by the cantor (дякъ) in opposition to the richly embellished polyphonic liturgical singing executed by choirs.

The roots of Carpathian plainchant or Prostopinije, as it is often called, are found in Byzantine liturgical music arranged in the eighth century by St. John Damascene and based on a scale of eight tones.  Whereas in the Roman Latin-Rite, the plainchant was unified in Gregorian Chant: in the Eastern Byzantine-Rite churches, different plainchant are found, including: Znamennyi (Russia), Valaam (Northern Russia), Kievan (Eastern Ukraine), Pochaiv (Western Ukraine), Galician (South-West Ukraine), Serbian, and Carpathian (Rusyn also known as Mukachevo or Uzhhorod Chant).  Carpatho-Rusyn chant is indigenous to the Capathian Mountain Regions of that now are parts of Ukraine, Slovakia, and other Balkan countries.  The chant is used by both Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholics of that region.  The music of this system is a blending of many styles including folk music, Znamenny chant, and Kievan chant.  It also shares some similarities to Galician chant of Western Ukraine.  The Carpathian plainchant shares several characteristics with the other Byzantine-Rite chant traditions, but it is distinct in that it has been influenced by local Rusyn folk melodies and, when sung, is often rendered using Rusyn folk harmonization.

ProstopinijeContemporary scholars, studying the Carpatho-Rusyn liturgical chant, are able to trace its origin from Kiev to the Carpathian region. Thus, in the formation of the Carpatho-Rusyn liturgical music, we can discover three distinct layers of composition that, in the course of centuries considerably modified the original Byzantine chant, namely: 1) Bulgarian – which developed along the lines of Cyrillo-Methodian tradition; 2) Old Kievan – as was cultivated in the famous eleventh century Monastery of Caves (“Kievo- Pecherska Lavra”); and, 3) Carpathian – through the influence of popular songs and regional melodies. For this reason one can often catch some fragment of folk harmonization in Rusyn churches. It might be informal or even unconscious, but it certainly adds to the mystical power of congregational singing.

In the Carpathian region liturgical as well as folk music was transmitted from one generation to another by means of oral tradition. At the very beginning there were no books containing music available. When they did become available, neither the cantors nor the faithful had sufficient musical education to be able to read first the neumatic (set of signs) and, later, the square or diamond notation. The monastic schools of that period started to educate qualified candidates with practical training in the liturgical chant, mastering not only liturgical chant but also the theory of music. They began to copy the scores of the more complicated liturgical melodies. Soon the faithful started to take an active part in these services, praising God with one voice and one heart. Besides the Holy Liturgy there are many other services and celebrations in the Byzantine Rite that contain a great wealth of liturgical hymns. The people learned to sing some of these hymns, especially those most often repeated from memory and led by the cantor.

The traditional ancient Carpathian Plainchant or простопѣніе is the  hymnody and chant used at the Orthodox Catholic Monastery of Our Lady Joy of All Who Sorrow. Led by a cantor, its unison congregational style fits well with the simplicity of our little “poustinia” on Ploss Lake.