In the Byzantine Rite, stichera are hymns sung with psalm verses. In most cases, each sticheron follows a psalm verse. These hymns (along with the poetic hymns called canons) make up the bulk of the variable parts of Vespers and Matins, and are often rich in theological content.
Using Greek terminology, we refer to one sticheron and several stichera. In Slavonic, the word stichera means a single hymn or sticheron, and the Slavonic plural is stichiry. In general, we will use the Greek terms to avoid confusion.
Stichera at Vespers
The most familiar stichera are those of the Lamp-lighting Psalms. At each celebration of Vespers, a series of evening psalms are chanted, beginning with the words, "Lord, I have cried to you, hear me." Usually, all those present chant these psalms together. At some point (the exact point varies), the singing changes. From this point on, the cantor intones each psalm verse, and the people respond with a hymn. These hymns are the stichera.
If you examine a liturgical book for Vespers, you will see that the final verses of the Lamp-lighting Psalms are marked with numbers in reverse order (10, 9, 8...), counting down, or with a notation such as "On 10..... On 9.... On 8". This indicates where the singing of the stichera is to start, depending on the number of stichera to be used. This number varies based on the solemnity of the day, and the rules for each day's stichera are given in the Typikon. At the Lamp-lighting Psalms, we ordinarily sing 10 stichera at Sunday vespers (on Saturday evening); 8 or 10 stichera on great feasts; and 6 stichera on lesser feasts and ordinary weekdays.
The stichera themselves come from the various liturgical books: the Octoechos, Triodion, Pentecostarion, and Menaion. On most days, stichera will come from at least two different sources, such as the hymns of the day of the week, and those in honor of the saint of the day. In this way, the hymns of Vespers each day bring together a constantly varying collections of these and subjects for our prayer.
As with all psalm-singing in the Byzantine Rite, the lesser doxology ("Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever. Amen") is chanted at the conclusion of the Lamplighting Psalms. Depending on the day, a single sticheron may be sung after "Glory... now and ever...", or two concluding stichera may be sung: one after "Glory....", and one after "Now and ever..." (The very last hymn in such a sequence of stichera is usually dedicated to the Mother of God.)
In addition to the stichera at the Lamp-lighting Psalms, two other sets of stichera are sung at Vespers:
On feast days, if a Litija procession is held, special Litija stichera are sung during the procession. These stichera are sung without psalm verses, except for the concluding doxology at the end.
A third set of stichera, the aposticha stichera, are sung at the end of Vespers. (These hymns are sometimes called apostichera, stichera aposticha, or dismissal stichera). No psalm verse is sung before the first sticheron, so that the aposticha consist of a series of stichera with psalm verses in between.
Stichera at Matins
At Matins, stichera are sung:
- (on certain days) at the end of Psalm 50, just before the Canon.
- at the end of the Psalms of Praise (Psalms 148-150).
- (on weekdays) at the aposticha of Matins.
In general, a smaller number of stichera are sung at Matins than at Vespers.
There is also a cycle of eleven Gospel stichera which correspond to the eleven Resurrectional Gospel read at Matins; each sticheron comments on one of the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection.
Stichera at other services
Occasionally, stichera will appear in an unexpected location, such as in the wedding service. Usually, such stichera were originally part of another service, and were borrowed (often without their psalm verses) for use in some appropriate place. For example, "We have seen the true light", which is sung at the Divine Liturgy after Holy Communion, is actually one of the stichera from the Lamp-lighting Psalms of Pentecost.
Stichera in the liturgical books
In the liturgical books of the Byzantine Rite, most hymns are marked with the type of hymn, and the melody to be used (e.g. "Troparion, Tone 4"). Stichera are an exception; they are almost always indicated by the part of the service at which the stichera are sung:
|stichera at the Lamp-lighting Psalms:||"At Lord, I have cried" (Na Hospodi vozzvach) or "At Psalm 140"|
|stichera at the Litija:||"At the litija" (Na Litii)|
|aposticha:||"At the aposticha" (Stichiry stichovnyj; Stichiry na stichovnych)|
|stichera at Psalms 148-150:||"At the praises" (Na chvalitech or Na chvalite)|
|aposticha:||"At the aposticha" (Stichiry stichovnyj; Stichiry na stichovnych)|
Since stichera follow the system of eight tones, the melody for each sticheron is indicated by a statement of a tone, to which the name of a particular podoben melody is sometimes added. When several stichera are to be sung to the same melody, the tone (and any podoben) are marked for the first sticheron. The stichera continue in the same tone until a new tone is marked, or the end of the set of stichera is reached.
Here is an example, from the Menaion entry for September 1, the first day of the liturgical year:
AT PSALM 140
Tone 1 We pray to the Creator today, with the words given us by Christ, who taught us to pray each day: Our Father who are in heaven, give us this day our daily bread, and overlook all our sins. (2 times)
On Mount Sinai You gave stone tablets. Today in Nazareth You read the prophecy, O Christ our God in the flesh. You took and opened the scroll to teach the people that the Scriptures were fulfilled in yourself.
Tone 5 O venerable Father, you found a beautiful ladder to heaven while Elijah found a chariot of fire. He did not leave his ascent for others; but after death, however, you have left your pillar. O heavenly man and earthly angel, ever-watchful beacon to the whole world, O venerable Simeon, pray for our salvation.
O venerable Father, even if the pillar could talk, it would never stop proclaiming your toils, your labors, and your weeping. Even though it held you, it was sustained by your tears, watered as a tree. At your endurance the angels crowd about, people stand in awe, and the demons tremble. O venerable Simeon, pray for our salvation.
O venerable Father, by the might of the Holy Spirit, you imitated your Master, as on a cross you ascended the pillar. The Lord erased the condemnation written against us; you destroyed the rise of passions. The Lord was a lamb, and you a victim; the Lord was on a cross, and you on a pillar. O venerable Simeon, pray for our salvation.
Here we have six stichera (since the first sticheron is repeated). The first three stichera (in tone 1) are for the start of the new liturgical year; the next three (in tone 5) are in honor of Saint Simeon Stylites, who is also commemorated on this day.
Notice that in the above except from the Menaion, the psalm verse that precedes each sticheron is not indicated. At the Lamp-lighting Psalms and the Praises, the psalm verses are usually omitted from liturgical books - partly because they are easily determined from the number of stichera, and partly because a given sticheron may follow different psalm verses, depending how stichera for different feasts or commemorations are combined.
The Typikon gives rules for these situations; it may prescribe, for example, "At Psalm 140: 3 stichera from the Octoechos; 3 from the saint of the day in the Menaion." So there would be a total of six stichera, beginning where the Lamp-lighting Psalms are marked "on 6". The first three psalm verses ("on 6", "on 5", "on 4")
would go with the stichera from the Octoechos (that is, for the given day in the tone of the week), and the next three psalm verses (
"on 3", "on 2", and "on 1") would go with the stichera for the saint commemorated on that day. These would be followed by the doxology, with its own stichera.
In the liturgical books, special names are sometimes used for specific kinds of stichera:
- dogmatikon - a hymn concerned with a particular teaching of the Church, using the dogma of the Incarnation.
- theotokion - a hymn in honor of the Theotokos (Mother of God).
- stavrotheotion - a hymn describing the sorrow of the Mother of God at the Cross (stavros).
- anastasimon - a hymn in honor of the Resurrection.
- triadikon - a hymn in praise of the Holy Trinity.
- nekrosimon - a hymn in memory of the dead.
- doxastikon - a hymn sung at the doxology ("Glory.... now and ever...")
In general, there will always be an even number of stichera; this tradition derives from the practice of antiphonal singing, alternating between two choirs or two sides of the church. See the article on Psalmody.
Melodies for stichera
The prostopinije tradition provides melodies for stichera in each of the eight tones; these "ordinary" melodies are referred to as "samohlasen tones". There are also a number of special melodies called podobny, to be used when called for in the liturgical books.
- von Gardner, Johann. Russian Church Singing, Volume 1 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1980). See Chapter 1, "The System of Orthodox Liturgical Singing."