Chant Melodies for the Clergy

The melodies used by the clergy for singing blessings, prayers, and other exclamations during liturgical services are hardly ever written down in musical notation; instead, they form an oral tradition passed on from one generation of clergy to the next. These melodies are usually built around a recitation on the tonic pitch or do (see Recto tono), and are meant to be sung in alternation with simple responses or litany responses by the cantor and congregation. This article describes the most common arrangements of the clergy chant melodies.

Chanting on a single pitch (do)

The simplest way to chant a text is to sing it on a single pitch, called the reciting pitch or recitative. But when this form of chanting is used, the singer will tend to go flat (that is, drop in pitch); and the chanting, especially if it is prolonged, can lack emphasis and become boring. The common clergy chant adds three basic ornaments to help maintain pitch and add variety:

Since most responses begin on do (or a pitch which is easy to find from do), ending the clergy's singing on this pitch makes the cantor's job much easier.

Here are some examples, using the deacon's invocation before the Litany of Peace. In each case, the singing is smooth and fluid, and the note values (half note, quarter note, and so on) are only very approximate; the rhythm is that of elevated, formal speech.

All on one pitch:

Litany of Peace, straight

With an initial ascending perfect fourth, to show that the recitative note is do:

Litany of Peace, p4

With a whole step up on a single word for emphasis:

Litany of Peace, M2

With a whole step up, "hanging" there temporarily:

Litany of Peace, M2 held

Dropping to the seventh scale degree (ti, the "leading tone") to establish the recitative as do.

Litany of Peace, ti

In each case, the priest or deacon ends on do, making it easy for the cantor and congregation to reply with the litany responses. These patterns can be used for any short exclamation, such as "Peace be to all!" or "Bow your heads to the Lord."

Adding a second recitative (ti)

For longer texts such as prayers and extended blessings, singing everything on a single pitch (even with the ornaments above) can be insufficient. One very traditional practice is to switch in the middle from a recitative on do to one of ti (down a half step), and back to do at the end. Here is the initial blessing of the Divine Liturgy, as sung by Father (later Archbishop) Judson Procyk, as chaplain to the Sisters of Saint Basil in the late 1960's. Father Judson was also professor of liturgical music at our seminary from 1970-1973. (Listen)

Opening blessing (Judson)

Notice that at one point, the chant dropped very briefly to the sixth degree of the scale (la) then immediately went back up. This can also be done at the end of an entire phrase, as in this example, where we include a major second for emphasis:

Opening blessing (alt)

La can also be used in shorter exclamation, either by a downward leap (do to la):

Litany of Peace, la

or descending by steps:

Litany of Peace, la 2

In all these examples, the reciting pitch either stays on do, or moves from do down to ti, and then back to do.

Adding a second recitative (la)

In church, you will very commonly hear a recitative on do move to a recitative on la (down a minor third) – for example during an epistle or Gospel reading. A recitative on la, however, doesn't return easily to do; instead, it usually moves to a phrase ending on the unstable pitch ti, indicating that the reading or prayer is not complete. A final phrase is needed to complete the entire reading or prayer. For more information, see Reading melodies.

Chanting in a minor key: recitative on la

For minor-key responses, such as those at the funeral services, the priest or deacon may choose to chant on la (the minor-key tonic) instead of do. But in order to make it clear that la is being used, it is necessary to sing up or down in a way that would be impossible (or at least unlikely) in a major key. The most common way to do this is to include the sequence la - ti - do. Here is the opening blessing of the panachida for the departed, with its response; both melodies are given on page 432 of the Divine Liturgies book. (Listen)

Minor key

Clergy will sometimes use slightly different endings of their own; clergy singing is an art, and there is plenty of room for variations. The key requirement is to end on a pitch that allows the cantor and congregation to sing the proper response, using the appropriate melody.

Chanting in Lent: recitative on re

When the responses will be in the special Lenten melody used at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts and certain services during the Great Fast, the priest or deacon may use the first part of the Lenten melody, with a recitative on re:

Opening blessing (Lent)

The two parts of the Lenten melody can also be used in alternation to sing longer prayers, or the deacon's litany petitions. Here, the first melody has a recitative on re, and the second on mi. But in either case, the re - do - ti conclusion tells the cantor that the Lenten responses are to be used.

Pattern (Lenten)

Chant for special occasions

There are also a few particular chants used on special occasions by the clergy; we will cover those here at a future date. And of course, some clergy from other jurisdictions bring their own chant traditions with them. The key to effective chanting between clergy, cantor, and congregation is familiarity, coordination, and a desire to worship God prayerfully in song.