Singing an Akathist

This article covers the practical aspects of singing an akathist in the Byzantine (Ruthenian) Catholic Church.

Singing the refrains

An akathist is a liturgical poem consisting of several stanzas, with a repeated refrain. (Sometimes there are two different refrains, used in alternation.) Ordinarily, the last line of each stanza is sung again by the congregation as a form of group participation in the kontakion; the refrain serves as a touchstone or point of reference, to which the hymn returns each time.

Our chant tradition provides two different melodies for these refrains. In the Bokshai Prostopinije (1906), these are given on page 61, in the material for Akathistos Saturday. In the Papp Irmologion (1970), there is separate section with music for Akathists on page 178; it repeats the music from Bokshai, and adds the refrain for the Canon "to Our Sweetest Lord Jesus Christ" ("Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me").

Here are settings of these two melodies in English:

Of course, other music for refrains could be used; these are simply the melodies that have come down to us.

Chanting or singing the stanzas

The bulk of an akathist consists of the stanzas themselves. Some of these stanzas are like the kontakion we sing at the Divine Liturgy, dividing into phrases but not having a very stylized structure of their own. These are normally chanted recto tono by the priest or leader, or sung to the kontakion melody in the tone of the akathist. (Tone 8, associated with joy and completion, may be used if no tone is indicated.) Each of these stanzas normally ends with one of the refrains ("Rejoice, O Bride and Maiden ever-pure!" or "Alleluia!") , which is immediately repeated by the people using the refrain melody.

But every other stanza of the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God consists of a highly structured kind of poetry. Each of these alternate stanzas, called an ikos (plural: ikoi or ikosy), looks like this:

An archangel was sent from heaven to greet the Mother of God, and as he saw you assuming a body at the sound of his bodiless voice, O Lord, he stood rapt in amazement and cried to her in these words:

Rejoice, O you through whom joy will shine forth;
Rejoice, O you through whom the curse will disappear!
Rejoice, O Restoration of the fallen Adam;
Rejoice, O Redemption of the tears of Eve!
Rejoice, O Peak above the reach of human thought;
Rejoice, O Depth even beyond the sight of angels!
Rejoice, O you who have become a kingly throne;
Rejoice, O you who carries Him who carries all!
Rejoice, O Star who manifests the Sun;
Rejoice, O Womb of the divine incarnation!
Rejoice, O you through whom creation is renewed;
Rejoice, O you through whom the Creator becomes a babe!

Rejoice, O Bride and Maiden ever-pure!

where the last line is the refrain. In our church, it has become common to use the Pochaiv melody for the twelve lines that begin, "Rejoice..."

The Pochaiv melody

This is a four-part melody from the Pochaiv Monastery in Western Ukraine. It is commonly used for singing Akathists in the Russian and Ruthenian (Ukrainian, Carpatho-Rusyn) traditions. Here is the setting from the appendix to the Book of Akathists from Holy Trinity Monastery (Jordanville NY, 2007) :

Pochaiv alto

It is very common to sing this in harmony, and what started out as a soprano harmony to the original melody is now often sung as the primary melody in many Byzantine Catholic parishes:

Pochaiv soprano

Listen to a setting of the Our Father sung to the Pochaiv melody. (This setting was included in the Ukrainian Catholic collection, The Divine Liturgy: An Anthology for Worship).

Harmonizing the Pochaiv melody

In the prostopinije tradition, plain chant is often harmonized by singing in thirds with the melody, then adding a bass line that emphasizes the roots of the chords implied by the top voices, and finally adding a tenor where appropriate. The Pochaiv melody is particularly easy to harmonize using this method:

Pochaiv SATB

Here are Akathist responses harmonized in the same way:

Akathist responses SATB

These settings are well within the range of an average congregation, and can also be sung easily by a parish choir if there is one. (You can print off this example and use it to teach the harmonization.)


Singing the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God

Now take a look at the MCI edition of the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. This service is normally led by a priest, but could also be celebrated as a reader service.

The service begins with the "usual beginning prayers", which are chanted to a psalm tone.

  1. The priest, or the enture congregation, sing the "first kontakion", the preamble or proemium, to the Tone 8 kontakion melody; it ends with the words, "Rejoice, O Bride and Maiden ever pure!" The cantor immediately leads the people in repeating this refrain, singing it twice, in the same key as the priest.
  2. Then the priest chants the opening portion of the ikos (the prose part), which usually ends with something like: "and we sing to you:" Then the twelve lines of praises are sung by cantor and congregation, using the Pochaiv melody; and at the end, the refrain, "Rejoice, O Bride and Maiden ever pure!" is sung again as before. (If there is a choir, the choir might sing Pochaiv melody.)

This is followed by the second kontakion, which is sung by either the priest, or the entire congregation, to the kontakion melody in Tone 8. It always ends with "... Alleluia!", and the cantor and congregation sing the "Alleluia" refrain.

The second ikos is treated like the first: the priest chants the opening portion, the congregation or choir sing the praises to the Pochaiv melody, and everyone sings the refrain, "Rejoice, O Bride and Maiden ever pure!"

This pattern continues through the end of the Akathistos Hymn; the last stanza is the kontakion, "O Mother worthy of all praise."

After the last stanza there is a sticheron, "Gabriel was rapt in amazement", sung to the Tone 6 samohlasen melody. This hymn was introduced into our version of the service (by the Melkite bishop Joseph Raya) as a hymn to accompany the veneration of an icon of the Annunciation, according to the Greek tradition. In recent MCI editions of the Akathist Hymn, the veneration and its hymn might be moved after the dismissal, to bring us closer to our official liturgical books.

In certain previous editions of the Akathist from the MCI:

As a result, the singing of the Akathist in the past has sometimes not been as musically "clean" as one might desire, and we hope to see this improve in the future. It is important to recognize that the Pochaiv melody (a) was really meant to be harmonized, and (b) can be easily harmonized in a "folk" style, as has often been done with the rest of our chant tradition.

Singing other akathists

As mentioned above, there is no firm tradition in our church of "how to sing an akathist", beyond the traditional music for the refrains. For example, if an akathist includes praises in groups which are not a multiple of four (4, 8, 12, or 16), it becomes difficult or impossible to use the Pochaiv melody. Some other melody should be chosen, or the praises can be chanted by the priest or leader, while the congregation sings only the refrains.