Singing the Service of Vespers with Divine Liturgy

on Great and Holy Saturday

This article provides practical advice for leading the singing of the service of Vespers with the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, on Great and Holy Saturday.

What you will need

For many years, the book normally used for this service was the "Divine Liturgy with Vespers for Great and Holy Saturday" book, composed by Monsignor William Levkulic and published by Byzantine Seminary Press in 1976.

In 2009, the Metropolitan Cantor Institute published a service book in the same general format, but following the new translation of the Divine Liturgy. In this article, we assume that this is the book you are using. You will also need a copy of the Epistle book, for the Old Testament Readings and the Epistle. Note that this book does NOT contain all the Old Testament readings; for some, it only gives a Scripture reference. We hope to provide all the readings for the service in PDF format.

Time of celebration

The Typikon appoints this service to be celebrated around 4 PM on the afternoon of Great and Holy Saturday. Depending on parish custom and episcopal directives, the actual time of celebration may vary between noon and 8 PM.

The start of Vespers, and the Lamp-lighting Psalms

The service begins with the priest's blessing ("Blessed is the Kingdom" - the opening blessing for the Divine Liturgy). The introduction to Psalm 103, and the Psalm itself, are chanted in the usual psalm tone. Remember that the bold-face italic syllable marks the point where the voice drops when singing the second part of the tone.

The Litany of Peace is sung exactly as at the Divine Liturgy.

The Lamp-lighting Psalms, together with the readings, form the main part of the Vespers portion of the service, and consist of psalms traditionally associated in the Liturgy with the evening - Psalms 140, 141, 129, and 116. The final verses of the psalms will be accompanied by the hymns called stichera.

The opening verses of Psalm 140 are always sung to the same melody that will be used for the first sticheron - in this case, since the first sticheron is in tone 1, this will be the Tone 1 samohlasen melody. See Lord, I have cried (Tone 1). Then the remaining verses of the Lamp-lighting Psalms are chanted in a psalm tone until we come to the stichera. (In previous books, these verses were often simply omitted, but they form an important part of the service.) If you have two cantors, you may want to try antiphonal singing, alternating the verses of the psalms between the two sides of the church, or between men and woman.

At this service, eight stichera are sung with the Lamp-lighting Psalms: four of the Resurrection in Tone 1, and four of Holy Saturday. So eight verses from the end of the Lamplighting Psalms, the Holy Saturday book stops listing the chanted verses, and instead has a psalm verse written out to music and marked "Cantor:".

The tone 1 samohlasen melody has two parts - a psalm verse ("stich" or "pripiv") melody, and a sticheron melody. In the Holy Saturday book, the pripiv melody is the one used on page 9 for "Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice." This needs to be sung clearly by the cantor at a moderate pitch, since it will identify for the faithful the melody they will use for the sticheron, and set the key and tempo.

Then lead the faithful in singing the first sticheron, "Accept our evening prayers, O holy Lord." This hymn and the three that follow it are the normal opening stichera of Saurday evening Vespers in Tone 1, and you can hear three of them by by following the link above to "Lord, I have cried (Tone 1)." Note that the psalm verses will use the same melody but have a different text, since the recording does not assume that eight stichera will be sung.

In some places, it is quite customary (and should be encouraged) for the faithful, or additional cantors, to harmonize with the singing of the stichera, as long as the melody line is clear. But each psalm verse (stich or pripiv) should be sung by a single cantor.

Once the four psalm verses and stichera in Tone 1 have been sung, we come to the stichera proper to Great and Holy Saturday, on page 11. These four stichera are in Tone 8 samohlasen, so the psalm verse that comes BEFORE the first sticheron of Holy Saturday will be sung in the Tone 8 samohlasen verse melody. (Listen to some stichera in Tone 8.) Then the sticheron itself is sung to the Tone 8 samohlasen sticheron melody.

Notice that the first sticheron is sung twice, following two different psalm verses. This sort of repetition is an element of emphasis in the liturgy.

We continue in tone 8 until the last two stichera. On page 14, at "Glory", we sing a doxastikon - a special hymn of praise (Greek doxa). The doxastikon for Great Saturday is in Tone 6, so we use the Tone 6 samohlasen melody. (Listen to some stichera in Tone 6.) We sing "Glory..." to the tone 6 verse melody, and the doxastikon to the Tone 6 sticheron melody.

The very last sticheron, at "Now and ever...", is a dogmatikon - a hymn that teaches something about a dogma of the Church, usually the dogma of the Incarnation. If there is a dogmatikon, it is usually sung in the "Tone of the week" - which here means Tone 1. Beginning with Holy Saturday, we start the cycle with Tone 1, so we sing "Now and ever" to the tone 1 verse melody, and the dogmatikon to the Tone 1 sticheron melody. The dogmatikon is usually somewhat long; that is one reason it is often used as a tool for teaching (and learning) the samohlasen melodies in each tone.

While the last stichera are being sung, the clergy prepare to make the Little Entrance. When the Lamp-lighting stichera are done, the deacon (or priest) intones, "Wisdom! Be attentive!", and the cantor starts the singing of the Hymn of the Evening, "O Joyful Light".

The readings of Vespers

In the liturgical books, there are fifteen readings appointed for this service, to accompany the baptisms which were once held at this service. In most parishes, only a selection of these readings are taken. The readings should be decided on between the celebrant, deacon (if there is one) and cantors, so the deacon knows how many readings to intone for.

The deacon (or priest) does not need to know WHAT each reading is; that is the lector's job. As noted in the service booklet, the deacon intones "Wisdom!", which is the signal for the lector to announce the title of the book. (The title to be used for each book of Scripture can be found on page 28 of the Cantor's Companion.) Then the deacon intones "Let us be attentive!"; the people sit, if they have been standing to this point, and the lector begins to read. (Remember: in church, "read" always means to chant in a reading tone!)

The sixth and fifteenth readings (which are the only readings that MUST be taken) are special. In their context, each one ends with a hymn or prayer, and this hymn or prayer is sung responsorially between the lector and faithful (led by the cantor - so this is one service where if at all possible, the lector and cantor should be different people!)

The sixth reading is from Exodus, and recounts the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites. When the lector arrives at the description of the hymn of praise sung to God by the Israelites, and reads, "...Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:", the cantor and faithful stand up and sing the refrain of the Scriptural hymn:

The booklet provides a very simple melody for the lector to use when singing the verses of the hymn (or they could be sung on a single pitch, if necessary). After every verse, the refrain is sung by cantor and faithful. Listen to a tutorial example of the hymn at the reading from Exodus.

The fifteenth reading, from Daniel, recounts the story of the three young men in the furnace. Like the reading from Exodus, it ends with a hymn - here, the hymn is sung by the three young men. The refrain, sung by cantor and people, is:

Listen to a tutorial example of the hymn at the reading from Exodus.

Transition to the Divine Liturgy

Following the readings, there is a Small Litany which marks the seque from Vespers to the Divine Liturgy. Since this is an ancient baptismal day of the Church, we sing "All you who have been baptized into Christ" instead of the usual Thrice-Holy Hymn. The booklet gives both settings of "All you who have been baptized" from the Divine Liturgies book.

Then an Epistle is sung, preceded by the following prokeimenon:

(Listen to the tutorial recording.) The Epistle is on page 202 of the Epistle book; be sure to take the one for Vespers and Divine Liturgy, not the one for Matins.

Normally, we would sing an Alleluia before the Gospel. But at this service, the clergy need to change from dark to bright vestments, and also change the altar cloths. So the faithful sing Psalm 81 in a solemn form, with the refrain:

Since this refrain replaces the Alleluia, a prokeimenon / alleluia melody (tone 7) is used for the refrain. The lector chants the verses, and the faithful repeat the refrain (Compare this to the singing of "Let my prayer ascend" at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts; here, the priest is occupied and can't easily sing the verses!) This hymn should NOT be rushed, since the clergy need to make the switch to bright vestments and furnishings. (Listen to the tutorial recording of Psalm 81.)

When all is complete, the deacon (or priest) reads the Gospel account of the Resurrection, which is followed (as usual at the Divine Liturgy) by the Litany of Fervent Supplication.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist

A special (and very old) hymn is sung in place of the normal Cherubikon or Cherubic Hymn. On Holy Saturday, we sing "Let all mortal flesh keep silent" - the ancient entrance hymn of the Liturgy of Saint James. Here it is in the prostopinije melody:

Before the commemorations (listen):

After the Commemorations (listen):

THIS IS NOT AS HARD AS IT LOOKS! The version of this hymn to which most cantors are accustomed is a "shortened" version with some phrases repeated, and both "halves" of the hymn sung before and after the commemorations. If instead, it is sung at a reasonable tempo as written, there will be no need to repeat the hymn to cover the celebrant's actions in the sanctuary.

Follow the link for the tutorial recording of each part. If you are used to the old form, and simply follow the full melody as written out, you will probably find that there is just one tricky place: the mi - ti - do at "earthbound" and "as food" in the first part, and "they sing" in the second. The temptation for someone used to the simplified version is to sing mi - la - ti instead of mi - ti - do as it is found in the Slavonic. (Listen to the same hymn in Slavonic.)

It's actually a lot simpler from here onward. The Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil continues as usual, and the booklet gives both sets of Basil melodies. Instead of "In you, O Woman full of grace", we sing the irmos of Great and Holy Saturday. Following the pattern in the Divine Liturgies book, the Holy Saturday booklet provides both a simple version of the irmos (to the "common" Tone 6 irmos melody):

and a solemn melody. (Both versions are also given in the booklet for Jerusalem Matins, which is the source of the Canon from which the irmos is taken.) Listen to the tutorial recordings, if you like, for the simple and solemn versions. (The old Great and Holy Saturday Vesper Liturgy booklet had this irmos set to the melody of "Let all mortal flesh" instead of to an irmos melody of one form or another.)

The Communion Hymn is appointed to be sung to the same melody as "Let all mortal flesh". (Listen to the tutorial recording.)


After Communion

There are only two more things to point out.

After Communion, in place of "We have seen the true light", we sing the following sticheron (to the Tone 2 samohlasen melody):

The reason for this replacement (which comes from the Greek tradition) is that we avoid singing "We have seen the true light", which is a Pentecost hymn. From Pascha until Pentecost, this hymn is not sung; it is replaced by either "Christ is risen" (during the forty days of Pascha) or "Be exalted above the heavens, O God..." (from Ascension to the eve of Pentecost.)

Finally, AFTER the ambon prayer (and in some places, after the final dismissal), bread and wine are blessed; this was originally to provide sustenence for the faithful who would remain in church all night.

With that, we come to the end of the Vespers with Divine Liturgy for Great and Holy Saturday.