The Icon of Music

Orthodox theology is a “seamless garment”: no part of Orthodox doctrine, worship, prayer or life stands in a category of its own. Everything refers and reveals the one thing in Christ – our salvation. Even the doctrine of the Trinity, as utterly sublime as it is, remains a matter revealed for our salvation. Because this inter-relatedness is true it is possible to speak of Scripture as a “verbal icon” (Florovsky), or to say that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words” (Seventh Council), or that “one who prays is a theologian and a theologian is one who prays.” In my limited reading I have never read any particular commentary that spoke of the music of the Church as an icon, but I feel confident in describing it in that manner. It is possible to say this, at the very least, because all of creation can properly be seen as icon – a window to heaven.

To say that music is an icon is not to have said all there is to say about music. But it does say something about the proper place of music in the Church. Music is not about us. Music in the Church does not exist for our enjoyment or entertainment, even though the joy associated with it may at times be exquisite.

Archimandrite Zacharias (of St. John’s Monastery in Essex) describes the heart of worship as “exchange.” It is not an exchange in the sense that we offer something in “trade” with God. Rather, it is an exchange that is also named “communion” and “participation.” God becomes what we are and in and through Him (by grace) we become what He is. This “exchange” is our salvation. In the mystery of Holy Baptism the candidate is asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” The union which is effected in Holy Baptism (Romans 6:3-4) is our salvation, “newness of life.” All that takes place within the Christian life is union and exchange – it is the means and manner of our salvation.

Music exists for exchange and union. It is the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in which we unite ourselves in offering our bodies (the voice) as a living sacrifice to God.

Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim,
And who sing the thrice holy hymn
to the life-creating Trinity,
now lay aside all earthly cares.
That we may receive the King of All,
Who comes invisibly upborne
by the angelic hosts,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
(Cherubic Hymn from the Divine Liturgy)

Not all paintings are icons. Not all music is iconic. Not every voice is raised in union with the heavenly hosts. To write a true icon is a great and holy thing. To sing in a manner that reveals heaven and unites us with the heavenly hosts is a great thing indeed. We were created to sing in just such a manner.

Lest I be misunderstood, I do not claim that all music in Orthodox Churches is iconic in character. Many Churches are decorated with religious art, which, though beautiful, is not iconic. Some music falls short of its intent within the Tradition. By the same token, there is music outside of the Orthodox Church that is iconic – both by accident and by intention.

Music that renders heaven opaque – particularly music presented as Christian – is tragic. We were meant to sing with angels – just as they delight in singing with us.

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9 Responses to “The Icon of Music”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    Photo: this is a shot of the dome in the Church of the Shepherds in Bet Shahur near Bethlehem. The iconography is fairly new. The drum of the dome portrays Christ as the celebrant at the Eucharist with the angelic hosts being the chief participants in the Great Entrance – it is, in effect, an icon of the Cherubic Hymn.

  2. uberVU - social comments Says:

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  3. coffeezombie Says:

    Our choir director has compared music to icons and the overall idea of beautifying the church, as a way of emphasizing how important it is that we put in the effort to sing well. As he notes, an iconographer doesn’t just casually paint an icon; he puts much effort, attention, and prayer into painting the icon in a particular way. Likewise, we, as the choir, need to develop our abilities, and, when we’re in the Liturgy, we need to be attentive to the words we’re singing, but we also need to be attentive to how well we’re singing the words.

  4. Nike Says:

    Dear Father Stephen: I have been a choir member on and off for some ten years, and recently started leading a childrens choir at our church. This subject is near and dear to my heart, though I must confess that I have not “officially studied” the topic. “Almost” everything I know about the church, though I learned from the choir. Having said that…correct me if I am wrong!

    All music evokes emotion. And if we are to open our hearts toward God, we need some emotion. The music of the church is meant to channel that emotion in a meaningful direction for our spiritual benefit. It’s interesting that music in the Orthodox church is never instrumental and never without words. It is always vocal, and inextricably tied to the Word. It’s all about our salvation and moving closer to God. The psalmody and music in our church is theology and Truth, so all chanting, or singing of the choir is meant to open our hearts toward the Divine. You will never hear melody or without voice for that reason, the Word gives it clarity and a heavenly direction.

    Music as it relates to the Truth of the Gospel and the faith, or the lives of Saints, lifts our hearts to God and directs our emotions toward Heaven, and that does make it an icon, as you say.

    Meanwhile, pray for us. We are in the midst of our third blizzard in less than a month here in the nation’s capitol. While it is simply beautiful outside, we are wishing that our power will stay on through the day!!

    God Bless You!

  5. Yannis Says:

    I particularly love how unbiasedly words flow, without having to conform (but without deviating either) to the tune in Orthodoxy. I also am very fond of the ison, being depth itself in my perception.

    The inherent heaviness and sorrowfulness of many hymns/tunes is part and parcel with the southern eastern landscape and psyche that gave birth to it.

    Here are two very nice examples, one in Greek and one in Romanian:

    There are other spiritual approaches to music that i admire and attracted to, as (predictably) Zen chanting. The principle in Zen is simple (and its the same as in many other Zen rituals/modes of worship/spiritual art): to bring to light the inner state of the one who performs it. Experienced masters can tell from chanting, brush strokes and bell ringing the inner state of the person who performed the acts.

    The aim is total merging of the doer and the doing, ie total eclipsing of all fears, hopes and dreams, in short of ego, and thus full natural inner flow, losing oneself in the act.

    Regards

    yannis

  6. Mary Lowell Says:

    The theology of the Orthodox Church is embedded in her hymnography, and church singing is the primary instrument of its preaching, catechesis and evangelism. Sermons, Bible studies and church schools support spiritual formation, but this is not how the Church draws near to the soul; it is through the depth of her poetry, chanted and sung. In the tradition of God’s greatest poet, King David, the liturgical poets of the Orthodox Church have produced works that express the fullness of the Christian revelation. Among the best known hymnographers are Sts. James, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Ephraim the Syrian, Andrew of Crete, John Damascene and Romanos the Melodist. Church composers and musicians throughout the centuries have continuously molded and remolded the texts of these poet-theologians into aural icons that awaken our spiritual senses to receive understanding.

  7. Fr. Philip Says:

    Thank you for this post, as usual very timely for thoughts that I have been having. In our Church group we are reading Bread and Water, Wine and Oil by Fr. Meletios Weber. In it, he talks quite a bit in the first chapter about this separation or fragmentation of the mind and the heart. His conclusion to heal this fragmentation is to participate in the Mysteries of the Church. As we discussed this point, one thing that came out was music. It really is in the music of the Church where this proper combination of the mind and the heart is fully realized. You have the doctrines and traditions of the Church (the mind) poetically put to the community surrounded with the beautiful melodies that bring us to a mysterious awareness of the presence of God. Though he does not say it outright in the first chapter, it seems to me that the Liturgical life of the Church is the prime example of getting our lives together and focused, and of course, the beautiful hymnography is a key to that Orthodox experience of a Living God!

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Fr. Philip,
    Greetings to on of my favorite priests! I think your observation is indeed correct – and I think the sung nature of most of the liturgy is quite key. I know that my mind wanders even then – but singing certainly helps to hold it in place.

    I find that in Matins each morning, chanting the praises is among my favorite places. It is so blatantly thankful, it sings well, and when joined in the heart is one of the most profoundly healing moments of the morning.

    Arch. Meletios told us in Fort Worth that you cannot give thanks from the heart and be assaulted by the logismoi at the same time. It clearly offers some insight into the wonderful inner life of your wife’s maternal grandfather. As I recall, he liked to sing or listen to music of praise almost incessantly. He was particularly fond of the recordings released from St. Vladimir’s while you were there.

    Glory to God!

  9. Gere Says:

    Magnificent post, thought-provoking, and more, prayer-provoking.

    (Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

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