The Psaltis (Cantor)

Who is the Cantor?

Why do we need the cantor?
What is the cantor’s role?

I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing to my God as long as I exist.

Ps. 103:33

OF COURSE, YOU KNOW THE CANTOR!

The Cantor (“Psaltis”) is the person who stands at the Cantor’s Stand on Sundays at the Divine Liturgy and every other sacred service of your parish and performs the Hymns of our Church alone or with an ensemble of assistants. You can see the Cantor, or might remember the Cantor standing and chanting into deep old age until abandoned by limited physical strength. But how many of us know how much work and preparation, how many sacrifices and even disappointments lie behind a Cantor’s mission to the Church and to the faithful? The following are aimed at answering these, among many other, questions.

THE CANTOR IS NORMALLY A TONSURED LOWER CLERIC

Representing the prayers of the faithful, in hymn and music, is the chief role of the Cantor and it is, in fact, a formal ecclesiastic ministry. Thus, this ministry is a sacred office. In the Divine Liturgy everything has a spiritual and divine character. From ancient times, our Church elevated the Cantor to the Lower Ranks of the Clergy to bless and allow sacred ministry outside of the Holy Sanctuary. In this way the Cantor was separated from the clergy (Bishop, Priest, Deacon) whose ministry in ecclesiastic service is inside the Holy Sanctuary, but also from the rest of the congregation – the faithful lay people. The Cantor is a vehicle of the people’s prayer during divine services and as such connects the faithful with Divine Worship, collaborating with the Priest and expressing the fullness of the Church.

The sanctity of a Cantor’s ministry and service imposes the wearing of a black robe (“Rasso”) during the services.

As a member of the Lower Ranks of the clergy, a Cantor cannot formally serve without a specific blessing by a Bishop, referred to as a “cheirothesia”. Indeed, just like a priest is assigned to a church, so too (traditionally) is a Cantor formally assigned, with the acclamation “Axios” (Worthy!) given by the faithful in attendance.

Thus, not everyone has the right or the privilege to chant responsibly in our tradition except the person appointed and ordained by a Bishop. The same applies to other lesser Ranks of the clergy (Reader and Altar Servant).

A REPRESENTATIVE OF A LONGSTANDING RELIGIOUS TRADITION

The music and hymnology of our faith and Church grew and matured to unparalleled musical and hymnologic heights (even according to Western musical scholars) between the 5th – 18th century, with Constantinople as its epicenter and the entirety of Asia Minor and the Holy Lands in adjunctive influence. This music, evolving mainly during the time of the Byzantine Empire, thus received its name and became inextricably associated with the Eastern Orthodox hymnologic tradition. With roots in ancient Greek music, it eventually evolved independently and acquired it’s own ethos and style befitting the spiritual and prayerful character of our faith. Thus, Byzantine Music became, and still is, a central and defining feature and element of  Eastern Orthodox worship. This precious asset has been entrusted to the Cantor, who – following the traces of the Masters and Creators of this sacred art, leverages the treasure that is passed from teachers to bequeath it to the following generations.

THE GRADATIONS

Byzantine Hymns are traditionally chanted in a solo or choral manner and also antiphonically, i.e. the alternate or responsive singing by a choir in two divisions. Thus, two Choirs were consecrated from the very early days of Eastern Orthodox ecclesiastic practice. The one on the right side of the Soleas, as we face the Holy Sanctuary, is led by the Protopsaltis (The Prime Cantor) and the other on the opposite side is led by the Lampadarios. Assistant musicians – the Domestichoi – to the right and left of the Protopsaltis and the Lampadarios – complete the foundation of the two Choirs. The Domestichoi are often the top students/apprentices of the Protopsaltis and Lampadarios, exhibiting substantial knowledge and vocal talent to give a “wholesome” ensemble character to each of the two Choirs. The Domestichoi can also provide a continuous “drone” of the tonic and dominants of the melody in what is referred to as the “isokratima” (ison). Completing the two Choirs are the Readers and the Canonarchs who intone the hymns to follow. A traditional Byzantine Choir is not polyphonic but monophonic, which means that although there is a Choir, everybody is chanting in “one voice” except those assigned to perform the “isokratima”, which varies from hymn to hymn and to ensure that the pitch won’t shift but also that harmonies of thirds, fourths, fifths, and eighths are created, giving an ancient Hellenic character to the music.

INDOMITABLE ENTHUSIASM

Cantors chant from their heart and soul. Cantors suffer spiritually when they do not chant because their life has been inextricably tied to this ministry, music, and art. Even though this art is not an end in itself, it is a means, which facilitates the faithful with their communion with God. Together with the Hymnology, the music that “vests” the text directs the hearts and minds of the faithful to higher grounds. Both express divine emotions and spiritual experiences. Our ecclesiastical music being rich in qualitative characters relies on the Psaltis’ enthusiasm for conceptual interpretation of hymns. With this workpersonlike heartful involvement, the Psaltis becomes an unrivaled mystagogue. As our music is prayerful it presupposes entities with faith, reverence, and solemnity.

MUSICAL TRAINING

In its early years, the music of our Church was simple. We even assume that the whole congregation chanted together. Little by little, as the length and complexity of the services increased, the melodies to cover them became complicated and more difficult. No longer could anyone render the hymns. That created the need for people with specialized knowledge and experience. Hence, the ministry and title of “Psaltis” (Cantor) was established. In fact, it was a vocation. To assume this vocation though, enthusiasm and vocal abilities were not enough. Canons of Ecumenical Synods demanded qualifications for this ministry. The Psaltis needed to be highly trained musically. A multitude of composers and hymnographers bequeathed us colorful melodies and complex musical scores, that require skillful expressors and artistic interpreters. Slowly, Masters of Music emerged, disseminating this great art to their students and apprentices. Through that, the essence of Byzantine Music was preserved and is taught until today, almost unchanged. One cannot only learn Theory and History of Byzantine Music from a Master Cantor but also Praxis (performance) and Typikon (liturgical order and rubrics) as well as Hymnology and Intoning and Reading, namely everything that is useful to become a worthy successor of that great heritage.

THE CANTOR’S MINISTRY AND VOCATION

Many of us believe that a Psaltis is occupied only on Sundays at the Divine Liturgy, weddings, baptisms, and maybe on some Feast days like the Nativity of our Lord, Theophany, or Holy Week. Although that depends on one Parish’s worship schedule and sacramental activity, this is mostly not the case. It is not only during the Sunday attendance. It can be Vesper Services, Orthros Services, the Paraklesis, i.e. Supplicatory Services, the Salutations, the Lenten Liturgies, any major Feast day of our Lord Jesus Christ or of the Virgin Mary, a Saint’s Day celebration, and more. Besides the above we must explain that it is certainly not only the attendance but also regardless of a short or a long service, it is the preparation.

Especially for a Psaltis who also leads a Byzantine Choir, rehearsal, preparation of the new repertoire etc. is not a brief affair but rather a very time- and strength-consuming case. Here we must point out that many Cantors do not engage in this ministry exclusively. In other words, they do not have a full time position but have other professions or day jobs. The above mainly applies for full time Cantors dedicated directly, and only, to teach, prepare, conduct, and perform whenever needed and thus, their ministry is also a vocation.

THE FUTURE

Although many young people show interest in Byzantine Music today, only a few of them actually study and learn it. Additionally, few have received the substantial corpus of the entirety of Byzantine Chant tradition, to multiply the talent to the level of mastery. Oftentimes, and unfortunately, mediocrity passes for, and is promoted as expertise and knowledge. This could lead to the loss of our religious identity, creating a gap, even a chasm between us and our ancient old musical and theological traditions. Echoing rites and rubrics of foreign traditions or creating our own practices, sometimes for questionable reasons will keep us closer to the ground rather than lifting us up, to God. Finally, not everyone should or can be a Psaltis. It must first begin with spiritual cleanliness and appreciation of the tenets of our faith and the Apostolic and Patristic traditions, and then, access to a teacher universally-accepted by peers and the Church as a representative of chant tradition in line with that of the Mother Church (the Ecumenical Patriarchate).

A MODEST PROPOSAL

Our duty as Orthodox Christians is to support any initiative of our Church, especially concerning its ministries and outreach. Byzantine Music is the backbone of our Eastern Orthodox Rites and therefore at the apex of the most important “experiential” factors of our Liturgical Life. How can we support its growth? Here are some ideas:

  1. Holding several workshops annually, that bring together two or more Master Cantors from our Archdiocese, to offer either nominal “fundamentals” learning of Byzantine Chant to our communities, especially the younger people or to offer more specialized training to community Cantors – and even our clergy!  
  2. Establishing a group or an association of “Friends of Byzantine Music” in every parish. Those clubs could help fund the creation and maintenance of a Byzantine Choir trained by a Master Cantor.
  3. Encouraging young people and their family, especially those with vocal skills and musical knowledge, to listen to and even learn Byzantine Music and to participate in everything associated with this at the parish level (e.g. go to the Analogion, listen, and watch the Psaltis during Vespers and Orthros).
  4. Nurture a return to tradition and the ecclesiastic archetype in terms of restoring hymns that are omitted for the sake of “time” and “speed”. The hierarchs and the priests will have an important responsibility to educate parish councils and the faithful about “why” our tradition is the way it is.

Our desire should be the continuation of our tradition, the multiplication of the talents given to our Master Cantors, and the staffing of our Cantors’ Stands (Analogion), so the majestic and glorious ecclesiastical melody, which many converts quote as the reason for coming into Orthodoxy and which many Western scholars are now fervently researching, can survive.

Our faith is a collective endeavor. Everybody can participate, with joy and with the objective of creating an earthly taste of Paradise inside their church…

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