Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Iconography and the use of Western four-part harmony

We often hear talk of Western style religious paintings and how they’re inappropriate for Orthodox liturgical worship because they depart from the strict principles of Orthodox iconography. Icons are not mere religious art, but Scripture in picture form (for which reason many prefer to speak of icons being ‘written’ rather than painted, although the linguistic basis for this isn’t quite correct). As such, the painting icons should not be subject to personal tastes but must be undertaken with great attention to these principles in order for them to faithfully express the Holy Tradition of the Church. While styles develop with time, and are often shaped by local cultural elements, the basic principles remain the same. Byzantine, Syriac, Coptic, Georgian, Ethiopian and early Western styles vary greatly in their details, yet it doesn’t take an expert to notice that all are two-dimensional, all use light in a similar way, all are stylised rather than naturalistic [small mouths and large eyes, for example], and all attempt to portray the person depicted in a glorified state rather than their earthly one. But while there is pretty much a consensus among Orthodox about the impropriety of post-renaissance Western iconography, liturgical music, which permeates almost every single part of our divine services, has become a virtual free-for-all outside of the ‘Greek tradition’ [I don’t include here the Greek churches in America, where modern polyphonic compositions and organ accompaniment have become the norm, since this is something of an anomaly] and nobody seems to mind.

Yet the development of sacred music was also subject to regulations equally stringent as those followed by iconographers. Indeed, because music can so easily affect human emotion and rouse the passions of the soul, the holy Fathers showed particularly great concern whenever they discussed music, and many even questioned the use of music in the services altogether. Again, although the styles are many and varied – Gregorian, Byzantine, Russian Znamenny, Mozarabic, and Syriac to name but a few – they share a common character: simplicity [ostentatious or overly passionate music is to be avoided, a rule often broken even by those skilled in traditional chant], monophony [that all may offer up the same prayer "as with one voice"], and the absence of musical instruments. While Western iconography is now considered inappropriate by most, the Western four-part harmony that made its way into Russia via Ukraine around the time of Peter the Great is simply accepted as part of the Russian Orthodox tradition, without anyone stopping to consider whether such music, however beautiful it may be to listen to, is appropriate for worship. The problem is furthered by the fact that many modern Russian compositions, from which the choir master/mistress is often free to pick and chose at his/her leisure, pay little or no heed to the modal system around which so much of the Byzantine Rite (which, with the exception of the rather controversial attempts by ROCOR and the Antiochians to revive certain Western rites, has been the only surviving rite within the Eastern Orthodox Church since the 12th century) is based.

Local deviations from the norm always occur and generally speaking this is not a serious problem. The problem is that, when these are accepted as legitimate expressions of Orthodoxy rather than simply local aberrations, there is little preventing them from being adopted elsewhere. While the introduction of four-part harmony to many local churches throughout Eastern Europe was perhaps a consequence of a rather aggressive programme of russification, it has now become widespread elsewhere on the basis that it is easier to learn than traditional chant forms or simply “easier on the Western ear”. This I consider a great problem, and I see no reason for such a double standard around adherence to traditional forms.

Of interest:

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