Chicago Greeks oppose choral music in 1908


Several years ago, I began writing about the “Americanization” of Orthodoxy — things like pews, organs, mixed choirs, the cassocks vs. collars debate, clean shaven priests, etc. (Click here to read my article on organs in Greek churches.) "Organs in Greek Orthodox churches"

Recently, I found a great historical source — an open letter from a group of Chicago Greeks in 1908 to the Greek consul, protesting the introduction of choral music in their church, which was replacing traditional Byzantine chant. The letter was published in the Greek Star newspaper on Feb. 7, 1908. Here’s the full letter (available at the website of the Newberry Library in Chicago
All of our thanks to Matthew Namee for his excellent historical work at SOCHA! According to the Society's website ...

The Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas (SOCHA) exists to promote the study of the history of the Orthodox Christian Church in the New World; to collect source materials and make them available to researchers and scholars; to disseminate historical information to the public; and to encourage networking among those engaged in the study of American Orthodox history. SOCHA is particularly dedicated to this study based on the examination of primary sources with integrity and clarity.

Anyone who has made a comparative study of the history of Orthodox Christianity in North America has probably quickly surmised that there is something of a historiographical problem. That is, the writing of the history of Orthodox Christianity in America has been plagued with jurisdictional squabbles, claims to primacy and other agendas, often with little attention to what primary sources actually yield up as the story contained within them. Myths and ideology have often dominated these histories, rather than a close reading of historical documents.

While there have certainly been some studies published in the past that are not so ideologically driven, the Society desires especially to emphasize studying and writing the history of Orthodoxy in the Americas (and elsewhere, of course, should members wish) to reflect an earnest, fresh engagement with primary sources. There is no jurisdictional agenda attached to SOCHA, and there is no specific ideology or philosophy members are required to share, excepting only the basic integrity crucial to historical study and the honesty required to have one’s premises challenged and revised should the evidence warrant it.

This site hosts essays, primary sources, links to podcasts, book reviews, tidbits discovered in the course of research, photographs, and more. Stay tuned.
Regarding Matthew Namee's article, musicologist Dr. Alexander Lingas comments, "Rare documentation of American echoes of the controversies in Greece over the introduction of composed polyphony in worship (the Greek side of which has been studied by Katy Romanou and the late Yannis Filopoulos):"

The Card Images on the Newberry Library webpage show that the English text of the letter is a translation from the Greek. So the word "mass", for example, might actually be the translator's word. I'd love to see the original Greek, if available.

Gotta hand it to those Chicago Greeks of 1908! It's fascinating how the same choral music which is taken for granted nowadays, considered perhaps to even be "tradition"(!), seemed so foreign, "unorthodox, unconventional, and blasphemous" to the Greeks of the time. They state, "Our church has not deviated from this ecclesiastical music in all the centuries of our church's existence."

The Chicago Greeks of 1908 are really amazing here because this letter strikes me as being more pro-Byzantine chant than anti-western music - a subtle difference, but important. As the letter states, "Will you ask the priest and board [of directors] of the above-mentioned Church to continue using the Byzantine chants and hymns, sung on the Byzantine scale? Our church has not deviated from this ecclesiastical music in all the centuries of our church's existence. This is the only type of music which can interpret the inspired ideas and divine principles of our church. It is the only music which can properly make the old hymns and old church songs of the Orthodox Church perfectly understood and thoroughly enjoyed. It is the only music that brings serenity to the soul, and makes possible the glorification and supplication of God and all the saints."

Of course they're anti-innovation and anti-westernization, but they know EXACTLY why. It's not the reflexive anti-westernism we see in some Orthodox circles. It's a clear and deep understanding of our ecclesiastic arts and a commitment to them.

Amazing discovery by Matthew Namee!

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