The Music of Roman Hurko and the Principle of Noble Accessibility

Below is some new music written by Roman Hurko, a Byzantine Catholic. It is the Our Father from his Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, which has recently come to my attention.I have written a couple of times on the importance that I place on the reestablishing our traditions of art and music as living traditions in which there is a dynamic creativity that communicates to people today. We are looking for a popular culture that does not compromise on its principles. The phrase that seems to summarise this idea is ‘noble accessibility’.My first reaction to the music of Hurko was that although I like it, might not correspond to the principle of noble accessibility. I can’t imagine many congregations being able to sing this – it is just too difficult. It was my colleague Paul Jernberg a choral music specialist and himself a composer who introduced me to this music. In some ways this is surprising, for Paul is adamant that this principle of noble accessibility must be present in liturgical music. So I asked him about to tell more about this. The points he made in response are given below, but to summarise, he told me that for him there are two aspects accessibility. First is one that means that the music is simple enough for an average congregation can sing – the St Michael Prayer that I recently featured comes into this category. The second emphasises the meditative aspect of liturgical music – it might be so difficult to sing that only the choir can handle it, but it must something that the ordinary congregation can listen to easily and in the right way. All of this without compromising on its beauty. Here is what he wrote:

• The noble accessibilty that needs to characterize all Catholic sacred music, is important both in congregational and choral music, each of which has an important place in the Liturgy.

• Whereas music composed for the congregation needs to be “singable”, music composed for choirs needs to be accessible to the minds and hearts of the congregation as they hear it! It needs to communicate in a musical language that the faithful can readily receive, and which through its beauty and sacred character lifts hearts to the transcendent.

• Yes, there might be some formation needed here, as those unaccustomed to the tradition of Sacred Music adjust to its contemplative nature. However, one should not be required to undergo extensive musical training in order to appreciate music in the Liturgy! The formation
required will be more theological and spiritual, rather than musical.

• The choral music of Roman Hurko, composed for choirs singing the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (Eastern Catholic Rite), is an eminent example of this noble accessibility in choral music. His melodies, harmonies and rhythms are composed in such a way as to communicate
to the common man, a profound beauty that lifts the heart and mind to prayer.

This aspect of listening as well as singing is important in the liturgy. Some settings or parts emphasize the vocal participation of the congregation; others, such as polyphonic settings in the Western tradition, call forth the more meditative participation of the congregation. Antiphonal singing, an important aspect of both Eastern and Western liturgical traditions, engages us in both ways. Sometimes this involves having the congregation divided into two groups, while at other times the antiphonal principle is manifested through the choir alternating with congregation. In the latter case, it is appropriate for the choir to sing more ornately beautiful and challenging settings, corresponding to their musical abilities, while the congregation sings simpler arrangements.

As an artist I am always thinking about the parallels between sacred art and music. In the case of art participation is not a requirement – we don’t expect everybody to be painting in church, that would be art therapy! But the other aspect of accessibility does apply. It is down to artists to work within the traditional forms in such a way that ordinary church goers will respond easily and willingly so that it raises their hearts and minds to God.

Roman Hurko’s website is www.romanhurko.com; and a link through to his iTunes page, for anyone who would like to download his music, is here.

Paul Jernberg is Composer-in-Residence at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, Merrimack, NH.

David Clayton

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David is an Englishman living in New Hampshire, USA. He is an artist, teacher, published writer and broadcaster who holds a permanent post as Artist-in-Residence and Lecturer in Liberal Arts at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. The Way of Beauty program, which is offered at TMC, focuses on the link between Catholic culture, with a special emphasis on art, and the liturgy. David was received into the Church in London in 1993. Visit the Way of Beauty blog at thewayofbeauty.org.

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