Secretary of your praise

Katrina DowlingMusicLeave a Comment

In describing how music is a gift from God, Jeremy Begbie says that music as we know it is not the sound of God, but is “the sound of the created order praising God.” Music is the gift given to creatures “for created reality to perform its true vocation in praising the Creator.”[1]

George Herbert’s poem “Providence” also notes that humans have a special gift in our ability to praise with awareness and eloquence, noting that God has “put the penne alone into his [humankind’s] hand, And made him Secretarie of thy praise.”

Of course it means that those who have the gift (all humans) have a special responsibility to use it! As a later verse in “Providence” has it,

He that to praise and laud thee doth refrain,
Doth not refrain unto himself alone,
But robs a thousand who would praise thee fain

…which makes me think of a very great Greater Doxology that has carried a small part of the Moscow Synodal School’s traditions through a dark time of suppression: the Greater Doxology in Sergei Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, op.37 (1915).

znamenny chant notation: opening of the Paschal canon, Pomorskii Obikhod, Preobrazhensky Bogodelnyi Dom, Moscow, 1911.

znamenny chant notation: opening of the Paschal canon, Pomorskii Obikhod, Preobrazhensky Bogodelnyi Dom, Moscow, 1911.

Rachmaninov composed All-Night Vigil as a concert-piece, not a liturgical musical setting, but for its 15 movements he selected canticles and hymns of Vespers and Matins from the liturgy of the All Night Vigil of the Russian Orthodox Church. The musical style of the Moscow Synodal School in the early twentieth century incorporated a synthesis of different chant styles and polyphonic styles, and Rachmaninov was not only steeped in this music, but also skilled at uniting it with his personal musical style – to the extent that it’s sometimes difficult, in his music, to know whether you are hearing a quotation of a traditional chant or song, or a freshly-composed melody of his own.

The Greater Doxology of the Vigil is a longer text than the Greater Doxology of the Western Church. It begins with the Gloria in Excelsis (see also Glory in the highest):

Glory be to God on high, and on earth be peace, good will towards men.
We praise thee, we bless thee, we worship thee, we glorify thee, we give thanks to thee for thy great glory,
O Lord God, heavenly king, God the Father Almighty. O Lord, the only begotten Son, Jesus Christ; Also the Holy Spirit.
O Lord God, Lamb of God, son of the Father, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us;
that takest away the sins of the world, receive our prayer.
Thou that sittest at the right hand of the Father, have mercy upon us.
For thou only art holy; Thou only art the Lord; thou only, Jesus Christ, in the glory of god the Father. Amen.

It continues with Psalm verses:

Every day will I give thanks unto thee, O Lord, and praise they Name for ever and ever.
Vouchsafe, O Lord this day to keep us without sin.
Blessed art thou, O Lord, God of our Fathers, praised and glorified be thy holy Name for ever. Amen.
Let thy merciful kindness, O Lord, be upon us, even as our trust is in thee. Blessed art thou, O Lord; teach me thy statutes.
Lord, thou hast been our refuge from generation to generation.
I said, Lord, be merciful unto me and heal my soul, for I have sinned against thee. Teach me to do the thing that pleaseth thee, for thou art my God, for with thee is the well of life, and in thy light shall we see light.
Continue thy loving kindness unto those that know thee.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy upon us.

Then it concludes with the Lesser Doxology (Gloria Patri; see also Praise God from whom all blessings flow):

Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, as it was, is now, and shall be, world without end. Amen.

As you enjoy this rendition by the State Symphony Cappella of Russia, you might like to notice:

  • znamenny style chant; you can hear the chant melody recurring in different voices throughout
  • sense of cadence (coming to completion) at some points enhanced by the basses dividing, e.g. at 1ʹ48″ – 2ʹ19″
  • bell-like effect in all voices leading up to the “Amen” at the end of the Gloria in Excelsis, at 2ʹ28″
  • after this point, the psalm verses are set to contrasting textures (combinations of voices) and tempi (speeds), so you can distinguish between different verses even if you don’t understand Russian
  • the Lesser Doxology begins at 6ʹ50″

I like that the role of “Secretary of your praise,” as it emerges in Rachmaninov’s work here for example, is not only to copy down, but also to bring into being something that is waiting to be uttered. Is there a part of your life – music-making or otherwise – that makes you aware of being the Secretary, fulfilling this part of creation’s vocation?


[1] Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 277.

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