By the waters of Babylon, there we sat and we wept when we remembered Sion.
Upon the willows in the midst thereof did we hang our instruments.
For there, they that had taken us captive asked us for words of song.
And they that had led us away asked us for a hymn, saying: Sing us one of the songs of Sion.
But how shall we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?
–Psalm 136, LXX/137, Masoretic
In liturgical churches, today is one of the preparatory Sundays of Lent. For most of those with which readers will be familiar, Ash Wednesday is this coming Wednesday; some traditions, such as Catholic and some Lutherans, will have ashes rubbed on their foreheads while the priest or minister says, “Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In my own tradition, Eastern Orthodox, it’s a little different. We won’t begin “Great Lent,” as we call it to distinguish it from other fasting periods, for another two weeks. But we do have three Sundays of preparation for Lent, and today is the second of those three. Russian Orthodox churches will have sung the Psalm above during Matins.
It’s one of my favorites because it describes pretty much my whole life: singing, in a strange land. I’ve been singing for over sixty years now, first as a tot and then as a child who just loved music. My first “formal” setting for singing was the Glee Club of the high school I attended, and after that, I sang in a variety of church choirs (and two secular choirs, when living in Germany). And always…feeling like a stranger, literally or figuratively.
Singing in Greek, when I attended Greek Orthodox churches: It doesn’t get much more foreign than that. The words, the alphabet, the music itself, are so very foreign to the Western ear! Greek music uses quarter tones – if yout ry to sing do, re, mi while “sliding” up the scale, you will hit a variety of pitches in between do and re, between re and mi, and so on. Those are not only quarter tones, but also micro-tones. I’m told there are about sixteen of them. Greek music doesn’t use them all, but I’m sure it’s not for want of trying.
Singing in German, when living in Germany: I didn’t speak German before I moved there. Don’t have any German blood in my veins. But, married to someone whose mother is German and who spoke German, it was a given that we were going to experience the full culture to the best of our ability, and in retrospect, it was a good decision. The richness of German musical tradition does have to be experienced to be fully appreciated. There is, of course, the classical-music aspect, but there are also folk songs that are simply charming in the way they touch on every aspect of daily life. We know too little in the United States about the folk-music traditions of our European ancestors, and we are the poorer for it.
Singing in a Catholic choir should never have felt foreign. I grew up in the Catholic tradition. But it was the pre-Vatican-II tradition, with Masses by the classical composers, Palestrina, Mozart, Fauré, among many, many others. By the time I was out of high school and singing in choirs, though, all of that was passé, and we were singing music best described as “liturgical folk songs.” Not that they were real folk songs. They were songs composed in what their composers fondly imagined to be folk style. For a lover of classical music like me, this was sheer torture, and I think I never felt more like a stranger than when I was trying to make Catholic choirs work for me.
Even the Glee Club: High school is either the best time of your life, or the worst. For me it was the absolute worst. The nuns were different from the Dominicans I had grown up with; the girls were from all over the Diocese, all from different parish cultures; the subject matter was of absolutely no interest whatsoever. (It was an Academic curriculum. In grade school, I had been encouraged to pursue an Academic curriculum. In retrospect, I should have gone to a commercial school and taken a Business curriculum, but there’s no way to know that when you’re thirteen.) The only thing high school had going for it was Glee Club – and I didn’t even pass the audition the first time I sang for it. (I’m sure the sprained ankle didn’t help.) The second time was the charm, and for the last two years of high school, Glee Club was the highlight of the week.
I learned so much about proper singing in Glee Club: How to open your mouth wide, how to make a sound chamber out of it, how to pronounce words so that they could be understood by an audience – singing diction feels ridiculous, but if you sing the way you speak, you swallow half the sound – correct posture to open up the lungs, breathing from the diaphragm to increase your breath capacity, things that were reiterated in every subsequent choir I sang with. My overall high-school education was worth very little; Glee Club taught me everything I’ve ever really used in life. But it was probably the strangest of all the strange lands I’ve sung in.
The Psalm “By the waters of Babylon” is, at its root, a song of exiles, a song written for people who are in a place utterly foreign to them, with strange customs and a strange language, and a way of life so strange that the people who have been taken captive can’t even sing when requested to do so by their captors. I wonder how many of us feel that way at different times in our lives, looking around and saying, “I absolutely do not belong here, and I have no idea how to get where I do belong.” I’ve felt that way for most of my life.
Except when I’m in a Russian Orthodox church. Many Russian churches do use English in their Liturgies, but many others still use Church Slavonic (best described as “Church Russian”). If you’re in a parish that uses Church Slavonic, the music will be written in the Russian language, an alphabet derived from Greek. It will not in any way resemble Byzantine chant, but it’s also different from the music common to Western churches, even from the classical music that used to be such a common experience in the Catholic Church. It’s…mystical. It makes you think, “This must be what heaven sounds like.”
And when I sing it – I’m no longer in a strange land. I’m home.