speaking, Byzantine music is the medieval sacred chant of Christian Churches
following the Orthodox rite. This tradition, encompassing the Greek-speaking
world, developed in Byzantium from the establishment of its capital,
Constantinople, in 330 until its fall in 1453. It is undeniably of composite
origin, drawing on the artistic and technical productions of the classical age,
on Jewish music, and inspired by the monophonic vocal music that evolved in
the early Christian cities of Alexandria, Antioch and Epheus.
Byzantine chant manuscripts date from the
ninth century, while lectionaries of biblical readings in Ekphonetic Notation
(a primitive graphic system designed to indicate the manner of reciting
lessons from Scripture) begin about a century earlier and continue in use
until the twelfth or thirteenth century. Our knowledge of the older period is
derived from Church service books Typika, patristic writings and
medieval histories. Scattered examples of hymn texts from the early centuries
of Greek Christianity still exist. Some of these employ the metrical schemes
of classical Greek poetry; but the change of pronunciation had rendered those
meters largely meaningless, and, except when classical forms were imitated,
Byzantine hymns of the following centuries are prose-poetry ‹ unrhymed verses
of irregular length and accentual patterns. The common term for a short hymn
of one stanza, or one of a series of stanzas, is troparion (this may
carry the further connotation of a hymn interpolated between psalm verses). A
famous example, whose existence is attested as early as the fourth century, is
the Vesper hymn, Phos Hilaron, "Gladsome Light"; another, O
Monogenes Yios, "Only Begotten Son," ascribed to Justinian I (527-565),
figures in the introductory portion of the Divine Liturgy. Perhaps the
earliest set of troparia of known authorship are those of the monk
Auxentios (first half of the fifty century), attested in his biography but not
preserved in any later Byzantine order of service.
Two concepts must be understood if we are
to appreciate fully the function of music in Byzantine worship. The first,
which retained currency in Greek theological and mystical speculation until
the dissolution of the empire, was the belief in the angelic transmission of
sacred chant: the assumption that the early Church united men in the prayer of
the angelic choirs. This notion is certainly older than the Apocalypse account
(Revelations 4:8-11), for the musical function of angels as conceived in the
Old Testament is brought out dearly by Isaiah (6:1-4) and Ezekiel (3:12). Most
significant in the fact, outlined in Exodus 25, that the pattern for the
earthly worship of Israel was derived from heaven. The allusion is perpetuated
in the writings of the early Fathers, such as Clement of Rome, Justin,
Ignatius of Antioch Athenagoras of Athens and Pseudo-Dionysios the Areopagite.
It receives acknowledgement later in the liturgical treatises of Nicolas
Kavasilas and Symeon of Thessaloniki (Patrologia Graeca, CL, 368-492
and CLV, 536-699, respectively).
The effect that this concept had on church
music was threefold: first, it bred a highly conservative attitude to musical
composition; secondly, it stabilized the melodic tradition of certain hymns;
and thirdly, it continued, for a time, the anonymity of the composer. For if a
chant is of heavenly origin, then the acknowledgement received by man in
transmitting it to posterity ought to be minimal. This is especially true when
he deals with hymns which were known to have been first sung by angelic
choirs‹such as the Amen, Alleluia, Trisagion, Sanctus and
Doxology. Consequently, until Palaeologan times, was inconceivable for a
composer to place his name beside a notated text in the manuscripts.
Ideas of originality and free invention
similar to those seen in later music probably never existed in early Byzantine
times. The very notion of using traditional formulas (or melody-types) as a
compositional technique shows an archaic concept in liturgical chant, and is
quite the opposite of free, original creation. It seems evident that the
chants of the Byzantine repertory found in musical manuscripts from the tenth
century to the time of the Fourth Crusade (1204-1261), represent the final and
only surviving stage of an evolution, the beginnings of which go back at least
to the sixth century and possibly even to the chant of the Synagogue. What
exact changes took place in the music during the formative stage is difficult
to say; but certain chants in use even today exhibit characteristics which
may throw light on the
subject. These include recitation formulas, melody-types, and standard phrases
that are clearly evident in the folk music and other traditional music of
various cultures of the East, including the music of the Jews.
The second, less permanent, concept was
that of koinonia or "communion." This was less permanent because, after
the fourth century, when it was analyzed and integrated into a theological
system, the bond and "oneness" that united the clergy and the faithful in
liturgical worship was less potent. It is, however, one of the key ideas for
understanding a number of realities for which we now have different names.
With regard to musical performance,
concept of koinonia may be applied to
the primitive use of the word choros. It referred, not to a separate
group within the congregation entrusted with musical responsibilities, but to
the congregation as a whole. St. Ignatius wrote to the Church in Ephesus in
the following way:
You must every man of
you join in a choir so that bring harmonious and in concord and taking the
keynote of God in unison, you may sing with one voice through Jesus Christ
to the Father, so that He may hear you and through your good deeds recognize
that you are parts of His Son.
A marked feature of liturgical ceremony
was the active part taken by the people in its performance, particularly in
the recitation or chanting of hymns, responses and psalms. The terms choros,
koinonia and ekklesia were used synonymously in the early Byzantine
Church. In Psalms 149 and 150, the Septuagint translated the Hebrew word
machol (dance) by the Greek word choros. As a result, the
early Church borrowed this word from classical antiquity as a designation for
the congregation, at worship and in song in heaven and on earth both.
Before long, however, a clericalizing tendency soon began to manifest itself
in linguistic usage, particularly after the Council of Laodicea, whose
fifteenth Canon permitted only the canonical psaltai, "chanters," to
sing at the services. The word choros came to refer to the special
priestly function in the liturgy‹just as, architecturally speaking, the choir
became a reserved area near the sanctuary‹and choros eventually became
the equivalent of the word kleros.
The development of large scale hymnographic
forms begins in the fifth century with the rise of the kontakion, a
long and elaborate metrical sermon, reputedly of Syriac origin, which finds
its acme in the work of St. Romanos the Melodos (sixth century). This dramatic
homily, which usually paraphrases a Biblical narrative, comprises some 20 to
30 stanzas and was sung during the Morning Office (Orthros) in a simple
and direct syllabic style (one note per syllable). The earliest musical
versions, however, are "melismatic" (that is, many notes per syllable of text),
and belong to the time of the ninth century and later when kontakia
were reduced to the ptooimion (introductory verse) and first oikos
(stanza). In the second half of the seventh century, the kontakion
was supplanted by a new type of hymn, the kanon, initiated by St. Andrew of
Crete (ca. 660-ca. 740) and developed by Saints John of Damascus and Kosmas of
Jerusalem (both eighth century). Essentially, the kanon is an hymnodic
complex comprised of nine odes which were originally attached to the nine
Biblical canticles and to which they were related by means of corresponding
poetic allusion or textual quotation.
The nine canticles are:
(1) and (2) The two songs of Moses (Exodus
15:1-19 and Deuteronomy 32:1-43);
(3)-(7)Tthe prayers of Hannah, Habbakuk, Isaiah,
Jonah and the Three Children (1 Kings [1 Samuel] 2:1-10; Habbakuk 3:1-19;
Isaiah 26:9-20; Jonah 2:3-10; Apoc. Daniel 3:26-56);
(8) The song of the Three Children (Apoc.
(9) The Magnificat and the Benedictus (Luke 1:46-55
Each ode consists of an initial troparion, the heirmos,
followed by three, four or more troparia which are the exact metrical
reproductions of the heirmos, thereby allowing the same music to fit all
troparia equally well.
The nine heirmoi, however, are
metrically dissimilar; consequently, an entire kanon comprises nine
independent melodies (eight, when the second ode is omitted, which are united
musically by the same mode and textually by references to the general theme of
the liturgical occasion, and sometimes by an acrostic. Heirmoi in syllabic
style are gathered in the Heirmologion, a bulky volume which first
appeared in the middle of the tenth century and contains over a thousand model
troparia arranged into an oktoechos (the eight-mode musical system).
Another kind of hymn, important both for
its number and for the variety of its liturgical use, is the sticheron.
Festal stichera, accompanying both the fixed psalms at the beginning
and end of Vespers and the psalmody of the Lauds (the Ainoi) in the
Morning Office, exist for all special days of the year, the Sundays and
weekdays of Lent, and for the recurrent cycle of eight weeks in the order of
the modes beginning with Easter. Their melodies preserved in the
Sticherarion, are considerably more elaborate and varied than in the
tradition of the Heirmologion.
and Post-Byzantine Periods
With the end of creative poetical
composition, Byzantine chant entered its final period, devoted largely to the
production of more elaborate musical settings of the traditional texts: either
embellishments of the earlier simpler melodies, or original music in highly
ornamental style. This was the work of the so-called Maistores, "masters,"
of whom the most celebrated was St. John Koukouzeles (active c.1300), compared
in Byzantine writings to St. John of Damascus himself, as an innovator in the
development of chant. The multiplication of new settings and elaborations of
the old continued in the centuries following the fall of Constantinople, until
by the end of the eighteenth century the original musical repertory of the
medieval musical manuscripts had been quite replaced by later compositions,
and even the basic model system had undergone profound modification.
Chrysanthos of Madytos (ca. 1770-46),
Gregory the Protopsaltes, and Chourmouzios the Archivist were responsible for
a much needed reform of the notation of Greek ecclesiastical music.
Essentially, this work consisted of a simplification of the Byzantine musical
symbols which, by the early 19th century, had become so complex and technical
that only highly skilled chanters were able to interpret them correctly.
Despite its numerous shortcomings the work of the three reformers is a
landmark in the history of Greek Church music, since it introduced the system
of neo-Byzantine music upon which are based the present-day chants of the
Greek Orthodox Church.
Dimitri Conomos, Ph.D.
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