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Byzantine music (Modern Greek: Βυζαντινή Μουσική) is the music of the Byzantine Empire composed to Greek texts as ceremonial, festival, or church music. Greek and foreign historians agree that the ecclesiastical tones and in general the whole system of Byzantine music is closely related to the ancient Greek system. It remains the oldest genre of extant music, of which the manner of performance and (with increasing accuracy from the 5th century onwards) the names of the composers, and sometimes the particulars of each musical work's circumstances, are known.
Extent of Byzantine music culture vs. liturgical chant proper
The term Byzantine music is commonly associated with the medieval sacred chant of Christian Churches following the Constantinopolitan Rite. The identification of "Byzantine music" with "Eastern Christian liturgical chant" is a misconception due to historical cultural reasons. Its main cause is the leading role of the Church as bearer of learning and official culture in the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium), a phenomenon that was not always that extreme but that was exacerbated towards the end of the empire's reign (14th century onwards) as great secular scholars migrated away from a declining Constantinople to rising western cities, bringing with them much of the learning that would spur the development of the European Renaissance. The shrinking of Greek speaking official culture around a church nucleus was even more accentuated by political force when the official culture of the court changed after the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire on May 29, 1453.
Today, few sources and studies exist about Byzantine music on the whole. A Persian geographer of the 9th century (Ibn Khordadbeh), mentioned in his lexicographical discussion of music instruments that Byzantines typically used urghun (organ), shilyani (probably a type of harp or lyre), şalandj (probably a bagpipe) and the bowed lyra (Greek: λύρα - lūrā) (lyre), an instrument similar to the Arabic Rabab. Byzantine music included a rich tradition of instrumental court music and dance, as would be expected considering the historically and archaeologically documented opulence of the Eastern Roman Empire. There survive but a few explicit accounts of secular music. A characteristic example are the accounts of pneumatic organs, whose construction was most advanced in the eastern empire prior to their development in the west after the Renaissance. To a certain degree we may look for remnants of Byzantine or early (Greek-speaking, Orthodox Christian) near eastern music in the music of the Ottoman Court. Examples such as that of the eminent composer and theorist Prince Cantemir of Romania learning music from the Greek musician Angelos, indicate the continuing participation of Greek speaking people in court culture. However, the sources are too scarce to permit any well-founded stipulations about what cultural musical changes, took place when and under which influences during the long histories of the Byzantine empire, but the influences of ancient Greek basin and the Greek Christian chants in the Byzantine music as origin, are confirmed. Music of Turkey was influenced by Byzantine music, too (mainly in the years 1640-1712). It seems also remarkable that Ottoman music is a synthesis, carrying the culture of Greek Christian chants. It emerged as the result of a sharing process between the Greek people and the minorities living alongside Byzantium, considering the breadth and length of duration of these empires and the great number of ethnicities and major or minor cultures that they encompassed or came in touch with at each stage of their development. The rest of this article confines itself to a discussion of the musical tradition of Greek Orthodox liturgical chant, and is reproduced from Dr. Conomos text as cited at the end of the article.
Origins and early Christian period
Byzantine music is modal and dependent on the sound system. The sounds are based on ancient Greek models. The tradition of eastern liturgical chant, encompassing the Greek-speaking world, developed in the Byzantine Empire 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 Greek age and inspired by the monophonic vocal music that evolved in the early Greek Christian cities of Alexandria, Antioch and Ephesus.
Byzantine chant manuscripts date from the 9th 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 12th or 13th 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 4th century, is the Easter Vespers hymn, Phos Hilaron ("O Resplendent Light"); another, O Monogenes Yios ("Only Begotten Son"), ascribed to the emperor 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 5th century), attested in his biography but not preserved in any later Byzantine order of service.
Two concepts must be understood 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 (Revelation 4:8-11), for the musical function of angels as conceived in the Old Testament is brought out clearly 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 Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, Athenagoras of Athens and Pseudo-Dionysius 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 acknowledgment 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, it 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. 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.
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, this 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 being 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 Greek: Χορος. 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 Melodist (6th 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 prooimion (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 Cosmas of Jerusalem (both eighth century). Essentially, the kanon is an hymnodic complex composed 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) The Song of the sea (Exodus 15:1-19);
- (2) The Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:1-43);
- (3)-(6) The prayers of Hannah, Habakkuk, Isaiah, Jonah (1 Kings [1 Samuel] 2:1-10; Habakkuk 3:1-19; Isaiah 26:9-20; Jonah 2:3-10);
- (7)-(8) The Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Holy Children (Apoc. Daniel 3:26-56 and 3:57-88);
- (9) The Magnificat and the Benedictus (Luke 1:46-55 and 68-79).
The second ode is usually omitted unless the general theme of the kanon is fasting and repentance, because of its extremely strict spirit.
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.
Later Byzantine 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 Maïstores, “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 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. 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. Unfortunately, their work has since been misinterpreted often, and much of the oral tradition has been lost.
Simon Karas (1905–1999) began an effort to assemble as much material as possible in order to restore the apparently lost tradition. His work is continued by Lycourgos Angelopoulos and other psaltai (“cantors”) of Byzantine music. Two major styles of interpretation have evolved, the Hagioritic, which is simpler and is mainly followed in monasteries, and the Patriarchal, as exemplified by the style taught at the Great Church of Constantinople, which is more elaborate and is practised in parish churches. Nowadays the Orthodox churches maintain chanting schools in which new cantors are trained. Each diocese employs a protopsaltes (“first cantor”), who directs the diocesan cathedral choir and supervises musical education and performance. The protopsaltes of the Patriarchates are given the title Archon Protopsaltes (“Lord First Cantor”), a title also conferred as an honorific to distinguished cantors and scholars of Byzantine music.
Jessica Suchy-Pilalis is an example of a modern composer who writes and arranges sacred music in the Byzantine tradition. Dr. Suchy-Pilalis serves as Protopsaltes at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.
- Ancient Greek music
- Modern Greek music
- Traditional music of Crete
- The Lyra of the Byzantine
- Znamenny Chant - the Russian chant style that evolved from the Byzantine system
For more on the theory of Byzantine music and its cultural relatives in Greek-speaking peoples see:
For collections of Byzantine hymnography see:
For contemporary works featuring Byzantine chant see:
- The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. 2007 - "Byzantine music"
- Ecumenical Patriarchate
- Margaret J. Kartomi: On Concepts and Classifications of Musical Instruments. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology, University of Chicago Press, 1990
- Influences of Byzantine music (The music of Turkey is also, a reference to the Byzantine music. In the period of classical music, Ottoman music was influenced by Byzantine music - specifically in:1640-1712)
- Institute For Research On Music And Acoustics The sound system of Byzantine music, is based on ancient Greek models.
- The origin of Byzantine music Institute For Research On Music And Acoustics
- Center for Research and Promotion of National Greek Music - Archives of Simon and Aggeliki Karas
- "Dr. Jessica Suchy-Pilalis, Research Specialty: Byzantine Chant". Retrieved 10 February 2012.
Text reproduced with permission from Dr. Conomos' text at the website of the "Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America". 
- Byzantine music on the Official web-site of Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople
- Learn to Chant
- Comparison of Byzantine and Western music
- Excellent resource for Byzantine music
- Hymnography: Traditional Melodic Genres
- Byzantine music tutorial in video
Traditional Eastern Orthodox Chant Documentation Project
- (English) (Greek)"A Handbook on Theoretical and Practical Music" from 1825