The Byzantine Music

Pr. Michalis Adamis



The term Byzantine Music is generally understood as meaning the music of the Eastern -especially of the Greek- Christian Orthodox Church. Its history not only covers that of Byzantium itself, but also that of the post-Byzantine period; its age-old tradition is as alive today as it used to be.

The origins of Byzantine Music date back to the first centuries of Christianity. Several theories have been put forward regarding its birth, although none of them has received general approval. What is clear is that, the various elements and local traditions with this music abundantly tapped for its development blended most creatively, to produce an entirely new music with its own distinctive features. Essentially original, this music stood out before long and became not only the music of the Christian Orthodox Church, but also the scholarly music of the vast Byzantine Empire, an instrument used for creation, research and "avant-garde" production. After the fall of Constantinople (1453), it survived as the music of the Orthodox Church and pursued over the centuries its course of high level artistic expression, passing on to us what makes up today the tradition of religious music in Greece.

Byzantine Music is a musical world of its own, with its own principles, its own quite characteristic "ethos", with an underlying philosophical viewpoint and its own theoretical lines of research as far as musical structure and development are concerned. It has patiently created its own sophisticated system of notation by which one may follow the astonishing progress of this music throughout the ages; a progress continually breaking new ground, with its characteristic landmarks and gradual changes in writing, form and style; a progress set by creators of great stature, famous composers whom history has immortalized.

Byzantine Music is a music for the Church, and is liturgically associated with religious services; it is composed for the Church and is performed in the Church. The forms which it has taken, whether short or long, are directly related to the virtual "ordo" of religious practice. Its basic constitutive element is the troparion, a typical musical miniature; on the larger scale, the entire religious Office - within which the smaller elements are organized - is musically typical. Byzantine Music is monophonic. It has not called on other parameters of musical construction, such as harmony or counterpoint, yet it has produced a wealth of extraordinarily rich melodies, as well as complex musical forms, and carried the monophonic genre to heights of refinement and wisdom. It has remained an essentially vocal music.

Singing a melody always included its cantillation, together with a continuous drone accompaniment, the isocratima. The isocratima is an art on its own; this Greek term means "to hold the ison", that is the base note of the musical "mode" in which the troparion is chanted, and this note moves in relation with the fluctuations of the mode.

The mode (echos in Greek), understood as the relative arrangement of the whole tones and semitones in a sequence of notes, is the central element on which the organization of Byzantine Music is based. Each mode is characterized by a different tetrachord, a sequence of four notes, as well as by a number of melodic formulas (theses) which produce the specific acoustic impression pertaining to each mode, and the differences between each of the eight modes of the system.

A very important period in the history of Byzantine Music is that which extends from the middle of the 5th century to the 11th century, a period during which most of the poetic texts of the hymns were completed and set to music by their authors, who were also composers. Among the most prominent of these there stand: Romanos the Melodist (5th C.), Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, Andrew of Crete (7th C.) and St. John Damascene (7th-8th C.), to whom tradition attributes the introduction of the Octoechos (eight mode) system and the analogous transcription of the hymns existing at that date.

The mode in which each hymn had originally composed, and the musical models that were adopted during that first period, were from then on to remain as permanent references for the entire musical production. Thus, over the extent of its long progression, always respectful of tradition and notwithstanding the apparent diversities of form and style, Byzantine music has preserved its unique identity and remained faithful to its original spirit.

In the 12th century, the style of the music performed in Byzantium was simple, pure and somewhat austere; its construction was syllabic, meaning that to each of the syllables of the poetic text there corresponded one note of melody.

During the period of the Middle Byzantine Empire, musical notation had flowered into a complete system of signs which would be inscribed above the words of the text and indicate the interval over which the melody was to vary, either up or down. Such a system is quite different from the Western notation, in which relative pitch is determined by a certain position in a scale, and is represented by a note placed on a particular degree of a staff. In Byzantine Music, the mode in which the hymn is written is indicated by a special sign called the martyrie, which is placed at the beginning. Thus, the interpretation of the signs is a conjugated procedure in which the intervals can only be defined when the tetrachords, on which the particular mode is based, are known.

Byzantine Chant grew more and more intricate as time went on, and this trend culminated in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, when great maistores (masters) such as Koukouzelis, Kladas and Koronis wrote in an extraordinarily melismatic style, in which it could take the whole of the musical phrase to express a single syllable of the text. A common preference is observed for held notes, fioriture and improvisation, indicating a tendency to reduce the importance of the text and increasingly to bring the music to the foreground.

During that important and interesting period (13th-15th C.), there appear novel and more freely written musical forms. A category of compositions called Kratimata gradually developed, without the support of any meaningful text. These are entirely musical works which instead of an underlying text, make use of syllables devoid of signification (te-ri-rem, a-na-ne, to-to). The Kratimata represent Byzantium's approach to pure music. In order to meet the requirements of the new style, notation is enriched at that time with many new signs showing how to perform the ornaments.

From the 16th century onwards, after a century of silence following the Fall of Constantinople (1453), a renaissance of Byzantine Music - based on tradition, yet stepping away from it - takes place in every field of religious music. A new form appears, called Calophonic Hirmos, which is used not only for liturgical, but also for panegyric and festive purposes, thus clearly illustrating the new trends in music and its drift away from the traditional forms then in use. Outstanding personalities of that period, such as Theophanus Karykis (16th C.), Petros Bereketis, the priest Balassios, Bishop Germanus of New Patras (17th C.) and others, are the first great composers of the Neo-Hellenic civilization as it grew from the trunk of Byzantine tradition.

During the period that followed the Fall of Constantinople, many attempts were made to improve notation and to produce more precise a system. The most remarkable of those put forward was the work of Petros Lambadarios (18th C.), who moreover undertook the important task of transcripting the music of religious services and oral tradition as it had been preserved until then. The huge corpus thus produced by Petros Lambadarios, together with the music he himself composed in a style both simple and pure, still make up most of today's music in the Greek Orthodox Christian Church.

In 1814, the three great masters, Chrysanthus, Bishop of Dyrrachium, Hourmouzios, Hartophylax of the Great Church, and Gregory, Protopsaltis of the Great Church, offered a notation system, as yet the most precise, which is still in use now. The work of Petros Lambadarios, of his contemporaries and of his successors, has been transcribed into this system and is thus preserved as a living tradition within the Orthodox Church and in the spirit of Greek people.

+ Michalis Adamis