The author of this essay
is a practitioner of Byzantine music and has been studying the art for
over six years. This is an important fact to keep in mind when one reads
the following essay, for there will be some occurrences where a known
fact is stated but no necessary source for the fact is cited. This is
so because there are limited resources in the archives of North America,
where the small number of psaltes (singers of Byzantine music) are seldom
scholars in the academic sense. Even those who are academic scholars
are primarily Greek-speaking and consequently are not able to produce
works concise and detailed enough to provide for an accurate representation
of Byzantine music for the Western world. So the author is found in
a situation where the knowledge has been passed down from a long line
of teachers (called mastores (English: masters) or protopsaltes) but
the necessary sources in the form of books are not necessarily available.
The cited works will provide information on my primary source for this
essay; namely my present teacher of Byzantine music.
What is known today as
Byzantine music has been developed and refined for over two millennia.
With its earliest roots going back to Pythagoras' philosophy on the
division of chords, its latest and final revision took place in 1881
in the city of Istanbul; the city still referred to by the practitioners
of this complex art by its more ancient name of Constantinople. For
the purposes of this essay, the name Constantinople will refer to the
city up to and including the present day.
To provide for a
clearer understanding of the theory of Byzantine music, the process
of the development of Byzantine music as it is known today will be
divided into two eras. We will call these two eras pre-Byzantine,
and Byzantine periods of musical development. The pre-Byzantine part
of the essay will cover developments made before the foundation of
Constantinople. This period includes everything before c. 330 C.E.
The Byzantine period will include all of the advancements made after
the founding of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. Every refinement
made up to the present day, the most important dates being the simplification
of the notation in 1821 by John Koukouzeles and the great council
of 1881, will be included in this period, but not, unfortunately in
Although there is
a very significant part played by notational theory on the development
of Byzantine music theory and Hymnography, the scope of this essay
does not allow for us to delve into this connection too deeply. It
is therefore necessary to attempt to separate these two arts as much
as we can and focus on the strict Hymnographical and theoretical part
of the development.
The date of 330 is an
important date to end this period because the adoption of a practice
of toleration of Christianity by the Roman Empire, under Constantine
the Great, encouraged the growth of Christianity as a religion. Thus,
for the first time, Christians could worship as they chose. This ending
of repression allowed for a great increase of musical and theological
advancement by Christians, although original musical creativity in the
Western sense was never practiced. Traditionally, Pythagoras' philosophy
on musical chords is thought of as the predecessor of Byzantine music,
but academically, the roots of the music are ascribed Hebraic origin.
We will deal with the academic theory first.
sprung up from the roots of the Judaic tradition, it is obvious that
there will be traces of Jewish tradition in Christian worship. It
is less known (to the non-academically inclined at least), however,
that early Christians did not think of themselves as Christians at
all, but rather as Jews (Hexter, 1995, pp. 60-100). It is therefore
natural that the earliest followers of Jesus, who were primarily Jewish,
maintained the rituals and practices of the Synagogue, including the
ways of its chanters and readers. It is also inferred that the converts
who were chanters and readers in the Synagogue instructed their fellow
Jesus-followers in the musical tradition of the Synagogue as it was
taught to them: through oral tradition.
This tradition included
practices that have been followed ever since in Byzantine music such
as certain Jewish rules of cantillation, which allowed for small improvisations
in the way a piece was sung but never to the extent where the traditional
formula and cadence were altered (Wellesz, 1954, p. 1). There is evidence
that exists to this very day that proves the relationship of Byzantine
music to Jewish music through the common recitation formulas that
exist in both.
in use even today exhibit characteristics which may throw light on
the subject [of the evolution of Byzantine music]. 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."
So we see that a
basic link exists between the music of the Synagogue and early Christian
music. A further relationship exists between the two traditions in
the form of similarities of Psalmody and Hymns. Briefly, Psalmody
is the chanting of the Psalms of David by the Jewish congregation,
which carried over to the Christian musical tradition and modelled
the way other forms of Byzantine musical pieces were sung (Christian
doxologies being the best example of preservation of Jewish Psalmody).
Hymns on the other hand, are paraphrases of biblical text, which are
written in such a way as to fit to conform to a traditional cantillational
formula. This practice was firmly based in Jewish tradition and found
in Jewish liturgies. Early Christian attempts at Hymnography (creation
of hymns) were immediately condemned because they were not exclusively
based on the words of the Scripture. But after only altering passages
that were allowable by the Orthodox majority did Hymnography take
hold within the Christian tradition (Wellesz, 1954, pp. 3-4).
So we can see that
the transferal of the Jewish tradition was primarily practical in
nature. This means that the origin of what is today Byzantine music
was based on the established practices of converted Jews whose liturgy
emulated that of the Synagogues from which they came: they simply
kept the practices that they learnt from the many years they spent
singing and worshipping in their Synagogues and applied these practices
to the worship of, what was to them, a continuation of their religion.
is taught as the founder of what has evolved to become Byzantine music.
This is true to a certain extent. Where the Jews contributed tradition
and practice, Pythagoras contributed theory. He was the first to connect
music to mathematics and pioneered the study of acoustics. Pythagoras
was also the first to create modes of music and to ascribe ratios
to several series of notes. This created scales which are the basis
of the Oktoechos (English: "eight modes") which is the center of Byzantine
music theory (Pythagoras' notes are still used in Western music as
well). (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1981, pp. 662-663, 704-705, v.12)
Ancient Greek musical
modes are simply different arrangements of notes of varying pitch.
These arrangements create scales that are related to one another but
are characterized by different "feelings," much like a major scale
compares to a minor scale in Western music. Thus, modes were classified
by assigning different names to them according to the feeling which
they imitated (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1981, p. 740, v.12). The
eight modes that are comprised from Byzantine music are separated
into three genres of feelings. This is directly descendent of the
ancient Greek practice, for in both systems, the number and names
of the genres are the same.
The three classificational
names used both in Byzantine and ancient Greek music are:
- Enharmonic: modes
that are of this genre are heavy and/or powerful in nature. One
may think of an ancient Byzantine army singing a war song when one
hears music in this scale.
- Chromatic: these
modes are sad but harmonious. Funeral and mourning hymns are usually
sung in this scale.
- Diatonic: this
scale is the one closest to the Western or European musical scale.
Miracle hymns and Christ's spoken words are sung in this usually
happy scale. However, this scale is almost universally used in Byzantine
music as well, being the scale which possesses most modes (four
Diatonic modes compared to two Enharmonic and two Chromatic).
There is often confusion
when one speaks of modes, scales and such to a person who may not
be accustomed to this subject, so we will take some time to explain
the matter at this point. We will assume that the reader has had some
exposure to Western/European music. As a visual queue we will use
the keys of a piano to compare to the scales of Byzantine music. Now
in European music, there are two basic variations of pitch that are
possible: the tone, and the semi tone. A full tone separates do from
re and re from mi, but only a semi-tone separates mi from fa (using
the scale with notes do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do). If you look on a piano's
keys, you will see that in between every full tone (the distance between
do and re for example) there is a black key in between the white keys.
These keys represent semi-tones which are equivalent to half the tonal
distance between do and re. Therefore, every semi-tone could be played
from do to do.
However, the natural
scale of European music (also known as the major scale) is played
exclusively on the white keys, hitting every natural note from do
to do. This produces a scale with the following tonal intervals:
-- 1 -- ý --- 1 ---- 1 --- 1 -- ½
- re - mi -- fa -- sol -- la - ti -- do
Now, since we know
that there are two scales in European music, we will now explain how
the minor scale is played with the use of the semi-tone keys. The
first ý interval between mi and fa now moves between re and mi while
the second ý tone interval between ti and do remains the same. Now
a new ý tone interval is created between sol and la making la and
ti 1ý tones away, making the scale like this:
-- ý -- 1 -- 1 - ý -- 1ý -- ½
- re - mi - fa -- sol - la -- ti -- do
Note that although
the scale is now played differently and although it definitely sounds
differently, there are still 6 full tones separating the notes in
the scales. Now a mode is simply a scale which may be the same scale
as a different mode but is played with a different base note, changing
the way a scale sounds slightly, but usually modes have scales that
are unique and independent of any other mode.
There is a fundamental
difference that exists between Byzantine music and European music
which has not yet been discussed, however. This is the fact that Byzantine
music has inherited micro-tonal intervals that separate its notes.
Deriving these micro-tones from ancient Greek music, Byzantine music
has been able to produce scales that could not possibly be played
using European notes. A good example of such a scale is the second
plagial mode of Byzantine music. This scale, like all Byzantine scales,
separates its notes with the equivalent of six European tones, just
like European scales. The fundamental difference is that in order
to be able to play every Byzantine note, one European tone must be
subdivided into 12 micro-tones. That is to say that instead of having
13 keys on a keyboard, you must have 73 keys spanning the same tonal
distance. Using the scale with notes pa-bou-ga-di-ke-zo-ni-pa, the
scale looks something like this:
-- 21 -- 3 -- 12 - 6 -- 21 - 3
- bou - ga - di - ke - zo - ni - pa
Any further comparison
would take too much time at this point, so we will leave the pre-Byzantine
era of musical development on this note (excuse the pun).
From the time of Constantine
the Great, the Orthodox Church was integrated into the Imperial office.
With all the privileges that it endowed upon the new religion, the Roman
Empire found itself unconditionally tied to its Christian subjects.
Constantine began a habit of building churches, funding projects to
copy bibles and scripture, adding bishops to the Imperial payroll, and
exempting clergy members from civil duties on town councils. All but
a very few Emperors from that time supported Christianity at great public
expense. This shows that Christianity was now forever a part of the
Imperial establishment. This meant that a unified empire meant a unified
church, and the Emperor was the one responsible for both. The first
major attempt at conquering every opposition to the Emperor's role as
the head of both church and empire came 200 years after the reign of
Constantine by Justinian I.
From the beginning
of his reign, "Justinian made every possible effort to strengthen
religious life throughout the Empire." (Wellesz, 1954, p. 15) One
such effort that Justinian made was that he ordered all the monks
of the Empire to perform three services a day in their monasteries.
These three services were the Mesonyktikon, the Orthros, and the Hesperinos,
(still practiced in Eastern Orthodox churches and monasteries) all
of which were compulsorily sung daily in the churches and monasteries
of the Empire. As a result of Justinian's efforts in strengthening
the church, a certain degree of splendor was added to every aspect
of religious life. It was in Justinian's time when Hagia Sophia was
built. It was in Justinian's time when hymns were being increasingly
produced to enrich the liturgical services of the church. Gradually,
music and hymnography took a major part in the liturgy of the church
and the singing and chanting of music became increasingly popular.
The controversy of
Iconoclasm was a surprising boost to monastic hymnography. Although
the persecution, torture, and death of monks was ordered by the Iconoclast
Empire for over 100 years until 842 (Treadgold, 1997, pp. 346-447),
the inhabitants of the monasteries found courage in the persecution
and hymnography increased in activity within the Empire's persecuted
inhabitants. Even after the controversy came to an end, hymnography
enjoyed a prosperous period of renewed interest. It was in this period
that two great forms of Byzantine hymnography, the kontakion and the
kanon, emerged. The kontakion and the kanon are both examples of hymnography.
In order to understand
a little bit about hymnography, certain words that are used in the
study of it need to be understood. One such word is metrics. When
we talk about metrics, we talk about the way in which a series of
words are spoken. For example, when two sentences are metrically identical,
they possess the same amount of syllables. When we say that two stanzas
are metrically identical, both the sentences and the syllables of
the stanzas pair up with one another, making a melody created for
one of them fit the other perfectly.
In Byzantine music,
stanzas are units of paraphrased biblical text that are grouped together,
by both theme and similar metrical composition, under an heirmo. An
heirmo is a stanza to which a melody is attached. Usually, the heirmos
is a well-known hymn that could be used as a template through which
to sing all stanzas of similar metrical composition. That is why most
heirmoi are used in several places throughout the kontakion and the
The kontakion, according
to Dimitri Conomos, is a "long and elaborate metrical sermon, reputedly
of Syriac origin, which finds its acme in the work of St. Romanos the
Melodos (sixth century)." (Conomos, 1998, online) These, as other hymnographical
works, are paraphrases of biblical scripture and were sung during the
Orthros, known as the service of the Laudes in Western English churches.
The way in which
the kontakion was sung was in a straight syllabic style (meaning one
note per syllable). There are eighteen to twenty-four stanzas contained
in the kontakion, all of which follow traditional musical formulas.
The first stanza in the set, the heirmos, sets the cantillational
melody which every other stanza follows with extremely limited musical
liberty, for all the stanzas have the same meter as the heirmos. Consequently,
any but the most conservative musical alteration would result in a
notable mispronunciation of a word in the text, or an error in the
well-known melody of the heirmos.
Most scholars regard
this period of hymnographical composition as the highest achievement
of Byzantine hymnography. However, the advent of the kanon, often
thought of as a notable decline in Byzantine musical and poetical
quality, presents us with a shift in the focus of the period's hymnographers
to an increasingly harmonious blending of metrical poetry and musical
conformity, the apex of which is found in the works of John of Damascus.
In the second half of
the seventh century, the kontakion was suddenly replaced by a new type
of hymn, the kanon, which is still used in the Orthodox Church to this
very day. It comprises of nine odes that are musically and metrically
independent of one another. Like the kontakion, each ode is comprised
of stanzas, this time numbering six to nine, which are modelled after
the first stanza, once again called the heirmos. The advent of the kanon
was a great step in the advancement of musical composition. Compared
to the kontakion, the kanon was melodically diverse. Instead of one
melody repeated twenty-four to thirty times, the kanon included nine
melodies sung up to nine times each.
It is therefore inferred
that the kanon, introduced by St. Andrew of Crete (c.660-c.740) and
refined by Saints John of Damascus and Kosmas of Jerusalem, was created
primarily for liturgical purposes, not as a form of art. The fusion
of words and music in the kanon are complete; so much so that the
meaning of the stanzas are never missed by the congregation although
a few words may be omitted. Therefore, the idea that hymnography declined
in this period is erroneous. The fact is that more effort was made
to join words and music rather than creating a poetically superior
stanza. This effort cannot be understood comparing the simple literary
art found within the kontakion to that found in the kanon (Wellesz,
1954, pp. 22-27).
The last great achievement
that we will discuss in this period is the introduction of the Oktoechos
by John of Damascus. Although evidence has been found of the Oktoechos
going back to the Jewish tradition, the advancement of the art by John
of Damascus was immense. Adding great amounts of stanzas to the kanon,
John is also credited with the creation of all of the heirmoi of the
The Oktoechos is
the way that the Byzantine church collected hymns according to the
mode in which they were composed. Thus, using one of the eight different
modes in Byzantine music meant that there were eight divisions of
hymns in the Octoechos. Literarily meaning "eight modes," the Oktoechos
cycles through each of the divisions every week (Saturday night Hesperinos,
vespers, being the exact office in which the mode switches) so that
by the end of eight weeks every division is read and sung.
There is a matter
which I purposely left out in my discussion of Byzantine chant in
order to make this essay concise and on topic, but it is an error
on my part which must be addressed. The theory that Byzantine music
is descendant of ancient Greek music is a viewpoint that has been
disputed by Egon Wellesz, probably the greatest Byzantine music theorist
in the Western world. Far be it for me to attempt an argument against
Wellesz's theory, but I do note a grave error in his thesis. He puts
forward an argument that "the music of the Byzantine church ... was
a legacy from the music of the Synagogue," and that Byzantine music
theory was "treated by Hellenistic and Byzantine philosophers only
in the course of their metaphysical speculations on numbers." (Wellesz,
1954, p. 43).
Throughout the course
of my studies, Byzantine music theory (the theory of Byzantine scales
in which notes are sometimes separated by micro-tonal intervals (sometimes
as small as one sixth of a full European tone in practice and often
one twelfth of a tone in theory) and sometimes separated by huge tones
(up to twice the tonal interval of a European tone)) has been a mixture
of philosophy and practice. Without knowing what distance lies between
the note you are singing and the note you need to hit next, it would
be impossible for you to advance further in the study of Byzantine
music. Theory is not just that, however. Often in Byzantine music,
a scale is required to be sung using a similar scale fitted to different
notes. This causes a shift in the base note's interval compared with
the scale. For instance, in the most common mode (almost exactly equivalent
to European music's scale), the fourth plagal mode, the scale is such:
- 10 - 8 - 12 - 12 - 10 - 8
- pa - bou - ga - di - ke - zo - ni
However, you are
often required to sing "ni os ga" meaning that the scale remains the
same but the notes are shifted three intervals higher. Thus the note
ni is sung at ga's spot, using the intervals that ga would normally
use. This makes the base note of the mode, ni, use intervals that
it doesn't normally use. The scale looks like this:
- 10 - 8 - 12 - 12 - 10 - 8
- ke - zo - ni - pa - bou - ga - di
So instead of increasing
your interval by 12, 10, 8 when advancing up the scale from your base
note, you increase it by 12, 12, 10. This is a change of about half
a tone (European) but only cumulatively. Without the theory of Byzantine
music, this slight change of interval, and consequently "feel" of
the modified mode, would be lost.
How could Wellesz
miss such a point? By the way he presents his argument on pages 42
and 43 in his essay on the Music of the Eastern Churches he fails
to point out that there are still two schooling methods that psaltes
use to this day. That of praktiki and that of theoritika. By praktiki,
a student will spend most of his time in the psalter with his teacher,
learning 'by ear' how modes sound by learning the heirmoi and other
well-known hymns sung in the church. This is the same as someone being
able to sing a song that they've heard over and over again through
their memory. Students schooled in this method cannot read music and
do not usually sound too pleasant.
The second schooling
method of theoritika, however, starts with study sessions between
the student(s) and the teacher that include both philosophical theory
of scales and modes as well as singing under the guiding of the teacher.
Of course, the next stage is to learn the praktiki as well, since
there are many services and countless variations on them. The only
way to properly conduct such services is to have experience in deciphering
the codes of the church that indicate precisely what is to be said
during a liturgy according to what day of the week, what week of the
Oktoechos, whether there is a feast day, what part of the year it
is, and many other such small variables that are all accounted for
by the church.
the Synagogue did provide us with the methods of praktiki that its
chanters and reader followed for centuries, the ancient Greeks provided
us with the philosophical divisions and modifications of the scales
that are frequently used in the Byzantine Church to this day. Even
the methods that the ancient Greeks used in creating scales were used
in the last revision of Byzantine music in 1821. Although this revision
is one of the most important ones in Byzantine music history, for
it gave us the form that Byzantine music has today, it was nothing
more than a definition of the scales and modes as well as the simplification
of the notation.
Byzantine music is
a living art, still studied and practiced by many of the Greek, Russian,
and other Eastern Orthodox churches. As we find ourselves increasingly
progressing towards a global community, we find that many young people
born far from Greece are losing both their language and consequently,
their religion. The mastores of the present age are exclusively from
Greece or Constantinople, and therefore have an excellent grasp of
Greek as a language, but often fail to understand the difficulties
of the present day. The new Byzantine musical and religious community,
however, sees this problem and is taking steps to solve it. The result
is that a new age of hymnography is seeming to evolve to meet the
new needs of the world. Ancient melodies are being fitted to English
and French hymns created using metrically similar words and phrases.
The mastores are slowly resurrecting an art that has been literally
dead since the eleventh and twelfth centuries when there were so many
hymns already present in the church that hymnography became outlawed.
My teacher is one
such maestora who is bringing Byzantine music to the French language.
Teaching a course in Byzantine music in Montreal, under the University
de Sherbrooke, he is revising and re-creating hymns fitted to melodies
without the proper metrical analysis needed. Also, new technology
never before available is being used to study the scales accurately.
We are now able to purchase equipment that can play tonal intervals
of one thirty-sixth, more than accurate enough for our purposes.
With the new needs
of our community expressing themselves the way they are, Byzantine
music is an art that will see a new age of renewed interest and activity.
Although the troubles that Byzantine music is facing in the face of
a new generation of foreign speaking people is a serious and dangerous
threat to its survival, it is not a threat that has had no equal.
Byzantine music is known to have flourished in the face of threatening
dangers. It has done so before in the eighth and ninth centuries during
the Iconoclast controversy. Instead of losing faith and creativity,
the hymnographers of the age were considered of the greatest in the
history of Byzantine music. We are seeing something of this reaction
today, proving that Byzantium is still alive and well, even after
over five centuries from its historical end.
This page is reproduced
by permission of the author, Pavlos Papadakis, student of Byzantine
Chant, Alumnus of Bishop's University and Project Director for Byzantine
Chant.com. Links to his sites can be found on our Resource
Ph.D. Orthodox Byzantine Music (http://www.goarch.org/access/byzantinemusic),
April 13, 1998.
Wellesz, Egon, and
Hughes, Anselm, The New Oxford History of Music, vols I and II, London:
Oxford University Press: 1954.
D., Theoritikon Byzantinis Mousikis, Athens: Zoi: 1942.
Micropaedia and Macropaedia: 15th edition, Toronto: William Benton,
A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Stanford: Stanford University
Gonzalez, Justo L.,
The Story of Christianity, Volume I: The Early Church to the Dawn
of the Reformation, New York: HarperSanFransisco, 1984.
My teacher, K. Costas Lagouros, is a source for many ideas in this
essay. He is the protopsalti at the Church of the Evangelismo in Park
Extension and a professor at the University of Sherbrooke in Byzantine
and Theological Studies.