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The flowering of Christian worship took place in the first two centuries following Constantine's edict of toleration, which legalized Christianity, and put upon it the burden of developing a musical form, of developing the ceremonial, and of providing theological education about the faith. Within this period the musical aspect of Eastern Orthodox worship began, and some of the greatest hymns (many still in use) were composed. In his book, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, Fr. Alexander Schmemann summarizes the dynamic, motivation, and purpose of the Church in developing its music and chanting in the following section entitled "Chanting and Music":

"We have said that the chanting of 'songs and hymns and spiritual songs' was an essential part of Christian worship and was inherited from the Hebrew tradition. In spite of this demonstrated inheritance by the Church of Hebrew chant forms and traditions, however, there can be no doubt that here again after the fourth century a profound change gradually occurred. This was not a change or development in musical theory or technique, but a change in the function of the Church's chanting, its new place in the general structure or worship, its acquisition of new liturgical significance.

"This change is best demonstrated by the peculiar duality in the place and function of chanting in our modern worship. On the one hand, a 'singing quality' has been assigned to almost every word pronounced in Church; Western rubrics still speak of the 'chanting' of the Gospel by the deacon, and the manner of reading the psalms or parimia is close to being a form of chant. In using the term 'chant' ancient Ordos had reference to the entire service, which was thought of in all its parts as a singing of praise to God.

"We find the same definition of worship as chanting in the New Testament. In Revelation the elders sing a new song before the Lamb, and the Apostle Paul summons the faithful to 'teach and admonish one another ... by grace singing in your hearts to the Lord' (Rev. 4:9; 14:3, 15:3 and Col. 3:16). While not dealing here with the heart of the question, whether there was here a 'Semitic' concept of liturgical chanting, we may note simply that the first meaning of chanting in our Ordo and worship correspond precisely to this Semitic concept. This does not mean that early Christian worship recognized no difference between the various types of chanting and made no special provision for 'hymns' — i.e. for material written expressly to be sung (for example, the biblical 'song'). But their function was the same as that of prayers and psalms and litanies — all were to the same degree the prayer of the Church, all were subordinated equally to the general scheme of worship.

"On the other hand there is within our Ordo a second, narrower, more specialized concept of chanting. This is the chanting which is set in contrast to reading. A whole great area of worship (the Oktoichos, for example) consists almost exclusively of hymnody: troparia, canons, versicles, etc. Moreover the musical execution of this material, its division according to tones, stylistic similarities, etc., represents its main purpose. It can be said that here chanting acquires its own independent significance, is set apart as a special element of worship distinct from all others. If in the first view all worship is expressed melodically, and is chanting in some sense, then in this second view chanting is isolated and acquires its own special function in worship. So much significance is attached to this function that the Ordo directs the chanting or non-chanting of a given text depending on the festal nature of the service. One of the earliest Church hymns or canticles — the Great Doxology — is in our modern Ordo directed sometimes to be sung and sometimes to be said. Chanting has become the expression and sign of festival character, of a festal day (by means of the number of versicles, etc.). Secondly, chanting has acquired its own special material, which has gradually taken a central place in worship.

"In this evolution of the place and significance of chanting in the Ordo we must distinguish the historical factors which brought it about, and also the interpretation which was given to it and permanently fixed its significance in Byzantine liturgical theology. We have already pointed out its general cause: the change in the external conditions of worship which marked the period after Constantine, reflected first of all in huge church buildings, with their need for a corresponding 'amplification' of liturgical material. The influence of the Imperial court ritual undoubtedly played a great role in this 'amplification' and development in worship of external festal solemnity. We may assume that the terminology of the Hellenistic cult of the emperor was partially appropriated by the Church even at an earlier date — and applied to Christ. It cannot be doubted that after Constantine both the language and the form of this cult were received into Christian worship and became one of its characteristic 'expressions.' Hymnographical material (greetings, anthems such as 'long live the Emperor,' etc.) played a very prominent part in this cult. The experience and view of chanting as a special liturgical function, as a manifestation of festal solemnity, was a natural result of the new liturgical piety — i.e. the understanding of the cult as primarily a sacred, solemn ceremonial.

"But if Christian worship acquired its general concept and experience of the function of liturgical chanting from this 'secular' source, this source did not determine the content of Christian hymnography. Modern studies of the history of Byzantine chanting point clearly to the Church's resistance to 'Hellenic' poetry, even when vested in Christian clothes. This is not the place for a detailed description of this antagonism. In his Hymnography of the Greek Church, Cardinal Pitra has stressed the fact that the Church rejected the forms of classic poetry even when the early Fathers were its authors, preferring a more 'lowly poesy.' Since then the purely technical study of Byzantine Hymnography has taken a great step forward, and it may be accepted that the decisive influence both in form and content was not Greek but Semitic poetry. The earliest forms of this hymnography — the troparion and kontakion — show a dependence on Syrian poetry (the so-called memra or preaching homily) and, as Wellesz notes, 'the music of the early church.' Thus the position of chanting in Byzantine worship was determined by two 'co-ordinates.' Its place in the structure of worship, what we have been calling its liturgical function, may be traced to the ceremonial, 'festal' concept of cult, characteristic of Hellenic liturgical piety, while its content and poetic form may be traced back to the early Christian, biblical and 'Semitic' tradition.

"These two co-ordinates reach a synthesis in that theologically liturgical interpretation of the Church's chanting which we find first clearly expressed in Pseudo-Dionysius, which in turn defined the whole subsequent development of the Church's hymnography within the framework of the Byzantine Ordo. According to Dionysius the hymns, songs and poems used in Church are a 'resounding' or echo of the heavenly chanting, which the hymnographer hears with a spiritual ear and transmits in his work. The Church's hymn is a copy of the heavenly 'archetype.' We recognize here that familiar principle of consecration to a higher order, a hierarchical ascent to an invisible reality. The Church's canticles are proclaimed by angels, and therefore the hymnographer must follow the established types of heavenly origin (hence the significance of the 'model' in Byzantine hymnography, understood as a 'metaphysical' concept rather than as an object of simple imitation). Here it is important only to take note of this new understanding of the Church's chanting as a special element in worship, an understanding clearly connected with the experience of worship as a festal and mysteriological ceremony.

"Simeon's description of the Sung Service in all probability reflects a rather early stage in the development of this type of worship — since in it the chanted material is still closely bound to biblical texts and has not yet developed, as it did later, into an independent hymnody. His description is interesting, first, because already there is an unusual stress laid on chanting. 'All Catholic Churches in the whole world,' he writes, 'have observed it (the Sung Service) from the beginning and have uttered nothing in worship except in song'; and second, because of Simeon's contrasting of this — from his point of view — ancient and universal type of worship with the monastic type, celebrated without chanting. 'Of course,' he remarks, 'this latter institution was brought on by necessity and was determined by pastoral authority.' By necessity 'all the sacred monasteries and Churches followed this Ordo and only a few retained for a while the Ordo borrowed from the great Church of Constantinople.'

"Simeon's service is undoubtedly an early one; this is indicated by its antiphonal structure and, more important, by the absence of an elaborate hymnody in the form of independent canons and groups of troparia. For this reason we can see in it all the more clearly the point of departure for the general path of development of this hymnody — from refrains to verses of psalms, from biblical songs to hymns actually displacing the biblical texts. (Thus, for example, to the verses of the ancient Vespers psalm 'Lord I have cried...' the refrain was added, 'Thy life-giving Cross we glorify, O Lord...' this being the embryo of future hymns based on 'Lord I have cried.') There is no need here to set forth the further development of hymnody, since although the forms of hymns were later modified (troparia developed into kontakia, kontakia into canons), the liturgical function of chanting and its general place in worship remained unchanged. This process of development, as modern research is showing, was very complicated, influenced by a multitude of different factors.

"One thing is sure: there was a gradual complication and expansion of hymnody; increasingly hymns took a central place in the liturgical life of the Church. Pitra has indeed called the introduction of the troparion a 'revolution' in the common prayer of the Church. This did not mean simply the addition to the service of new material more suitable to its festal and ceremonial nature. It was the result of a profound change in the very understanding of worship. 'It would be easy,' writes Pitra, 'to find many analogies between a solemn service of the Greek rite and the ancient Greek drama. It has already been noted that the choirs and semi-choirs correspond to the antiphonal chanting of psalms, the idiomela and katabasiai to the monostrophes and parables, the anthems to the responsive verses, etc. Undoubtedly we must attribute the terms kathisma, katabasia, etc., whose mystical etymology is extremely obscure, to the significance of groups either moving or standing still during the singing of sacred songs. It may be that the term oikos refers simply to the groups arranged in a circle around the leading chorister or precentor as he recited a poem, which was then continued in a musical form since given the name kontakion...'

"Again let us note that the details of this complicated process — leading to the substitution of the kontakion by the canon, etc. — have been set forth in special studies, and there is no need for us to repeat them here. In these works one can also trace the gradual growth of troparia and heirmologia — their slow organization in the form of the Oktoichos. All this belongs to a special field in the history of the Church's chanting. From the viewpoint of the history of the Ordo it is important simply to point out the general fact — this rapid growth of hymnody and the transformation of chanting into a very special and complex stratum in the Church's liturgical tradition.' [1]

The development of hymnody in the early and mid Byzantine period must not then be thought of as an external influence which caused the Church to create a large body of aesthetically pleasing but theologically irrelevant material. Quite the opposite. In much the same way as the efforts of the Seven Ecumenical Councils and (among others) the Cappadocian Fathers defined the theological and doctrinal foundations of the Church, the work of the hymnographers naturally incorporated this teaching into the liturgical life of the church for the purpose of edifying the faithful and building up the faith. Someone once asked Fr. Georges Florovsky (a great twentieth century Orthodox theologian in America) where was the best place to go to learn the teachings of the church. He is said to have replied: "Go and stand next to the chanter's stand for a full year and you will learn the theology of the Church."

As two brief examples, let us consider elements of kontakion and canon, parts of Orthodox hymnody discussed by Fr. Schmemann above. St. Gregory Nazianzen was not only a great theologian, he was a hymnodist, and composed a Hymn for Easter which was sung in the early church and comes down to us today. It conveys joy in the Resurrection and theologically sound teaching:

"This is the Day of Resurrection.
Let us offer God its first-fruits — which is ourselves.
Let us, as his most precious children, return to the likeness of God,
What is verily his likeness is us.
Let us reverence our worth.
Let us honor our Exemplar.
Let us come to understand the power of the 'mystery' wherein Christ died."

The hymnographer generally considered to be the greatest in the Eastern Church was St. Romanos the Melodist. His prelude to the Kontakion for the Nativity is still sung and has become one of the best-loved hymns of the Orthodox Church:

"Today the Virgin gives birth to him who is above all being,
And the earth offers a cave to him whom no one can approach.
Angels with shepherds give glory,
And magi journey with a star,
For to us there has been born a little child,
God before the ages."


Excerpted with permission of the publisher from Introduction to Liturgical Theology, by Fr. Alexander Schmemann. Copyright St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. This book is available in our Web Store (learn more here).


[1] Schmemann, Alexander; Introduction to Liturgical Theology, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, 1986, p. 164 ff. This title is available for purchase in our Web Store learn more here).