Michael Prokurat, Alexander Golitzin, Michael D. Peterson
The A to Z of the Orthodox Church


MUSIC. Byzantine music, broadly speaking, is the medieval sacred chant of all Eastern Orthodox Churches, before which there is precious little evidence. Scholars hypothesize that musical precursors certainly existed, including Jewish music, productions of the classical age, and the plainsong of Christian urban centers; but no musical manuscripts predate Constantine (early 4th c.).

The New Testament and modern research have given specific hints about 1st c. hymns. For example, in the Gospels of Mk and Mt after the Last Supper it says that Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn. Other hymnodic material has been identified by New Testament scholarship, including Rom 11:33–36 and Rev 1:5–8, among many others. Whether this hymnody was chanted prose (according to older Greek patterns of classical literature) or song as we now describe singing, remains debated. Similarly, scholars scrutinized the differentiation between hymn and poetic homily when Bishop Melito of Sardis’s (q.v.) “Homily on Pascha” appeared in the 2nd c.

The question of pre-Constantinian music or chant is terribly complex. On the positive side: In the early Church, people actively participated in the performance of liturgy, so much so that the words choros (choir), koinonia (communion/fellowship), and ekklesia (church) were used synonymously. The background of Christian worship is usually identified with Jewish liturgy; and there seems to be a relationship between Hebrew poetry and Syriac liturgical poetry.

On the negative side: In the New Testament and through the 2nd-3rd c. there is little evidence that music played a significant role in communal worship. The Pauline references (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16) speak of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs-but not communally sung. Similarly, Justin Martyr (q.v.) talks about a united “Amen,” ending prayers, but no music. Further, when one mentions Jewish liturgy, what does the reference really mean?-the Temple in Jerusalem, an Aramaic-speaking synagogue practice, a Hellenistic, Greek-speaking synagogue, etc.?-while early rabbinical sources reveal a minimal use of music in services. Finally, the long-held supposition that early Christian worship originated in one primitive liturgy that subsequently diversified is coming under critical scrutiny. Some scholars prefer to see many liturgies developing simultaneously.

In the 4th-5th c. we find music first emerging at the same time as Christian architecture (q.v.) and as imperial ceremony appeared with liturgical solemnity. Still, the monks of the desert objected strenuously to the phenomenon. Only after heretics employed newly composed, popular tunes to advance their causes and entertain did the Church fully adopt the medium-sometimes copying the music of the heretics’ hymns! Such is the description of Ephrem the Syrian’s (q.v.) 4th c. hymnography, which is related by Sozomen.

The early pieces were processionals, involving everyone’s participation on the way to the church. From the earliest times, all present sang-not a personal devotion, but a communal celebration. Two types of singing emerged: antiphonal, with the congregation divided in two, singing alternately, and responsorial, with a soloist initiating the tone and text, and the congregation responding in kind. Henceforth music was taken for granted as a part of Christian worship.

The 5th c. saw the composition of troparia (singular: troparion), which are short hymns of one stanza, usually commenting on a psalm verse that precedes them. The evening hymn, “Joyful Light,” is a 4th c. example of a troparion, while the trisagion and Justinian’s (q.v.) “Only-begotten Son” are from the 5th and 6th c., respectively-although no early musical settings for any of the troparia survive. Most of the melodies are assumed to have been simple, used by congregations with no formal musical training. The theology of the text and the musical arrangement are thought to have gone hand in hand. At least the written melodies from 12th and 13th c. Latin, Greek, and Russian manuscripts support these assumptions.

Next in development came the kontakia (singular: kontakion) of the 6th and 7th c., most notably those of Romanos the Melodist (q.v.). Kontakia are long, metrical, poetic-narrative elaborations of twenty to thirty stanzas on biblical texts. The stanzas are structurally alike and may be sung to the same music. The genre might go back to Syriac prototypes, and as a development of the troparia. In any case Romanos, a Hellenized Syrian Jew converted to Christianity, seems to be dependent on and preserves much of Ephrem the Syrian (q.v.). The popular Greek employed by Romanos was characterized more by imagery than theological vocabulary. The best-known kontakion of the Byzantine Church was probably the Acathistus Hymn, now used on the fifth Saturday of Great Lent (q.v.) at the vigil.

The canon became the newest type of hymnography in the second half of the 7th c., included in the celebration of matins. The canon contains eight or nine odes, each ode consisting of three or four stanzas, and it is more theological in content than the kontakion. The nine odes of the canon are attached to nine biblical canticles. Each has successive stanzas exactly reproducing the first in meter, so that they all can be sung to the same music.

The invention of the canon is attributed to the monks of Palestine, especially Andrew of Crete (q.v.). His younger contemporaries, Joh n of Damascus (q.v.) and Cosmas of Maiuma, continued his work, writing the Easter canon and those of other major feasts (q.v.). From there the genre was furthered in Constantinople with Theodore and Joseph of Studion as part of the struggle to preserve icons (qq.v.) in the 8th and 9th c.

From about the 8th c. Byzantine psalmody was systematized into the eight ecclesiastical modes, the Octoechos (q.v.). This provided the compositional framework for Eastern and Western musical practices. The Greeks, Latins, and Slavs in the Middle Ages seem to have all had the same Octoechos. Nonetheless, the earliest tunes for the chants of the Divine Liturgy are older than the Octoechos and well might have been artificially imposed on the eight-mode scheme. For example, most of the ancient ordinary chants that appear throughout the liturgy were based on a simple G A B A G tune, and this is recurrent in several of the tones of the Octoechos (2, 4, 8, or 4 Plagal et al.).

Two principal palaeobyzantine notations were invented contemporaneously, Coislin and Chartres (named after manuscripts). In the 11th c. the former superceded the latter and continued its evolution for another century. In the last quarter of the 12th c. fully diastematic notation, better known as Round Notation (or Middle Byzantine) replaced Coislin. Round Notation can be converted easily into the modern system that we use today.

It is readily acknowledged that the early music of the Slavic churches and the other Orthodox is heavily indebted to Byzantine music. Each ethnic church produced its own musical tradition, but usually with a dependence on Constantinopolitan and/or monastic chant. Of special note is the music of the Russian Orthodox Church (q.v.), which came under the influence of the West and harmonized its chant into four or eight parts. In the 19th c. this trend continued so that Russian composers of the stature of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, and many others produced music for liturgical settings, now, to be performed with both male and female voices in a capella cathedral choirs that rivaled Italian opera.

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