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Religious byzantine music

Updated on December 28, 2012

MUSIC OF ANGELS

It was the week before Easter. The Great Week, as we Greeks call it. God, through his mysterious ways had led me to the Orthodox Byzantine monastery of St. Luc of Biotia, built in the 11th century. A masterpiece of Byzantine architecture with fabulous icon paintings, and golden mosaics. However, the highlight of its temple is one of the miracles of the Orthodox Church. The intact dead body of St. Luc. Peaceful and radiating divine light, this precious relic, untouched by the decay of death is the object of many a pilgrim' s devotion. Hundreds of people arrive to the monastery to honour the saint, ask for his blessing and receive strength for their spiritual striving. Hundreds of tourists also arrive to admire the magnificent byzantine monument.

When the service starts though, the gates of the monastery close and the rhythm changes in the busy monastery. Silent silhouettes in black appear from hidden monastic cells, the monks' rooms , gathering in the candle-lit temple, next to the Saint. They go to their places, some on the left and some on the right of the altar. They constitute the left and the right choirs.

A Good Thursday it was when I first listened to religious byzantine music interpreted skillfully in its natural environment. It filled my heart, the center of my being, with sweetness, peace and devoutness. The more I listened to it the more I wanted to dive into this ocean of harmony and spiritual elation. That was my first experience with genuine byzantine chant.

BEGINNING AND EVOLUTION OF BYZANTINE CHANT

Until the fourth century Christians used to sing together in the Churches. But later on, as Christianity spread out and more hymns were written, the quality of singing often became rather poor. Hence two choirs of cantors were formed who gradually took over the communal singing. The content of the hymns also changed. From simple prayers and the reading of the Scriptures, of Psalms in particular, it became a more complex Art. The necessity to protect the christian faith from heretic doctrines became urgent, so their content was being modified in order to fortify the faithful against heresy by clarifying the Christian doctine.

SYSTEM-MUSIC THEORY

Byzantine music is modal and dependent on the sound system. The sounds are based on ancient Greek models. The Byzantine sound system includes four primary and four plagal sounds that is, 8 sounds in total ("oktoichos") each differently based and spaced. Byzantine music uses the natural method of tuning (and not the tempered). It also uses three basic tones: the major (slightly longer than the tempered tone), the minor (slightly shorter than the tempered tone) and the minimal (slightly longer than the tempered half tone). Each sound consists of two identical tetrachords and a major tone.

THE CONCEPT OF SOUND

The sounds are defined in each hymn, specifying the starting point, the sequence of intervals and basic melodic characteristics (motifs, melodic phrases, pauses, improvisation parts, endings). The sounds, like in ancient Greek models, are based on tetrachords and pentachords (an order of four or five successive sounds) instead of an octave.

The structure of primary sounds is usually in the form of tetrachord- tetrachord- major tone (conjunctive tetrachord), while the structure of plagal sounds is tetrachord - major tone- tetrachord (disjunctive tetrachord).

In Byzantine ecclesiastic music, sound is not organized in scales like in Western music. It consists of melodic formulas (like the "apichima", a small characteristic introductory melody), intervals, pauses, and endings that define the song's melody. Each of the eight different sounds has a specific style, which also imposes a specific kind of psalmody.

SETTING TEXT TO MUSIC

In Byzantine music, it meant the composition of both melody and lyrics. Therefore, composers of ecclesiastic music had to have excellent knowledge of music and poetry, as well as the church's liturgical life.

The beauty and spiritual depth of byzantine ecclesiastic poetry are inconceivable. A form of art that contains both literary value and spiritual content. But the religious poetry of the byzantine years is by itself a whole chapter. Thus I have kept myself to the music that envelopes it, as far as its technique is concerned.

ISOKRATIMA

Although monophony (only one melodic line) seems predominant in Byzantine music, it is not really so. There is a second voice, the isokratima, which gives the chanting a particular interest. "The purpose of the isokratima in Byzantine chant is to help the chanter chant correctly the intervals of the "hxos" and to indicate to the listeners the "hxos" (the sound), not to create vertical harmonies, for this corrupts the intervals and disrupts the stillness of psaltiki."

NOTATION OF THE BYZANTINE MUSIC

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The need to create a form of writing for ecclesiastic music became evident from the 4th-5th century. Notation was invented in order to assist the verbal transmission of music. There were vocal symbols in readings and prompts for gesticulation, which didn't represent specific tones but intervals instead, as well as rhythms or ways to perform. The interpretation of symbols introduced in the 9th century is particularly difficult. Contemporary notation (parasemantic or new method) is limited to a small number of notes (from Chrysanthos in 1821). The symbols were named in correspondence to European music: Ni Pa Vou Ga Di Ke Zo Ni. This notation is still in use. Byzantine ecclesiastic music is based on the theory and manner (sounds) of ancient Greek music.

The difference between parasemantic and western notation is that while western notation displays the exact tone level of each note, parasemantic notation only specifies whether the sound is sang higher, lower or in the same tone. It also shows vocal quality, that is, the manner in which every note is to be sung. The exact size of spaces is determined by the corresponding sound of each song.

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A SACRED ART

As icon painting so byzantine music is an art immediately linked to its liturgical purpose, that is to uplift the spirit and to serve as a continuous reminder of religious truthes. It may sound harmonious and pacifying when listened to in concerts, but when one listens to it in a church, during a service, it is then that it takes its real dimension.

QUALIFIED MUSICIANS

This is a very relative term. Is qualified someone with a great voice, a well instructed and educated musician? Perhaps yes, but - and this is my personal opinion - even a less educated person can chant byzantine music skillfully and create the feeling of devoutness, which is what is most required in a religious service. I think that what is absolutely necessary is spiritual education. The co-existence of education and virtue are the components of a great artist.

CHRISTMAS CHANT

TASTE AND SEE THAT THE LORD IS GOOD (PS. 34)

CHANTER: THRASYVOULOS STANITSAS

THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD (PS. 22)

O VIRGIN THEOTOKOS

NUNS OF THE CONVENT OF ORMYLIA CHANTING

PETROS PSALTAS CHANTING

FLAMENCO AND BYZANTINE MUSIC

Most of us know the flamenco music. As it is otherwise called, the "cante jondo" - the "deep song"- is Andalucia's "national" music and it is principally the jypsies of Spain who have cultivated it.

As I was listening to it one day, it appeared to me that there are some similarities between it and the byzantine music, as far as the musical scales are concerned. Later on I did a research on the Internet and to my surprise, my intuition proved to be right. There are several musicians and musicologists, like Pedre, Manuel de Falla, Turina and even the poet Federico Garcia Lorca who have maintained the idea that one of the factors that have influenced the spanish "cante jondo" was the ecclesiastical music of Byzancium

I was utterly surprised by reading this, because, apparently these two sorts of music do not seem to have many things in common. The cante jondo is a secular kind of music, whereas the byzantine chant is purely religious.

In this lens I am presenting you a piece of my discoveries and giving you some food for thought.

A COMPARISON BETWEEN TWO APPARENTLY CONTROVERSARY MUSIC GENERS

In order to satisfy my intellectual curiosity I compared two apparently opposing sorts of music. A piece of religious music with a secular one. I uploaded two pieces that sounded to me as having some sonorous similarities. The first one is a byzantine chant and the spanish one is of the gener of the"seguiriya", the most ancient one in the cante jondo. Then I played both of them at the same time and the result was quite amazing, especially at the places where the musical base coincides.

Since I am not a musicologist, it may be an arbitrary comparison. I leave it up to you to listen to the following two videos and draw your own conclusions.

Haris Daravanoglou, my master in byzantine music

This lens is dedicated to my master, Haris Daravanogou, who has been brought up in Konstantinople, in a family that kept the tradition of genuine Byzantine chant. I am indebted to him for having transmitted to me the taste and love of deep Byzantine music.

The chant is the one chanted during the ceremony of Lord's crucifixion.

CHRISTMAS BYZANTINE CHANT

CDs OF BYZANTINE MUSIC

HOW DOES BYZANTINE MUSIC APPEAL TO YOU? WHAT IS YOUR OPINION ABOUT ITS INFLUENCE ON THE CANTE JONDO?

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    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      A lot of work has gone into creating this website and it is an inspiration. The music is real food for the soul. Congratulations!!!

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      I have to apologize, I just stopped by again to enjoy this wonderment and my blessing wasn't showing, must not have taken last time with a problem on Squidoo...fixed that!

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      Returning to this glorious offering and offering a blessing....

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      Absolutely glorious, my soul is well satisfied and my spirit is soaring!

    • profile image

      NoYouAreNot 

      7 years ago

      Amazing lens and great info!

      I have lensrolled it on my Being A Greek Orthodox lens.

      Bless you!

    • Michey LM profile image

      Michey LM 

      7 years ago

      I enjoy the music and the info from this lens.

      Blessings from a Squid Angel

      Happy New Year

    • YsisHb profile imageAUTHOR

      YsisHb 

      7 years ago

      @delia-delia: I am happy that you love hearing this music. I wondered how it sounds to other people.

      Thanks for your kind comments.

    • delia-delia profile image

      Delia 

      7 years ago

      Lovely, lovely indeed! I admire your musical skills and knowledge...I love hearing this music...Thanks for sharing!

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