History Of Byzantine Music


What is the history of Byzantine Music? Information about Byzantine hymns, troparion, kontakion, kanon, sticheron and byzantine musicians.

History Of Byzantine Music

byzantine-musiciansByzantine Music; is the music of the Byzantine Empire that survives as the music of the Eastern churches, both Catholic and Orthodox. As is the case with the great bulk of Byzantine visual art, most extant Byzantine music is sacred. Much the same can be said of western European music contemporary with Byzantine music, since in both East and West it was almost exclusively in monastic and other ecclesiastical centers of culture that music, largely intended for ritual purposes, was preserved.

In the Byzantine Empire, music adorned non-sacred aspects of life, but little of the secular music survives, except for a few rather stereotyped acclamations (ceremonial chants to the emperor), which are still used to greet bishops. Secular instrumental music, of which none is extant, was probably played on Greco-Boman musical instruments, including portable organs for great ceremonies.

Byzantine church music is choral music bearing a superficial resemblance to Gregorian chant. Like Gregorian chant, it is monophonic (not harmonized, but sung in unison); its rhythm is free (having no regular succession of measures, as is usual in most music of the West); and it is modal, although it uses melodic patterns somewhat different from the major and minor scales to which the Western ear is accustomed. Also, there is considerable similarity between Jewish synagogue music and Byzantine church music.

Byzantine Hymns. An important part of the Byzantine rite, as of the Western, is the chanting of psalms and canticles and the intoning of lessons from the Scriptures. Byzantine hymns however, are closely related to ancient Greek poetry in structure and accentual pattern, and tend to rely less on Biblical texts than do the hymns of the Western church. The corpus of Byzantine hymns thus represents a distinctive contribution to both music and poetry.

Troparion. Probably of Syrian origin, the earliest form of Byzantine hymn is the troparion, a hymn in one strophe sung between the verses of Psalms. Among the oldest of these is the celebrated Phos hilaron (“O Gladsome Light”), which dates from at least the 4th century and is still used as a hymn for Vespers in the Orthodox church. All feast days had special troparia, which occasionally developed to considerable size and acquired great importance, growing in much the same way that Western liturgical drama grew. There is some resemblance between the troparion and the Western trope (a textual addition, or intercalation, placed within liturgical texts), but the trope seems to have come later.

Kontakion. The kontakion (literally “scroll”) form of hymn was introduced toward the end of the 6th century. Using the strophic system, the kontakion often consists of 20 or more stanzas. Because each stanza is modeled on the leading stanza (heirmos), they all use the same number of syllables and the same meter. In this respect, kontakia are somewhat like Western hymns, especially hymns patterned after Ambrosian music. The initial letters of each stanza of the kontakion form an acrostic, sometimes spelling the name of the author of the hymn. The stanzas are further linked by the repetition of a short refrain at the end of each.

Because it is based on the Scripture lesson read during the liturgy, the kontakion might be called a poetic homily. Like the troparion, the kontakion probably had a Syrian origin. St. Bomanos (c. 490-c. 560), a Syrian and the greatest of the Byzantine hymn writers, excelled in the kontakion. Many of his hymns are translations of hymns by St. Ephraem (306-373), also a Syrian; yet, even when translating, Romanos is more poetic than his source. The British musicologist H. J. W. Tillyard has compared the hymns of St. Romanos with the odes of Pindar.

The most celebrated Byzantine kontakion is the Akathistos, attributed to Sergius, patriarch of Constantinople from 610 to 638. He is said to have composed it in 626, when Constantinople was threatened by the Avars, though much of the hymn seems to be of earlier origin. The term akathistos indicates that the hymn is to be sung while standing. Its text praises the Blessed Virgin Mary for saving Constantinople by a miracle. It salutes her in the kind of rhapsodic language that became popular in the West some centuries later: “Hail, O bride and spotless maiden! Hail, for by you joy will shine forth! Hail, for through you die curse was erased!”

Many scholars consider the period of Romanos and Sergius the golden age of Byzantine hymnody, but no manuscripts of scores from this early period exist, and no one can be certain what the music of these kontakia sounded like. The music was probably syllabic (that is, containing roughly one note for each syllable) and rather simple.

The disappearance of the kontakion toward the end of the 7th century seems to be connected with a decree of the Quinisext Council (Council in Trullo, 692) requiring sermons at the liturgy. Since the kontakion was itself a kind of sermon set to music, it was considered redundant and therefore was abolished.

Kanon. A new form of hymn appeared about 700: the kanon (not to be confused with the canon of the Boman liturgy, which is the fixed Eucharistie prayer used at Mass). The kanon, which remains in use in the Byzantine liturgy, consists of nine odes, each having a different meter and each containing several stanzas.

The rise of the kanon (nothing definite is known about its origin), with its variety of meters and melodies, considerably enriched the Byzantine liturgy. The kanon was particularly appropriate to the people it served, exemplifying the principles of reiteration and variation admired by the Eastern mind. St. Andrew of Crete (died about 740 ) traditionally is considered the first writer of kanons, but the form almost certainly existed well before his period of activity.

Andrew’s contemporaries, the foster brothers St. John Damascene ( c. 675- 749 ) and St. Kosmas of Jerusalem (died about 760), were monks at the monastery of St. Sabas, between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, where a school of kanon writers flourished. At this time the Iconoclastic controversy was under way, and John Damascene was the leading supporter of the cause of sacred images and the champion of Orthodoxy. His influence as a hymnographer was paramount.

After John’s death the center of hymnography moved from St. Sabas to a stronghold of anti-Iconoclastic forces, the Studion monastery in Constantinople. The leading Studite composers were St. Theophanes (759-c. 842) and St. Theodore (759-826); a number of the latter’s kanons continue to be used in the Byzantine liturgy. Another important hymnographer at the Studion, St. Joseph (died 883), was a Sicilian by birth an indication of the considerable amount of Byzantine influence even in that section of Christendom traditionally considered part of the West.

From the 11th century, when the Orthodox church forbade the composition of new hymns, kanons and troparia continued to be written in the Greek monasteries in Sicily and southern Italy. Outstanding among these monasteries is the Abbey of Grottaferrata, near Rome, now a center for the study of Byzantine music.

Sticheron. Another form of hymn, the sticheron (from stichos, meaning “Psalm verse”), was composed in single strophes and usually had an elaborate melodic structure. A sticheron whose meter and melody were original was called an idiomelon; one whose metrical pattern and melody were borrowed from another sticheron was called a prosomoion; and the idiomelon that was used as a basis for later stichera was called an auto-melon. The most important of the extant stichera were composed by Theodore and Joseph at the Studion monastery. Although there is some similarity between the sticheron and the sequence of the Roman Mass, no connection between the two forms has been proved.

Later Byzantine Chant. During the period of the Byzantine Empire’s gradual disintegration, and following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Turkish and other Oriental influences crept into Byzantine music. This was especially apparent in the greater stress that was placed on melismatic (highly ornamented) chants. In some instances, simple melodies were embellished; in others, original hymns were composed in an extremely ornate style. The composers or embellishers, called maistores (masters), flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries, but the practice of writing new hymns or adding fioriture to old ones continues.

Byzantine Musical Notation. For music to be preserved, a system of musical notation must be developed. Two systems were used by the writers of Byzantine music. The first, called “ecphonetic,” notation, goes back to the 4th century. It uses simple signs to indicate musical formulas for the chanting of the scripture readings.

The second system, used for hymns, shows a development similar to that of Western notation. It had three phases: (1) an early period, begining about the 10th century, in which the signs were simply indications of the way in which the melody was to be fitted to the words, but gave no precise indication of the intervals between notes; (2) a middle period, beginning in the 11th or 12th century, in which the intervals and rhythm were indicated more clearly; and (3) a final period, beginning in the 15th century, in which a great many signs, not all of which have been deciphered, were added.


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