Prologue by Gregorios Stathis

Concerning Adaptation

Concerning Notation

Byzantine vs. Western Notation

About the   Translation

The History of Byzantine Chant

Writing Byzantine Music

Epilogue by
  Photios Kontoglou

Guidelines for Greek Pronunciation

The Intervals of the Soft Chromatic Modal Genre

The Intonations of the Eight Modes



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yzantine chant, the traditional music of the Eastern Orthodox Church, boasts an uninterrupted history that stems from the chant dialects of the ancient eucharistic communities throughout the Christian world. Over the centuries, it evolved naturally and within specific traditional parameters, and was continuously refined by the Church. [1] It is the music that the saints found most appropriate for communal prayer and for expressing Orthodox theology; the music that the emissaries of Prince Vladimir heard in Constantinople in the service that made them exclaim ecstatically, "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth!... We cannot forget that beauty," [2] and thus led to the conversion of Russia to Orthodoxy. This book is a humble attempt to make a part of this sacred music available to the Western world in its most authentic form.

In order for Orthodox Christians in the West to sing Byzantine chant in the traditional manner, it is necessary for them to realize how it differs from the kind of secular Western music to which everyone today is so accustomed. These differences can be divided into three categories: quantitative, qualitative, and spiritual.

The quantitative differences lie in the intervals used in Western and Byzantine music. Byzantine chants contain certain intervals, accidentals, and tonal attractions (ἔλξεις) which result in pitches that do not exist on the equally tempered keyboard, the standard for pitch relationships in contemporary Western compositions. These subtle differences add a unique beauty to Byzantine melodies. Nevertheless, these differences are usually of sufficiently minor significance that most pitches in Byzantine music may be agreeably approximated by corresponding pitches in the equally tempered scales. [3] Exceptionally, however, the modal genre known as the soft chromatic presents a serious dilemma, because the pitch "Κε" (i.e., "La") is neither flat nor natural but falls in between in such a manner that any approximation using equally tempered pitches is unsatisfactory. This problem and its solution are discussed at greater length in Appendix I.

The qualitative differences between Western and Byzantine music are many. The primary difference is that Western music is for the most part polyphonic (i.e., harmonized), whereas Byzantine music is monophonic, constructed of melody alone. This melody is accompanied only by a bass drone, or "ison," which enriches the chant by adding solemnity and power to it. [4] Thus, even when many people chant together, the resulting sound seems to be coming "from one mouth," as St. John Chrysostom described the music of the fourth century. [5] This simple combination of melody and ison is a practice that has been in use for centuries. [6] Adding harmony to monophonic melodies is foreign to traditional liturgical music, even if in recent centuries some Orthodox churches have chosen to adopt elements either of Western-style polyphony or of indigenous folk music.

[1] Byzantine music was systematized primarily by St. John Damascene in the eighth century, and St. John Koukouzelis, who lived (according to contemporary musicologists including Gregory Stathes and Edward Williams) in the fourteenth century. back to reference

[2] "Повесть временных лет", Нестор летописец, монах Киево-Печерского монастыря, ок.1112, часть 2-ая. Перевод академика Лихачева Д.С., в книге «Великое Наследие», изд. «Современник», М., 1980. (See also Ware, Timothy, The Orthodox Church, Penguin Classics, London, revised edition, 1993, p. 264.) back to reference

[3] To be precise, the pitches in all Byzantine modes (except for the soft chromatic) may be approximated by pitches of the equally tempered keyboard such that the intervallic discrepancies never exceed 33 cents (2 μόρια), which is equivalent to one-third of a half step. back to reference

[4] As a British philologist observed, "The effect [achieved through the ison] is much fuller and more satisfying than might be imagined." (Tillyard, H.J.W., Byzantine Music and Hymnography. London, 1923, p. 64.) back to reference

[5] Migne, Patrologia Graeca, Vol. 61, col. 315 (Commentary on I Cor. 14:33 by St. John Chrysostom, Homily 36): "For indeed there must always be but one voice in the church, as there is but one body. Thus the reader alone speaks, and the bishop himself is content to sit in silence; and the chanter chants alone. Even though all respond [πηχσιν], the sound issues as if from one mouth." back to reference

[6] Some music historians (such as George Papadopoulos, Demetrios Panagiotopoulou, and George Constantinou) argue that the word "πηχσιν" in the quote in the previous footnote means "to sing the under-sound." They conjecture that this under-sound was the predecessor of the ison. However, other music historians (including James McKinnon, Dimitri Conomos, and the patristic scholar G.W.H. Lampe) believe that the "πήχησις" is not an under-sound but a response. Their theory is more plausible, since the use of the words "πηχήσεως" and "πηχεν" by St. John Chrysostom in his homily on Psalm 117 (PG 55:328) leaves little room to doubt that it can only refer to a response. Other patristic texts also support the latter theory, since they frequently mention responsorial singing, whereas there is no clear testimony to the use of the ison until after the fifteenth century. (Vid. Fellerer, K.G., "Die Gesänge der bysantinischgriechischen Liturgie" in Geschichte der katholischen Kirchenmusik, Kassel, 1972, p. 130. See also Strunk, William Oliver, Essays on Music in the Byzantine World, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1977, p. 300.) back to reference