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Byzantine Music Through the Ages

It is the medieval sacred chant of Christian churches following the Orthodox rite.  This tradition developed in Byzantium since the establishment of its capital, Constantinople, in 330 AD until its fall in 1453. The intrinsic and strong relation binding the Byzantine music to the Orthodox worship, protected it from western influences.  It thus preserved its fundamental elements and purposes.
The Conservative aspect of the Byzantine Ecclesiastic Music

The idea of a “sacred music” is inexistent in the Orthodox church.  However, the church preserved the Byzantine musical tradition, for it stems from patristic heritage and the praying church throughout the ages.  On the other hand, this conservatism did not prohibit the development in general.  The sound development based on academic research and the respect of principles and goals of Byzantine music, enriches it and enriches the church at the same time.
Pivotal role of the word in the Ecclesiastic Byzantine music

The role of Byzantine music, say the aim of its existence, is to convey the word it holds, and to give its meaning a greater intensity.  This music cannot be understood unless considered from this perspective.  We note specifically, for instance, that with the rapid rhythm, the music follows the rhythms of the words, and not the opposite, even if - in most cases -, the musical rhythm is broken to accommodate the lyrics; words are the only basic element that should reach the listener.
The Absence of Musical Instruments 

Byzantine music is not a romantic/sentimental music.  Its aim is not to gain the empathy of the listener regarding Christ’s passion and crucifixion by the Jews.  The Orthodox spirituality emphasizes the clear understanding of liturgical words, and the sound terminological expressions.  Musical instruments create a theatrical ambiance around the liturgy.  Thus, the apprehension of the church from the sympathy of the believer with the story of the salvation in appearance only, and the deviation of the liturgy from its main purpose, that is the salvation of the believer himself.  What is intended is that the listener remains inside the story, and that he/she realizes that he/she is the aim of each word chanted, so that he/she repents and proclaims the risen Jesus, the Lord of his/her life.

The Reform of the Music Notations

  • Chrysanthos of Madytos (ca. 1770-1846), Gregory the Protopsaltis, and Chourmouzios the Archivist were responsible for a much needed reform of the notation of Greek ecclesiastical music.

  • Their work consisted of simplifying the complex musical symbols.

  • Their work is a landmark in the history of the Greek church music, since it introduced the system of neo-Byzantine music notation, upon which are based the present-day chants of the Greek Orthodox Church.

  • The simplification attracted many believers to study the new Byzantine notation.

The Origin of Byzantine Music

Sub-Deacon, Karim El-Far - 2004

"Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." Ephesians (5:19).

Christianity began in Syria, and Palestine. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that after the Descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost), the Christians continued to pray with the other members of the Jewish community. This is confirmed by another passage from the Acts of the Apostles: "Now Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour." Acts (3:1) The Christian communities inherited the tradition of reciting, chanting, and singing from the Jewish synagogue.

It's obvious that the oldest Byzantine melodies go back to a common source, which is the music of the churches of Antioch and Jerusalem. These melodies are derived from the music of the Jews, not the Greeks. Later on, Saint John of Damascus organized the Byzantine system of the eight modes or tones. Today, it is the responsibility of church musicians, singers, and clergy to learn this type of music, which is part of our Eastern Orthodox Church theology, in order to preserve and spread it throughout the world.