Byzantine Music

Byzantine music is the music of the Greek Οrthodox Church and also the basis of the traditional popular music of Greece. Greek Music of the Byzantium is the medieval sacred chant of Christian Churches following the Orthodox rite.

Byzantine music, being part of the Divine Service, could not be a matter of aesthetic speculation subjectively because in other religions we may discover good and beautiful, but you cannot find holiness anywhere except in the Christian Church.

The Byzantine Music in the Christian Years

byzantine music playes in byzantine monastery Our sources tell us that Byzantine music was at first implemented in all everyday activities, like celebrations, feasts, theaters, horse races, games, receptions, and royal galas. The palace had also established stringent rituals equivalent to the ones established by the Church.

Later on, the Byzantine ecclesiastic music, was connected to rituals with strict rules. The music itself has not been preserved but descriptions of it have been found in different sources, like the Book of Rituals written by Konstantine VII the Porfyrogennitos (905-959).

However, the original Byzantine music must have been similar to ecclesiastic since it used the same system of sounds, same rhythms and performance methods. We know that there were antiphonal choirs and songs accompanied by musical instruments, including the pipe organ (musical instruments are forbidden in orthodox ecclesiastic music to this day) which was sent to the Western Empire as a gift to the Emperor Pipinos in 757 AD.

The vast treasury of Byzantine melodies was developed from a limited number of archetypes created by inspired persons, and the Church musician is bound to keep as closely as possible to these models. This is why the main characteristic of the byzantine music is that it is monophonic.

The  melody is accompanied only by a bass drone, or “ison,” which enriches the chant by adding solemnity and power to it.  Ison is the the drone-like sustaining
of the fundamental note of the mode by some members of the choir while the
other singers chant the melody.  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.

This simple combination of melody and ison is a practice that has been in use for centuries. 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.

Scales in Byzantine Music

byzantine music
In Byzantine 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 psalms.

In Byzantine music there is  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 Instruments of Byzantine Music

The  musical instruments in Byzantine Music were similar to ancient Greek. Both men and women, called “pegniotes”, played those instruments. At least two kinds of musical ensembles exist in the palace music performances: a wind and percussion instruments ensemble (band) and a stringed instruments ensemble.

Instruments also mentioned, as parts of palace bands were horns, aulos or avlos (more like the zourna), flutes (like the syrinx), cymbals and drums. Musical instruments found in Byzantine stringed ensembles were lutes, dulcimers, harps, lyras (also called kitharas), four kinds of tambura, the Cappadocian kementzes (Pontian lyra), the pear-shaped lyra and Byzantine violins.

The organ that replaced the ancient hydraulis was still used. In the 8th century, that organ was given as a gift by Konstantine the Kopronymos to Pipinos and Charlemagne and thus it was imported to the West as an ecclesiastic instrument. The monasteries used bells and symantra.

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