Byzantine Chant

– The Oral Tradition

Kalophonic Sticharion, 16th-17th century. British Library.
Kalophonic Sticharion, 16th-17th century. British Library.

The continuity of Byzantine music throughout the centuries has been preserved due to its long and uninterrupted oral and written tradition. By “written tradition” is meant (a) the over 7,500 musical manuscripts that have survived since around 950 AD, (b) the Byzantine and post-Byzantine theoretical treatises, and (c) the hundreds of printed publications of ecclesiastical works, beginning with the publication in 1820 of Petros the Peloponnesian’s Anastasimatarion in Bucharest.

An equally significant factor of continuity, but also growth and development of ecclesiastical chant, was its oral tradition. For hundreds of years before and also after the establishment of the notational system, the transmission of ecclesiastical music was achieved through live liturgical performance and systematic training involving a teacher-disciple relationship. The latter has historically received the greatest emphasis by church musicians, as can be deduced from the thousands of references to teacher-disciple relationships in the manuscript tradition, as well as the establishment and operation of seven – most of them unfortunately short-lived – “Patriarchal Musical Schools” in Constantinople from 1727 to 1882. To this day the importance of training under the guidance of a recognized authority is highly emphasized in circles of cantors. In fact, cantors often claim expertise and derive pride from having been taught by an acclaimed master.

Sticharion, 17th century. Duke Digital Collections.
Sticharion, 17th century. Duke Digital Collections.

How exactly has oral transmission, which traditionally works hand in hand with theoretical instruction and study of musical scores, contributed to the preservation and development of Byzantine music? Ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl writes in his classic book The Study of Ethnomusicology (pp. 188-189): “Oral tradition operates as a constraining, limiting, directing force much more than writing. The limitations of human memory, the rules of the folk aesthetic, the constraints of patterns already established – these do much to shape a musical repertory that, after all, must consist of pieces accepted and learned by members of a community, thus contrasting with a tradition in which music may be composed and then played only once, or never, or recorded only by the creator.”

Nettl’s observations are easily applicable to Byzantine music. The oral tradition of the latter has always ensured that the music stays within the boundaries of patterns already established – in our case, such patterns are the technical characteristics of the various modes and the utilization of melodic formulae (theseis) in the composition of new works – and that it conforms to the folk aesthetic, so that it can be accepted and learned by all members of the worshipping community rather than an artistic elite.

More specifically, the Byzantine music oral tradition:

  • has preserved a great number of melodies, especially of the syllabic kind, which were rarely notated in the Byzantine period;
  • was the means of interpretation of the older notational system: systematic theoretical expositions and detailed explanations did not exist in written form, so the disciple learned the function of the neumes (notational symbols) primarily by listening to the way his teacher executed them;
  • was the means of transmission of the content of the melodic formulae from teacher to disciple, as the short-hand nature of the older notational system necessitated that the disciple memorize the melodic formulae as performed by his teacher;
  • allowed the enrichment of ecclesiastical chant with elements borrowed from local secular genres as well as the musical traditions of foreign, usually neighboring, nations;
  • led to the development of local styles of chanting (e.g. Constantinopolitan, Athonite, Arabic, Thessalonian, etc.) that conformed to local aesthetic norms and tastes;
  • allowed – and still allows – a great degree of artistic freedom to the experienced cantor in the execution of a thesis (pl. theseis). In the traditional practice that goes back to at least the late Middle Ages, ecclesiastical composers do not create new compositions out of entirely new melodic material. Instead, all psaltic compositions are built from pre-existing melodic formulae, called theseis, which are combined with short transitional bridges. Theseis can be short, long and even highly elaborate and melismatic, depending on the particular compositional genre to which a hymn belongs. A cantor can choose from a number of possible performance realizations of a given thesis, all of which have been transmitted through oral (and sometimes written) tradition and are, consequently, considered “traditional,” depending on the particular vocal style and capabilities, the condition of the cantor’s voice at the time of the performance, and the particular liturgical space, context and moment (e.g. more embellished singing is often deemed appropriate in city cathedrals on great feasts or in hierarchical services, as opposed to a more restrained style that is preferred in monastic communities or on quiet, somber occasions, such as in Lenten services). For instance, the following sequence of theseis that belongs to the plagal fourth mode can be performed in several different ways, some of which are more reserved, whereas others are more colorful and imaginative.

Kyrie Notation1

You can hear three different realizations of this notation in the video below. Each of the three cantors, namely Thrasyvoulos Stanitsas (†1987), Demosthenes Paikopoulos and Theodoros Vasilikos, performs it in slightly different ways (different tonal base, different tempo, different vocalisms), all of which are considered traditional.

Grammenos Karanos, Assistant Professor of Byzantine Liturgical Music at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, for the HFC.