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Byzantine Music: An Intangible Cultural Heritage Element Worth Advancing in the U.S.

With coronavirus cases across the United States dropping steadily since the start of the year, the Greek-American Community was fortunate to have celebrated Pascha under far more auspicious conditions than last year, and certainly compared to the present situation in Greece and Cyprus, where even the Resurrection service had to (foolishly) be moved to align with the curfew … as if the virus is more contagious at midnight than at 9 PM.

Still, one glaring need that became all the more pronounced this Pascha was the absence of enough trained chanters to skillfully perform the Byzantine melodies that cloak our holy services in such poetic grandeur and unique beauty. A number of parishes in the NY tri-state area, where the supply of chanters was traditionally sufficient, found that this resource was wanting.

Noting the importance of the role of the chanter in the Orthodox Christian liturgical life, the great author Alexandros Papadiamantis – a chanter himself – states that “as the years go by and the older one gets, he is overcome with the desire to finding himself in the tiniest of villages during these days and listen to all the services of the holy feasts in a tiny chapel, where there would be a venerable priest, meek and virtuous, and a chanter, with a humble but sweet voice – in order to appreciate all the poetry and beauty of the feasts, glorify Christ, and celebrate Pascha with his loved ones, with the hope that he will also be deemed worthy to partake of the continuous and heavenly Pascha, in the unwaning day of our Lord Jesus Christ’s kingdom.”

The United Nations seconds Papadiamantis’ opinion. UNESCO recognizes Byzantine music as a common intangible heritage element shared by Greece and Cyprus. The list itself is rather exclusive, with Greece and Cyprus accounting for just eight of the 523 total global elements making the official list. That, in itself, provides sufficient evidence of the status ascribed to Byzantine music worldwide, and the cultural capital that can be gained through its careful development.

From an ecclesiastical, but also a cultural standpoint, the continuation of the Byzantine musical tradition in the United States and in the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s eparchies all around the world should be a priority. Not only does this musical genre keep alive the closest living relative of classical Greek music (with Byzantine music’s eight modes corresponding to the ancient modes referenced by Pythagoras and Plato, such as Phrygian, Lydian, and Dorian), but it connects the past with the present.

The great composer Manos Hadjidakis highlights this when he states “it is upon these rhythms that rebetiko songs are founded, and when we observe the line of its melody we can clearly discern the effect, or better yet, the extension of Byzantine music. Not only by examining the scales that are instinctively preserved unchanged by folk musicians, but moreover, by examining the cadences, intervals, and manner of performance. All these reveal the source, which is none other than the austere ecclesiastical hymnography, which is in no way superfluous.”  

This opinion is supported by another masterful Greek composer, Mikis Theodorakis, who dedicated an entire chapter to “the elements of our musical tradition” in his autobiography, highlighting the influence of Byzantine chant on modern Greek popular music.

Perhaps his best example lies in the connection he draws between the famous ecclesiastical hymn dedicated to the Theotokos, ‘Τῇ Ὑπερμάχῳ’ (O Champion General), which is chanted during Lent and at the Akathist Hymn (some would call it Hellenism’s first national anthem), and Vasilis Tsitsanis’ famous song ‘Synnefiasmeni Kyriaki’ (Cloudy Sunday), which is considered to be one of the most important pieces in modern Greek music. Theodorakis writes that “in Synnefiasmeni Kyriaki, which is one of the most remarkable monuments of modern Greek art, we can discern how the deeper relationship with Byzantine music has been absorbed…”

Aside from the musical component alone, the development and perpetuation of Byzantine music has been shown to significantly impact the preservation and learning of the Greek language. For centuries, Greek children learned their mother tongue using the Iliad and the Psalter as their primers, despite overwhelming challenges and open hostility, such as during the period of Ottoman rule. Greek speakers born in the Diaspora who have been fortunate enough to spend time on the chanter’s stand can attest to the positive effects it has on their knowledge of the Greek language; and that holds true for both classical and modern Greek.

The argument that the language of the Church bears little relation to the everyday language of the people represents a great misconception, considering that the overwhelming majority of all the words used in ecclesiastical texts and music remain in use today. Once listeners learn to recognize the classical Greek root works in their modern Greek form, they experience a true awakening regarding the unity of the Greek language, which is something its greatest poets, like Odysseas Elytis, have stressed repeatedly.

Now, if you consider the traditional role of music as a learning scaffold for language, then the teaching of Byzantine music becomes an irreplaceable vehicle toward propagating the Greek language and connecting modern Greek speakers to their classical and Byzantine roots.

This is why the art of Byzantine music must be systematically taught and supported by institutions, beginning with the Archdiocese, but extending beyond it as well. It must also find its rightful place in the Greek school curriculum, where it could serve manifold purposes; namely, musical, cultural, literary, and linguistic.

Attempts to Anglify or Westernize this priceless musical tradition must be carefully contemplated. Let’s not forget that the hymns themselves are poetry, written mostly by historical figures who are recognized as saints. This is quite a tall task for even the most skilled of translators. At the very least, we would advise that they proceed with as much caution as one would when trying to translate an opera into a foreign language (noting that, oddly enough, this is a performance most audience members wouldn’t appreciate).

If modern Hellenism is ever to realize the full potential of its ‘soft power’, Byzantine music must undoubtedly be systematically cultivated throughout the Diaspora.

Follow me on Twitter @CTripoulas

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