The journey into Great Lent, which leads to the celebration of Holy Pascha, provides a unique perspective into the reference point of Greek Orthodox tradition. This ecclesiastical period occupies a central position in the Hellenic worldview. In keeping with the old saying “March is never ever missing from Lent,” our thoughts turn to our empirical knowledge regarding this singular spiritual experience.
On the two Saturdays before Lent, as well as the first one during Lent, tradition holds that we commemorate those who have fallen asleep in the Lord by offering prayers and ‘kollyva’. Inherently, as we submit the names to be commemorated at this service, we recall fond memories of our loved ones and their ‘unique otherness’, which makes their memory truly unforgettable and eternal, keeping our relationship with them ongoing even after they depart from this ephemeral life.
One of this columnist’s earliest and fondest memories are his maternal grandmother’s lullabies and other songs, which she would sing to her grandchildren, pacifying and soothing them. Decades later, it dawned on me that Yiayia would sing her songs in 4th Plagal mode – one of the eight major modes in Byzantine music, derived, in turn, from the ancient Greek musical scales. These are the same scales mentioned by Pythagoras, Plato, and other classical authors; i.e., Dorian, Lydian, Phrygian, Mixolydian, and their plagal versions.
Like most of her contemporaries, her formal education was limited and she had no musical training. So, how is it that she knew to sing in Plagal 4th mode? The evident conclusion is that she was naturally exposed to it in her environment, and that she knew it implicitly. The same holds true for many Greek demotic (folk music) singers, or their more modern counterparts who sing rembetika (the Greek blues). One of the top performing artists of rembetika of the 20th century, Markos Vamvakaris, noted characteristically in an interview that “all my songs are Byzantine; ancient.”
To affirm this conjecture, one need look no further than the expert testimony of Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hadjidakis, widely hailed as modern Greece’s two greatest composers. Not many years ago, Theodorakis pointed out in an interview that Vasilis Tsitsanis’ famous song ‘Synnefiasmeni Kyriaki’ (Cloudy Sunday) – one of the most notable songs of the previous century – adheres to the same mode (Plagal 4th) as the renowned ecclesiastical hymn to the Theotokos ‘Ti Ypermaho’ (O Champion-General) – which is essentially a second national anthem for Hellenism.
Earlier, in his book titled ‘Music for the Masses’, published in 1972, Theodorakis writes: “what novelty did we modern Greek composers bring? What did we say that had not already been said by the incomparable Byzantine chanters? …There are elements of Byzantine and demotic music in my music. … As I wrote the Byzantine melodies on paper, I realized just how close our world of contemporary popular and artful music is to the Byzantine musical universe. Having spent my childhood years in Church, I have been deeply influenced by all the hymns and psalms that I heard during the liturgies, the doxologies, the memorial services, the salutations… Regarding the influence of Byzantine melody on my music, I can say that it can be found it practically all of my works, in almost all my melodies.”
Meanwhile, Hadjidakis notes that, “it is upon these rhythms that rembetika have been fashioned, and when examining their melodic line, we can clearly discern the influence – or better yet – the extension of Byzantine melody. We see this not only when examining the scales, which have been maintained unchanged thanks to the instinct of folk musicians, but also when examining the conclusions, the intervals, and the manner of rendition. Everything reveals the source, which is none other than austere and unsuperfluous ecclesiastical hymnography.”
Childhood memories mingle with prayers, as a candle is lit by the kollyva – a small gesture of love and act of communion, until all the generations meet again. As I think of Yiayia’s humble village home, the blessed works of her hands, and her soothing songs, I recall an excerpt from Nobel Laureate Odysseas Elytis’ work ‘The Public and the Private’: “O how much splendor people produce, even amidst the most unfavorable and harsh conditions – like our people during the years of the Turkish occupation, where the most trifling embroidered shirt, the humblest boat, the most modest chapel, the icon-screen, the jar, the quilt… all these things gave off an air of magnificence just a cut above the royal House of Bourbon.”
Our songs, our hymnography, our family all have something to teach us, often carrying on traditions older than we can possibly imagine. These are the time-tested means by which we carry on our ancient traditions and pass them on to posterity, continuing this age-old journey.
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