Byzantine Liturgical Music

All services are normally sung, or at the very least read on a reciting note. This is to prevent too great emphasis on the idiosyncrasies of clergy and readers (Gardner 1980). There are strict rules forbidding the use of any musical instrument. (Pipe organs are, however, sometimes found in the USA and the Ionian islands).

The monophonic liturgical music of Constantinople was at first syllabic and congregational. After c.850 it became more elaborate and melismatic, and could only be performed by professional choirs or cantors (ODB). A small group of cantors singing together or solo is normal in Greek and Arab churches. The soloist will sing the elaborate chant while other singers execute a dominant drone, the ison. The greater part of the melodies have been systematized into the eight tones. Within each tone there are sets of model melodies that can be further elaborated, for example the melodies of the stikhira, the heirmoi of the canons, and the troparia and kontakia. Greek books provide for entire liturgies to be sung in the appropriate tone. The tones are numbered one to four and then as plagal of the first, etc., except that the seventh is called 'grave tone'.

As the Byzantine liturgical books were translated into other languages, especially Slavonic, the syllabic melodies were adapted to the different structure of the Slavonic language and somewhat simplified (the tones are numbered 1 to 8). Early adaptations in Bulgaria tried to stay closer to the original Greek melodies, but in Rus' (modern Ukraine, Russia and Belarus), the melodies developed in a new way, often influenced by western styles of chant (Gardner 2000). The basic chants remained simple enough to be sung congregationally, but were more elaborate in monasteries and cathedrals. Congregational singing of the chant has remained common to the present day in parts of Ukraine and among the Carpatho-Rusyn diaspora.

An early style of polyphonic singing developed in seventeenth-century Muscovy, and a more westernized style later characterized Kiev and St Petersburg. Harmonized music sung by choirs of men and boys eventually became normal throughout the Russian Church (women singers only became common after the Revolution). The style was set by the Imperial Chapel and the Synodal choir in Moscow. A more traditional and ecclesial style was developed under the leadership of composers such as Kastalsky, and may be seen in the works, e.g., of Rachmaninov, as compared to the freer compositional style of the church music of Tchaikovsky.

Harmonized church music, often Russian, may be heard in Greek churches, but in some places efforts are being made to restore congregational singing. In Russia it is now normal for certain pieces, such as the Creed and Lord's Prayer, to be sung by all present. However the ongoing availability of good choirs has ensured that Slav liturgical music will continue to be predominantly harmonized. The same is also true of Romania, which has both vigorous chant traditions and impressive harmony. Bulgaria has further developed the Russian romantic choral tradition.

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