Prologue by Gregorios Stathis

Concerning Adaptation

Concerning Notation

Byzantine vs. Western Notation

About the Translation

The History of Byzantine Chant

Writing Byzantine Music

Epilogue by
  Photios Kontoglou

Guidelines for Greek Pronunciation

The Intervals of the Soft Chromatic Modal Genre

The Intonations of the Eight Modes



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here are several other noteworthy qualitative differences between Western and Byzantine music. The latter was always entirely vocal. [23] The use of musical instruments is condemned in the Rudder, [24] because the Holy Fathers viewed instrumental music as something secular that tends to evoke a kind of emotionalism [25] and is foreign to the Orthodox spiritual life. [26] As Dr. Cavarnos explains:

"The Greek Church Fathers ruled out the execution of church music by means of instruments as well as the accompaniment of the chant by instruments, as incompatible with the sublime, spiritual character of the religion of Christ. Those who seek to justify the use of instrumental music in our churches call attention to the fact that in the Old Testament period musical instruments were used in public worship. However, St. Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzen), St. John Chrysostom [PG 55:494-495], and other holy Church Fathers [St. Isidore of Pelusium, PG 78:628 and St. Theodoret of Cyrus, PG 80:1996] note that this practice was due to a concession of God by reason of the grossness of mind of the Old Testament people which rendered them incapable of appreciating a more refined kind of music, the purely vocal. [27] Supporting the Patristic basis for excluding all man-made musical instruments in church is the consensus of great philosophers, such as Aristotle and Emerson, that the 'human voice is the best, most refined of all musical instruments.'" [28]

Even the great Western composer Beethoven felt that "pure ecclesiastical music should be executed only with the voice." [29]

Byzantine chants typically have meters that are steady but free in the sense that the rhythm may frequently change within a given piece. [30] These "irregularities" make the use of time signature and measures awkward. [31] The vibrato in Byzantine chant is more subtle than its counterpart in, for example, operatic singing. A Byzantine chanter shifts between notes in a manner that is more liquescent (smoother) than that of a Western singer. Moreover, the embellishments used in Byzantine chant are for the most part so foreign to the Western ear that it is impossible for staff notation to express them. Indeed, most Western singers find it difficult to execute them at all, since they are not accustomed to the physical manner in which they are performed.

The most important difference between Byzantine and Western secular music lies in the spirituality they convey. Byzantine music is an art that expresses the Orthodox spiritual life, which differs greatly from Western spirituality. Photios Kontoglou of blessed memory made many keen observations about these spiritual differences: [32]

"Music is of two kinds (as are the other arts also)secular and ecclesiastical. Each of these has been developed by different feelings and different states of the soul. Secular music expresses worldly (i.e., carnal) feelings and desires. Although these feelings may be very refined (romantic, sentimental, idealistic, etc.), they do not cease being carnal. Nevertheless, many people believe that these feelings are spiritual. However, spiritual feelings are expressed only by ecclesiastical music. Only ecclesiastical music can truly express the secret movements of the heart, which are entirely different from those inspired and developed by secular music." [33]

"He further illustrated that Byzantine music, a highly stylized art (as is Byzantine iconography), [34] has as its objective to raise the thoughts and emotions of man from the realm of the mundane to that of the spiritual. [35] For this reason Byzantine music must be executed in a state of devoutness, contrition, humility, and great inner and outer attention. [36] In the words of Dr. Cavarnos, traditional Byzantine music "is characterized by simplicity or freedom from undue complexity, purity or freedom from everything sensual, ostentatious, insincere, and by unsurpassed power and spirituality." [37] According to Dr. Conomos, "Byzantine music is unequalled in its scope and its ability to move people in a genuine and not an emotional way. It emphasizes the words and tries to eschew all theatricality [38] so that it does not draw attention to itself." The great Byzantine musicologist Egon Wellesz wrote: "Byzantine hymnography is the poetical expression of Orthodox theology, translated, through music, to the sphere of religious emotion." [39] A contemporary historian, awed by the splendor of Byzantine art (which was inspired by the same guiding principles as Byzantine music), observed that "never in the history of Christianityor, one is tempted to add, of any other of the world's religionshas any school of artists contrived to infuse so deep a degree of spirituality into its work [as did the Byzantines]." [40] In particular, Metropolitan Emilianos of Selyvria affirms: "[Byzantine music] is a means of worship, of inner purification, of ascent from earth to heaven. It expresses supplication, hope, adoration, gratitude and contrition. From the beginning it has borrowed whatever beauty there has been in secular music [i.e., the ancient Greek modal system], and has assimilated and spiritualized it, imparting to it the holy, ecstatic note of mystical theology, so that the music in no way detracts from the words. This music has its own harmony, which avails for spiritual resurrection." [41]

[23] Wellesz, Egon, A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, Oxford, 1949. Revised edition, 1961, p. 32, 108, 366. For convincing evidence of the absence of musical instruments in the early Church, see McKinnon, James, The Temple, the Church Fathers and Early Western Chant, Variorum Collected Studies Series, Ashgate Publishing Ltd., Great Britain, 1998, sections IV, V, and VII. back to reference

[24] Explanation of Canon LXXV of the Sixth Ocumenical Synod. Vid. Agapios, Hieromonk and [Saint] Nicodemus, Monk, The Rudder, trans­lated by D. Cummings, The Orthodox Christian Educational Society, Chicago, 1957, p. 381. In a footnote on the same page, St. Nicodemus quotes the following explanation by Meletios Pegas (1549-1601) regarding this condemnation of instruments: "Excessive music, pursuing what is sweet beyond moderation fails to excite pleasure, but, on the contrary, tends to enervate. for it is on this account that only the human voice finds acceptance in the Church, on the ground that it is inherent in nature and unartificial, whereas percussions and efflations produced by instruments are sent packing by the divine Fathers on the ground that they are too artificial." back to reference

[25] Staretz Sampson (1898-1979) made the following distinction between feeling and emotionality in regards to music: "[In church] Never lose the feeling that you are standing before the Lord. This feeling can be only noetic, prayerful, without the participation of emotionality. Emotionality in worship is something foreign to Orthodoxy. This is why our polyphonic music often hinders our prayer, because it brings into our life the element of emotionality." (Старец иеросхимонах Сампсон. Жизнеописание, беседы и поучения, письма. М., Библи­отека журнала «Держава». 1999, Второе издание, с. 195.) back to reference

[26] cf. Byzantine Chant, p. 21. back to reference

[27] Likewise, in more recent times St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (1749-1809) confirmed St. John Chrysostom's interpretation of Amos 5:23 [vid. PG 48:853] by writing: "Since God rejected their [the Hebrews'] instrumentsas He said through Amos: 'Remove from me the sound of thy songs, and I will not hear the music of thine instruments'thenceforth we Christians execute our hymns only with the voice." ορτοδρόμιον, Νικοδ­μου το Ἁγιορεί­του, Βενετα, 1836, σελ. ιη. back to reference

[28] Cavarnos, Constantine, Victories of Orthodoxy, IBMGS, Belmont, Massachusetts, 1997, pp. 70-71. back to reference

[29] Θεωρία καὶ Πρᾶξις τῆς Βυζαντινῆς Ἐκκλησιαστικῆς Μουσικῆς, σελ. 27. back to reference

[30] cf. Tillyard, H. J. W., Handbook of the Middle Byzantine Musical Notation, Vol. I, Copenhagen, 1935, p. 13. back to reference

[31] The great Russian composer Aleksei Fedorovich L'vov (1798-1870) (who with the support of Tsar Nicholas I did much to resurrect chant-based ecclesiastical music in Russia and also won the respect of several Western composers including Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer for his talent as a secular composer and violinist) also concluded that chant must be written in a free, non-restrictive rhythmic setting without bar lines and time signature. (vid. Львов А.Ф., О Свободном или Несимметричном Ритме, СПб., 1858, с. 10. See also Dolskaya, Olga, Aesthetics and National Identity in Russian Sacred Choral Music: A Past in Tradition and Present in Ruins, chaper four [unpublished].) back to reference

[32] Selections of his writings constitute the Epilogue of this book. back to reference

[33] Cavarnos, Constantine, Byzantine Sacred Art. Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Belmont, Massachusetts, second edition, 1992, p. 148. back to reference

[34] In the words of Professor Alexander Lingas, "Byzantine chant is, from a technical point of view, an immensely sophisticated 'art' tradition that is also, from a religious perspective, a spiritually profound aural analogue of iconography in its ability to offer humankind a taste of the perpetual heavenly liturgy of the angels." back to reference

[35] Likewise in 1880, the Patriarchate of Constantinople explained in an encyclical opposing liturgical innovations that the Church "chose and developed a music which suits the purpose of the people coming to church: to raise the mind from the mundane to the heavenly and to pray to our God and Father with a music that corresponds to the Church's divine hymns and has grandeur in simplicity, delight in rhythm, and modesty in clear, articulate, unaffected, melodious psalmody executed with humility, peace, and compunction." (Vid. Παπαδοπούλου, Γεωργίου, Συμβολαὶ εἰς τὴν Ἱστορίαν τῆς παρ ἡμῖν Ἐκκλησιαστικῆς Μουσικῆς, Ἀθῆναι, 1890, σελ. 421.) back to reference

[36] The importance of having a proper inward state while singing in church cannot be overemphasized, since even the most inspiring ecclesiastical music loses its ability to inspire when executed irreverently. This is why the Holy Fathers of the Sixth Ocumenical Synod wrote the following canon: "We wish those who attend church for the purpose of chanting neither to employ disorderly cries and to force their nature to cry aloud, nor to foist in anything that is not becoming and proper to a church; but, on the contrary, to offer such psalmodies with much attentiveness and contriteness to God, Who sees directly into everything that is hidden from our sight. 'For the sons of Israel shall be reverent' (Lev. 15:30) the sacred word has taught us" [Canon LXXV of the Sixth Ocumenical Synod, The Rudder, pp. 379-380]. But in order for a church singer to be reverent, he must have a certain degree of sanctity which, as Dr. Conomos comments, "requires a determination of character, a strong faith, great modesty, and a high sense of integrity. To be a Church singer in an Orthodox Church is to respond to a calling, to a vocationit demands purity, sureness of faith and conviction." [Excerpt from a lecture published on Monachos.net, February 2003.] back to reference

[37] Byzantine Chant, p. 20. back to reference

[38] As early as the fourth century, the Holy Fathers preached against theatricality in church singing. St. Niceta of Remesiana (d. after 414) said in a sermon on psalmody, "One must sing with a manner and melody befitting holy religion; it must not proclaim theatrical distress but rather exhibit Christian simplicity in its very musical movement; it must not remind one of anything theatrical, but rather create compunction in the listeners." (De utilitate hymnorum, PL 68:365-76. See also McKinnon, James, Music in early Christian Literature, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987, p. 138.) back to reference

[39] Wellesz, Egon, A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, p. 157. back to reference

[40] Norwich, John Julius, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Viking Penguin, London, 1988, p. 28. back to reference

[41] Timiadis, Bishop Emilianos of Meloa, Orthodox Ethos, Vol. 1: Studies in Orthodoxy, edited by A.J. Philippou, Oxford, 1964, p. 206. back to reference