Book review: Ta Prosomoia by Georgios Chatzichronoglou

One of the things that is at once intended to make Byzantine chant easier for the cantor and yet paradoxically also makes it seem impossibly difficult for the student in an Anglophone context is the use of model hymns for much of the hymnody. There are multiple factors that make it complex; in a Greek context, you see the incipit of the model melody and the mode, you look it up in the Prosomoia section of the Irmologion if you don’t know it (or in the otherwise appropriate section of the Irmologion based on liturgical function), and that’s that. And while yes, there are over 100 model melodies, from a practical perspective there are about 10 that you can get by for a good while starting out with.

However, if you can’t read Greek, then you have to rely on English incipits, and you probably have to know three or four possible incipits because we don’t have a standard English text (and some incipits may refer to hymns that a particular jurisdiction’s “greatest hits” liturgical book might not include). Then there’s the matter of metrical translations, which some translators don’t bother with (Nassar, Lash, etc.), making the use of model melodies basically impossible, and which some translators do (Holy Transfiguration Monastery in most instances, Fr. Seraphim Dedes). Still, even if, say, you’re going with all HTM texts all the time, what about the melodies themselves? HTM has a model melody book, but it’s all staff notation, so you’re getting one person’s interpretation of the melody, and some of what they include is a little idiosyncratic. Fr. Seraphim Dedes also has a model melody book that is theoretically available in both staff and Byzantine notation, where there is a traditional melody and a “popular” variation (as with, for example, the melody for the Kontakion of the Nativity of Christ) he includes both, and he’s even done the very nice thing of indexing his incipits to Holy Transfiguration’s, so that’s probably the best option in English, at least at this stage of the game.

Τὰ Προσόμοια: Πρόλογοι-Αὐτόμελα σε ἀργὸ και σύντομο εἱρμολογικό μέλος (Athens, 2010) “Prosomoia: Model Hymns and Original Melodies in Slow and Brief Irmologic Versions” by Archon Protopsaltis Georgios Chatzichronoglou is a single volume, Greek-language reference to all the model melodies (in both “brief” and “slow” versions where such exist), and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan School of Byzantine Music has just recently started distributing it in the United States. It simplifies the process only somewhat for the learner in an Anglophone context — a traditional Irmologion is a little difficult to find here, although you can find pdfs if you know where to look and whom to ask. Also, this arranges all the melodies in a format similar to Dedes’ with a nice index of incipits, and there’s a lovely CD of Chatzichronoglou demonstrating 69 of the melodies. Obviously this is going to be a difficult reference to navigate for somebody with no facility with Greek, but it could well be a good reference for a teacher who does have some Greek and who can help the student understand what they’re seeing.

I will say that one of the virtues of this book, besides its organization, is a very clean, readable presentation; with some of the classical books the plates are clearly a bit worse for wear, so it’s nice to see Byzantine music publishers taking advantage of digital typesetting. At the same time, what this reveals is that Chatzichronoglou has taken an analytic approach in presenting these melodies, writing out certain standard ornamental choices instead of reproducing the melody as it is written out in the classical books and leaving it to the teacher to tell the student what ornaments are traditional. Lest anybody see this as an arcane matter only impacting practitioners of Byzantine chant in Greece, there is a similar issue when it comes to publishing standard works in the Western classical repertoire such as Handel’s Messiah; one can buy scores where none of the performance tradition is written out and it is up to the performer to mark in what they’re choosing to do (or what the conductor directs them to do), and one can buy scores where a certain strain of ornamental tradition is written in. For example, here’s the last page of the opening recitative, “Comfort ye my people”, in the Kaplan edition, a fairly standard practical score:


As somebody who has sung this probably hundreds of times in my former mode of existence, I can tell you that while that’s what’s on the page, just about nobody sings it that way. Your teacher or your coach or your conductor will have suggestions for what to do with it.

By contrast, this is the same page from the Carus-Verlag score, and you’ll see at the bottom possibilities of how to ornament certain parts.


Those possibilities represent but one performance tradition; there are others, and your teacher, coach, or conductor will have their own ideas about what you should do. The point is, these sorts of variants in printed scores represent a point of similarity with Western music, not a point of departure from.

To show how this works in the Chatzichronoglou book, here is one of the most frequently-used model melodies, “ὡς γενναῖον ἐν μάρτυσιν”, itself the first troparion at “O Lord, I have cried” for the Feast of St. George (23 April), and commonly used as the model melody for troparia at “O Lord, I have cried” as well as at Lauds for martyrs. This is how it appears in the Irmologion of Ioannis Protopsaltis, one of the standard classical books:

os gennaion

And then this is how it appears in Chatzichronoglou:


Much of what’s different consists of editorial choices that are aids to the singer; bar lines have been written in, isokratima has been added (although your protospaltis may well want you to do something else than what is written here), and breaths have been written in, in some cases rewriting signs that are held for two beats in the Irmologion to one beat plus a breath, in other cases adding a catch breath in time. All of these things are very similar to editorial choices that might be made in a Western choral score or hymnal (although I have had music directors at times say that such editorial decisions should be unnecessary for people who are actually good musicians).

At the same time, Chatzichronoglou has made choices in how he’s written this out that are more akin to the ornaments at the bottom of the page in the Carus-Verlag Messiah score above. One of the more obvious places where he does this is καὶ ἐδέξω ἐκ Θεοῦ, τὸν τῆς νίκης σου στέφανον, ὃν ἱκέτευε (third line picking up into the fourth line in the Irmologion score, fourth line into the beginning of the fifth line in Chatzichronoglou). I realize not everybody here is going to be able to read psaltic notation, so here’s a quick and dirty transcription of the first version:

kai edexw irmologion_0001

Which, as with Handel, probably isn’t how anybody would sing it, depending on one’s context; your teacher and your protopsaltis will tell you how they learned it.

Here’s how Chatzichronoglou analyzes it, more or less:

kai edexw chatzichronoglou_0001

Which is closer to how it usually gets sung, particularly at “ὃν ἱκέτευε”. One can see that the second one is an ornamentation of the structure of the first; it just comes down to a question of how you write it down, and that comes down to questions of pedagogy and tradition. Classical scores (in Western music as well, as we saw) tend to rely on the performance tradition being passed on by a teacher, whereas some modern editors are including (some might argue imposing) a layer of performance tradition in their scores. Your mileage may vary, but it’s important to be aware of the difference, to know which approach a given score is taking and what’s informing it. I should note that Chatzichronoglou gives a list of sources, for example, at the top of which is the Irmologion of Petros Peloponnesios, not that of Ioannis Protopsaltis, which doesn’t in fact make the list (but other books of Ioannis’ do). Petros’ Irmologion contains a version of this melody which is very different from Ioannis’, and which is also very different from what’s in Chatzichronoglou, reflecting a fairly wide variety of performance traditions where prosomoia are concerned (not entirely surprising for a practice that is largely an oral phenomenon — you’re not usually going to be looking at a score when you sing these). As with Western music, a teacher will help you navigate what kinds of choices to make where this is concerned.

Chatzichronoglou includes an introduction outlining his objectives for the volume that I will also translate, but as I’m already verging on 1500 words for the review, I’ll put that in a separate post.

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1 Response to “Book review: <i>Ta Prosomoia</i> by Georgios Chatzichronoglou”

  1. 1 The foreword for Ta Prosomoia | Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 15 August 2013 at 9:19 pm

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