My recent translation of Lycourgos Angelopoulos’ talk on Simon Karas got the attention of one Mr. Tom Nassis of Chicago, who asked if I wouldn’t mind translating a 2007 article by Giorgos Kyriakais on the 30 year anniversary of Angelopoulos’ Greek Byzantine Choir. I was happy to do so; Tom provided a few suggestions, and then ran it by Mr. Kyriakakis himself, who gave it his own stamp of approval. So, here it is. As always, I’m more than open to questions and comments.
Update, 27 July 2011: By request, the text with which I was provided may be found here.
One of the longest-lived, and in all likelihood the most internationally recognized, Greek musical ensembles, which Lycourgos Angelopoulos established and directs up to today, completed three decades of activity. The history of the choir in reality coincides with that of its founder, who has devoted himself to applying his world-renowned authentic talent and immense artistic experience to the promotion and achievement of the goals of the choir. The present writer was honored to study with him, so for this, please forgive any sentimentalities detected in the text which follows.
The Greek Byzantine Choir (EL.BY.X. [Ελληνική Βυζαντινή Χορωδία]) was founded with its objective being the study and performance of Byzantine music as it reached our time by means of written and oral tradition. The choir made its first official appearance on 12 December 1977 at Beethovenhalle in Bonn, having been invited by the West German Republic, at a concert with a mixed program. In the first part of the concert, the EL.BY.X. chanted a selection of hymns for the Nativity of Christ, while in the second part featured the world premiere of the work of Dimitri Terzaki, “Leitourgeia Profana” with Lycourgos Angelopoulos as the soloist. But the relationship of the choir and its director with contemporary (and beyond) music will be mentioned in the next article. The debuting choir, then, met with an immediate and enthusiastic reception from a difficult audience. Enthusiams which up to today it causes everywhere where it gives concerts or participates in liturgical events, in Greece and abroad. There are not a few time when it was necessary either to repeat one of its concerts, to go on in a bigger venue than originally planned to enable all of the interested audience to attend, which had surpassed in size the expectations of each of the organizers. The next great international appearance of the EL.BY.X.is scheduled in New York next January, where for a second time it will give a concert at the city’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The EL.BY.X., in the 30 years of its activity, has put on more than 1,500 concerts, liturgical and other events in Greece, it has done so in more than 30 countries throughout the world. Among them are the historical several hours-long vigils at the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai (1983), in Cologne (1985), at the Holy Monastery of the Great Cave (1987), at the Holy Monastery of Vatopedi, at the Church of St. Demetrios in Thessaloniki (1993), at the Holy Monastery of Arkadi (2000) and at Krakow (2000), which, in spite of their length, were broadcast on the radio. The chief highlight was the participation in 2000 at the Pan-Orthodox Divine Liturgy of the Nativity of Christ in Bethlehem, while also especially historical and meaningful was the choir’s participation in June 2002 in the Divine Liturgy which the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew celebrated for the first time after many centuries in the ancient basilica of St. Apollinarius in Classe (6th century) in Ravenna.
The choir has recorded at Europe’s greatest radio and television stations, it has presented selections of ancient Greek music and Old Roman melodies, while it presented for the first time in modern years the ancient service of the “Three Children in the Fiery Furnace”, from the few preserved examples of Orthodox liturgical drama (c. 15th century), in a transcription and reconstruction of the composer and researcher Michael Adami. From 1990 it began the recording of all of the works of the most important Greek medieval composer John Koukouzelis the Master (perhaps 13th century). The choir has participated in the festivals of Athens and Epidauros in 1987, while from 1989 to 1991 it gave an annual concert at the ancient theatre of Epidauros. The choir appeared at the Megaro Mousiki Concert Hall in Athens for the first time in 1991 and several times from 1995 up to today. In March of 1997 it gave three concerts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the context of the exhibit “The Glory of Byzantium” and, in January of 1998, it participated in the events “Greece of Britain” with a concert at Queen Elisabeth Hall of London. In May of 2001 it sang at the initiative of Professor Alexander Lingas, also for the first time in recent years, the service of Asmatic (Sung) Vespers, at Oxford, from a transcription and reconstruction of Alexander Lingas’ and Ioannis Arvanitis’, while in August of the same year it gave for the fifth consecutive year the official concert of the International Conference of Studies in Paris together with Ensemble Organum. The above appearances constitute only a small sample of the exhaustive activity which characterizes the EL.BY.X. from its establishment up to today.
Since 1993 they have released in France and in Greece approximately 10 CDs as well as more than 30 cassettes under the name of the choir, eliciting ever-flattering reviews from the international music press. In many cases, notable music magazines have awarded their greatest distinction to the choir (e. g. fff, the magazine Diapason).
The specific and main reason, largely, that the EL.BY.X succeeded at being established internationally to a degree that should constitute worldwide an ensemble of note in the fields of religious, ancient, and Eastern music, is the fact that the choir “restores” Byzantine music, namely the medieval and more recent “art” music of the former Eastern Roman Empire, as a craft. It can be considered as self-evident that a musical ensemble serves music as a craft or an art, but for those who have inside knowledge of the world of Byzantine chant, it is an open, unacknowledged secret that this almost never occurs. The most customary response, which constitutes even substantial contempt of it from the same institutions, is that Byzantine music is a simple accompaniment, up to the point of a necessary evil, of the activity of Orthodox liturgical practice. The cantors (with or without preparation) are sometimes rendered as simple conduits of an action that often is manipulated and ultimately undermined even by the clergy when he, the priest, behaves as though he is a boss and the “psaltai” as functionaries of the church. Not to open up the Pandora’s Box where most of the “scientists” of “our national-religious-and-such music” live…
The EL.BY.X., under the adept direction of Lycourgos Angelopoulos, places this music on the pedestal that it deserves. Along with the choir’s regular, devotional or festive, but always majestic liturgical activities, its extra-ecclesiastical activity has helped greatly to clarify that Byzantine music exists as an independent musical significance, that constantly provokes the interest of an ever-wider public, but also of musicians and composers, as well as even actual scholarly researchers, in religious music and beyond. The EL.BΥ.X. does not seek to innovate. It remains faithful to the tradition, while also never resorting to complacent, loud-voiced trills that do injustice to the music for the benefit of the personal visibility of its performers, a natural consequence of the fact that it did not treat the high art which it offers to its audience in an opportunistic manner, and it continues to not do so, whether the audience is ecclesiastical or not. A simple hearing of small samples of the choir’s work not only demonstrates the things discussed so far but also guides with certainty even to the conclusions that follow; because the present article does not claim to constitute a musicological study, those conclusions ultimately will be given succinctly: the choir showcases and maintains the form of the compositions that it performs. It is the large world of music lovers that used to believe that Byzantine music is nothing other than a convoluted, boring improvisation overlaid onto orientalizing musical formulas, and it is the same large world of music lovers that changed its mind about the music itself when they heard it performed correctly. In the field of expression, the EL.BY.X. is a genuine heir apparent and practitioner of the pedagogy of the great Simon Karas. It provides a clear image of the totality and the melismas of the compositions without confusing one with the other. In general a virtually erroneous view concerning “heterophony” prevails, which wants all the members of a choir to sing on the same melodic skeleton, with individual variations in the ornamentation of melodies, with the result that a static sound, something “approximate”, reaches ears of the listener. The EL.BY.X. shows in a practical manner that the complete synchronization and coordination of all of the members of the choir is feasible, provided, of course, that proper training and preparation has preceded it… An absolutely unique characteristic of this specific choir, in our opinion, is that it chants stylistically. The choir approaches the texts differently, which results from the research and other recent developments. Nowhere in the world, excepting our small para-ecclesiastical way of doing things, is it understood that one applies the same approach of interpreting a composition of the 14th century with a composition from the 18th century, for example. The EL.BY.X. puts things in their proper place, and does not treat its repertoire as an indiscriminate hodgepodge of materials old and new, traditional and custom, trashy and expensive. Pages upon pages could be written about the importance of the work of the EL.BY.X. and its director regarding period treatment, quality and accuracy of intervals, dynamics, the rotations through both choral and solo phases, stage presence, and many other things which due to space considerations are not mentioned here, the things which all the same succeeded in convincing even an entirely “lay” audience that the EL.BY.X. practices something “religious” on the one hand, but which is still “art” above all on the other hand.
But alongside with the choir’s purely artistic activity, it also constitutes a great school. The present writer acknowledges that before he came into contact with the choir, being learned in secretive and pompous practices, used to believe that the world of Byzantine music is a closed club to which access for the one not initiated is rather impossible. The reality which he experienced contradicted him. I will not dwell on that; I will say only that for the duration of my trials with the EL.BY.X., I understood what Byzantine music actually is and how instructive it is merely to watch the choir’s members, well-trained to say the least, conversing on the matter at hand: the music. This was also the only time when I heard the “teacher” urge his “students”: Study! If somebody asks you tomorrow, “Why do you say this?”, how will you answer this person? “Because my teacher says so”? And if he should tell you, “It could be, but your teacher speaks wrongly,” then what? Study, so that you learn why you’re saying what you’re saying, and not because I myself have told you so!
And he always referred and guided us to the sources, many times even with he himself assuming the cost of any copies we needed. Finally.
Certainly, the thirty years of the choir did not pass rosily and into unalloyed glories without needing “to open the nose.” Only fruitless trees are not stoned. Our exegetical view, we believe, does not require that we live in the country where, together with chiefly historical matters, plausibility holds the title of metropolitan intolerance. And as regards the area of art… from ancient times (and this one). The Greek Byzantine Choir could not in a third of a century inconvenience the spider-filled psaltic establishment doing a decent job of the obvious thing without receiving its share of intolerance, sometimes collectively, and quite often in the form of personal attacks against its founder. Beginning already from its inception, St. Irene Church on Aiolos Street was the first testing ground. And when the EL.BY.X. was daring to not follow the stupid and distorted line, except for politically correct seasonal things, of the ridiculous three-part “harmonization” of Sakellarides style, it found the church locked at the time of the scheduled rehearsal — something which proved often to be a benefit for passersby, who had the opportunity to watch live the rehearsal that they inevitably held… on the steps of the church. But the worst came when the choir began to have prestige and to develop an international career. Then all the “trustees of tradition and style”, asleep since birth, and the only thing that bothered them was that they selling, boutique-style, their services to national-religious opportunistic merchants, and they identified the “enemy” whose existence gave them the opportunity to “intervene” critically, an opportunity which their ability to intervene musically did not particularly facilitate. Even up to the time during which these lines are written, all of these “border guards” and “zealots”, as they are fond of calling themselves, instead of seeking to be educated at least a little bit, they simply attack… Karagiozis’ Wedding… Personally, I have one question to offer: but is it well that you do not listen?
In the holy war against Angelopoulos and “Little Angelopoulites”, many funny episodes have transpired, episodes which rarely deviate from the music. There, even, many things are not able to be told. A great number of libels have been published from time to time, enough to make any embittered person laugh. Accusations of spying (what happens and what the choir does in Israel and every such thing, so that the Patriarch asking the choir to chant at the Holy Sepulchre is not enough), of heretical views (so many travels and consorting with the heterodox, the “unbaptized”, as they cannot do) and other things which, if they were all written down, anybody would believe that evil, provocative devils encourage them. Suitable for the snuff-box, but less by far for the music. Something is mumbled about contempt towards “the Patriarchal style” the identity of which, as an aside, is being researched, something about an alteration of Athonite style… ridiculous? In the ’70s, the accusation was that “they are going to bring the monastic ways to Athens,” while in the ’90s and beyond it was, “This group attacked, and then the systematic siege certainly being sustained, they laid waste to Vatopedi and having this as a base they plot against the remaining monasteries as it succeeds in imposing its style upon them.” Sometimes even some unsubstantiated speculations are heard concerning the systems of attraction and of intervals, but these hold little sway, obviously because the arguments do not persuade, and neither do those who make those arguments. Thus, henceforth the EL.BY.X. “with the assistance of the mass media, have also imposed such things, systematically altering the content of our national music,” and other humorous stories… The aforementioned matters concerning form, rhythmic training, study and correct result, research into the sources and so on, remain the fine print for a large proportion of the field, and they do not fall loudly on the table. And the sympathetic chief clergy do not make a noise but they are aware of such things. To repeat what I said earlier, a metropolis of intolerance. This time even with a Metropolitan. But all these things aside, the EL.BY.X. continues to produce work, and it does not rest on the international recognition which it already enjoys, and we pray that it continues much longer. As for the “Spartans guarding Thermopylae”, armed with the broomstick of excommunication, even they are members of the ecosystem. It is well that there are those, just as the one “having ears to hear”, able to hear these things on the one hand and able to judge on the other hand able to judge the musical interpretations and scholarly evidence.
Who is so naive as to argue that the subject of research, interpretation, and presentation of any musical movement, are the result of only a few individuals? The only certainty is that history is not rolling back; the Greek Byzantine Choir and Lycourgous Angelopoulos, here and for many years, are writing their own chapter.
– George Kyriakakis, http://www.kyriakakis.de/