Posts Tagged 'lycourgos angelopoulos'

A psalterion is empty

Eleven years ago, when I first started investigating the Byzantine chant repertoire of Orthodox sacred music, my friend Mark Powell gave me some advice — track down the Divine Liturgy recording by Lycourgos Angelopoulos and the Greek Byzantine Choir. Hard to find, he said, but it’s the real deal.

I did indeed track it down — I couldn’t find it on Amazon or on any of the usual CD websites, but I eventually found a Canadian retailer who specialized in Greek things who had it. I remember popping it into my CD player and not having any idea what to expect, and the first “Ἀμήν” just about knocked me out of my chair with its wall of men’s voices.

That CD became my benchmark for what good Byzantine chant sounded like. Other discs became other benchmarks; Cappella Romana’s Divine Liturgy in English became the benchmark for good Byzantine chant in good English, for example. In terms of a general snapshot of the sound of Byzantine chant done well, however, the Angelopoulos Divine Liturgy remained the standard.

At some point, the label Opus 3 made new stock available of the Divine Liturgy disc. It became the kind of thing that I would make sure to have extra copies around, and over the span of a few years, I gave away countless of them to people. A couple of years ago, Opus 3 apparently discontinued it, and it’s back to being scarce. Too bad.

I discovered other recordings by the Greek Byzantine Choir — their Koukouzelis disc, their Mother of God disc, their Christmas disc, the Akathistos Hymn, the anthology that alternates their recordings with some by the Serbian Orthodox singer Divna, and so on. I also found my way to Angelopoulos’ recordings with Marcel Peres and Ensemble Organum. These recordings were all gateways to different corners of the tradition, and each one became both a treasure and a learning tool.

Five years ago, I had the chance to go to Greece for the summer. I wrote Alexander Lingas a note asking, whom can you recommend for Byzantine chant teachers in Athens? His suggestions were Lycourgos Angelopoulos and Ioannis Arvanitis, and essentially, he said, it boiled down to language. They themselves were exemplary students of the same teacher, Simon Karas, but Angelopoulos spoke no English, really, only Greek and French; Arvanitis spoke very good English. Well, I opted for Arvanitis — I speak some French and I was in Greece for an immersion Greek program, but I didn’t really want my chant education to be in a language that was itself still in progress for me. I studied with Arvanitis all summer while attending Agia Irini, the church in Athens where both he and Angelopoulos chanted, so I certainly heard plenty of the psaltic ethos represented on the Divine Liturgy disc in person while I was there.

While I saw and heard him quite a bit in the flesh that summer, I never did actually get the chance to meet Angelopoulos — well, okay, that’s not entirely true. I had chances, but I chose not to introduce myself, I guess because I figured that, as my teacher, if Arvanitis thought it was appropriate to introduce me, he would do so. For the same reason I never went up to chant at Agia Irini that summer; my assumption was that if my teacher thought that was a good idea, he’d tell me. (It wasn’t until later that John Boyer told me, yeah, no, that’s not really how it works — you just go up and tell him you’re Arvanitis’ student and my friend, and he says, great, stand here and sing with us.)

After that experience, I developed other 1-degree-away connections; John Boyer, certainly, who was a student of both Angelopoulos as well as Arvanitis; Alexander Lingas, whom I got to know a bit better at Oxford Patristics in 2011; my friend Taso Nassis, a Chicago psaltis who had also studied with Angelopoulos and Arvanitis for years, was personally very close to both, and had absorbed just about everything both had to offer. Another friend, Brian Whirledge, went to Athens a couple of summers ago to study with Arvanitis, and he sang for Angelopoulos at Agia Irini while he was there as well.

Somewhere along the way, I also developed an awareness that Byzantine chant had its own internal squabbles, and that Angelopoulos and Arvanitis (and, by extension, the friends I had made in connection with them) tended to be seen as on a particular side of those squabbles. I still don’t really understand what that’s all about, and I don’t really need to understand; suffice it to say that I’ve always been grateful for both what I’ve been taught and how I was taught it.

Three days ago, Sunday morning, I had the good fortune to be singing Orthros and Divine Liturgy with Cappella Romana at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles. To be joining Cappella as a psaltis for concerts and services of Byzantine music was, in many ways, the closing of the circuit that was started all those years ago when Mark, Cappella’s Executive Director, told me to find the Angelopoulos Divine Liturgy disc. Further, we were singing a lot of things that morning that one hears on that recording. Towards the end of Liturgy, one of the psaltes checked his phone, and suddenly he was trying to get Alexander Lingas’ attention. Alex saw the phone, looked dismayed, and made the Sign of the Cross. My colleague showed me the phone — “Lycourgos Angelopoulos has died”, said the headline.

As part of our encore that afternoon, Alex gave a brief memorial speech about Angelopoulos, and we sang “Memory eternal” before launching into the medieval melody from Jerusalem for “Χριστὸς ἀνέστη”. Shortly thereafter I got a text from John saying that he was heading out to Greece the next day for the funeral.

While I never met Lycourgos Angelopoulos, it is safe to say that both in terms of his professional as well as his personal output, he had a great deal of influence on my development as a church singer and as an Orthodox Christian, even as I have been but an outlier in that structure. It seems a fair observation that what Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) has been for theology — a strong center of pedagogical gravity and  the hub of a far-reaching network of students — Lycourgos Angelopoulos has been for the psaltic art. He has been Libanius for Byzantine chant, perhaps. Lycourgos in antiquity may have been Νομοθέτης, the Lawgiver; perhaps this Lycourgos may be fairly remembered as ψαλλοθέτης.

The psalterion at Agia Irini stands empty, and none shall take his place. Καλό ταξίδι, Δάσκαλε. Αιωνία η μνήμη σου. Ζωή σε μας.

I close with two pieces from other people — first, my 2011 translation of an article on the 30th anniversary of the Greek Byzantine Choir; second, a reflection by John Boyer on the death of his personal friend and teacher of so many years:

Αιωνία η μνήμη του Δασκάλου! Ζωή σε μας!
May the memory of our beloved teacher be eternal!

The joy I have experienced these last few days with my classmates, friends and parents during festivities surrounding graduation from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology is tempered today with the sad news of the passing of my beloved teacher in the art of Byzantine Chant, Archon Protopsaltis Lycourgos Angelopoulos. I began studies with Mr. Lycourgo in the Summer of 1996 and remained in frequent contact with him over the last 18 years – half of my life. Never have I met a more dedicated teacher in the Psaltic Art; Lycourgo had hundreds of students over the last few decades, many of whom went on to become great cantors in their own right, others who became great scholars in Byzantine Music, others who went on to become clergy, still others who took the knowledge and skill he passed on to them to their ascetic lives in monasteries and convents. The Clan of Angelopoulos students reaches the far corners of the earth, as do the scores of recordings of his groundbreaking choir, Η Ελληνική Βυζαντινή Χορωδία (The Greek Byzantine Choir).

A controversial figure, to be sure, those who know him personally know him to have been a loving yet strict taskmaster, a consummate teacher, a faithful Christian, extraordinarily generous, with a witty sense of humor and a voice that could move mountains. I have had the honor of chanting with my beloved teacher numerous times in many different venues, most recently at his home parish of St. Irene’s in Athens last Summer. I will never forget the sound of his voice, the twinkle in his eye, his inspiring and moving chanting and his profound gift for directing a choir. Who I am today as chanter, teacher and conductor I attribute greatly to the time I was so blessed to spend with the great Lycourgos Angelopoulos. I can only aspire, along with many others of his students, to carry on his torch of Byzantine Music, especially here in the United States, not simply as cantor but as teacher, conductor, composer and promoter of this traditional liturgical music of the Greek Orthodox Church. Αιωνία η μνήμη αυτού. Ο Θεός να τον αναπαύσει. May his memory be eternal. May God lay him to rest. Χριστός ανέστη! Christ is Risen!!!

With sadness and love in the risen Christ,

John Michael Boyer, MDiv.
Protopsaltis, Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco
Lambadarios, Holy Cross Chapel, Brookline, MA

The psalterion at Agia Irini stands empty, and none shall take his place.


Review: Cappella Romana, Mt. Sinai: Frontier of Byzantium

Cappella Romana is an ensemble that’s hard to pin down. Are they an early music ensemble? Yes, sort of, but they don’t generally do Bach or Monteverdi. Are they a sacred music ensemble? Yes, but they’re not affiliated with a specific church institution (i. e., a cathedral or parish). Are they a world music ensemble? Sort of, since much of the music they sing originates in the Mediterranean, but not exactly. Are they a contemporary music ensemble? Yes, sort of, but much of the contemporary music they do is decidedly in an older tradition. Are they a pastoral, confessional affair? Of sorts, I suppose, although their membership is by no means entirely composed of Orthodox Christians. Are they a scholarly project? Well, yes, they’re kind of that too, given that the booklets tend to be article-length affairs with footnotes and bibliography. I suppose you could say that they’re an early world contemporary sacred music vocal ensemble that’s run by a musicologist.

They’ve been extraordinarily productive in terms of recorded output in the last eight years; since 2004 they’ve put out some eight discs (ten if you include the compilation for the Royal Academy’s Byzantium exhibit and their contribution to the Choral Settings of Kassiani project) that have run the gamut — medieval Byzantine chant, Russian-American liturgical settings, a long-form concert work by an American master, Western polyphony, Greek-American polyphonic liturgical music, and Christmas carols (of a sort). Their recordings also continue to get better and better; I picked up their discography in 2004 starting with the Music of Byzantium compilation of various live and recorded excerpts, followed by Lay Aside All Earthly Cares, their collection of Fr. Sergei Glagolev’s music, and then 2006’s The Fall of Constantinople, a program I had heard them perform here in Bloomington. Comparing just those three discs to each other, there’s a noticeable jump in quality, and then comparing them to recent releases such as the Peter Michaelides Divine Liturgy, it’s clear that they’ve found a groove in the studio (as well as perhaps in the editing booth) and they’re riding it now. They’re recording music nobody else is really doing, and while that means it’s hard to know what an applicable comparandum for any particular recording might be, it’s clear listening to it that they’re doing it at a very high level regardless, and the good news about the lack of comparable recordings is that it reveals the sheer richness of the Orthodox musical heritage. Arvo Pärt and Rachmaninoff are great, but there’s much, much more that you can do.

Mt. Sinai: The Frontier of Byzantium fits into this scheme by presenting music from late medieval Byzantine chant manuscripts from St. Catherine Monastery at Mt. Sinai, one of the key crossroads for Eastern Christianity. A Chalcedonian monastic outpost dating as far back as the days of Justinian in the middle of non-Chalcedonian Egypt, it is a treasure house of some of our earliest witnesses to the Christian iconographic tradition (since it was a place of refuge from the iconclasts), and its library of manuscripts in virtually every language of the Roman oikoumene is a witness to the catholicity of the Empire that produced them. The musical selections include portions of a Vespers for the monastery’s patronal feast, as well as the Service of the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace, a quasi-liturgical drama that would have been served between Matins and Divine Liturgy on the Sunday before Christmas.

The Vespers material is interesting, particularly how Psalm 103 is treated. It is something of a mix of reconstructed Palestinian practice and present-day Greek tradition, where the first three verses are sung antiphonally, and then Koukouzelis et al.‘s setting of the Anoixantaria (the section of Ps. 103 that starts with, “Thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good…”) is interpolated with Triadika, short refrains glorifying the Trinity. It’s an approach to psalmody (in the literal sense of the word) that is generally eschewed in modern American parish practice; we tend to treat whole psalms as something to get through as quickly and as plainly as possible. Of course, just singing the Anoixantaria can take as long as 20 minutes depending on whose setting one is doing, so when parishes want to get Vespers done in half an hour or less, that’s the way it is. Elements like this emphasize how, ideally, our worship needs to be unhurried; we’re on God’s time, he’s not on our time.

The Service of the Furnace portion is lovely. It’s a real curiosity, liturgically speaking; the notes refer to it having been part of the practice of Constantinople and Thessaloniki (and subsequently Crete), and something that developed during the so-called “Byzantine ars nova“, where an artistic and spiritual flourishing was paradoxically occurring in the East at the same time as the political collapse. I’m left wanting to know more about how exactly how it developed, and why, and why it didn’t catch on elsewhere in the Orthodox world.

There are several musical textures in the Furnace section, solo to choral, syllabic to highly melismatic, and they’re all handled with beautiful musicianship and and some of the best male ensemble singing you’re ever likely to hear on a CD. One thing I’d point out is that this actually is something that has been commercially recorded before and is more or less available, even if you have to know where to look for it. Lycourgos Angelopoulos and the Greek Byzantine Choir (EBX) recorded parts of it for a Polish release called “Byzantine Hymns”, and while I have yet to actually find this for purchase anywhere, you can find their rendering of the Service of the Furnace hymnody on YouTube.   Obviously there’s a bit of a difference in approach; EBX tends to have a different vocal quality all around that I would describe as a little more suntanned and weatherbeaten, and they’re singing the material the way they sing at church every Sunday. EBX also employs a children’s choir for the Three Youths themselves, which is apparently the historical practice and sounds fantastic, but I can see several reasons why that might be an undesirable layer of complexity for Cappella’s presentation.

One other thought — something that a recording like this might help to give a glimpse of is the vitality of the Christian tradition in the Middle East. St. Catherine’s Monastery is an Egyptian witness to a faithful, diverse, cosmopolitan Christianity in the Roman world, and that Christianity is still there, alive, and hanging on. Projects like this show that it is a witness that has much still to teach us.

Some last-minute gift ideas…

Obviously it’s Thursday, and Christmas is Sunday, so this isn’t even last-minute but last-second. Last-millisecond, even. Nonetheless, here are some suggestions for those of you foolish enough to think that my taste might be the slightest bit relevant:

Consider giving a gift to International Orthodox Christian Charities. Their mission: “IOCC, in the spirit of Christ’s love, offers emergency relief and development programs to those in need worldwide, without discrimination, and strengthens the capacity of the Orthodox Church to so respond.” They do a lot of wonderful work throughout the world like Palestine, Syria, Romania, Ethiopia, and more — including the United States.
A Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer. My Samsonite leather satchel fell apart on me over the summer, and I contemplated whether or not I could swing a Saddleback classic briefcase (my godson Lucas has one and it is a thing of beauty), but then Larry Anderson suggested I check out the options from Tom Bihn. I got a great traveling laptop briefcase for about a third of what the Saddleback bag I was considering would have cost, it’s got a lifetime guarantee, and it’s been perfect for when I’ve needed to travel with my 15″ MacBook Pro. Of course, the day after the bag arrived I bought an iPad 2 (yeah, yeah, earlier than I said I would, but no regrets, let me tell you), so I have tended to need to transport the laptop less (short version: to the extent that laptops have become desktop replacements, iPads are laptop replacements), but it’s stil been exactly right for what I need. It’s very elegantly designed, and it’s very good at making sure there is a place for everything. The one caveat I might add is that while the bag is plenty sturdy, the stretchy shoulder strap may feel like it’s more stressed than it actually is if you overload it. Not an issue if you don’t, well, overload it, and the bounce the shoulder stap provides makes the bag a lot easier to carry once you get used to it (it basically seems to function as a shock absorber).

Cappella Romana’s new disc Mt. Sinai: Frontier of Byzantium. A full review of this is forthcoming, but for right now suffice it to say that it’s a beautifully-sung account of medieval Byzantine chant manuscripts from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Repertoire includes material for Vespers of the Feast of St. Catherine, as well as from the Service of the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace, which used to be served on the Sunday before Nativity. Some of this has been recorded before by Lycourgos Angelopoulos and the Greek Byzantine Choir for a disc called “Byzantine Hymns” (and one can find the audio on YouTube but I can’t find out anything about the disc, so if anybody knows anything about it, please let me know), but Cappella Romana is a very different ensemble from GBC in a number of ways, and their rendering of the material is very much worth hearing. Like I said, full review coming, but this is a great stocking stuffer. For that matter, so is the reissue of the Epiphany disc under their own label. And, of course, their recording of Richard Toensing’s Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ is a must-have. One can also make a gift to Cappella Romana, either to their general operating fund or to support one of their several in-the-works recordings.

If you’re an iPad user who thinks that the soft-tipped styli that you’re likely to find at Best Buy don’t really do what you need them to do, I highly recommend the Jot-Pro. It makes handwriting and drawing much easier.

For another music suggestion, Marcel Peres/Ensemble Organum’s recording of Christmas music from the Old Roman Chant repertory, Chant de l’Eglise de Rome: VIe-XIIIe Siècles, is a fascinating and beautiful reconstruction of a time when East and West had a lot more in common, culturally and spiritually, than we’re used to now. “Reconstruction” is often a euphemism in early music circles for “making nonsense up”, but as I’ve noted before, I think Peres (collaborating with Lycourgos Angelopoulos) makes a pretty compelling case.

If you’re a Mac user and a writer who needs to manage a decent amount of research, notes, ideas, dates, etc., Scrivener and Tinderbox are a pretty powerful one-two punch. If you’re already a Scrivener user, there’s also deal on Tinderbox. I’m new to Tinderbox myself, but I’ve been using Scrivener for several years now, and I find it to be fantastically helpful in terms of its set of writing tools. I’ve written (and am still revising) a children’s book and several academic papers with it. The only thing I wish it had was cleaner EndNote integration, and I also have to make sure I remember to not send compiled *.rtf documents as finished drafts (must save as a Word doc or a *.pdf), lest the person on the other end simply open it in a text editor by default and think I’ve made the rookie mistake of not including any footnotes. (Yes, this has happened. Recently.)

Horrified as I am by the K-Cup craze, I’m going to suggest the paleocafephile route (I think I just invented a word) — the briki/ibrik, with which one makes Greek/Turkish/Arabic coffee. You don’t have little plastic containers that keep you from ever handling grounds; nonononono. Heh. No. Instead, you grind the beans to powder, boil the grounds directly (no filter), pour it into a cup, add sugar (and maybe cardamom if you’re Cypriot), and then you deal with the sludge at the bottom of the cup. It’s the only way to fly in a word that wants to make your coffee experience as safe and plastic and single-serving-sized as possible.

Michael Uslan is, without doubt, the comic book geek made good to end all comic book geeks made good. His memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman, is tremendously inspiring, and is a must-read for anybody, whether they’ve read a comic book or not, who has ever been told, “Kid, you can’t get there from here.”

All right — may the last few days of the fast treat everybody well!

Giorgos Kyriakakis: 30 Years Since the Founding of the Greek Byzantine Choir

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 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,

Lycourgos Angelopoulos: Simon Karas and Byzantine music in Greece during the 20th century

Simon Karas

I found this on the Analogion website, and it seemed worth translating. Corrections, comments, and feedback welcome, particularly where some technical terms are concerned. This makes mention of a number of what I assume to be the terms of art of Greek music theory, and I wasn’t always sure I was right. Words where I wasn’t certain there even was an English equivalent are left in Greek and in italics. To the extent that anybody’s concerned about such things, we can call this a draft until all such feedback is in.

Simon Karas and Byzantine music in Greece during the 20th century

Lycourgos Angelopoulos, Archon Protopsaltis of the Most-Holy Archdiocese of Constantinople, Professor of Byzantine Music at Philippos Nakas Conservatory

Opening remarks at the Symposium for Byzantine Music, Romania, December 2002

The subject of my introduction touches upon, in essence, the problem today of the pedagogical method of Byzantine music — theory and practice — a problem which surely concerns all of us, I think.

It is the chief problem which we face so much in research, as much as even in teaching, because the oral tradition which necessarily interprets the written tradition, in some places has almost vanished (where the political situation over the decades contributed to it), in other places been weakened or altered (where it was influenced by the teaching of a European pedagogy — that is to say a foreign system — and the use of a mixed means).

Lycourgos Angelopoulos

Simon Karas studied and confronted this problem, together with many other things noted. The great length of days of life which the Lord granted him (he was born in 1903 in Strovitsi of Olympia and he fell asleep in January of 1999 in Athens) helped him so that a project, an inquiry — but also a practice of life — might be published in large part in the last twenty years his life and might constitute the work of infrastructure for a systematic pedagogy which respects the written tradition and interprets it with the oral tradition. The respect for the written tradition and the the interpretation of the written tradition by the oral tradition is the basic prerequisite of service and offering for everybody who serves the current method of our ecclesiastical music.

As of this year it has been twenty years since the publication of Simon Karas’ two-volume Theoretical Treatise of Greek Music. Before we analyze the importance of its publication, which is accompanied by a practical pedagogical method of many volumes, let us give, very briefly, the situation of Byzantine music in Greece in the twentieth century.

Σince the nineteenth century the new method of the system has spread and been taught, the so-called method of the Three Teachers, which was supported by the publication of the great Theoretical Treatise of Chrysanthos (Trieste, 1832) and some subsequent theoretical publications of other authors who are emultating it.

In parallel, from 1820 and beyond, subsequent publications of music books are produced, the peak being the circulation from the Patriarchate in the middle of the nineteenth century of the four-volume publication “Pandekti,” which until today constitutes a basic pedagogical text, together with the Anastasimatarion, the Irmologion, and Mousiki Kypseli (Sticherarion).

In the modern Greek state, they are teaching students of the Three Teachers such as the Protopsaltis of Athens, Zafeirios Zafeiropoulos, or the archdeacon Anthimos the Efesiomagnis (from Asia Minor) the who founded the School in Messolonghi, with many students and successors of his work.

The support from the state but then even from the Church (between the third and fifth decades of the century) produces the poor parenthesis of the system of Giorgios Lesvos, the system which finally was rejected by the Holy Great Church of Christ in the time of Ecumenical Patriarch Anthimos VI. Most correctly, too, because the dominance of another system would have eliminated automatically the notation and would cut off every connection with the older methods of the Byzantine system and the tradition.

In the 19th century however it has her roots and another cause which troubled our ecclesiastical music: the introduction of polyphony in the central churches of Athens, initially according to the model of the Greek community of Vienna (Chaviara-Nikolaidi harmonizations) and, later, of Russian polyphonic music.

This imposition of polyphony created reactions among the people who followed the tradition. Polyphony in the Church was certainly conforming to the age with the secular music that had been introduced also from Europe (an age in which opera, operetta, and European music in general flourished, the condition in which the idea was cultivated that those genres are superior in comparison to monophonic Byzantine music). As the restoration of Byzaintine music (having been purified, supposedly cleansed from Turkish elements) presents at the end of the 19th century the musically naive system of Ioannis Sakellarides, which produced great confusion among even still-traditional cantors. Chiefly because he used traditional notation lines in many cases and some uses of signs — subordinating the whole to a rhythmic scheme of four-beat feet, impairing the modal character and adjusting their essence to the European system.

Opposite to this situation which is spreading from the capital, Athens, influencing even the other urban centers by word and the educational activity of Sakellarides (pedagogy in ecclesiastical and even secular schools), there are the traditional cantors who are trying to keep the monophonic ecclesiastical music with the teaching but also even with practice (services, vigils, etc.).

Already the Ecumenical Patriarch has convened a musical committee in 1881-3 for the completion and correction of the Great Theoretical Treatise of Chrysanthos.

The committee redefines intervals, describes the characteristic elements of the modes and chiefly defines precisely the intervalic subdivisions of flats and sharps, in other words of the function of attractions according to mode, which even then had not been determined with exactness.

In the practical field — in the printed books which individual cantors are printing at the 19th century, already a process of most analytical notation of oral tradition has begun, a process which eventually arrives at excess with the improper use of certain signs of subdivision of the beat and the use of qualitative signs without calculation of their value.

This trend, which would continue  during the entire 20th century, would find the its chief spokesman in the face and work of the Archon Protopsaltis of the Most-Holy Archdiocese of Constantinople, Athanasius Karamani, who documents — as he himself calls it — the “living tradition”. For all practical purposes, these documents are meaningful witnesses for research and for the relationship with the value of the signs.

But let us come back to the beginnings of the 20th century. An important station is the decision of the Musical and Dramatic Assocation, that by 1871 has established the Conservatory of Athens, to advance even to the establishment of the School of Byzantine Music in 1903. The Director of the Conservatory, G. Naxos, goes to Constantinople and submits a request to Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim III for the sending of an appropriate teacher for the service of the School. Finally, Constantinos Psachos is sent and the service of the School begins in September of 1904. Constantinos Psachos will teach some fifteen years at the Conservatory of Athens, and after he will leave and will continue the teaching at other school. At the same time, in the years which follow, Byzantine music schools are established in the conservatories and in this way the teaching of Byzantine music spreads to schools which primarily teach European music.

This cohabitation [with Western music] is further one of the core reasons that the teaching of Byzantine music in the conservatories loses its particular character with regard to musical expression (the values of the signs) and microtones. The final sign of decline is the teaching with piano. Only a part of the repertoire is taught and dry singing prevails. This manner is characterized as “conservatory style”. The years which the Asia Minor Catastrophe (1922) will bring enough cantors from Asia Minor and Constantinople, just as even in the years of the decade of the 1960s, with the collective expulsion of those of Greek heritage from Constantinople, culminating in that [expulsion] of the Archon Protopsaltis of the Holy and Great Church of Christ, Thrasyboulos Stanitsas (1964).

Polyphony, confusion of Byzantine music with European music, along with Sakellarides, dry singing in the conservatories on the one hand, traditional cantors on the other hand, which, nevertheless, increasingly rely on one leg of the tradition — the oral tradition in other words — here is a picture in broad strokes of the situation which prevails when Simon Karas begins his activity with the establishment of the Association for the Dissemination of National Music (1929). The school of the Association has already been created and its creation has already engaged in study and research, work which will hold up for more than seventy years. From the beginning the subject of agreement of agreement of the theoretical and practical parts employs him. HE studies and he solves the problems thus in depth so that the theoretical pedagogy and the practical implementation, which he proposes for the formulation of his pedagogy, should be in agreement.

His pedagogy considers all of the old theoretical texts in conjunction with the oral tradition which he heard during the extent of his long life, and chiefly in the first decades of the 20th century.

The two-volume “Theoretical Treatise of Greek Music” which is published in 1982 is densely written on the hand with respect to his writing, exhaustive on the other hand with respect to the organization of its chapters.

The systematic ordering of the modes and of the classes of modes happens with deep knowledge of the practice. In the same way, the theoretical formulation is not stale, but always results from the practical implementation which he researches and justifies.

For example, I will relate the vivid documentation of the classes of the authentic modes (mesoi, paramesoi, plagioi, paraplagioi) and the plagal modes (difonoi, trifonoi, tetrafonoi, pentafonoi, eptafonoi) just as they result from the musical texts in use.

In this way the relationship between the modes is methodically presented, but primarily the means of generating the octave is emphasized. One consequence of this logic is the treatment of the series of pitches as a whole musical phrase of a certain mode and not separately (not as each separate pitch, in other words), this latter approach being the one which unfortunately  prevailed in conservatory-style pedagogy and not only there. The treatment of the series of pitches as a musical phrase facilitates even the determination of the ison which, just as all of us recognize, is not always noted in the text. The mingling, nevertheless, with the polyphony that I talked about earlier, in the combination with the conservatory-style pedagogy produced a freakishly irregular ison based on vertical harmonic consonance, outside the logic of the system of modes, which wants for the ison the tonic of the tetrachord or the pentachord in which the musical phrase belongs.

In the chapter on the modes, the symbol of Simon Karas is important as for the intervals. With the cooperation of Constantinpolitan mathematician and physicist Stavros Vrachamis — authorized in writing by the Ecumenical Patriarch to research the subject of musical intervals according to genre and timbre (as Karas himself mentions) — the intervalic study of the modes even completes or corrects, always justifiably, the earlier opinions on the intervals. As a representative example I will mention that which highlights for the enharmonic genre, in the Great Theoretical Treatise of Chrysanthos, who, while he clearly defines which ones are the intervals of the enharmonic genre, nevertheless in another paragraph he classifies the Third and the Grave mode in the enharmonic genre with intervals of the hard diatonic (whole steps and half-steps). The contradiction is obvious. Another example is the reconstruction of the intervals which the Patriarchal Commission of 1881-3 gives as for the chromatic modes, so that the large and small chromatic thirds of the soft and hard chromatic coincide.

Nevertheless the example of Simon Karas is decisive in the chapter “Musical Expression”, which in detail negotiates the matters of actions and of voices but also of the hand-signs used in directing (“texts only through hand-signs”): the action of these signs, although it is there in the vocal tradition of traditional cantors, has suffered a blow from the conservatory-style pedagogy (and not only from that), which just as we showed, does not welcome it, resulting in the desiccation of the melodic line and deterioration (if not disappearance) of microtonal intervals.

Already this chapter resulted in the motivation for extensive research. Beyond the announcement of the signing at the conference of Delphi in 1986, two doctoral dissertations, of Professor Demetri Giannelos and of Professor Yiannis Zannos, contribute seriously to the documentation of the subject, while a third, that of Dr. Georgios Konstantinos, gives a full picture of the function of the signs in the written tradition.

The proposal of Simon Karas for the reinstatement of certain hand-signs used in directing which correspond to vocal — that is to say, oral — tradition, I think, contributes decisively to the preservation of Chrysanthine notation and the avoidance of the distortion of its nature, with the predominant analyses already changing the use of the signs and, I fear, leading ultimately to the replacement of the signs with European notation.

From the achievements of the “Theory” of Simon Karas is a complete musical terminology, which responds in theory but also in practice, the consistent documentation of attractions in agreement with the Patriarchal Commission of 1881-3, the citation of examples in every chapter from folk music (hundreds of songs, documentation of the same), the through reference to the use of instruments. The multi-volume method for practical training accompanies and fulfills the “Theory” of Simon Karas, and completes the pedagogical framework.

In the years which the work of Simon Karas begins to be published, the final 20 years in other words of the twentieth century, also begins the service of the music departments of universities in Athena, in Thessaloniki, in Corfu. The work of these music departments towards Byzantine music is chiefly theoretical, of musicological, historical, literary, or theological interest. Of a more practical direction is the department of Musical Knowledge and Art of Macedonia University in Thessaloniki. In parallel, the Institute of Byzantine Musicology of the Church of Greece is active with publishing, the creation of a choir and a discography of Byzantine and post-Byzantine musical compositions.

The University Byzantine Chorus of Thessaloniki, which was established in 1972 by Professor Antonios Alygizakis, also has a similar discography.

(Today, I will add also the postgraduate department of the Conservatory of Athens under the supervision of Doctor Georgios Konstantinos, where specialized researchers give to conservatory graduates comprehensive and knowledgeable insights for the balanced development of theoretical training and practical research.)

A seminal contribution in the history of ecclesiastical music from the sources according to the period of Turkish rule is the book of Manolis K. Chatzigiakoumis, “Manuscripts of Ecclesiastical Music, 1453-1832”, as well as the recordings of cantors which were made in the last twenty years and began to be released recently under the title “Monuments of Ecclesiastical Music”.

Finally, we mention the establishment of the Greek Byzantine Choir in 1977, which in 25 years of activity has participated in more than 900 events in 30 countries, with a similar discography in Greece and in France.

We return to Simon Karas.

We have before us, then, an important project which actually dominates the musical scene of the 20th century, a project which prepares tomorrow while at the same time it constitutes a solid link between today and yesterday. For this reason exactly it deserves to be studied more broadly, to be translated and to be useful for all researchers who will find a most important aid for study and contrast, and for teachers and performers who will discover a valuable guide for systematic pedagogy and research.

I should say here that I consider it especially a privilege that our common tradition in Byzantine music originates entirely from our common Mother the Church, the Holy and Great Church of Christ, our Ecumenical Patriarchate.

The Great Church maintained over the ages and preserved in her womb our system of music, with the pedagogy of methods over time in the Patriarchal school, and it will continue even in the future to guarantee its unhindered continuation.

This unity across of the years of the system endorses the research and the systematic pedagogy of Simon Karas — pedagogy which supports, substantiates, completes, corrects, and clarifies the later method in use of the Three Teachers.

At base, we consider the existing written tradition which necessarily is completed by the oral tradition. This means preservation of the notation of the elaborations of Gregorios and of Hourmouzios, with the simultaneous accounting of all the information which the elaborations of their students give us (Petros Ephesios, or Matthias Vatopaidinos of Mount Athos, Nikolaos Diocheiaritos, Ioasaph Dionysiatos, et al.)

The comparative study of the elaborations with each other and with the oral tradition confirms scientifically but, I would say, also solemnly, the comprehensive thesis of Simon Karas for reinstatement of certain hand-signs used in directing but also of the oxeia, already in use in the publications of Petros Ephesios.

This method of research and its practical implementation protects, on the one hand, the unity across time and the functionality of the notation and prevents its mutation in the dry notes of the European system (and thus prevents its being rendered unusable), while on the other hand, it gurantees and strengthens the absolutely necessary oral tradition (with the attractions, the microtones, the phrases et al.) without which the interpretation lacks the richness of varieties which are described theoretically as operations of the signs and are performed practically by the traditional cantors.

With these observations, in conclusion, I would pray to be given to all of those who are interested in our ecclesiastical music for current practical and theoretical study, a continuation which will have the character of the standing scientific but also artistic collaboration and exchange in the frameworks of current reality, with reference always and in relation to the older methods, from those which we will be able to derive important details for knowledge and development.

Review — Cappella Romana The Divine Liturgy by Peter Michaelides and Ensemble Organum: Chant de l’Eglise de Rome: VIe-XIIIe Siecles

My copies of The Divine Liturgy by Peter Michaelides and the latest installment of Ensemble Organum’s Chant de l’Eglise de Rome arrived while I was traveling for Thanksgiving, and upon my return I was neck deep in finishing things up for the semester. Now that fall term of 2009/2010 is in the books, time to give these recordings its due attention.

My experience with a lot of the four-part Orthodox liturgical music that’s out there is that, frankly, it’s either terrible or plain mediocre. I have sometimes heard it said that Western ears are too used to harmony to like unison singing, so we have to add parts to chant melodies, and this attitude seems to be borne out in much of what we sing in our churches today. A lot of what I’ve encountered consists of Byzantine melodies harmonized very badly, as though somebody said suddenly, “Oh! I need a four-part arrangement of this hymn for tomorrow!”, proceeded to bang the melody out on some keyboard instruments, and wrote down whatever progression underneath it that was simplest and most tonal (and which also typically produced part-writing errors). A related problem is an overabundance, at least in some scenarios, of simplistic utility music. At the other end of the spectrum is really overblown, self-consciously polyphonic music — I can think of one example (which I decline to name) that seems to essentially ask the question, “What if Palestrina wrote a Divine Liturgy?” There are, of course, exceptions; Fr. Sergei Glagolev’s music is very nice and singable, for example, and I’ve expressed my appreciation for Kurt Sander before.

I am very happy to add Peter Michaelides’ Divine Liturgy to the list of exceptions. Michaelides’ choral music is certainly prayerful, and while it is certainly not an exercise in compositional excess (like, say, Tchaikovsky’s Divine Liturgy), neither is it so restrained as to simply be an unnecessary sheen over the text. The character of the music is evocative enough of the Byzantine tradition that it is identifiably Orthodox music; some of the melodies of Sakellarides are used as a jumping-off point, but then the medium of the mixed choir is used to its advantage, always sounding like a completion of, rather than an addition to, the melody. That is to say, the music actually needs the harmonies — the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the music are complementary rather than one being tacked on. The Cherubic Hymn of the setting is perfect example of this balance; the different voices intertwine and interlock beautifully but never gratuitously.

The recording strikes a very nice aural balance of clarity of text and resonance of the room, and it is a credit to Cappella Romana that they have the flexibility to sing this kind of choral music and the Byzantine repertoire as beautifully as they consistently do. One thing I am very appreciative of is that the setting is presented practically, as a real Divine Liturgy, with the Very Rev. Archpriest George A. Gray III singing the priest’s parts (including the Gospel reading) and Alexander Lingas chanting the Epistle. This is music that should be presented in a liturgical, rather than a concert, setting. As an additional “realistic” detail, parts of the setting are alternated between Greek, English and Arabic — both a nice touch and a nod towards the pastoral reality in many parishes. It is exactly because of this attention to liturgical authenticity, however, that Lingas speaking the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer by himself, rather than these parts being said by the entire choir, comes off as a bit jarring.

It has been said that, in terms of how Orthodox liturgical music might develop in this country, what the Byzantine repertoire has to offer is a richness of melody, and what the Western idiom has to offer is a richness of harmony. Along these lines, while acknowledging that the Sakellarides material does not necessarily represent the best of what the Byzantine tradition has to offer, Michaelides’ music nonetheless suggests what could be a way forward. Rather than haphazardly forcing modal melodies into a tonal box with sloppy part writing that’s little more than a sop to “that guy” in the congregation who instinctively sings parallel thirds to everything, with the result sounding neither like good chant or good four part music, it is possible for these melodies to serve as a springboard into something more carefully crafted and more, dare I say it, iconographic in quality.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Ensemble Organum’s recording? Hang on for a second and I’ll explain.

Over the last twenty years, Ensemble Organum has put out a series of recordings of Western liturgical music off of manuscripts that represent the so-called “Old Roman” repertoire. I’m probably the wrong guy, at least at this stage of the game, to try to go into all the issues surrounding this music; suffice it to say that the liner notes of these recordings present this is as the older, pre-Gregorian chant repertoire of the Roman church.

Now, these recordings are, essentially, reconstructions of what they think the chants sounded like; knowing what notes the signs represent are only half the battle, of course, there are also the questions of rhythm, tuning, ornamentation, and overall vocal approach. Working with Lycourgos Angelopoulos, Ensemble Organum has taken the approach of interpreting these manuscripts more like Byzantine chant than Gregorian chant, complete with isokratema (drone) and very Greek ornamentation. Are they right? I don’t know — it sure sounds convincing enough. On the other hand, I can imagine that there is no shortage of counterarguments. Maybe something like this: how convenient for Byzantine psaltai that the Old Roman repertoire, which may or may not date from before the sixth century, sounds exactly the same as their music (which of course isn’t really Byzantine at all, but Ottoman, per the “narrative of decline” which I’ve discussed earlier). I’m not a musicologist, so I can’t really argue one way or the other for Ensemble Organum’s performance practice, but I do think that seeing the diversity of liturgical practice within the context of a unified Roman Christian identity is a fascinating idea.

What I can say is that these recordings sound really beautiful. For that reason alone, whatever their musicological merit might be, I find them quite compelling.

The latest in the series is hymnody from Christmas; the Vigil Mass, the Midnight Mass, the Mass at dawn, and the Mass of the day itself. If you’re used to the Gregorian repertoire, something like “Puer natus est nobis,” the introit for the Mass of Christmas day, is going to be quite foreign to you. It’s over twice as long as presented by EO (almost six minutes, as opposed to the two and a half minutes the Gregorian version typically takes), it’s a much more elaborate melody, it’s in a different mode, and the earthy, rich Byzantine approach is very different from the austerity employed by the typical Gregorian schola.

I suppose the value of a recording like this is that it gets people thinking differently about the context in which the Gregorian repertoire emerged and what that might imply for how it should be approached. It also suggests a way we might aurally frame the united Christendom of the Roman world, and how could have been both alike and different from the modern received chant traditions inherited from that world.

In the case of both of these recordings — told you I’d get to this eventually — you have a suggested musical ethos that draws from both the Christian East and West. Michaelides uses Western harmonic vocabulary to elaborate Eastern melodies and does so in a way that creates something new; Ensemble Organum uses Eastern stylistic practice to interpret Western melodies in order to suggest something very old.

These recordings share a common problem, too — essentially, what is the impact either of these recordings could potentially have on modern parish practice? Is there a Catholic church out there that is going to be rushing out to incorporate the Old Roman repertoire in their Christmas festivities? Despite Cappella Romana’s presentation of the Michaelides setting as music for practical use in worship rather than as a concert piece, is it likely to find a place in a church culture that sees the Liturgy as a sing-along and defines “participation” as “everybody sings everything”? Are people going to hear the recording and say, “Wow, our choir should sing this!” or are they going to say, “Boy, that sounds like it would be too hard for the congregation to be able to sing along with.” One thing about bad part-writing that caters to parts people are improvising anyway — it makes congregational singing very easy, if that’s the goal.

At any rate, I would love for the answer for both recordings to be “yes”. I would love to think that this kind of music could find a place in the venue for which it was written, the church, and not be treated as concert pieces best appreciated at arm’s length. I would love for Catholic and Orthodox churches to be striving for musical excellence, and to be incorporating music like this as a way to pursue that excellence. Time will tell.

In any case, both recordings would make excellent stocking stuffers, and consider them recommended.

(hack) Thanksgiving leftovers (koff)

It’s the first day of December. How the heck did that happen?

On the way out to New Mexico last week, I sat between a married couple who were both sick and kept coughing across me. It was Southwest Airlines, so seating was first come first serve, and they made it clear they would rather have me in the crossfire than give up either an aisle or a window seat. It must have been clear how this came across, because as we were getting off the plane, the wife said to me, “Don’t worry, you won’t catch anything from us — we’ve had this for the last four weeks.”

My stepfather was sick when I got to New Mexico. Flesh of My Flesh was sick on Thanksgiving day. My mom was getting sick over the weekend as we were preparing to leave.

So, perhaps it was inevitable, but Sunday evening I started developing a sore throat on the flight home, yesterday it was getting worse, and today I’m staying home trying to keep from getting worse or giving it to lots of people. I hate to be “that guy” who suspiciously gets sick immediately following a break, but here we are.

As I drink my gallon of Throat Coat tea, there are a few things upon which to muse:

  • My review copy of Cappella Romana’s recording of the Michaelides Divine Liturgy arrived in my absence, as did the Ensemble Organum disc I mentioned earlier. A full review will come shortly; for the moment, I will say only that both are worth your time and represent, in an odd way, flip sides of the same coin.
  • If you do iTunes, Lycourgos Angelopoulos’ 1993 album of Byzantine hymnody for Christmas has been rereleased in that format. It has been out of print for years as an actual disc, although there seem to be some used copies on Amazon. (Note that the iTunes release has a slightly different title: The Glory of Byzantium: Christmas Hymns.)
  • Rod Dreher is leaving the Dallas Morning News to become director of publications for the John Templeton Foundation. Close to four years ago, I started hearing various grumpy old men murmuring about “crunchy cons”. My godson Lucas at some point started reading the book and recommended I read it. It resonated quite a bit with me as somebody who looks more to Russell Kirk than Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin as a model of what conservatism should look like, and the point of the book seemed to me to be to ask how conservatives might, y’know, actually conserve something other than money or power or status. I gave copies of it to a lot of people, and I’m reasonably sure I know everybody in Bloomington who has read it (I’ll let you decide if I’m joking). I’ll fess up that, while a lot of Dreher’s critics had no patience for how he discussed food, I really appreciated what he had to say about a sacramental approach to it, and even if Michael Pollan isn’t using the word “sacramental”, his work and Dreher’s demonstrate that it can be a topic where liberals and conservatives can make common cause (and of course, Dreher interviewed Pollan for The American Conservative last year). Since the book came out, it has seemed as though he was searching unsuccessfully for a way to follow up what should have served as a strong statement of purpose; what he touted as a “sensibility” never quite materialized as a movement, exactly, eventually Crunchy Cons went out of print, and the hinted-at sequel about “the Benedict Option” never materialized, presumably because (as he kept saying in his blog) his newspaper job had become an exercise in self-preservation. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge in the last four years; Dreher converted to Orthodox Christianity, and right now conservatism seems to be floundering on the very cultural essentials the importance of which he was trying to stress, consequently lurching even more towards negativity and hostility. My hope is that a break from political commentary will allow Dreher to follow up on the issues discussed in Crunchy Cons from a more purely cultural perspective, because I think that’s where his heart has wanted to go with it anyway.
  • There was an interesting article in the New York Times this last Sunday about the traditional Latin Mass. Even more interesting has been the discussion of it in places like The New Liturgical Movement and Commonweal. I’m really not sure what a “liturgist” is — a liturgical scholar? a liturgical composer? a person who interprets rubrics? — but what I find striking is how for many modern Catholics, it seems like the rupture from tradition is in fact a selling point. I was in a large, old stone Catholic church once where they were doing a lot of work to restore the interior. The high altar was still in place, and I asked somebody if it ever got used; the person I asked looked highly offended that I would even dare to mention the high altar’s existence, and said, “No, Vatican II turned the altars around and returned the focus of the Mass to the people,” and made it clear that was the end of the conversation. Sometimes it seems like the majority of Westerners truly and actively yearn for their worship to be sentimental, banal, and tacky. At any rate, I don’t have a dog in this fight (except insofar as I strongly disagree with certain parties who think Orthodoxy needs its own Vatican II), but it seems to me that the traditionalist and modernist narratives are irreconcilable, as the comments on Wolfe’s article indicate. What I will say is that the invocation by a commenter at Commonweal of C. S. Lewis (“The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual”) seems quite apt, and the apparent need, not just for the 1970 Missal to be embraced but for anything that ever came before it to be wiped from the face of the earth, is very telling — at least to me. At the risk of elevating aesthetics over all other concerns, I’ll point out that the Mass of St. Gregory inspired people like Josquin and Palestrina; the kinds of composers the Novus Ordo appears to have inspired are, shall we say, not even close.

Okay. I need more tea.

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