Friday, October 10, 2008

Introduction to Orthros - Part Three

Digression about Byzantine Hymnody

At this point, a note about the music and hymns of the Byzantine Church is in order. Byzantine music adheres to eight “tones” or modes. These tones are musical skeletons that allow the chanting of hundreds of troparia, following predetermined melodic phrases. As noted above, a basic collection of hymns form an eight week cycle, one week in each tone, found in the book “Octoechos” – “The book of eight tones”. With extremely few exceptions, selections from the Octoechos form the backbone of all celebrations of Orthros (and Vespers) in the Byzantine Tradition.

Additional, seasonal hymns are found in a variety of other liturgical books, including the "Manaia" (singular, "Menaion", month) which have hymns celebrating saints and liturgical commemorations for every day of the calendar year divided by months, and books devoted to the Paschal (Easter) cycle (Triodion, Great Week, Pentecostarion, etc.). The hymns in these books vary and are in all eight tones; and when combined with the appointed selections from the Octoechos ensure that each celebration of Orthros (and Vespers) will have unique musical qualities and feature a variety of musical expressions.

Music is especially important in Byzantine worship. While many hymns have taken on standard melodies (“idiomela”), and even become model hymns to guide the melody of other hymns, Byzantine music does not exist in the same sense as Western music and hymnody. Byzantine hymns follow strict traditional forms and tempos. These elements guide and enhance the worship, giving it a timeless quality and preventing any faddish ‘contemporaneity’ that all too quickly becomes outdated or ‘old-fashioned’.

We cannot overemphasize that Byzantine music is ‘chanted’ music versus ‘sung’ music. The tones present coherent characteristics, not set melodies in the Western sense, which guide the chanter while allowing freedom to maintain focus on the meaning of the hymn. The flexibility of a tone’s melodic phrasing and basic qualities guide the chanter while freeing him to make this particular hymn chanted at this particular service his own offering, avoiding ‘soloist’ pretensions. The text and tone combine to put the emphasis on God and the commemoration of the day, mystically uniting the particular worshippers with worshippers everywhere and throughout history.

The central focus of Byzantine hymnody is Christ and the Trinity. Even hymns celebrating the exploits of the saints carefully place the saints’ holiness in the context of the salvation and mercy of God. Hymns frequently quote from or make references to the Sacred Scriptures, often the Psalms, reflecting a Christological dimension. The passion, death and resurrection of Jesus are brought forth in numerous references and poetic imagery to emphasize the magnitude of God’s incarnation and act of salvation.

Music becomes one of the main elements of Byzantine worship that expresses our spiritual growth from existing purely in our own limited time and place to live in the mystical presence of God and the saints. Rather than affirming ourselves, Byzantine music helps us find ourselves in the Eternity of God’s Divine Love.

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