Chr. Thodberg, “The Tonal System of the Kontakarium: Studies in Byzantine Psalticon style”

Thodberg, Christian. The Tonal System of the Kontakarium: Studies in Byzantine Psalticon style. Historisk-filosofiske meddelelser 37, vol. 7. Copenhagen: E. Munksgaard, 1960.

Talking about the tonal system of Byzantine music, the main reference is usually the corpus of music treatises known as Papadikai (see Oliver Strunk’s essay about it, already published in 1942 and never really discussed and questioned in a profound way, except of my doctoral thesis which was still occupied just with the same sources and tetraphonia as the dominant tone system due to parallage). We often forget that this was a late Byzantine synthesis, partly based on the work of notators who transcribed the books of the cathedral rite (the kontakarion-psaltikon and the asmatikon) into Middle Byzantine notation which was a transcription of the Asmatikon notation also known as Kondakarian notation (since the Slavic kondakar’ sometimes included chant of the choir book asmatikon). The universal tone system of Middle Byzantine (sticherarion and heirmologion) notation is tetraphonic, because it was based on papadic parallage.

But if “Byzantine” refers in a narrow sense to the ἀκολουθία ᾀσματική, the rite of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople which was celebrated there until 1201, this synthesis was a later and peripheral development based on monastic centres like Patmos, Sinai, Athos and the Norman Archimandritates in Italy... The question is: what was the tonal system of the cathedral rite and how was its own tone system organised?

I think Thodberg’s study, published 60 years ago, is still up-to-date and requires further investigation of the classical Constantinopolitan repertoire, not just asmatic genres like koinonika and the choir parts of the cherouvikon (larger parts were recited by the monophonaris from the ambo and have only survived in one manuscript of Messina which was neither a psaltikon nor an asmatikon, later there was a kalophonic reception of the cherouvikon asmatikon in the manuscripts of Akolouthiai), but also its proper chant with the calendaric cycle of prokeimena, allelouiaria, kontakia and hypakoai.

This is my motive to distribute this rare essay which is only available in a very few libraries. Please feel welcome to read it and to think about the question what exactly is the tonal system of Byzantine music. For my own considerations, you might be interested in this recent publication of mine:


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