Ioannis Arvanitis: A Personal Profile

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Ioannis Arvanitis: A Personal Profile


Please tell us your name and something about how your interest in Byzantine chant began.

My name is Ioannis Arvanitis, born in 1961 in Stropones, a small village in the island of Euboea in central Greece.

It was in the fifth class of elementary school that I stood for the first time by the singers in the church. Our teacher in the elementary school, Lucas Anagnostopoulos, had an excellent voice and was a church singer with a practical knowledge of singing (he didn’t know to read musical notation). He didn’t teach us anything specifically but we had the chance to sing with him - or believe that we sang!- and feel that we are members of the choir. This was my first contact with Byzantine music and church singing ( I had no idea at that time that this is called "Byzantine music" or that it has a special musical notation).

I went to the high school and started to learn western music and notation. When I was in the second class, our music teacher, Spyridon Simitzis, who was, and still is, a Byzantine music teacher and singer as well, told us that we could learn Byzantine music with him. So, I started to learn Byzantine musical notation, theory and praxis, at the same time singing with him in the church. I stayed with him almost seven years singing in every service and helping him. In 1981, I acquired a "Church Singer’s Diploma" under his guidance. In the course of the time, I had already realized that what I had learned was not enough to explain the various ways of singing the Byzantine melodies, that is, it couldn’t explain the ornamental style of some singers or their so called "arrangements". I had been taught to sing the notation almost at face value, not adding many ornaments. On the other hand, although I liked ornamental singing and little by little became used to it and could even compose new melodies in this style, I was not satisfied with the idea of "arrangement" the followers of this style attributed to the writing down of their performances. This way of writing was simply to write down every note they used to sing; in other words, to write the ornaments in full. But I liked the older way of writing and the older melodies.

So, what was the correct way of singing? At some moment, I realized that the answer to my question was the doctrine of Simon Karas, an investigator with an enormous corpus of work on Byzantine chant, its theory and musical palaeography and on Greek folk song. In May 1982, I joined Karas’ pupil, Lykourgos Angelopoulos, and began to sing under his direction in his "Greek Byzantine Choir". In October 1982, I went to Simon Karas’ music school to study with him. He was a somewhat difficult person and didn’t want to accept all my previous knowledge and experience, not even that which I had with his pupil (this is another story to be told in another personal profile!). So, he obliged me to begin from scratch! I had no other choice, and it proved to be the best choice, so I finally accepted and began again from the beginning. I stayed there for six years. Karas appreciated my abilities and my devotion to Byzantine and Greek folk music, so he trusted me to teach in his school from the third year of my apprenticeship by him. Thus, I taught there for four years.


Please tell us about your professional development as a singer of this repertoire.

As I have already said, I sang with my first teacher for almost seven years. Through him, I acquired the practical knowledge of the liturgy and the services as well as of a lot of practical details of singing. I used to attend every service in the church, from beginning to the end, and I became my teacher’s principal assistant, singing sometimes in his place. In February 1982, I became for the first time a professional church singer, occupying the position of the second (left) singer at Saint Paraskevi’s Church in Halkis, the capital of Euboea. I stayed there for four years. After some time, I became first singer for one year at Saint John’s Church in the same city. I didn’t occupy any other singer’s position for some years but I used to sing as a guest in a lot of churches in normal and all-night services (in church singers’ jargon, I was then a ‘sniper’).

In October 1993, I undertook the directorship of the left (second) choir of the Church of Saint Irene at Aiolou Street in the centre of Athens, with Lykourgos Angelopoulos in the right (first) choir. I stayed there for six years. Because of some disagreements concerning singing style, I was obliged to leave this church, so I became first singer in another church. I stayed there for five months. As I am now obliged to acquire a Physics degree from Athens University to be able to continue with a PhD in musicology and have maybe a permanent job in the Ionian University I am at present teaching, I am now a ‘sniper’.

Another branch in which I have been and am still active is the direction of Byzantine choirs for public concerts. I have been a member for many years, and then the director for two years, of the Choir of the Society of Church Singers of the Euboea Archdiocese. After I began to teach (1988) in the Experimental Public Music School of Pallini, in the district of Athens, I directed concerts with the pupils’ choir in Greece and in the Abbey of Royaumont in France. I have also directed the Greek Byzantine Choir in transcriptions made by me from old musical manuscripts. In the course of my teaching in the Model Musical Centre of Piraeus (1994-1999) and the Philippos Nakas Music School (1999 to the present) I managed to form a choir with my pupils and give many concerts in the frame of these music schools or in public. This choir is now becoming a professional one , under the name "Hagiopolites", and is going to publish a CD, already recorded, of monastic chant from the oral tradition of Mount Athos and give several concerts at the beginning of 2002 in Holland and Belgium.

In 1997 I also sang with Marcel Peres in concerts of the Notre Dame repertoire.

In January 2001 I participated in the singing of Old Roman Chant and directed my own transcriptions from old manuscripts in concerts with Alexander Lingas’ choir Capella Romana in Portland (Oregon) and Seattle.


Please tell us about your research interests and teaching in Byzantine chant.

I have already mentioned some of my research and teaching activities. I’m presently teaching at the Philippos Nakas Music School and in the Music Department of the Ionian University. In 1982 I came in contact for the first time with Byzantine musical manuscripts. I began to study the old notation, that is that prior to 1814 when the Reform of the so-called "Three Teachers" provided us with the system used nowadays. This old notation was, and continues to be, rather unknown to the majority of the church singers or, even if some have a little knowledge of its profile, they don’t possess a deep understanding of it.

I can claim that I am almost self-taught in this field ; I mean that I had no personal guidance (moreover who could give this to me?) except from the transcriptions of the Three Teachers, my knowledge and experience of the new notation and chant and the doctrine of my teacher, Simon Karas, described by him in outline and through some examples in three papers (he didn’t teach me or anyone else directly about this). He was the first to investigate the old notation in a precise manner and suggest some fresh ideas about the meaning of the musical signs. At the same time, he proposed an interpretation (transcription) of some chants which differs from that of the Three Teachers. Byzantine musical notation has a long history and its interpretation (especially the notation of the older chants) has been a matter of controversy among Greek and Western scholars.

What constitutes the problem is the following: chants like the so-called stichera (chants with psalmic verses before them) have a syllabic appearance in the manuscripts, i.e., to each syllable of the poetical text there corresponds in most cases only one musical sign or a very small group of musical signs and consequently, as it is reasonable to imagine, one note or a very small group of notes. This was exactly the way Western scholars like E. Wellesz or H.W. Tillyard transcribed these chants. But the Three Teachers have given a highly melismatic interpretation of them, in which to each old sign there corresponds a very large number of signs, and consequently of notes, in their new notation. This results in a stenographic conception of the old notation, ie. the written chain of signs gives only a skeleton of the melody which must be ‘filled in’ through an oral, but more or less concrete, tradition to give the full melody. In other words, the old chants were, according to the tradition of the Three Teachers, extremely long.

However, something like that enters into conflict with a reasonable duration of the services (even by mediaeval standards!). So, the long way of interpretation could possibly be the tradition the Three Teachers had received from their forerunners, but it couldn’t be the case for some centuries before them. The long interpretation is certainly not something imaginary, something coming from the imagination of the Three Teachers; it’s a fact, it’s a tradition, but it must probably be, for one reason or other, a somewhat later one. My teacher, Simon Karas, investigated the notation of the old stichera and proved that many formulas of them are also contained in another kind of chants, the heirmoi. But the heirmoi were transcribed by the Three Teachers and are sung today in a syllabic or, sometimes, in a ‘short melismatic’ style, ie. mostly with two time units and short melismas (a few faster notes) per syllable.

In the same short melismatic style are also sung (and transcribed by the Three teachers) the new stichera from the 18th cent. So, Karas suggested that the old stichera would originally have had a shorter interpretation and are in fact the ancestors of the stichera sung today, revealing at the same time a continuity in the tradition in a process of a transition from more complex to simpler musical forms. And this was not only a suggestion. He gathered all the available evidence and managed to reconstruct the short melismatic interpretation of the old stichera, making this relation and continuity evident in a concrete manner. This has been also my own field of investigation. I found much more evidence in favour of this theory, organized this in a demonstrative manner and presented a paper in a symposium in 1993. But, as I will further explain, it is not a closed subject for me. I am still collecting evidence and carrying research on this.

In November 1993, one day before presenting my aforementioned paper, I received a manuscript from the 13th century containing the music of the heirmoi. The text of these chants is still used today but their music in not the same. As I have already mentioned, heirmoi are sung up today in two ways: syllabic and short melismatic. No other Greek scholar had, or has up today, given transcriptions of the heirmoi of the medieval periods. The style of the heirmoi of the 13th century or before is exactly the same as that of the old stichera. So, if the Three Teachers had transcribed them, they would have done so in a long melismatic way. But this would be completely unreasonable because heirmoi are only the musical patterns of long hymns with many musically similar stanzas. So, their music should have a shorter duration and their notation should be read in a syllabic or short melismatic way. Because of their similarity to the old stichera, it was reasonable for me to suppose that they should be interpreted in the short melismatic style already suggested by Simon Karas. I had worked on this some time ago but I wasn’t completely satisfied. When I received the 13th century manuscript, in a moment’s inspiration, I realized that not only heirmoi but stichera as well should have a syllabic original form.

This was of course not a completely new idea. Western scholars had already transcribed these chants in this way, reading the notation ‘at face value’. Yes, but with one difference : they transcribed them either without a rhythm, even without a beat, or with an ill-defined or mixed rhythm according to their individual ideas about the durations of the musical signs and their combinations. The earlier scholars, like Wellesz or Tillyard imagined that Byzantine chant should sound like Gregorian chant as sung by the Solesmes monks: free and oratorical. They couldn’t accept that a medieval chant could have a specific rhythm or at least a well defined beat. This could, of course, be true for Gregorian chant, but why should it be the case for Byzantine chant, too? (This prejudice is very common even today.) Other, later, western scholars, such as Joergen Raasted, tried to approach the subject by means of the present day conception of the rhythm of Byzantine chant, ie. the accent-based mixed rhythm which the church singers believe holds true for the chants they sing. But his, or other scholars’, interpretations suffered from incorrect interpretations of the duration of some signs or of their combinations.

So, my difference from the western scholars was that I realized that the old heirmoi and stichera should have basically a binary rhythm (or pulse) with very few exceptions of triple rhythmical feet which moreover were usually present at very specific points of the chants. Central to this conception of rhythm is the fact that an accented syllable can fall on the upbeat, if it is on a higher note than at least one of its neighbouring syllables, i.e., if it has a pitch accent. This is in opposition to the current view of the singers who believe that an accented syllable must always fall on the downbeat (accent-based rhythm). But this is sometimes applied in present-day chants; it is simply that no one has paid attention to this. It was known to me but I didn’t realize that it could be of crucial importance. It seemed to impose itself on the music of the old heirmoi. After this discovery, I subsequently worked on this and managed to formulate a full theory of the rhythm of the old stichera and heirmoi, a theory that explains not only the composition of the music of these chants but also the construction of their contrafacta, i.e., of similarly sung poetical texts. So, not only the music is revealed in its more or less original syllabic and rhythmical form but an unsolved problem of hymnography, namely the problem of the metre of the poetical texts is solved. Byzantine hymns appear mostly as prose texts in the liturgical books, so their poetical nature was doubted. My investigation showed in a concrete way that although they are in fact like prose, they acquire a meter through the musical setting and this ‘musical meter’ is the basis for the construction of the poetical texts of the contrafacta. The results of this investigation can be applied to the chants sung nowadays which are the descendants of the older ones, leading to a full and deep understanding of the rhythm and of the continuity and transformation of chant in the course of time.

What I have said is related to the first stages of the notation and the chants written down by means of it. But the notation and the chants themselves underwent a continuous evolution. All this is in my research interest because I believe in a diachronic study of Byzantine chant. One cannot solve problems of the present day praxis and theory without referring to the past and, conversely, present day praxis can give at least an idea of some aspects of the past. I have seen that a mere synchronic study has very often led to errors and misconceptions. So, another field of my investigations is the study of the history of the modes. The same poetical texts have remained in use in the Church for many centuries (some hymns date even from the earliest Christian times) but their music has, little by little, changed. Although heirmoi, for example, were at some time written down (musical manuscripts exist from the 10th century), their liturgical use as model melodies for other chants forced singers to rely chiefly on their memory rather than on the written melody. So, heirmoi became essentially a part of the oral tradition occasionally written down but already in a form changed through orality. This process of transformation even included a change of the scales or the tonic of some modes. Studying all these stages of the music of the chants, one certainly realizes that there is an impressive continuity of the tradition, but without such a study one cannot understand or explain the complexity and diversity of the modern system of modes of Byzantine chant.

All these and other related investigations have given to me a firm basis for my teaching of the present day musical praxis. Unfortunately, I have not been able up today to give all this in a complete published form (except in a couple of papers) or teach it in a systematic way.


How has Byzantine chant changed over the centuries? How is it presently sung in the liturgy?

Byzantine chant has changed over the centuries chiefly through the following processes :

a) through the interplay and mutual influence between the oral and written tradition. Some very well known chants were seldom or even never written down to notation. On the other hand, the written down music of model chants, such as the heirmoi or some stichera automela, served only for reference and learning purposes because a singer had to know his melodies by heart, as he had to adapt many other words to them. As a result, all these chants were sensitive to change due to inadequate memory, a sense of freedom during performance, difficulties of adaptation, small changes in aesthetic standards, corrupt transmission and so on. The oral forms of these chants were sometimes written down, and they became a written tradition subject to the same use as the earlier one and so forth. This oral tradition could exert in each period an influence on other written and more stable chants. Through such processes, the music of the heirmoi appears changed from the end of the 13th century onwards. Several local traditions appear in the manuscripts in the 14th century, while from the end of the 16th or beginning of the 17th century. we see the first record of the Heirmologion (book of the heirmoi) under the name of one composer, Theophanis Karykis. After almost two centuries (end of 17th century), we find the heirmologion of Balasios the Priest and in the second half of the 18th century the heirmologion of Petros Lampadarios which is used today.

All these three heirmologia are records of the Constantinopolitan tradition (with possible arrangements by their notators) but we can assume that they were widely disseminated due to the ever growing role of Constantinople as a national and musical centre during the Turkish domination. Examining these heirmologia, one can follow the continuity of the tradition and the course of changes. Another genre of chants, the stichera idiomela remained essentially unchanged up to the 17th century. An embellished, but essentially old style, form of the Sticherarion (book of stichera) appeared by the middle of the 17th century. In the first half of the 18th century we can imagine, or sometimes follow in manuscripts, a process of simplification of the music of the stichera idiomela with a parallel influence of the music of the contemporary heirmoi on them. The final stage of this process was its written record by Petros Lampadarios (d. 1778). This is the so-called ‘New sticherarion’ which is itself or with minor changes or small embellishments still sung today.

b) the change in the way of reading the notation. As I have already mentioned, I believe I have proved that the notation was originally read ‘at face value’: one simple sign indicated one plain or sometimes slightly ornamented note. But we have also received two more ways of reading the old notation: short melismatic and long melismatic (see above). These are, of course, part of our tradition and cannot be discarded. Given that, I believe that one can suppose that these changes in the conception of notation, from the syllabic to the long melismatic, occurred at particular times, and this is exactly one of my fields of investigation. Through such changes, chants became ever longer and this led to tendencies of ever more embellishment or, in the opposite direction, to simplification and abbreviations (cutting of some embellishments of melismatic chants). This is a very complicated story to describe here. What is important is that changes in the music itself necessitated the development of the notation and changes in the notation affected the music. The final stage of the notation, the reformed notation of the Three Teachers used nowadays, being capable of being fully analytical and describing every detail of the performance, has on the one hand facilitated the singing but on the other hand has contributed to the deterioration of church music in the compositions of some modern composers through strong influences from secular music.

c) the tendency to more melismatic forms and, on the contrary, to simpler ones. I have already mentioned this with regard to the reading of the notation. But these tendencies can be traced in the compositions themselves irrespective of the way the notation is read. Melismatic chant seems to have existed from time immemorial. However, a turning point in its history is the emergence of the so-called kalophonic (literally beautiful voiced, embellished chant in the 13th century and its subsequent development in the 14th and 15th centuries. A leading figure who also codified this chant is Ioannis Koukouzelis. This style was extremely melismatic, sometimes with inserted tropes, with rearrangements of the text and very often with the insertion of meaningless syllables such as ‘terirem, to to, ti ti , ne ne na’ etc. This style continued to flourish after the fall of Constantinople and has in fact left its imprint in the whole subsequent production of Byzantine chant.

d) the transformation of intervals. In opposition to the views of many Greek, and in the last decades of some Western, scholars, or the belief of the church singers concerning present day praxis in which there is a plethora of musical intervals, I have good reasons to believe that Byzantine chant was originally diatonic with ‘in principle’ Pythagorean scales, the scales of the modes being exactly like those described by the western musician Odo de Cluny of the 9th century. (We know that the theory of the modes of the East was transmitted to the West).

‘In principle’ means that the relative position of the tonics of the modes is regulated by the intervals of the Pythagorean scale. As far as the intervals in the actual practice of singing the chants of a mode are concerned, I notice that Pythagorean intervals cannot always be sung in a precise manner ; the voice ‘slips’ frequently to slightly different intervals like those of just intonation (instead of the Pythagorean major tone and leimma, ie. small semitone, one sings a major tone, a minor tone and a big semitone). Although some acousticians speak also in favour of the contrary, I am sure that I observe such deviations in the present day praxis for the case of modern modes with theoretically Pythagorean scales. In addition, this transition from a theoretically ‘hard diatonic’ (Pythagorean) to a ‘soft diatonic’ (using major and minor whole tones) can also be observed in the transcription of the Three Teachers, revealing a dual nature of the intervals, for some formulas at least (that is, one can sing these formulas either in hard or in soft diatonic). All this makes me suspect that the original form of the scales is the hard diatonic transformed through musical praxis to the soft diatonic which dominates the present day praxis. Two modes, second and plagal second, went even further : they developed augmented seconds (intervals more or less larger then the whole tone) and became ‘chromatic’ (‘chromatic’ meaning exactly this in Byzantine chant). Again, such transitions from the hard or soft diatonic to the hard or soft chromatic (with larger or smaller augmented second respectively) can be traced in the present day praxis, in the transcriptions of the Three Teachers and in the manuscripts and the chants in their evolution over the centuries.

Chromaticism in Byzantine chant has been a subject of great controversy. It was supposed by many western scholars that it constituted an oriental influence upon that. But, as I stated, it can with good evidence be seen as the result of a slow and continuous transformation in the system of Byzantine chant itself. On the other hand, one does not know the exact form of Arabic or Ottoman music of the medieval times sufficiently to be able to speak about influence on Byzantine chant, although such influences can be suspected through the titles of some Byzantine compositions, such as ‘Persian’, ‘Tatarian’ etc. In brief, I believe that the absence of instruments in worship, the absence of an exact theoretical description of the intervals and the continuous musical praxis contributed to the transformation of the intervals and the formation of the sound of the now sung Byzantine chant, a sound not so much new but with a life of several centuries.

The bulk of Byzantine chant now sung consists of chants from the tradition of the 18th century, especially the notations and compositions of Petros Lampadarios, which constitutes the tradition of the ‘Great Church’, i.e., the Church of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Other older chants are, of course, sung, as well as later compositions, some of them following the tradition and retaining the ‘ethos’ (character) of church music, some of them slipping to secular styles. The same can be also said about the vocal style : on the one hand traditional and on the other secularized (usually heavily and in a bad sense orientalized). Let us hope that research, teaching and, above all, a true sense of the Truth of the Church will result in an improvement of the situation of this, in spite of deficiencies, living tradition of a music which has its roots - I’m happy to see this in my investigations- in the Church Fathers themselves.


How important is chant to Byzantine liturgy?

Chant has a central role in Byzantine liturgy. From the 4th century the chanted parts of the liturgy increased in number and, according to the description of Saint Symeon, Bishop of Thessaloniki in the 14th century, in the old cathedral, the so-called asmatic (chanted) rite, everything in the liturgy was chanted in one or another way except of the prayers of the priests. The cathedral rite declined after the Latin occupation of Byzantium in the 13th century in favour of the monastic rite which was originally simpler and could be only read but acquired many new hymns from the 7-8th centuries onwards, hymns which were poetical and musical compositions by monks and Church Fathers such as Saint John of Damascus, Saint Kosmas the Melodist, Saint Andrew of Crete and others, and in fact became from the 13th cent. much more elaborate and chanted, incorporating the older melismatic chants of the cathedral rite and at the same time giving rise to the so-called kalophonic chant (see above). So, one cannot think of a service without chant today, although monks, hermits, priests on ferial days or individuals at home can simply read the same services. This does not hold true for the Divine Liturgy, where the presence of at least one person besides the priest is indispensable. At any rate, chant reinforces the meaning of the words and gives a further dimension beyond the mere understanding not only of them but of the whole worship as well, approaching and reaching the ‘kingdom of the heart’ and the sense of the presence of the Lord.


Do you see any connection between Western chant and Byzantine chant?

This is a subject I have not investigated but, as far as I know, one can see similarities and differences between them. To try to make a comparison, one must have in mind the following:

a) one must read the old Byzantine notation in the simple syllabic way and with the diatonic intervals I have described above. The long melismatic way of reading it is probably a somewhat later elaboration and obscures the immediate comparison. So, when one has in mind an ‘at face value’ reading of the old Byzantine notation, one can, for example, discover many similarities - and some differences, of course - between the Western and the Byzantine way of reciting the verses of the Psalms. One must of course compare the corresponding versions, ie. compare a simple recitation with a simple recitation and a melismatic with a melismatic. At least the simpler recitations bear similarities. I cannot at present say anything about the melismatic ones.

b) a very large portion of Byzantine chants consists of hymns. On the other hand, Western chant is based chiefly on the Psalms. So, one must again be careful on what one compares with what, although influences between different genres are not forbidden and should perhaps be investigated. There are some hymns (heirmoi or stichera) of Byzantine origin that were translated and entered the Western liturgy and are used as antiphons, such as Adorna thalamum tuum, O quando in crucem, the antiphons for the Octave of Epiphany and so on. The similarities of Western and Byzantine chant were perhaps more striking at the beginning. It is a field for investigation to reveal the details of these similarities and differences.


Originally published in: Anail De, The Breath of God, Music, Ritual and Spirituality, edited by Helen Phelan, Irish World Music Centre, University of Limerick, Veritas Publications, 2001. Reproduced here by permission.


© Ioannis Arvanitis 2001, 2002

From http://www.ivanmoody.co.uk/arvanitis.htm


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