March 28, 2012 article in The Hellenic Voice


Renewed interest in Byzantine chant among modern audiences

March 28, 2012

Hellenic College- Holy Cross

For years, popular and scholarly interest in Byzantine chant lagged behind the more widespread attention devoted to liturgy and icons, even though Byzantine music embodies many important aspects of Eastern Orthodox worship and expresses the beauty of both Christianity and Hellenism.

Byzantine music has its roots in the earliest forms of Christian worship. St. Basil the Great, one of the great fathers of the Church and a leading intellectual of his time, wrote in the fourth century, “Let the tongue sing, and let the mind search out the meaning of what is being said, so that you sing with the spirit and sing with the understanding also.”

Byzantine liturgical music remains today as influential as it was during the time of its creation and just as indispensable for Orthodox Christian worship. Dr. Grammenos Karanos, assistant professor ofByzantine music at Hellenic College Holy Cross, said “the field of Byzantine musicology has been growing vastly in the past three decades, primarily in Greece, Europe and the United States.”

A crucial development in the scholarly study of Byzantine music was the publication, in the mid-1970s, of the monumental descriptive catalogues of Byzantine and post-Byzantine musical manuscripts held at libraries of Athonite monasteries by Gregory Stathis, worldrenowned Greek musicologist. This publication introduced a treasury of original source material that later musicologists have been studying from multiple angles. Thanks to current technology and globalization, western musicologists who are exploring Byzantine chant, have easy access to this material through faster communication methods, digitization of manuscripts and online availability of recordings.

“The Greek Psaltic Art is gradually gaining the place it deserves in musicological conferences, doctoral dissertations and other scholarly publications, concerts and recordings,” Dr. Karanos said.

He hopes to see this musical art become a permanent part of the curriculum in American conservatories and institutions of higher learning.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York recently opened a series of exhibitions drawing attention to the splendor of Byzantine art and culture entitled “Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, 7th-9th Century.” Cappella Romana, a vocal ensemble, will be performing musical compositions from this period at the museum’s exhibition.

Cappella Romana performs music covering the entire historical span of Orthodox tradition, ranging from chants written in thousand-year-old manuscripts to world-premiere performances of works by living composers. The group’s primary interest is the historical liturgical music of the Orthodox Christian world.

Dr. Alexander Lingas, founder and artistic director of Cappella Romana and seniorlecturer in music at the Center for Music Studies at City University in London, notes that “the medieval Byzantine chant we perform has demonstrated for our audiences a beauty and spiritual potency akin to that of ancient icons and prayers.”

Cappella Romana resurrects musical texts that have been lost for centuries.

“There is immense value in reconstructing music that has not been performed in literally centuries,” said Spyridon Antonopoulos, vocalist for Cappella Romana. “The texts were written by brilliant hymnographers, the compositions were penned by musical geniuses, and the music was sung by the best singers of the time. So, of course, it can be both aesthetically pleasing and spiritually uplifting. “ Their music is relevant today as it provides insight into the form and style of liturgical worship in the middle and late Byzantine period. These performances can convey to modern audiences a sense of what it may have been like to be present at an all-night vigil in a Byzantine monastery in the 14th century or at a Vespers service in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the 12th century.

Contemporary interest in Byzantine chant is propelled in part by the synergy between performance and scholarship.

“Part of what generates excitement among listeners of Cappella Romana is the inherently mystical aspect of reviving lost repertories,” Antonopoulos said.

He added that, in academic circles, Cappella Romana’s work is compelling as it incorporates new scholarship (including transcriptions) from top researchers in the field of Byzantine musicology, including Dr. Ioannis Arvanitis and Dr. Alexander Lingas.

“It is simply wonderful to listen to Cappella Romana,” said Dr. Karanos. “Their members include some very distinguished cantors and singers, amongst them the virtuoso Stelios Kontakiotis, protopsaltis of the Shrine of the Theotokos in Tinos.”

All the members of the ensemble have had professional training as musicians and most work at least parttime performing, teaching or studying music.

The Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross is sponsoring Cappella Romana as part of the celebrations for Hellenic College-Holy Cross’s 75th anniversary. Cappella Romana will perform in Boston for one evening. Their performance entitled “Desert and City: Medieval Byzantine Music of the Holy Land” will be repeated the next evening at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It is a rare opportunity for music lovers in the area to attend a lecture and performance of this unique ensemble.

Both lecture and concert are free of charge and open to the public. Both events will take place on Thursday, March 29. The lecture will begin at 2:30 p.m. at the Maliotis Cultural Center at Hellenic College-Holy Cross in Brookline, Mass. The concert follows at 7:30 p.m. at Annunciation Cathedral of New England in Boston.

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