Thursday, April 12, 2012

Byzantine Psalmody: A Quick History and the Notes

Χριστος ανεστι!  Byzantine psalmody has its oldest roots in ancient Greek music, the music of modes such as Dorian, Ionian, Lydian, Phrygian, Mixolydian, etc.  (Not being versed in ancient Greek music, I cannot say any more than that.)  The main Christian roots are traditionally linked with St. Ephraim the Syrian (306-373), Doctor of the Church: some claim that he originally created Christian chant and that even Gregorian chant had its roots in his work.  No real method of Byzantine psalmody begins to be expounded in writing until St. John of Damascus (676-749), the great defender of icons.  Byzantine notation, the unique style of writing music used by Byzantine psalmody (very different from Western styles, both modern "European" notation and Gregorian chant notation), began to be written (from what we know) with the work of this great saint.  Though his system was complex, it was usable.  Over time, though, Byzantine notation became so convoluted that it was illegible: even music teachers learned and taught by ear, without even being able to understand the written music.  To counteract this mess, the "Revolution of 1814" occurred: three teachers of music, led by Chrysanthos of Madytos, overhauled and simplified Byzantine notation and psalmody to create what is called "the New Method."  By simplifying the ludicrously complex system they received, and by incorporating certain aspects of Western music, the Three Teachers (as they are called) created a system that can be fairly easily learned and taught and a notation that can even be printed on a printing press (an unfathomable notion with the previously obfuscated notation).  Since the Revolution of 1814, there have been some changes and alterations (as in almost everything), but the substance of Byzantine notation and the method of Byzantine psalmody has remained the same.

After that short history lesson (which I do not blame you if you skipped), let us begin with the notes of Byzantine psalmody.  (While there is differing terminology for these, as in most things in Byzantine psalmody, due to its original creation using the Greek language, I will utilize the term notes in this series.) 

For anyone with even minimal musical training in the Western tradition (or for anyone who's seen The Sound of Music), the solfège system should be familiar:

Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do'

(This is the version I have often heard, the one used in the aforementioned musical.  Other versions use "sol" for "so" and "si" for "ti."  Also, the apostrophe just represents a repeated note one octave above the first note.)

These syllables correspond to the notes used in the scale of C major:

C D E F G A B C'

Chrysanthos of Madytos, the leader of the Three Teachers, was an admirer of this aspect of the Western musical tradition.  In the Byzantine tradition, there were long, polysyllabic names for each note.  As part of the process of simplification, the following series of syllables, each incorporation successive letters of the Greek alphabet, was created:

Πα Βου Γα Δι Κε Ζω Νη Πα'

Transliterated into English, the syllables are:

Pa Bou Ga Di Ke Zō Nē Pa'

The only hiccup in the system is that the Greek system starts on the equivalent of the Western Re/D, not Do/C.  The following table compares the three systems:

 (Click on the above table for a larger image.)

Understanding the basic seven-note system of Byzantine psalmody and the syllables used to refer to them is key to further study of Byzantine psalmody.

I hope this post has been useful to you.  If you have any questions or comments, please, don't hesitate to contact me.  Thank you for reading, and God Bless.

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

St. John of Damascus, pray for us!

Nota Bene: This is part of my Byzantine Psalmody series.

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