Thursday, April 12, 2012

Why Should I Care About Byzantine Psalmody?

Χριστος ανεστι!  It is well-known that the Second Vatican Council declared that Gregorian chant is "specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services" (SC 116).  This does not mean that other types of music are completely banned from the liturgy (as some, including myself at times, try to claim), but it does mean that there is no place for completely doing away with Gregorian chant.

Why is Gregorian chant so suited to the liturgy?  For one, it was specifically created for the liturgy.  Its original purpose is for the glorification of God through the divine rites.  It is a music set apart.  Second, it keeps the liturgical texts prominent.  The chant involves simple music which serves to highlight the text rather than hiding it in auditory flourishes.  This is keeping with Pope St. Pius X's description of sacred music: "Since its principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text" (TlS 1).  Third, it involves melodies which can be easily passed on and learned by many, even those without extensive musical training.

The one catch about Gregorian chant having pride of place is that it has it only in the Roman liturgy.  Then what holds pride of place in the liturgies of the other rites?  Their own liturgical chants.  One such chant is Byzantine psalmody.

This sacred, liturgical music has many names: psalmody, psaltic music, Byzantine chant, ecclesiastical music.  In order to show its Eastern origin and a common name for it, I have decided to use the term Byzantine psalmody to describe this music.

Why should one study this Eastern music rather than solely Gregorian chant?  My answer is simple: so the Church may become more bipulmonary, breathing more and more with both lungs of the Church, the East and the West (according to the image of Pope Bl. John Paul II).  Not only that, but Ven. Pope Pius XII specifically endorsed the chants of the Eastern Church.  "Among the oldest and most outstanding monuments of sacred music," the Holy Father wrote, "the liturgical chants of the different eastern rites hold a highly important place" (MSe 52).  These chants of the Eastern Church are part of the great treasures held by Oriental Christianity, treasures "which must be guarded and defended to prevent not only their complete disappearance, but also any partial loss or distortion" (MSe 51).

Byzantine psalmody also shares the reasons Gregorian chant has for its being suitable for the liturgy.  First, it is a sacred music, set apart for the liturgy from its origins.  Second, it is dedicated to enhancing the liturgical texts.  As Rev. Fr. Nicholas K. Apostola wrote in the introduction to a text on Byzantine psalmody, "The music is there to serve the words; the words do not serve the music...The words of the hymn are the means by which we contemplate God, pray to God, and learn about God.  The music is but a 'skin,' if you will, surrounding the words of the hymn" (GMEOC xiii).  Third, many of the melodies of Byzantine psalmody are easy to teach many and to picked up on by even the untrained in music.

The one caveat with this third characteristic, for both Gregorian chant and Byzantine psalmody, is that, in addition to many simple melodies the untrained can easily grasp, there are more complex chants that are part of the tradition which involve more extensive training for singers to grasp.  That is the main reason for this series of posts which I will be embarking on: to give some training in Byzantine psalmody so that the more difficult chants to not disappear from the tradition or remain unknown in the West.  I do not claim to be an expert in any respect on Byzantine psalmody: I have merely studied a number of books on the subject and attempted to distill some of the main aspects of the notation and method.  If I make any mistakes during this endeavour, please let me know.

In conclusion, my goal of this series is this: to open up to more Christians of the Western Church the sublime treasures of Byzantine psalmody.  If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, do not 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. Ephraim, Harp of the Holy Spirit, pray for us!

Pope St. Gregory the Great, pray for us!

Nota Bene: The three reasons for Gregorian chant's suitability to the liturgy are derived by me from Church documents, though an explicit listing of three reasons is not found in any of them, to my knowledge: that set of criteria was compiled by me, and I take responsibility for any failing in these criteria.  The abbreviations, along with other information, can be found at the base page for this series.

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