LIVE IN GREECE: From Constantinople to California – Part Four

As we approach the release of LIVE IN GREECE: From Constantinople to California, we’ll be sharing some excerpts from the liner notes to give you a bit of background into the programming of this recording.

III – Liturgical Choral Music in the Greek Orthodox Churches of the western United States

Although originating from the same early twentieth-century Athenian sources as sacred polyphony in Greece, liturgical choral music in the Greek Orthodox churches of the western United States of America soon assumed, for a variety of historical and cultural reasons, a distinct course. From the outset, choral settings in Italian or Russian styles created for the Greek Royal Chapel were overshadowed in America by the music of John Sakellarides (1853?–1938), an Athenian cantor who sought to purge Byzantine chant from alleged Oriental contamination by proffering a reformed repertory of his own devising that he sweetened with simple harmonisations. After the Second World War a school of young composers in California began to transform the legacy of Sakellarides through a partial return to earlier layers of the chant repertory and the introduction of more sophisticated approaches to the setting of Byzantine melodies for mixed chorus.

Frank Desby (1922–92) provided much of the impetus for the rise of this ‘West Coast School’ of Greek Orthodox choral music. For decades he served as director of music at St Sophia Cathedral in Los Angeles, also working tirelessly throughout the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America as conductor, composer and educator. Having gained postgraduate degrees at the University of Southern California for theses on medieval and post-Byzantine chant, Desby combined ideas gained from modern chant scholarship with his knowledge of the history of Western and Russian choral music to reshape Greek American liturgical singing according to contemporary academic standards. This led Desby during the 1950s to create harmonisations inspired by Renaissance prototypes and to adapt Byzantine chant to the modern style of performing Gregorian chant invented at the end of the nineteenth century by the monks of the French abbey of Solesmes. The ways that these approaches differed from the received traditions of Byzantine chanting may be heard by contrasting the performances on this disc of the traditional melody for the Apolytikion of the Holy Cross (sung from an 1882 publication by Stephanos Lampadarios, a cantor at the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople) with Desby’s staff-notation transcription and choral setting of the same hymn. Published in 1979, his setting of the Forty-fold ‘Kyrie eleison’ for the Litany of the Holy Cross is harmonised in a more modern style with a brief episode of polytonality.

— Alexander Lingas

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