Pentecost from the Traditions of Constantinople Program Notes

The J. Paul Getty Villa

17 & 18 May 2014

Cappella Romana Performs Medieval Byzantine Chant


Pentecost from the Traditions of Constantinople

The J. Paul Getty VillaThe second part of our program features music for Pentecost, the Sunday fifty days after Easter on which Christians commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. The services for this feast in the tradition of the Stoudios monastery of Constantinople were remarkable for their juxtaposition of chants from two influential traditions of Eastern Christian worship: the cycle of daily prayer (“Divine Office” or “Liturgy of the Hours”) as practised at the Palestinian monastery of St. Sabas and the Constantinopolitan cathedral Rite of the Great Church of Hagia Sophia.

Pentecost is one of a few major feasts when two complete kanons are sung at Palestinian morning prayer: one by St Kosmas of Maïouma (†787) in the Grave (Varys) Mode and another in Mode 4 in Iambic meter attributed to one John Arklas, frequently identified as St. John of Damascus (†749). On this concert we will sing Ode 1 of the Iambic Kanon, which is one of the few Byzantine hymns set in an Ancient Greek quantitative meter.

The Constantinopolitan cathedral tradition is represented here by three chants, the first two of which are from the Divine Liturgy (the Byzantine Eucharist). Comparable in form to the Alleluia of the Latin Mass, the responsorial psalmody of the Alleluiarion for Pentecost was sung from the Psaltikon between the Epistle and Gospel readings. It accompanied a censing of the church—interpreted by Byzantine commentators as a symbol of heavenly glory complementing the literal meaning of Alleluia (“Glory to God”)—and served to cover the procession of the deacon to the ambo (pulpit).

The short text of the Communion Verse for Pentecost served as a refrain for more extensive psalmody through the tenth century, after which its attending verses were evidently dropped. The melody sung here is recorded in a thirteenth-century copy of the choirbook of Hagia Sophia, the Asmatikon Grottaferrata Γ.γ.I. In common with other chants from this collection, the Pentecost communion features melismas (musical phrases with multiple notes per syllable of text) that are punctuated by so-called “asmatic” syllables (na, ne, ou, he, ha, etc.).

The final Constantinopolitan chant comes from Pentecost Sunday afternoon, when Stoudite monasteries would depart from their normal use of the Palestinian Divine Office and celebrate instead an entire vespers according to the “sung Office” (‘ᾀσματικὴ ἀκολουθία’) of Hagia Sophia. Known as the “service of Kneeling” (‘Γονυκλισία’), this Constantinopolitan cathedral office marked the end of the festal period commencing with Easter with a series of prayers recited while kneeling. Its music, like that of most Constantinopolitan cathedral services, was textually conservative, consisting mainly of choral psalms with refrains (‘antiphona” or “ephymnia’) and solo introductions. Called “antiphonal psalmody,” this format for chanting was introduced in Late Antiquity to encourage congregational participation. Although fifteenth-century musical manuscripts from Thessalonica—the last city to maintain the “sung Office” in its entirety after the disruptions of the Fourth Crusade—testify to the continued use of musically simple refrain structures on ordinary days, some notated sources of Constantinopolitan cathedral psalmody contain elaborate festal antiphons.

A particularly splendid example of such florid psalmody is the Final (Teleutaion) Antiphon, recorded along with other chants for the Kneeling Vespers of Pentecost in an appendix to the Psaltikon Ashburnhamensis 64. The adjective “Teleutaion” refers to its place in cathedral vespers as the final item of textually variable psalmody before the antiphonal chanting of the fixed psalm Psalm 140 (the Kekragarion). Viewed from a formal perspective, its music is divided into large sections by the repetition of a slow rise in vocal tessitura and is also distinguished by the subtle variation of melodic formulas. More striking, however, is the way in which it aurally conveys the antiphon’s textual theme of heavenly glorification with ecstatic settings of the angelic refrain “Alleluia,” the musical style of which foreshadows the beautified (“kalophonic”) chant of St. John Koukouzeles (ca. 1280–ca. 1341).

Performance Practice

The editions for this project were transcribed from medieval manuscripts by Ioannis Arvanitis, who has offered well-documented solutions to the bitter controversies that until recently have prevented the emergence of a viable approach to the performance of pre-modern Byzantine chant. These arose when Western scholars led by Egon Wellesz sought to recreate medieval Byzantine music in a form that was aurally compatible with Gregorian chant as “restored” by the monks of Solesmes, leading them to reject as inauthentic anything they perceived as overly “Oriental.” This impelled modern Greek practitioners to collapse all distinctions between the received and medieval traditions of Byzantine singing, a stance they justified by proposing a uniformly “stenographic” interpretation of medieval sources (although the interpretation of notated formulas as a form of shorthand for elaborate melodic figures is well-documented in the post-Byzantine period, a purely “stenographic” reading of early manuscripts leads to the absurdity of a medieval Divine Office totalling more than 24 hours in duration). The emerging consensus between these two extremes embodied in Dr. Arvanitis’s editions is also reflected in Cappella Romana’s approach to performance practice. Listeners accustomed to plainchant sung in the ethereal style of Solesmes will notice non-Western tunings, chromatic inflections, a more vigorous Mediterranean-influenced vocal style characterised by frequent ornaments, and the use of a drone or “ison.” Those schooled in the received tradition of Byzantine chanting will detect unfamiliar melodic formulas and the absence of “soft” chromatic modes.

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