The Divine Liturgy Of St. John Chrysostom — Liner Notes Part Two

John Sakellarides and Greek American Choral Music for the Divine Liturgy

The first notated examples of polyphonic music for the Byzantine rite—that is, music employing more than one vocal part intended for worship by Eastern Orthodox and Greek Catholic Christians—appeared shortly before 1453 among the works of singers who served at the courts of the last Byzantine (East Roman) Emperors. Over the following centuries, liturgical singing by Orthodox Christians living under Ottoman rule was generally monophonic, consisting of a single vocal line of chant supported ad libitum by a vocal drone or “ison.” Elsewhere, however, many Orthodox Christians developed traditions of polyphonic singing that were influenced to varying degrees by Western European music. In some traditions singers have spontaneously harmonized chant melodies, a practice still found today in Serbia, Romania, and on the Ionian islands of Zakynthos and Kephalonia. Better known is the creation of notated musical settings featuring advanced techniques of Western harmony or counterpoint, an approach pursued by Ukrainian and Russian composers from the Baroque era onwards.

Circumstances congenial to the cultivation of liturgical polyphony on the Greek mainland emerged only gradually after the founding in 1832 of an independent Kingdom of Greece by a Westernizing cultural elite. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, royal patronage and changing musical tastes stimulated the founding of polyphonic choirs in Athens and the larger provincial cities of Greece to sing the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and feasts. Alexandros Katakouzenos (1824–1892) and Themistokles Polykrates (1863–1926) led the creation of a repertory of four-part music for male chorus modeled after Russian prototypes that was employed in the Royal Chapel and certain urban churches. Much more popular, however, was the music of John Sakellarides (ca. 1853–1938), an Athenian cantor who proffered a simplified version of the received repertory of Byzantine chant that he claimed to have purified of oriental decadence. Sakellarides published in both Byzantine neumes (musical signs) and Western staff notation collections that included not only unadorned chant, but also melodies harmonized in two, three, and (rarely) four parts.

The ascent of Western musical styles in the churches of Athens coincided with the rise of Greek emigration to the United States. The immigrants brought to the New World both traditional Byzantine chant and the new Athenian liturgical music, but found that their new cultural environment was more hospitable to the latter. Russian-style works were not unheard in America, but it was the music of Sakellarides that soon came to be accepted as “traditional” in its Greek Orthodox churches. This was evidently due in part to its simplicity, the ready availability of its frequently reprinted staff-notation editions, and its frequent close melodic resemblance to more traditional forms of chant. Also important was its active cultivation by prominent musicians and clergy. Several disciples of Sakellarides emigrated to the United States and assumed key musical posts: George Anastasiou (Washington, DC and later Tarpon Springs, Florida), Angelos Desfis (Los Angeles), and Christos Vryonides (1894–1961; the first professor of Byzantine chant at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, the archdiocesan seminary now located in Brookline, Massachusetts). Continuity in musical development along Western lines was assured by the support of Archbishops Athenagoras (1931–49), Michael (1949–59), and Iakovos (1959–96), all of whom promoted mixed choirs with organs. 

—Alexander Lingas

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