November 10th 2011
In searching for a good example of Byzantine chant, I found this video, which I feel gives a good sense of the space it is performed in.
“When you mentioned you where doing a paper on A Cappella, I immediately thought of Byzantine chant. It’s really the most basic form of singing, almost all working with one melody. It just depends on how you arrange the words, the singers…and what you do with the space you are in.” – My dad on the topic of Byzantine chant
Quote from “The Tonal System Of Byzantine Music” by Oliver Strunk. Published by Oxford University Press in The Music Quarterly, Volume 28, Number 2, April 1942, p.190 – 204:
“Byzantine melody, the reader may be reminded, is a sort of mosaic in which conventional melodic formulas are combined, now in one order, now in another, producing designs which, despite their general similarity, are never twice the same. These conventional melodic formulas are of two sorts. On the one hand are what we may call the patterns. Roughly comparable to the single phrases of the Gregorian "typical melody", these are ideal melodic forms; their actual shape, as a function of the momentary text, varies from use to use. On the other hand are the ornaments and melismas. Roughly comparable to the composite neumes and "wandering melismas" of the Gregorian chant, these are set figures; as pure vocalizations they tolerate no essential change. The patterns are restricted in principle to a single mode or pair of modes and are thus a significant factor in modal individualization. The ornaments and melismas, though for the most part free from this restriction, tend nevertheless to attach themselves to fixed points within the tonal systems. Not every ornament or melisma exhibits this tendency in the same degree.”
*Melisma – a group of notes sung to one syllable of text – Byzantine chant
*Neumes – a note or group of notes to be sung to a single syllable – Gregorian chant
(In other words - similar idea, different vocabulary)
Calming and meditative, byzantine chant relies on a slow, deep mode of singing. Today, if you witness a group reciting byzantine chant in a chapel, the group will be in the front of the space at the altar, organized by vocal ability (soprano, alto, etc.), and facing outward toward the people in pews. This tradition of chant mainly relies on somber dwelling on the life of Christ, and so in sound it mirrors these thoughts, typically having only a couple members of the chorus sing at once, and dragging out their voice. An illusion is created as the voices travel through the large space, making the chapel seem all the more empty, yet strangely comforting.
Byzantine chant creates the perfect environment for individual prayer and meditation. During a mass, the chanting sets the mood, as if to invite these thoughts to come rushing out of you as you sit and listen. A cappella, because of its origin as meaning “music of the chapel”, really embodies this sense of the importance of the space that the music is being performed live in, and not simply an umbrella term for any music performed in a chapel. Byzantine chant is commonly used in movies as background music these days, and even recorded onto CDs by prominent groups. Although these other modes of listening can be enjoyable, nothing can come close to the experience of witnessing this music performed live. Unfortunately it has been a while since I had the pleasure, but I have a few fond memories of going to such concerts in years passed, and may soon be able to attend another.