Prologue by Gregorios Stathis

Concerning Adaptation

Concerning Notation

Byzantine vs. Western Notation

About the Translation

The History of Byzantine Chant

Writing Byzantine Music

Epilogue by
  Photios Kontoglou

Guidelines for Greek Pronunciation

The Intervals of the Soft Chromatic Modal Genre

The Intonations of the Eight Modes



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Triodion and Pentecostarion



ver the centuries, Byzantine music notation became increasingly more specific.[1] That is to say, later composers chose to write particular musical phrases with more notes than those of earlier composers. In other words, the later composers wrote out ornamental formulas in full, whereas in the past, these would have been left to the skill and experience of the chanters. This clarification did not purport to add anything new to a given melody, but rather it spelled out the way in which the tune was intended to be chanted in order to eliminate erroneous interpretations. Even today, a chanter following Byzantine notation is still expected to "interpret" a musical phrase based on the oral tradition he has inherited from his mentor. Interpreting a musical phrase entails chanting a tone with a certain Úlan or adding notes to a phrase.
For example, the ancient Byzantine music symbol "apoderma" (), as sung in the post-Byzantine era, appears in modern Byzantine notation as:


Transcribed literally into Western notation, this phrase would appear simply as:


However, most chanters with even a rudimentary knowledge of the oral tradition would perform it in the following way:

Since this book is written for people who have had little or no experience with authentic Byzantine music and its oral traditions, an attempt has been made to include some of these interpretations by adding notes to the melody, following the example of the knowledgeable chanters of the Holy Mountain. Sometimes these additions are simple, as in the example on the previous page, and they do not complicate the melody particularly. In other instances, however, these interpretations entail adding grace notes or replacing a quarter note with an eighth note and two sixteenth notes. Such changes understandably make the music more difficult to sight-read, but this is the only practical way to preserve in Western notation these embellishments, which constitute an integral part of Byzantine music. Transcriptions that do not take into account these implied embellishments yield melodies that are a bland imitation of the original, if they are sung as written. It is to be hoped that the abundant embellishments in this book will not discourage people from using it, but on the contrary, we pray that the melodies' beauty will inspire Church singers to overcome the challenge. Certainly they will find the extra effort very rewarding. Because there are only a few ornamental musical formulas that need to be learned, the task is not as insurmountable as it may first appear to be. Those used repeatedly in this book are shown in Appendix II to facilitate familiarization.

The ison, or tonic note, of the melody is indicated by a capital letter written above the staff. This note is to be held until another letter above the staff changes the pitch of the ison. If there is more than one person holding the ison, they should take breaths at different times so that there are no breaks, even if there is a rest in the melody. Those who hold the ison may do so in octaves, but they need to be careful not to sing louder than those performing the melody. Ideally, ison holders should pronounce the words simultaneously with those singing the melody. However, the prevailing practice today is to hold a sustained schwa sound [ə] instead, since this neutral vowel does not clash with the vowels in the sung text. The abbreviation "Un." means that the ison singers should join in unison with the melody. The ison is almost always chanted at a pitch lower than or equal to the pitch of the melody. When the ison needs be pitched in the lower octave only, a downward-pointing arrow follows the ison note (for example, BÔ). An ellipsis following the ison note (for example, C.) means that the ison should be held without stopping at the upcoming rest in the melody. Since Byzantine music is not based on absolute pitches but on the pitches of Νη-Πα-Βου (Do-Re-Mi) etc., which are relative, the entire melody may (and should) be transposed to a pitch that fits the tessitura of the singers. The tone Νη (Do) is always fixed at C throughout this anthology. Although this convention facilitates sight-reading, it makes several melodies too high for some people (especially for baritones and female voices) unless these melodies are transposed.

Tempo marks are provided merely as guidelines; they may be altered to accommodate local requirements. The tempo of the cherubic hymn may need to be altered significantly, depending on how much time the priest spends reading the prayers before the great entrance. Following current practice, the words "that we may receive the King of all" (the concluding words of the first part of the cherubic hymn) are usually chanted in a rapid monotone. But if the choristers reach this phrase before the priest is ready for the great entrance, they may bide time by chanting this phrase according to the music. To facilitate this synchronization, the approximate duration of each cherubic hymn is provided so that the choir may alter its tempo accordingly. The duration is given in three parts. For example, if the duration is: "4:30 + 1:00 + :45," this means that the first part of the cherubic hymn lasts four and a half minutes, the phrase "that we may receive the King of all" lasts one minute, and the final part, which is chanted after the great entrance, lasts 45 seconds.

[1] cf. Tillyard, H.J.W., Handbook of the Middle Byzantine Musical Notation, Monumenta Musicae Byzantinae, Subsidia 1, Fasc. 1, Copenhagen, 1935, pp. 14-16.