HYMNOLGY OF THE CHURCH
- BYZANTINE HYMNOLOGY and
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE OCTOECHOS
(Alive In Christ, Spring, 2002)
"All who are attuned to sacred songs and
study their meaning from beginning to end
will find themselves approaching God. . . "
- St. Gregory Palamas
"And when they had chanted a hymn,
they went out into the Mount of Olives ... "
From the Canticles of Moses to the Psalms of David, from the Magnificat of the Theotokos the praises of the Lord have been intoned by God's people in various ways from ancient times. "Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into His presence with singing!" (Psalm 100:1-2). The praises of God's people have formed such an inseparable part of the experience with the great "I AM" that St. Gregory Palamas boldly proclaims the Church's hymnography a "reliable criterion of Orthodoxy and a true witness to the Orthodox Tradition." Just how does this occur, and why? Did it happen all at once? Are hymns really that important? Did the tradition of ancient Israel have an effect on the liturgical hymnology of today? We will attempt to identify briefly some important elements in Orthodox hymnology (much of which originated during the Byzantine era), and to consider how these hymns came about and their place and influence within the worship of the Church. We will focus especially on the Great Octeochos, which is one of the main service books used today in our daily services, a book of hymns centered around the weekly celebration of Christ's resurrection.
It is apparent that from the beginnings of Christianity, hymns played a central role in expressing the dogmatic truths of the Church. Referring to early hymns embedded in the texts of Scripture (for example, Rom. 11:33-36 and Rev. 1:5-8), Dmitri Conomos writes, "The preservation in the text of the New Testament of these archaic hymns is of great importance for the history of hymnography. It also reveals the manifold extent to which early Christians employed hymns both in common worship and private prayer." The early Church historian Eusebius also mentions an exchange between the governor Pliny and the Emperor Trajan to the effect that the early Christians gathered on Sunday and sang hymns to Christ as God. Still, adds Conomos, it is very difficult to "trace early Greek Christian hymnography due to the persecutions and the period of instability that the Greek language underwent at that time." We do have, however ─ from as early as the 2nd century ─ St. Melito of Sardis's homily on Pascha, a wonderful example of a sermon which seems to be either pure hymnography or a poetic homily; it may even be the precursor of the kontakion.
As mentioned in Acts ( 2:46), the apostles continued to go to the Temple to pray and worship. In some geographical areas, it took many years for the break between the synagogue-temple worship and that of the Christian community to become complete. The subsequent continuity of the life and style of Christian worship with the Jewish worship that preceded it, was inevitable, for the worship of the "new Israel," the Church, developed from that of the "old Israel." As examples of this, it is known from the writings of St. Basil in the 4th century that in his day, psalms were still being sung antiphonally, as was done in the Jewish synagogue. Evidence of the common heritage can still be seen even in our time; fascinatingly, "the initial formulae and cadence of the psalm-tunes have changed so little that some of the 'toni psalmorum' [psalm melodies] sung today by Jews from Arabia, Persia, or Morocco are practically identical with those of the Roman Church in the tenth century."
As an expression of the heart, music touches the deepest places of a person's being. It is interesting to contemplate the transformative aspect of hymnography when used as a vehicle conveying the power of the Spirit. St. Paul alludes to this, mentioning prophetic "singing in the Spirit" (1 Cor. 14:15) which is also found throughout the Old Testament (for one example of this, see 1 Chron. 25:1).
Music's power to affect the soul extends also to its possible misuse, with damaging results. Thus at various times, heretics ─ among them Arius ─ used catchy, alluring melodies and hymns to propagate their various heretical doctrines. As a result hymnology was viewed by the Orthodox as well, as potentially a polemical weapon. Sozomen, the church historian wrote, "Because St. Ephraim [the Syrian] saw that the Syrians were enchanted by the beauty of poetry and the rhythm of music and were gradually accepting heretical doctrines, despite the fact that he did not have a Greek education, he decided to employ [the heretic] Harmonios' metres; and he composed new hymns following the correct teachings of the Church, on the former's pattern."
The earliest known form of poetry/hymnology that was used in Byzantium (and is still in use till the present day) was the troparion. This was the simplest, shortest and most frequently used hymn, and we know that some of the earliest troparia, sung before the fourth century and possibly as early as the second, are among the hymns still sung today: "O Gladsome Light," "Christ is Risen," and the Trisagion. Originally the troparion was "written in poetic prose and inserted after each verse of a psalm. In the fifth century, when the troparia were composed in strophic [stanza] form and became longer, these poetical prayers were sung only after the three to six last verses of a psalm. Hymns of this kind are known to have formed part of matins and vespers in churches and monasteries in the fifth century. In this period [the cycle of services] consisted of psalms, of the nine [Biblical] Odes, of certain formulae dating back to the earliest times of Christianity, and of the Troparia, added by contemporary hymnodists." No music survives from this period but it is generally believed that "the hymns had simple tunes, generally based on the principle of one tone to each syllable of the text, to render them suitable for congregational singing."
The mystical/spiritual underpinnings of the Orthodox Christian Byzantine system of music have deep roots in ancient Greece, going as far back as Pythagoreas. The early Byzantine Church's understanding of hymnology is best expressed by St. Dionysius the Areopagite: "The hymns and canticles of the Church are the reflection of the spiritual chants, transmitted by the celestial hierarchy to mankind and made audible to human ears in the form of Psalms. When the singing of the hymns has brought our souls into harmony with ritual which is to follow ... [then] it is possible through these to be led to the immaterial archetypes."
Thus, from the Church's viewpoint, hymns are seen as iconographic, for "the hymnographer, too, had to follow a model, a hymn already existing for a feast .. . This model was considered an echo of the hymn sung by the angels ... The vast treasury of Byzantine melodies was developed from a limited number of archetypes, transmitted by the angels to prophets and inspired Saints ... The Byzantine musician is bound to keep as closely as possible to these models."
Pertinent to this fascinating aspect of the Byzantine model of hymnology is the subsequent interrelationship and interdependence of words and music. "The text is paramount, and the words and their meaning suggest the very contour and rhythm of the music ... hymnwriters [were not] simply professional musicians; they [were] liturgical poets whose basic task was neither music or poetry but prayer ..."
From the famous Code of Laws (528) of the Emperor St. Justinian (527-565) we know that the main cycle of services, similar to what we use today (vespers, matins, Divine Liturgy, etc.), was in place by the early 6th century. Around this time also, the kontakion "makes its appearance suddenly without any [known] antecedents.""
The kontakion is a poetic sermon "derived from the main forms of Syriac poetry in the 4th and 5th century, viz. Memra, Madrasha, and Sogitha," consisting of 18 to 30 stanzas, each stanza containing from 3 to 13 lines. The kontakion is heralded as "a mystery of poetic creativity . . . weld[ing] together many diverse elements, some traditional and others new, to fashion an intricate, complex Byzantine design ... like thousands of tiny tesserae in a mosaic ... form[ing] an organic, eloquent image of the central events in Christian sacred history ... using spirited dialogue, doxology, prayers, and exhortations, lyrics and displays of theological wit ..."
Byzantine hagiography records that the introduction of the kontakion into the cycle of services was due to the labor of Syrian-born St. Romanos the Melodist. Miraculously, St. Romanos was granted the gift of writing kontakia from the Mother of God after an incident on the eve of the Nativity of Christ in which his fellow church chanters humiliated the "unlearned" saint in front of the emperor. That evening, after fervent prayer to the Theotokos, to whom he was constantly devoted, she appeared to him while he was resting and commanded him to eat a small scroll she was carrying." He immediately awoke and went into the service for the Nativity and began singing the Christmas kontakion that we still use today: "Today the Virgin gives birth to the transcendent one ..." Over a thousand kontakia are ascribed to his authorship, of which fifty six survive today. Many of these are still sung today after the 6th ode of the matins canon (although only the first stanza is now sung).
Around the end of the 7th century, the complex poetical liturgical form known as the canon" was introduced by St. Andrew, the archbishop of Crete (d. 740) who was an ardent defender against Monothelitism, and a writer of many books, poems, and canons. Originally from Damascus, Saint Andrew was tonsured at the Monastery of St. Sabbas, where canon-writers such as St. John of Damascus and his half brother St. Cosmas flourished in the 8th century. St. Andrew set the standard of the canon at a transformative level using hymns which applied the deeper meaning of Biblical stories, themes, and images to the self, the soul. The best known example of this kind of profound Biblical exegesis is seen in his work known as the Great Canon, also called the "king of canons."
The canon itself is "a complex poetical form made up of nine Odes ... each of which originally consisted of six to nine troparia ... modeled on the pattern of the nine Biblical Canticles." It "has the character of hymns of praise." The canon eventually took the place of the kontakion in the service due to the fact that "the canon ... reflected the religious ideas and the atmosphere of the Byzantine Church at its height better than the poems of earlier generations . . . the eschatological mood and the highly elaborate repetitions [in the canon] produce in the listener a mystical mood, which was intensified by the solemnity of the services and the visual impression of the icons." The canon eventually became a focal point in the liturgical life of the Church.
By the middle of the 8th century, the full cycle of liturgical services had been compiled, codified, and edited by the Syrian-born St. John Damascus (675-749). Heralded as a "harp of the Holy Spirit," St. John was instrumental in the theological defense against iconoclasm (see his work Fount of Knowledge). With a clear and penetrating vision into the mysteries of God, St. John's hymnography "gave voice with faultless harmony to a large number of hymns that embody the deepest theological insights of the Church Fathers."
The Great Octoechos (or Book of Eight Tones; also called the Parakletike, which means both "comforting" and "invoking") was compiled in part from a collection of hymns that was in use in Antioch. As a sort of proto-primitive octoechos, the Syriac translations of today's text of the Octoechos bear the name of Severus, the Monophysite Patriarch (512-518) of Antioch. Octoechos refers to an eight week cycle of hymns, each week of which is sung in one of eight melodic modes. Each such mode, called a "tone" (Greek, echos) is chanted for a week beginning from Sunday, and thus the cycle fills eight consecutive weeks.
In addition to writing many of the hymns and canons, St. John selected, adapted, and arranged the Octoechos, removing and editing unsuitable melodies. "The Octoechos which he handed down to posterity consists of compositions sublime with respect not only to their music quality, but also their diction, style, and content, which conveys carefully expressed Christian teachings...procuring for him the reputation of being the greatest master of this form of poetry ..."
His compilation of the Octoechos proved so useful and valuable that the Church, both East and West, adopted its usage during his lifetime.
St. John of Damascus' work cannot be understated. The saint, called by Fr. Vaporis the "first fount" of Byzantine music, not only provided theological elucidations ─ as exemplified by the Paschal Canon, known as the "queen of canons" ─ but St. John also was the first to "work out a theory and system of musical notation . . . a reformed, stenographic type" which Byzantine music had lacked until that time. He also was the first to express in book form, a theory of the eight tones."
The second major period of growth in the general area of liturgical hymnology occurred in and around the Studion Monastery in Constantinople. Among the leaders of this "renaissance of religious activity" which followed the end of the iconoclast heresy were the saints Theodore the Studite (d. 828) and his brother, Joseph the Bishop of Thessalonica. Both composed a great many hymns, canons, and kontakia, including many for the Lenten Triodion. Other hymnographers ─ among them Theodore, Theophanes, and Methodius ─ composed hymnology for the services to saints and feast days. Even some of the Byzantine emperors made significant contributions to our hymnography; for example, the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogennitus composed the eleven resurrectional exapostilaria used at Sunday matins.
By this time, as a result of the work coming from the Studite Monastery, the canons were "no longer [mere] paraphrases of the Canticles, as were those of the [earlier] hymn-writers of St. Sabbas. In the first period of hymn-writers, the Odes were loosely linked together. Now the canon becomes a unity. With great skill a single thought is worked out and varied in all the odes ..." St. Joseph the Hymnographer (d. 883), following this model, was one of the last hymnographers to fill in the remaining spaces of the Octoechos during the weekdays, eventually completing the "Great Octoechos."
The living treasury of liturgical prayers that we Orthodox Christians have today is the amazing culmination and fruit of the labors of almost a thousand years of hymnographers, genuinely witnessing to and reflecting the reality of the Kingdom of God's presence here and now, and the unity in time of the Church's life and liturgy ─ a kind of eternal "today."
Thirty of these hymnographers are canonized. Their inspired work marvelously reflects the Holy Spirit's presence in the Church. The two main centers of hymnography, the monastery of St. Sabbas in the 7th century and the Studion in the 9th, produced saints who left behind to us their holy hymns which now help to unite the Church of every age and place.
Reflecting upon this, we see that the Church's hymns "require careful reading ... [for] they are a poetic treasure [of] mystical beauty and power ..." Unfortunately, today in the West, there has been very little attention given to the study of the treasury of Orthodox hymnology, which Fr. John Meyendorff called "a poetic encyclopedia of patristic spirituality and theology." In peering into and through the "icons" that the Church's hymns comprise, one begins to see into the depths of the Spirit, and thus to realize that the Church's liturgical life is the place of an entry into the memory of the Church, which is the very mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2).
Appreciation and love for our Church's hymnography, and ─ above all, its utilization in prayerful liturgy ─ forms an important precondition for the success of her mission. For "if there is to be a renaissance of Orthodox missionary and evangelical work in America, there must be a rebirth of liturgical life."
-Rassophor Monk Seraphim
Carpenter, Marjorie trans. Kontakia of Romanos Byzantine Melodist. Vol. 1 Univ. of Missouri Press: Columbia, 1970.
Conomos, Dimitri. Byzantine Hymnography and Byzantine Chant. Hellenic College Press: Brookline, 1984.
Department of Liturgical Music. Sacred Music: Its Nature and Function. OCA: Chicago,1977.
Meyendorff, John. Byzantine Theology. Fordham Univ.: New York, 1979.
Topping, Eva. Sacred Songs: Studies in Byzantine Hymnography. Light and Life Pub.: Minneapolis, 1997
Vaporis, Nomikos. Ed. Three Byzantine Sacred Poets. Hellenic College Press: Brookline, 1979.
Wellesz, Egon. A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1962.
 Conomos, 3
 Conomos, 6.
 See Conomos, 5.
Quoted in Conomos, 7.
See Topping, 8.
Eccles. Hier. 10:7, 10:2:4.
Sacred Music, 5-6.
Cf. Ezek. 3:33ff., Rev. 10:9.
Grk. Kanon, "rule," probably so named on account of the precisely regimented structure of this long hymn, or group of hymns.
Archpriest Robert Arida, Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Boston (OCA) (Psalm notes, vol. 2, no. 2, Fall 1997, 7).