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Byzantine Chant, Staff Notation, and Newbyz.org

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  • Stan T
    Dear List: I have stated on our website, newbyz.org, that the music there is not Byzantine chant. I would like to explain this a little further. I call the
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 6 12:12 PM
      Dear List:

      I have stated on our website, newbyz.org, that the music there is not Byzantine chant. I would like to explain this a little further. I call the website "New Byzantium Publications" because the music comes from the Byzantine tradition and is based on Byzantine musical theory, but it cannot, for many reasons, instantly be classified as Byzantine chant. Out of these many reasons, there is one overwhelming reason, and that is the issue of musical interpretation. Mere notes on paper do not qualify as music. They could be interpreted into Byzantine chant, but it would require knowledge that is not on the written staff lines. One would need to know the special tunings of the Byzantine modes, and, more importantly, the unwritten tradition of how the melodies are to be executed. The same could be said especially about jazz or any other music that involves some type of improvisation in performance.

      In a very interesting prologue to the book produced by St. Anthony's Monastery in Arizona, The Divine Liturgies as Chanted on the Holy Mountain, (http://stanthonysmonastery.org/music/Prologue.htm), Gregorios Stathis discusses the subject of interpretation, as quoted below. My comments are in brackets.

      "The issue of interpreting [Byzantine] notation is immense, and it requires the greater part of a master musician's life. This is an issue that will not be addressed here. However, what must definitely be said about it is that merely executing the ascending and descending signs of pitch is called metrophonia in the theory of Byzantine chant. Metrophonia is simply counting (metro) the change in pitch that each sign indicates. These pitches in each formula indicate the framework within which the melody will be elaborated, in accordance with the indications of the other signs of notation. It is precisely here that Byzantine music is grossly misunderstood by those musicologists who believe that `melody' is equivalent to `metrophonia,' the mere execution of the ascending and descending signs of pitch. [I don't know any musicologists who believe this.] It is here that Greek Byzantine chant is wronged: instead of being the wondrous art of Byzantine majesty that it is, out of ignorance it is mistaken for an inelegant, artless affectation that results in a very cheap, tasteless, arrhythmic-sounding music. With this lack of proper interpretation, the meaning of the words is lost. Byzantine chant is still suffering from its erroneous interpretation as dry `metrophonia,' as mere changes in pitch; it suffers from being forcefully placed on the Procrustean bed of staff notation, [Procrustes was a mythological figure who forced people to fit in his bed either by stretching or amputation], where there are only whole tones and half tones, and only the diatonic genus, which are all unable to communicate the subtle intervals and refined sensitivities of Byzantine and post-Byzantine Greek expression. The so-called `Byzantine music' that is transcribed into staff notation and sung in this manner, has little relation to the real melody indicated by the formulae of Byzantine chant."

      Before discussing Dr. Stathis' main point, I would like to first take him to task for his erroneous characterization of staff notation. I can understand, through the study of Western instrumental music, where one might get the notion that staff notation only consists of whole tones and half tones. Indeed, in order to facilitate the playing of modern musical instruments, the system of staff notation makes in easy to depict tones and semitones on paper. But like Stathis' description of the difference between metrophonia and the executed melody, the same concept applies to staff notation. Like the Byzantine neumes, staff notation can be used to depict the metrophonia, that is, as he says, "the ascending and descending signs of pitch." Staff notation, like Byzantine notation, is a "framework within which the melody will be elaborated in accordance with the indications of the other signs of notation." Now these "other signs" are the interpretive key. Even in Western music, signs and ornaments cannot be dryly executed, but must be put into an historical or traditional context to be performed correctly. As far as notating Byzantine traditions with signs of notation on a staff, one could borrow markings from Byzantine notation or one could invent new markings, as several people have done. The point is, no form of notation can accurately depict the interpretation or performance. The Beethoven piano sonatas, for example, have been edited over and over and every tempo and nuance is marked. But if you listen to ten different people play the same sonata, you get ten different versions. This is true for any kind of music, vocal or instrumental, simple or complex. You can't blame shortcomings on the notation.

      But Mr. Stathis' main point of the prologue is very well taken, that Byzantine chant is a "wondrous art of majesty" and requires the greater part of one's life to master. I will not take issue with anyone who aspires to perpetuate and advance the art of Byzantine music. That is a great thing to do, and I wish all success to the people who do it. Yet, I want to emphasize that this is not the purpose of newbyz.org.

      How music from our website is interpreted is entirely up to the people who use it. Most often, it will probably NOT be interpreted as Byzantine chant. It is mainly intended for people who do not have the "greater part of a lifetime" invested in the study of traditional Greek Orthodox ecclesiastical music. It is meant for people who are serving in churches without this special knowledge and education, and who want to respect certain basic traditions, which are also described in Dr. Stathis' article. I agree with him when he speaks of liturgical texts being clothed in the garment of melody, and how this brings out the meaning of words more deeply. I don't think there is much danger, however, that people will take the music from newbyz.org and robotically chant it as "dry metrophonia." Everyone will put their own interpretation into the music, and even if the result is not Byzantine, or not even artful, it still clothes the texts in the garment of melody, and thus, hopefully, enhances it.

      The music on newbyz.org is mostly two-part, that is, a melodic line and an isocratic drone. The more important of the two is the melody. I don't advocate dividing the choir into two sections and assigning a part to each. That may be necessary for polyphonic music, but it is not for chanting. If someone finds that chanting constantly on one tone (the ison) is distracting and limiting his or her prayers, then that person shouldn't do it. Let the words soar on the melody that you have learned and is inscribed upon your heart. If a few people want to voluntarily hold the ison as a service of help to the other singers, that's wonderful, but it isn't necessary for worship.

      We encourage people to perform the music on newbyz.org thoughtfully—to approach it as melodic speech, rather than music, and to practice and prepare it so that it is pleasing to the ear and does not distract from the words. It shouldn't sound like bad music, but on the other hand, it doesn't have to sound like that "wondrous majesty" either, to be effective. It is prayer, pure and simple, and what melody does for it is allow many people to pray with one voice. When we only speak our prayers in congregation, the sound is of many voices, each on a different pitch, some rushing ahead, some lagging behind. But when we sing our prayers all together, we truly sound as one voice.

      However great Byzantine chant is as music, for those who are untrained in the art, it is equally fine just to chant the music on newbyz.org simply and purely, putting in feeling as only a person who is in the act of prayer can do. We believe in the Church's eight-tone system of music, and we both think Byzantine music theory is a good tonal foundation for the creation of liturgical melodies. Our goal is to put the staff-notated metrophonia out there in side-by-side Greek and English. The rest is up to our church musicians.

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