Long thought to be only a further development of ancient Greek music, Byzantine music is now regarded as an independent musical culture, with elements derived from Syrian and Hebrew as well as Greek sources. Its beginnings are dated by some scholars to the 4th cent., after the founding of the Eastern Empire by Constantine I.
Although two Greek instruments, the kithara and the aulos, were used, the principal instrument of Byzantium was the organ. No purely instrumental music is extant, however, and the exact nature of the instrumental accompaniment of vocal music is not certain. The eight Byzantine echoi (singular echos ) correspond roughly to the eight modes of plainsong , but they were groups of melodies made of certain definite formulas. The Byzantine music that survives is all sacred, with the exception of some acclamations for the emperor. Byzantine chant was monodic, in free rhythm, and often attempted to depict melodically the meaning of the words. The language was Greek.
The Byzantine hymn, of which there were three types, was the greatest contribution of this culture. The troparion, a hymn, was inserted between the verses of the Psalms, and eventually the troparia overshadowed the Psalms. The origin of the kontakion, a hymn important in the 6th and 9th cent., is ascribed to Romanus, active during the reign of Anastasius I; it consisted of 18 or 24 strophes all in similar meter, with a contrasting introductory strophe. The subject matter was usually biblical. Often an acrostic is formed by the first letter of each stanza.
The time of Romanus and of Sergius (fl. early 7th cent.) is called the golden age of Byzantine music. In the 8th cent. the outstanding hymn writers were St. John of Damascus and Cosmas of Jerusalem. The chief type of hymn was the kanon, a series of odes, theoretically nine but often only eight in number, referring to the nine canticles of the Old and New Testaments. Until the 9th cent., poet and composer were always one; later, hymns were set to already existing melodies. With the codification of the Greek liturgy in the 11th cent. came a general decline in hymnody. Musical activity ceased with the fall of Constantinople (1453). Russian chant, the chant of the modern Greek Orthodox Church, and to a small extent Gregorian chant all owe something to Byzantine chant.
Byzantine notation was originally only a system of ekphonetic symbols serving to remind a singer of a melody he already knew. Neumes derived from the ekphonetic notation were in use from c.950 until 1200. From 1110 to 1450 a staffless notation was in use that indicated the echos, starting note, and subsequent intervals of a melody. It is largely decipherable today. Signs were added to it in the centuries that followed. The notation used in the Greek Church today was devised in the 19th cent. by Chrysanthus, a Greek archimandrite, because of the confusion in deciphering the manuscripts of early Byzantine music.
See G. Reese, Music in the Middle Ages (1940); studies of Byzantine music and hymnography by S. I. Savas (1965) and A. L. Burkhalter (1968).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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