I am very excited to write my first blog-on-demand entry 🙂 I’m so happy to see more people reading the blog and even happier to be receiving input and requests! Keep them coming!!
This is a question I tackled many times in my life in different ways; how to explain Byzantine Chant to others? Growing up and explaining to my Moslem class mates what is it I chant in church and trying to find terms that they would understand lending from Moslem prayer vocabulary to explain how reading the epistle is like reading the Quran although it follows different rules and tunes.
When I went to college in USA, I sang in a number of choirs ranging from small chamber groups and madrigal singers to large choirs and symphony choruses .Again, when the topic came up, I needed to find ways of explaining Byzantine Chant to my friends, music teachers, and fellow singers. In this case, Gregorian Chant seems like an easy path to start the story.
Nowadays, after around 30 years of chanting, I think I’ve got some of the answer down!
First of all we need to distinguish between the tones of the church music from the melodies used in Eastern music in general. Even though there are some intersections between Arabic music scales and Byzantine scales, the expressions are different. The way church tunes express joy, excitement, fear, sadness, sorrow, repent, and victory differ from how these feelings are expressed in everyday nonsecular songs.
Byzantine Chant is a’capella, traditionally there are no instruments used to accompany Byzantine Chant. Byzantine Chanting is mono-phonic. There are no harmonies with the exception of the drone base voice (called Ison in greek) which accompanies the chanter and usually sings a vowel or hums the root of the scale or one of the key tones of the scale depending on the main melody. The chanter usually indicates to the Ison singers when to switch from one tone to another with hand gestures.
The number eight has always been an important number in Christianity and have a number of meanings, mainly that it signifies a new beginning and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And so, we have 8 tones in Byzantine Chanting. Starting with the Sunday after resurrection we start chanting the 1st tone, next week is the 2nd tone until we reach the 8th tone and then we restart again at tone 1 (This cycle is called the Octoechos). Each tone has specific chants associated with it for the daily prayers for every day of the week. Although it is not done so often these days, but the mass could also be chanted in the tone of the week entirely. So everyone week mass could be chanted in a new tone.
I do not want to go into technical details of the music scales used in Byzantine Chant, but the main difference with Western Music is that the distances between notes in Western Music are equal. However, in Byzantine Chant, they are different distances between the notes depending on the scale ranging from very small to very large distances in comparison to Western scales. This was and is still my challenge in mastering Byzantine chanting!
It is difficult to say that there is a specific sentiment attached to a specific tone as some tones have more than one form. For example, the first tone in its fast paced (Irmological melodies) is victorious, and joyful. Here is a sample from the Easter vigil service:
On the other hand the slow paced “Papadi” of tone 1 could be quite solemn. Here is a sample from the 1st Bridegroom Service from the Holy Week:
To make things more complicated, for each tone there is a number of poetic forms (meters) with their specific melodies attached to them called “Original Melodies.” These original melodies are used as a model for many other chants during the liturgical year. Here is a sample from the original melody “Τὸν τάφον Σου, Σωτήρ” (Ton Taphon Sou, Sotir) which I find to be quite sad and usually associated, for me, with the Holy Week and the passion of Christ:
When I started writing this entry I thought of giving a overview of Byzantine Chant 8 modes, but I think it is not feasible. Instead I focused here on the first tone and the next 7 entries will discuss each of the other tones separately. This way I can present you with different samples from each tone.
I appreciate your feedback to improve the blog and present information that is useful..
— Jack Rabah