Byzantine Music

This is brought to you by Noland Law Firm: Like many traditions and customs within the Byzantine empire, its music derives much of its method and technicality from Greek civilization. Most of the music composed early on were songs and hymns specifically created to Greek texts and used predominantly for court, festivals and most famously for religious functions and ceremonies. These latter sorts of music persevered through tradition even after the fall of Constantinople, when Sultan Mehmed annexed the Patriarchate of Constantinople and granted responsibility and authority of Orthodox Christians. Once the Ottoman empire eroded, several sects broke away, but took similar traditions of Byzantine music with them. Thus Byzantine music is associated with many traditions of Eastern Orthodox traditions and chants.

Beyond the utility of music in worship and religious functions, however, there was mystical belief in the use of song in worship that spiritually united a congregation with angelic choirs during the singing or chanting of hymns in the early church. This was known as angelic transmission of sacred chant. The second was the concept of koinonia, or communion. The act of participating or partaking as part of a whole. Though regarded as less potent than allegedly being unified with choirs of angels, the idea of actively participating in musical celebration with a whole congregation of worshipers was important in Byzantine religious ceremony. It was thought to reinforce a sense of oneness and cohesion by being all-inclusive rather than restricting the role of singing and chanting a smaller choir.

Although Byzantine music survives predominantly in hymns and songs of religious significance, music itself was prominent throughout the empire in all aspects. Music pervaded dramatic arts, pantomime and ballets. It was present in social events such as banquets and festivals of political or religious natures, even including pagan festivals. Music was even a distinguishing part of the Olympic Games, and it was especially prominent at functions of the Imperial Court. While chanting was mostly heard in religious settings, secular settings often employed song as well as a variety of instruments: an organ (known as an urghun) was used in the Hippodrome during chariot races, while the lyra and shilyani – similar to the violin and lyre, respectively – were also popularly used. They even employed wind instruments such as the aulos, plagiaulos, and askaulos (most similar to modern oboe, flute and bagpipe).

Expanding into the formal and ritual, two genres of Byzantine music existed specifically for court and formal use. The first was polychronia, a chant used in the liturgy that announced monarchs and other secular representatives as well as church officials, guests for special events, or even simply to address the congregation as a whole. The more exclusive are the acclamations, reserved specifically to announce the entrance of the Emperor: be it in receiving representatives at court or entering a social event such as the Hippodrome or a cathedral. Acclamations are distinct from polychronia in that, while polychronia are solemn praises to individuals, acclamations are a call-and-answer method of singing the entrance of the emperor by utilizing claquers to sing a line while the congregation tends to sing all or part of it back in repetition.