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•  Introduction    
•  Orthodox Spirituality   
•  Orthodox Church History    
•  Byzantine Neume Notation    
•  Types of Orthodox Sacred Song   
•  The Troparion  
•  The Kontakion    

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Theodokos; St Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai.
Mary Theodokos, Θεοτόκος
(Latin: Dei genetrix).
Image: Holy Monastery of St Catherine at Mount Sinai (Egypt). The Library at St Catherine's is one of the oldest surviving libraries in the world. It has about 3,300 manuscript codices—many with music.
Nearly all written music that has survived from Christian Byzantium {def.} is sacred chant and hymns. Byzantine chant has a free rhythmical flow, and is rather less tied to exact pitches than Western listeners are accustomed to. It could be that the oral tradition of Byzantine chant was substantially affected by Moslem musical style, beginning with the Turkic occupation of Constantinople in A.D. 1453. Alternatively, this style could be closer to the ancient Christian practice from Jerusalem, Syria, and Lebanon; in that case, the 'Gregorian chant' style that developed in Western Europe (more so than the Orthodox style) would be an aberration from ancient practice. Likely the answers to such questions can never be known with certainty anymore, as manuscripts containing chant notations are all that remains, and inferring how chant actually sounded from these written artifacts is uncertain.

[For a contrary view see, the work of Pierre L. L. Billaud {excerpt}.]
Audio Example 1. "Pascha hieron," a historical recording of either Lakovos Nafpliotes (died 1942) or Konstantinos Pringos (died 1964), both protopsaltae of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It is the stichera aposticha for Pascha (Easter), in Mode I Plagal and done in 'syntomon' style. The sound in the background is called 'ison' or 'isokratema'; it is basically the accompaniment that holds the base note of the tetrachord in which the melos is working (similar to Latin, 'tenor'). This is an ancient chant that is found in a book called the Pentekostarion, which contains the chants for services spanning from the Sunday of Pascha to the Sunday of All Saints. Text: "A sacred Pascha hath been shown forth to us today; a new and holy Pascha, a mystic Pascha ..." {full text}.
"Pascha hieron" (the origin of this audio recording is not identified).
[567 kB, buffered audio. Press 'play' to start download. After downloading, playback will begin automatically.]

A central idea of Eastern Orthodox chant is that humans sing in imitation of the angels; often, the singer will try to depict the meaning of a sacred text by the manner of singing.

Many people automatically associate Orthodox worship with the rich choral traditions of music that developed in Russia and the Ukraine. Georgian, Serbian, Romanian and Bulgarian choirs also possess an extensive repertoire of choral liturgical music. Greek and Arabic Byzantine churches, however, have retained a very different style of monophonic chant, a tradition which also lives on, side by side with the Slav choral tradition in many churches in Romania and Bulgaria, and a closely related form of chant in Serbia. This music is known as Psalmodia: it has common roots with Latin plainchant and with the chant of the Syrian and Armenian churches. It originates in the ancient musical traditions, both Jewish and Pagan, of the Eastern Mediterranean. (Melling [1], p. 4)

In some cases, one can find in Orthodox chant remnants of the metrical schemes of classical Greek poetry. The early Roman Church apparently borrowed from Byzantine chant, as for instance, the Kyrie ("Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.") consists entirely of Greek words, even though chanted in the Latin Mass. An exciting area of study, for which NEUMES transcriptions may be useful, is in tracing the connections that Orthdox chant and notation may have to ancient Hebrew practice on the one hand, and to Latin manuscripts of Western chant on the other.

Destruction at the Serbian Orthodox Church of St Basil of Ostrog (in Ljubovo, Kosovo).
The Eastern Orthodox Churches have suffered persecution in modern times more than the Western Church has done. An example, above, shows destruction at the Church of St Basil of Ostrog (in Ljubovo, Kosovo)—part of the looting, bombing, and burning of Serbian Orthodox monasteries, churches, and cemeteries by ethnic Albanian 'extremists' in 1991-2002.
Image: Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Raska and Prizren, "Post-War Suffering".
Archbishop Abercius (Averky) of Syracuse (NY) and Abbot of Holy Trinity Monastery.
Archbishop Abercius (Averky) of Syracuse (NY) and Abbot of Holy Trinity Monastery (Jardanville, NY), reposed Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. (Born in Russia, 1906; died 1976.) During the Communist regime in the former Soviet Union, Christianity was suppressed. Many Russian Orthodox clergy had to flee from the Russian Revolution to safe havens, such as the United States and Canada.
Cf., historical notes on the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (official website).
Averky writes about the "complete and uncompromising refusal to accept that worldwide Evil which has spread widely over the face of the whole earth and which has subju­gated to its control, to a greater or lesser degree, all aspects of human life, not excepting religious and church life" [Archbishop Averky, "On the Russian Church Abroad"; cf., full article]. Resistance against atheistic Marxist-Communism, he says, is the chief task, but it is just one branch of "worldwide evil" that has penetrated even into the Christian Church itself, and among professing Christians.
Since Averky's death in 1976, Soviet Communism collapsed in Orthodox Russia and other Christian countries of Eastern Europe. Atheist Maoist-Communist China today has gained great economic power, enabled by consumerism, materialism, and pro-Communist politicians. Terrorism by theist Moslems is an obvious threat, but Christians have lived with it for centuries. But atheistic Communism is a modern invention: its methods of control can be violent, insidious, subtle, economic, or psychological.
Orthodox Spirituality
Initial I.n contrast to the Western (or, Roman Catholic) Church — which imposed a unified language of liturgy (i.e., Latin) and highly centralized authority in the Pope (normally, the Bishop of Rome, which is believed to be the see of Saint Peter) — the Eastern Orthodox Churches {def.} retained what are likely more ancient traditions: liturgy in the local language of the people; and of a somewhat more shared or decentralized authority in the Church. Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Catholic Church today, however, does encourage liturgy in local languages (as was the normal practice during the first few hundred years of Christianity).
Christian epitaph in the catacombs of Rome.Catacomb of Gaudiosus, Naples.
In the first centuries c.e. as Christianity was criminalized, Christians met secretly (just as Orthodox Christians would do again under the Communist Soviet Union). One meeting place was underground in the catacombs outside the city of Rome, places of burial mainly for Jewish and Christian dead. Decoration in the catacombs was simple. Common themes were Jesus as the Good Shepherd and fish, refer­ring to 'fishers of men' (cf., Matthew 4:19, and Mark 1:17) and the multipli­cation of loaves and fishes (cf., Matthew 14:15-22); the Greek word 'fish' (ΙΧΘΥΣ) is also a cryptogram or logogriph. The symbol of the cross was used much less commonly.
[Left] Latin epitaph of Atimetus (who lived 8 years and 3 months—'vixit' is preterite of 'vivo') from the cata­combs of St Sebastian outside the city of Rome. Left of the inscription is a symbolic anchor, and to the right a fish, both common themes in early Christian art. Nearby are the catacombs of St Callisto, which were in-use from the 2nd century and became the official catacombs of the Church of Rome. Many early Popes and martyrs were buried there, including St Cecilia (whose body was later moved). [Right] A view of conditions in the catacomb of Gaudiosus outside of Naples, Italy, where Christians buried their dead. In Roman pantheist religion, the dead normally were cremated, not buried. [Images: unattributed.]

According to the Orthodox Church, the "East Romans," Glorification is the vision of God in which the equality of all men and the absolute value of each man is experienced. ...

According to the Orthodox, God himself is both heaven and hell, reward and punishment. All men have been created to see God unceasingly in His uncreated glory. Whether God will be for each man heaven or hell, reward or punishment, depends on man's response to God's love and on man's transformation from the state of selfish and self-centered love, to Godlike love which does not seek its own ends.

According to the Orthodox, since all men will see God, no religion can claim for itself the power to send people either to heaven or to hell. ...

[T]he authority for Christian truth is not the written words of the Bible, which cannot in themselves either express God or convey an adequate concept concerning God, but rather the individual apostle, prophet, or saint who is glorified in God. ... [T]he Franks [viz., the Western Church], following Augustine, neither understood the Patristic position on this subject, nor were they willing ... to listen to "Greeks" explain these distinctions ....

The Bible is not in itself either inspired or infallible. It becomes inspired and infallible within the communion of saints because they have the experience of divine glory described in the Bible.

(Romanides [2])

Orthodox Church History
The capital of the Roman Empire was moved in a.d. 330 by Emperor Constantine (I) [died 337] from the Latin city of Rome to the Greek city of Byzantium (see, map). Under Constantine, Christianity was tolerated for the first time in the Roman Empire. Christian bishops, however, changed somewhat the Christian religion to comply with Constantine for gaining this freedom. For example, the day of rest was changed from the Biblical Sabbath (which is Saturday [cf., Genesis 2:2-3, Exodus 16:28-29, Exodus 20:8-11, etc.]) to Sunday (under Roman time, from midnight-to-midnight). Constantine decreed this in honor of Apollo, the god of the sun in Roman pan­theist religion.[3] Constantine worshipped Apollo above all gods. (This is a direct violation of the Ten Commandments that Jesus told his disciples to obey.) The bishops rationalized that Christians had traditionally met on Sundays to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (which happened on a Sunday, the first day of the week [cf., Mark 16:1-2, Luke 23:55-56, 24:1, etc.]), and that anyone who kept the Biblical Sabbath was 'judaizing' [their word]. Furthermore, it was argued, the number eight is a symbol for eternity or rebirth according to numerology—such numerology can be found in the Kabbalah (or, Cabala) and ancient mystery religions. A (non-existent) eighth day of the week was postulated as the 'Christian Sabbath'; it was supposed to exist mystically, somehow overlapping with Sunday. This 'Christian Sabbath' was enacted in 1350 as Church canon law at the Council of Laodicea.[4]

Just a generation later, in a.d. 380, Emperor Theodosius (I) decreed that Christianity would be the official state religion of the Roman Empire, and the old religion of the Caesars would no longer be tolerated (see, further history of Byzantium). The new status of Christianity as the state religion required that the Church 'dress up its image' to be appropriate for functions of state. Outward displays (such as clerical dress, liturgical celebrations, sacramental objects, liturgical music, etc.) had to be made more 'dignified' and majestic to reflect the Church's official role. In this role, the Church was increasingly used as a vehicle for enforcing state policy, and the 'separation of church and state' was greatly blurred. For instance, the Emperor Justinian decreed in 538 (by Imperial edict) that the bishop of Rome (viz., the Pope) was the head of all Christian churches. Confounding the distinction between religion and the state was used as an effective, inexpensive, and non-violent method for controlling the thoughts and behavior of the general population.

Chapel at Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY.Metropolitan Germanus of DemetriasPatriarch Tychon of MoscowRomania Bishop Gerontius of VranceaHagia Sophia Cathedral
Images, from left: Chapel at Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY (remark the heavy use of gold leaf, and the rich decoration of the walls and ceiling). Cf., monastery website.

A great amount of gold (gold thread, gold leaf, and solid gold), precious jewels, fine art, vestments and insignia implying authority, and splendid architecture. These were used by the Church to fulfill its new, majestic function as state religion of the Roman Empire. This was rationalized as giving glory to Christ the King, who had triumphed over the world, but it contrasted greatly with the simple lifestyles of John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, and early, persecuted Christians. Under an interpretation of Biblical prophesy, the Great Tribulation had passed, and Christ reigned over the world through his Church. In turn, the state depended on the Church to give it legimacy in the beliefs of most of the population (viz., the 'divine right of kings').

In its turn, Constantinople fell to invasion by Turkish tribes in May of 1453, and the Greek Orthodox Church entered a long period of subjugation to Moslem rulers. Much further to the east, Russia had been a missionary outpost of the Greek Christian Church, but with the fall of Constantinople, the Russian Orthodox Church saw itself as the only remaining bastion of pure Christianity. Runciman writes as follows.

While Byzantium had been falling more and more completely under Turkish sway the Russians had been driving back their Tartar overlords and recovering their independence. The conversion of Russia had been one of the glories of the Byzantine Church. But now the daughter country was growing mightier than the mother. ... Now, with their record of Orthodoxy unblemished, they possessed the only potentate to survive in the Orthodox world .... [T]he true Christian Empire had moved to Moscow. 'Constantinople has fallen', wrote the Metropolitan of Moscow in 1458, 'because it has deserted the true Orthodox faith. ... There exists only one tru Church on earth, the Church of Russia.' It was to be Russia's mission now to preserve Christianity. (Runciman [5], pp. 177-1784)

Byzantine Neume Notation
St Ambrose, icon.
St Ambrose (ca 338 - 397), Bishop of Milan; revered in both the East and West; he initiated Eastern hymnody in the West.
Image: modern icon found on the Web; probably adaptated from an icon by Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Brookline, MA; U.S.A.).
Manuscripts containing Byzantine musical notation date back to at least the 9th century. Bible lectionaries containing ekphonetic notation have an even older provenance. Neume notation in Eastern Orthodox manuscripts tends to be consciously archaic and highly conservative by comparison to Western practice. Byzantine notation "became complicated in the extreme, signs indicating the principal intervals of the melody being accompanied by a wealth of Great Hypostases, usually written in red ink, determining in minute detail the precise execution of the melody. In the modern period scholars have work[ed] hard to decipher the mediaeval musical manuscripts. The meaning of the signs for intervals seem reasonably solidly established. There remains, however, considerable disagreement as to the interpretation of other signs" (Melling [1], p. 5).

The writers of early manuscripts are anonymous, but manuscripts written in the past two centuries typically usually are attributable to individual scribes.
Audio Example 2. "Cherubic Hymn" by Ioannes Kladas for the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom in mode 1 (excerpt). It was performed in Hagia Sophia Cathedral at Byzantium for festive Liturgies in the presence of the Emperor. (Sung here by the Romeiko Ensemble, directed by Yorgos Bilalis.)
"Cherubic Hymn" (excerpt) [Filesize: 940 kB, streaming audio.]

The musical notation from the middle of the 12th century and later, usually called the Round or Middle Byzantine system, can be read with certainty in its melodic structure and with very high probability in its rhythmical and modal character .... But the Early Byzantine systems, though partially expored are still a controversial subject. The Cloislin Notation (c. 1100-1160) is near enough to the Round system to allow of a tentative transcription, from which it appears that the neumes do not yet express the exact intervals, but only give a vague indication of the course of the melody, which the singer had to learn from his master's lips. ... What then are we to say about the older neumes of the 10th and 11th centuries? [Wellesz and Höeg] both incline to view that the most archaic (or Esphigmenian) neumes had no melodic content whatever, but only showed the rhythm of an orally transmitted series of hymns. (Tillyard [6], p. 223)


Pascha Celebration at Decani Monastery.
Pascha Celebration at the Serbian Orthodox Monastery of Visoki Decani.
  Types of Orthodox Sacred Song
Kontakion, Troparion, Exaposteilarion, and Vespers Sticheron or Doxastikon

The "Troparion" and "Kontakion" are short, poetic chanted hymns that present the main theme of devotion for the day or the commemorated event on particular feasts. Every day and feast throughout the year has a troparion and a kontakion.

A sticherarium is a collection of the Proper Hymns for the various holy days of the Church calendar. The Proper Hymns show remarkable uniformity of text, and clearly go back to a common original (Tillyard [7]).

The Apolytikion and Kontakion troparia are used in all the daily hour services:
  • the mesonyktikon (midnight) service;
  • the orthros (matins);
  • the first, third, sixth, and ninth hour services;
  • the service of the typika;
  • the hesperinos (vespers); and
  • apodeipnon (after-dinner) services.
They are also chanted in the Divine Liturgy (the Eucharist) after the lesser entrance.

Audio Example 3. Grand Petition, as sung by monks of Visoki Decani Monastery (Serbia).
"Grand Petition," МОЛЕБНИ КАНОН

[Filesize: 2 MB, streaming audio. The above text requires a Cyrillic font.]

The Troparion
The word troparion refers to a short, poetic hymn. It is also known as the apolytikion or "dismissal hymn," which is the main troparion of the day. "Troparia" is the plural of "troparion," and "apolytikia" is the plural of "apolytikion."

On Sundays, the troparion apolytikia have as their themes the Resurrection of the Saviour Jesus Christ on the third day. There are eight resurrectional troparia, one for each of the eight modes of the Byzantine chant system. The Sunday troparia are dedicated to the Resurrection, because Sunday is the first day of the week, that is, the day when Christ rose from the tomb. Each mode has its own hymns, including its own apolytikion, kontakion and hypakoe troparia.

icona2 Each day of the week has a unique commemoration, as reflected in the daily apolytikia or troparia. Monday commemorates the incorporeal powers, that is, the angels. Tuesday commemorates St John the Baptist and Forerunner, as the last of all the Old Testament prophets that "pointed" to Christ. Wednesday commemorates the betrayal of Christ to the High Priests. Thursday commemorates the Apostles and their successors, the hierarchs. Friday commemorates the Crucifixion of Christ. Saturday commemorates All-saints, the Mother of God who is Theotokos and the first of all saints, and the souls of all those who have passed from this world.

There are two types of feasts in the Byzantine, Eastern Orthodox liturgical calendar: the movable feasts; and the immovable feasts.

The movable feasts are those that depend on the date of Pascha (Easter), which is different every year. These are contained in the liturgical books known as the "Compunctional Triodion" and the "Joyful [Charmosinon] Triodion," which today is referred to as the "Pentecostarion." The word "triodion" comes from the fact that the canons (another hymnographic form) contained in these books each has three odes. Hence: "tri" (from the Greek word for "three"); and "odion" (from the term "ode," meaning "canticle").

The immovable feasts are connected to fixed dates of the year. These are contained in the book known as the "menaion," or book of months.

Therefore, since every day of the year has some type of saint (martyr, hierarch, righteous, apostle, etc.) or a feast-event (the Nativitiy of Christ, the birth of St John the Baptist, the birth of Mary Theodokos, etc.), each day has its own particular troparion.
Audio Example 4. "Christos Anesti" of the daily hour service for Easter Sunday. Two versions are given here: (a) an excerpt of the Greek-language version; and (b) the Arabic version of this hymn as sung by Christians in Lebanon. (The singer, Sister Keyouz, is a member of the Lebanese community of the Order of the Sisters of Basil.) Full text: "Christ is risen; in his victorious death he has given life to the dead" [translated in the CD liner notes].
"Christos Anesti" (excerpts) in Greek and Arabic.
[Filesize: 954 kB, streaming audio. Source: Sœur Marie Keyouz, S.B.C., "Chant Byzantin: Passion et Resurrection," (harmonia mundi, CD# 901315), 1989.]

The Kontakion
icon of Romanos Melodos; Romanus the Melodist.
Icon of Romanos Melodos, showing the vision he had of the Virgin Mary Theotokos giving him a scroll to eat, which gave him the special grace to become the premiere composer of kontakia.
Image: illumination in the Menologion of the Emperor Basilios II; Vaticanus graecus 1613, p. 78; Constantinople, end of 10th century.
The kontakion was originally a long poem of like-metered strophes which are considered to have homiletic origin [that is, based on sermons]. It received its name, it is thought, from the 'kontarion' [or, scroll] from which the hymn was read in Church. The most famous composer of kontakia [i.e., the plural of 'kontakion'] was the 6th-century saint Romanos the Melodos [Romanus the Melodist; Ρομανοσ; born ca 490 in Syria; died ca 556 in Constantinople]. The first hymn was known as the 'koukoulion', and all other hymns of the kontakion followed its meter. These are known as 'oikoi'. This form of hymn is the precursor to another, later form known as the 'kanon' or canon.
Romanus was the greatest of all Byzantine hymn-wrights, and his narrative-odes, or religious ballads, have a fervor, simplicity, and power, of which later Greek hymnody shows little trace. After the iconoclastic strife in the early seventh century, the liturgical books were altered by St. John of Damascus or his followers and only the preludes of the odes of Romanus were left. The original music consequently disappeared. (Tillyard [7])

Today, only the 'koukoulion' and first 'oikos' are used, except for rare circumstances and in the much-beloved Akathist Hymn (which is used in the period of the Great Fast). For this reason the 'koukoulion' is now normally referred to as the kontakion hymn.

• Some of this content was adapted from: ; ; etc.
Audio Example 3 is cited from, .
[1] Melling, David J., "Reading Psalmodia; An introduction to modern Byzantine notation," (2000); online at,
[2] John Romanides, "The Fundamental Difference Between the 'East' and 'West'," (excerpted and edited transcript of three lectures by Prof. John S. Romanides at Holy Cross Orthodox Seminary, Brookline, MA, USA, 1981); online at, A much longer edition is online at,; or at,
Rev. Dr Constantine J. Terzopoulos (a Christian Orthodox priest and patristics scholar) comments that: "While Fr John Romanides is highly respected ..., there are some aspects of in his many writings that are either viewed as outdated or 'a little' controversial today. ... [But] I don't know of anything that has been deemed heretical in his writings." (Private communication, 31 December 2009.)
[3] The 'Sunday law' was decreed by Emperor Constantine on 7 March 321: "On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed ..." [Codex Justinianus, lib. 3, tit. 12, 3]. The Eastern (Orthodox) Church later canonized Constantine as a Christian saint. However, he apparently was not a Christian during his lifetime. The story that he converted to Christianity on his deathbed seems dubious. More likely, Constantine was canonized as a 'virtual Christian' (or, 'honorary Christian') because he ended the persecutions of Christians that had been official and unofficial practice in the Roman Empire. The Western (Catholic) Church, by contrast, has never declared that Constantine was a saint.
[4] In a.d. 363-364, the so-called Christian Sabbath (or, 'Sunday Sabbath') was enacted as Church law at the Council of Laodicea. Canon 29 (in Greek), voted upon by the Christian bishops at that Council, declares that keeping of the Biblical Sabbath is sinful and an act of heresy. Due to the intimate connection of Church and state, the Sabbath was outlawed throughout the Roman Empire.
CANON XXIX. CHRISTIANS must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord's Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ. (Emphasis added. Translation by Henry Percival, in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, [eds], Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 14, [Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature, 1900]; online at,
During the 2nd and 3rd centuries, it is reported, Christians rested on the (Saturday) Sabbath in keeping with the Mosaic Law, and they met for fellowship, instruction, and communion on Sundays in memory of Jesus' resurrection. The above canon (or, Church law), which condemns Sabbath-keeping as sinful, directly contradicts the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus. Some people today believe that habitual, dogmatic breaking of the Biblical Sabbath is the 'Mark of the Beast' foretold in Scripture. Under this view, it is not wrong to go to church on Sunday (or on any other day, for that matter), but doing so does not satisfy the Commandment that one shall remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
[5] Runciman, Steven, The Fall of Constantinople 1453, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 1965).
[6] Tillyard, H. J. W., "Byzantine Music About A.D. 1100," The Musical Quarterly, vol. 39 nr 2 (1953), pp. 223-231.
[7]  --------, "Medæval Byzantine Music," The Musical Quarterly, vol. XXIII Nr 2 (1937), pp. 201-209.
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