Friday, May 18, 2012

An Apology for Byzantine Chant

This article on Byzantine Chant is one of the best I've ever read.  As a chanter, I must admit I am particularly attuned to Byzantine chant for prayers in our liturgical services and rites.  However, especially in this country, more and more churches, even those not in the Slavic/Russian tradition, are using more and more Russian music because it's four part and more familiar than the esoteric and exotic melodies of the east, many of which cannot be rendered effective on any even tempered musical instrument (e.g. piano).  Frequently, I have to defend the use of Byzantine chant even for Vespers and Orthros or to weekday liturgies when a choir is simply unavailable.

People prefer the music they like and always will, but those who write off Byzantine chant are those who really have never listened to it or have heard it from people who don't know what they are doing.  Byzantine chant is not a sing-along, which is another reason why it is not liked by converts from Protestantism who are used to singing four part hymn tunes.  And those who do try to join in chanting, without having the faintest clue as to how to chant, stand out like sore thumbs.

As the article says, the various melodies were often written by the hymnographers themselves.  The link between the movement of the melodic line and the text bring out the reality that we are trying to  contemplate in our prayer.  And, unlike Gregorian chant, Byzantine chant has such a greater range when it comes to pathos.  Gregorian chant is so austere (nothing wrong with that) but a Byzantine  tone 3 is radically different from a plagal tone 2--moving from joyful to extremely somber.  There's so much more flexibility.  Lest we forget the primary goal of chanting is to convey the words we are praying.  The typewriter Russian chants of Obikhod and Kiev pale in comparison.

I know I'm in the minority and I don't care. But, again, those who knock Byzantine Chant really have never listened to it, heard it from poorly trained chanters, don't know the  musical language behind it or just prefer Russian stuff.  For me, I know that a pre-Sanctified Liturgy during Lent would not be as contemplative or prayerful if it were done in the Russian style.


  1. Looks as though you wrote quite a nice post on Byzantine chant yourself!
    I couldn't agree more with you, if someone doesn't like Byzantine chant it is most likely because they have not prayed with it in an environment where the chanter knew what he was doing. Or, like we all do to some extent, he simply prefers the style of music he is used to.

    1. Thank you Matushka for giving me the inspiration to write something. Fortunately, we are getting more and more men to learn the Byzantine tones and hymns. However, it will still be a long struggle to really get through to people on how valuable and beautiful the chants are.