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April 8, 2004

The Australian

It is not often that Easter is celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox and the Western churches simultaneously. This year they coincide, but the music each uses is dramatically different. The Orthodox churches are derived from Byzantium the eastern branch of Christendom that had its roots in the city of Constantinople, now Istanbul. The music heard in these churches today still reflects the ancient Byzantine concept of music's role in worship. The a cappella or unaccompanied music of Orthodoxy is a tradition that preserves the power of the human voice to praise God.

The Russian Orthodox Church in Australia is a close-knit community led by Archbishop Hilarion, a large man with an American accent and a basso profundo voice. Asked if it is true that Russian deacons are chosen for their voices, he says: "Of course, the deacon is so important in the liturgy. He might be a bass, a baritone or even a tenor."

He explains that 4th-century bishop St Basil the Great was opposed to musical instruments in church, as these would take away a person's thoughts from God and draw attention to the players. There was another reason pagan cults and other non-Christian forms of worship used musical instruments. The early Christian Church resolved to distance itself from these practices.

By the end of the 4th century, the church was singing old Jewish psalms to eight tones. The Russians then improvised and developed a form of chanting that made use of more folksy melodies, mostly from Bulgaria. Out of this came the distinctive Znamenny chant, with slow and languorous melodies. They also invented a system of notation with hundreds of signs that represented single notes, or two or more notes even musical patterns. What would eventually distinguish Russian church music was its move into glorious harmony in the 16th century. In 300 years, this harmony would attract the attention of great composers such as Tchaikovsky, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov and Arensky, but the power of the old chants would remain.

He says Byzantine music is a fusion of ancient Greek elements and Eastern influences. There are eight modes, or tones, each with its own scale, particular rhythm and intensity of expression that help enhance the power of the words of the scriptures. Tones two and six, which employ quarter notes, have an especially plaintive sound. During Holy Week, which leads up to Easter, all eight tones are used to express joy, sorrow, despondency, betrayal and the moments of agony for Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and his death on the cross. The seventh mode is used in the darkness of Holy Saturday night, with a bright contrast when the exuberant first mode is used to greet the Resurrection, and the sixth mode when the hymn Christ is Risen resounds in the church. But the chants of the Orthodox churches, especially at this time of year, are memorable for their austere beauty. They also speak of an ageless form of musical art, its origins preserved for many centuries by purely oral transmission by one lot of singers to another. More

Posted by acapnews at April 8, 2004 10:19 AM


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