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When the male voice sings of God

· Liturgical singing in the Greek Byzantine tradition ·

Liturgical music in the East developed above all from the vocal aspect: in other words it consists in the voices of the cantors, who are usually male, and often of the voices of the whole people which mark the unfolding of the Liturgy itself.

Testimonies of liturgical singing or, if you will, of the sung Liturgy, in the Greek Byzantine tradition are already found in the texts of the Fathers from the fourth century onwards. It suffices to mention the hymnographic compositions of St Ephraim the Syrian (d. 373) with instructions – not notations but in fact rather simple phrases – of a musical kind that are indecipherable today: they are long texts that were sung by everyone or by a cantor to whom the people responded with a refrain.

This central role of the voice in the sung Liturgy has an original character that derives from the Antiochian tradition and is closely connected with the Eastern and Western Syriac traditions. Until the ninth century, especially after the iconoclastic crisis, there was no musical notation.

Celebrated today in many Mediterranean countries, from the Near East to Calabria and to Sicily, the Greek Byzantine Liturgy incorporates the specific traditions of each place but also has common characteristics. There are monodic musical compositions, in other words without musical instruments but with one or more voices, according to the case; they are, however, without polyphony which developed above all in the Liturgies of the Slavonic Byzantine tradition.

Indeed there are no musical instruments; in praising God and in proclaiming the Word the human voice is the only instrument. In short it can be said that the Greek Byzantine tradition makes use of the voice and singing as a way of expressing liturgical prayer.

What is the cantor’s role and above all what is the role of the voice in the Greek Byzantine Liturgy? In the first place, the singing of liturgical texts is structured on the oktoechos, that is, on all the eight different musical tones, linked to the collection of poetic texts planned for a cycle that itself consists of eight weeks. These are compositions that date back to a time extending from the fifth to the ninth centuries, works of poetic theology by anonymous authors or by great hymnographers, such as Romanos the Melodist and John Damascene. These eight musical tones are applied to the various Byzantine liturgical texts throughout the liturgical year.

Secondly, the individual voice has a fundamental role in the recitation and prayer of the Psalms or of verses from the Psalter, a biblical book attributed to David, a king and a prophet, who holds a very important place in the Byzantine tradition, especially in monastic practices. The individual psalms are recited by a lector, with a manner of reading that is often not a simple, private declamation but has a vocal intonation which not only makes it possible to follow the text but also and above all to pray with the psalmist.

Thirdly, therefore, in all Christian Liturgies, from the East to the West, the Gospel is sung by the deacon, to proclaim it through the beauty and strength of song. Yet the value and meaning of the text is never sacrificed to the melody, rather the melody emphasizes the beauty and force of the word of the One whom the Liturgy, with the Book of Psalms (45:2 [44:2]) proclaims as “the fairest of the sons of men”. Further, fourthly, the melodious tones of the voice of the bishop or priest play a crucial role during the prayers throughout the Liturgy and especially in the anaphora, which is also sung based on the above-mentioned eight tones, as well as the voice of the deacon singing the various litanies during the celebration.

Lastly, the melodies for specific texts or those proper to specific days throughout the liturgical year stand out. These are melodies that have often penetrated the souls of the faithful, who sing them and thus truly become concelebrants of the Liturgy, especially of the Liturgy of Holy Week.

One of these special cases is the singing of the Enkomia on the morning of Easter Saturday whose melody has become a patrimony which has entered the hearts of Byzantine believers. It is the funeral elegy for Jesus, formed of 176 strophes divided into three groups, and was composed between the 12th and 14th centuries. The Enkomia is sung in front of Christ’s tomb, set in the centre of the church; the strophes are sung in alternation by two choirs and are sometimes interwoven with the verses of the very long Psalm 119 [118].

The music, the loud and truly lived singing of these strophes make the faithful people become the true celebrants who incarnate the different figures in the poetical composition, assuming their sorrow, their weeping and their joy.

The role of the cantor, in monasteries, in cathedrals and in small country churches is fundamental both for the beauty of his melodious voice and above all for its power in proclaiming the Word and for the celebration of praise to God who is Father, who fully revealed himself in the Son and who sanctifies us in the Holy Spirit.

Manuel Nin




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 21, 2020