Chant but not as we know it!

A report on the Third CGMS Day of Chant by Helen Nattrass

A grey Saturday morning in January and our group gathered for the Byzantine Chant Day. Our teacher was Dr. Alexander Lingas, one of the leading Academics studying the music of the Eastern Christian Church. We began with a talk illustrating the antiquity of chant in the eastern Mediterranean, the links between Gregorian Chant and Byzantine Chant and the gradual divergence of the traditions.

Alexander showed that both Gregorian Chant and Eastern Chant were historic musical forms with a living tradition today. They both employ eight musical modes, which are named differently but work in the same way. The more recent divergences between them have been augmented by the insistence of the Roman Catholic Church on using an approved edition of Gregorian Chant whereas the Eastern Church relies much more on master-pupil teaching and the aural tradition; a wider variation in liturgical music performance is acceptable. Dr Lingas said that it is often possible to recognise a Cantor’s teacher by the decoration of the melody at cadences.

Then came the moment to begin the singing.  We had 40 pages of music to tackle! Our first discovery was that Eastern Chant goes in strict rhythm, completely unlike Gregorian Chant. The most difficult thing to accommodate was a flexible idea about tuning. The fundamental note never changes, but you can subtly sharpen or flatten any other note in the scale to add ‘spice’ to the line and text. We then discovered that some of the markings in our music indicated ‘drone-notes’ so while some of us continued singing the melody the rest of us sang the drone notes and… wow! Suddenly we were singing Byzantine Chant!

After lunch we heard another talk about the oldest traditions and sources of Eastern Chant, the traditions of Constantinople and Jerusalem, old liturgies of Hagia Sophia with their processions and the diverse modern sources for the music. Alexander said at times he needs to consult documents in old Armenian and Georgian, amongst others, where the original texts have been lost and only survived in translation! We continued with the singing and got through the whole lot before relocating to St. Mildred’s Church for a final run-through. Our great triumph was actually reading and singing the whole Orthodox Saturday Evening Vespers from start to finish. We had a great deal of help from Alexander keeping us right and singing the Cantor’s parts, but we did it! Our day ended with a group of us sharing a convivial Meze meal in Manoli’s Taverna.

All in all it was a day of the utmost interest led by a man of great learning, but who also had the practical skills to teach us and ultimately lead our good-intentioned, but amateur, rendition of the Vespers.

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