Early Christian and Byzantine Music: History and Performance

by Dr Dimitri Conomos

I would like to divide this rather general presentation into two distinct, though interrelated, parts. The first is essentially historical: an overview, without too many details, of the information we have about early Christian and Byzantine music-making and its performance. The second is more reflective and subjective. It has to do with today’s legacy and the understanding of music in worship through the lens of Orthodox spirituality.

I. Historical sketch

Now for the first millennium of Christianity, we have no direct information about sacred melody. There are no musical manuscripts; there was no need of a notation since the tunes were the property of all the believers and were well known. On the basis of indirect evidence, I suggest that the origins of early Christian chant lie partly in the music of Jewish domestic ritual celebrations (there was no music in the liturgy of the early Synagogue and in the Temple music was only used to accompany the ritual of sacrifice) and partly in Syriac musical practices, both of which shared in the cultural milieu of the Hellenistic Orient.

One may well ask: Why were the liturgical texts sung at all? The answer to this question is not unique to the Christian Church. Nearly all religions have built their services around the communal repetition of sacred texts — not silent repetition, but sounded repetition, through which the holy words could be heard, mouthed and absorbed by all. And for such “sounded repetition”, singing has seemed more natural than speaking. Apart from the tediousness and sheer ugliness of communal speaking, the rhythm of song — even when it is a comparatively free rhythm — keeps everyone together and allows for audibility. And the melody of song helps people to remember the words.

It was, in fact, the monastic population that produced the first and finest hymnographers and musicians — Romanos the Melodist, John Damascene, Andrew of Crete, and Theodore the Studite. And it was the monastic population that also produced the inventors of a sophisticated musical notation which enabled scribes to preserve, in hand-written codices, the elegant musical practices of the medieval East. There was, of course, some early monastic opposition to music. But this does not mean that the monks did not chant. Their rejection was of worldly music, musical exhibitionism and the singing of non-scriptural refrains and chants.

Broadly speaking, however, there is a conspicuous indifference to Church music in the literature from Byzantium before about the year 1000. After all, there was very little to remark upon. In those days, no one went to Church with the idea of hearing a good choir or of listening to so-and-so’s latest musical setting of the psalms and canticles. Rather the faithful knew that they themselves would be involved in some sort of musical activity — and this was singing of a kind that, naturally enough, was relatively uncomplicated, simple to learn, easy to follow, straight-forward, and direct. There were no special effects and definitely no attempts were made to have the music evoke a particular kind of atmosphere or theatricality.

Now do we know how medieval Byzantine music may have sounded? A careful juggling of fact, inference, and conjecture can certainly point us in the right direction to answering this question. Already we have come to realise that Byzantine music adhered to the early Christian tradition of being a purely sung, or vocal, music, without instruments and having a style that consisted of melody alone, without accompaniment. This monophonic music is frequently called plainchant and it has no fixed rhythm. There were no notes to record it until after the 9th century. St Isidore of Seville in the 7th century lamented the fact that the sounds of music vanished and there was no way of writing them down. Only towards the end of the first millennium was it felt that the singers’ fragile memories were not adequately conserving the sacred melodies that something was done to fix the plainchants in writing. An elementary notation was devised, using little strokes, curves and dots called neumes to produce a rough graph of the ups and downs of the melody. The early neumes did not show specific notes, thus they could not teach an unknown melody to a singer who had never heard it before. But they could remind a singer who already knew a melody of how it went. By the 12th century the neumes evolved to a point where they represented specific notes and even directed the manner of singing.

The introduction of neume notation in the 9th century had both positive and negative effects for plainchant. On the positive side, it meant that an authoritative version of a plainchant melody could be transmitted, without alteration or deterioration, to other singers in distant places that were unfamiliar with the tradition. On the negative side, it meant that plainchant melodies had in effect become fixed once and for all. What do I mean by this?

During the first nine centuries of Christianity, the Byzantine musical tradition of plainchant managed to keep alive a certain improvisatory fervour that was also manifest in the spontaneity of prayers and rituals in the early Christian liturgy. Now, with some strokes of a 9th-century pen, the plainchant melodies were caught in a rigid stylisation. They became as if embalmed and their stylistic profiles conformed to 9th-century and eventually, later, tastes. The old chants that originated as “sung prayers” were henceforth crystallised “art-objects”. Yet once the neume notation was available to Byzantine Church musicians, it was impossible to ignore its capabilities. And soon the notation became a force for artistic experiment, since it gave composers a way to try out new musical ideas, letting them ponder their novelties and circulate them for others to examine and compare.

Thus, with a supply of graphic devices both to enshrine the ancient melodies and to record new compositions, the Byzantine musician embraces the art of composing. To begin with, this art meant something a little different from what it does today. It was not just a matter of thinking up fresh and novel sound combinations and putting personal inspiration on display. Certainly the sacred texts were given a musical dress that was designed to enhance their expression. But this was accomplished largely without injecting the human creative personality.

Most early Byzantine composers were content to practise their craft anonymously in the service of the Church. Their names are unknown, and in their musical techniques a similar impersonality prevails. The early chants tend to be built out of little twists and turns of melody that everyone had heard and used for generations. The word composing actually means putting things together, and that was essentially what the Byzantine composers did. They arranged, adjusted and stylised from a fund of age-old melodic bits and phrases that were active in the communal memory. Therefore, when a “new” melody was created, it was often not entirely fresh and original. More frequently it was a refinement of some existing strains. It is for this reason I said earlier that impersonality prevails not only in anonymity but also in musical techniques.

Actually, a fairly recent instance of this same ancient procedure may be observed in a new Greek service that was “put together” (“com-posed”) in the early 1980s on Mt Athos in honour of America’s first Orthodox saint, Herman of Alaska. St Herman was among the humble Russian monks who arrived in Alaska in 1794, and since his death in 1837 he has been venerated by the Aleuts, among whom he preached the Gospel and among whom he died. He was officially canonised in the USA in 1970, and since then his cult has spread worldwide. The Athonite monk who composed this remarkably beautiful new service did precisely what his medieval counterparts would have done — he selected, as models, pre-existing hymnody of other saints whose lives and labours resembled those of St Herman — namely, a monastic vocation, a missionary zeal equal to that of the apostles, an ascetic struggler, a paradigm of humility and virtue, a worker of miracles. The composer then skilfully re-arranged and modified the melodies so that they would fit the new text which he himself had written.

The Church Music of Ancient Rus

Did St Cyril and St Methodius transmit not only Greek liturgical texts to the Slavs, but also the melodies that went with them? We can never be absolutely certain — Slavonic music books from ninth century simply do not exist — but in general the circumstantial evidence would seem to support such a conclusion. The new Christian culture of the early Slavs was largely an imitation of the social, political and religious structures in Byzantium. Architecture, iconography, liturgy, ceremonial, and imperial institutions had their prototypes in the Greek East. Surely, one could argue, the same would apply to music.

Secondly, if we look at the Slavonic hymn texts, we see immediately that they are almost always word for word translations of the Greek. And where the Greek tradition arranges the hymns in a particular order and in a particular mode,1 the Slavonic tradition normally follows suit. Furthermore, philologists like Roman Jakobson have brought to light remarkable examples that demonstrate how, at times, the Slavonic translators were indeed successful in reproducing, approximating, or imitating the syllabicism — occasionally even the accentuation — of the Greek originals. To preserve the Greek meter in the Slavonic translations creates ideal conditions for adapting the early Greek melodies virtually unchanged. Otherwise, what possible motivation could there have been for this slavish imitation?

Finally, there are the music manuscripts themselves. If we can demonstrate that the Slavs used the same notation as the Greeks, there can be little doubt that they used the same melodies. Nineteenth-century Russian music scholars were aware of the existence of marked parallels between Greek and Slavonic musical usages. In the first decade of this century, Anton Preobrazhenskii found evidence which he believed proved the Byzantine origin of Old Russian notation, and his findings have been confirmed by subsequent scholarship.

However, in spite of all of this impressive evidence, I am not entirely convinced. For it is one thing to contend that, by virtue of their arrangement and graphic resemblance, the neumes used by the first Orthodox Slavs were adopted from the early Byzantine notational systems, and quite another to deduce that those same Slavs sang Byzantine hymn tunes. I think the possibility exists that the ancient Russian chants may have constituted an independent musical response to the liturgical translations from Byzantium. Let me explain why I say this. In the earliest Russian chant books, the Kondakaria of the 12th and 13th centuries, there is preserved a unique repertory of kontakia. In textual and liturgical respects they are very close to the Greek. The modes agree and the system of neumes is definitely borrowed from the Byzantine host tradition. But the music of these Slavonic kontakia is totally unrelated to the earliest known Greek examples. Are these melodies independent Slavonic creations or are they recensions of lost Byzantine exemplars?

Even in repertories where the evidence of actual musical borrowing is much more apparent — such as in the Koinonika (Communion chants) — the medieval Russian musicians often adapt the Byzantine melodies to the translated texts in idiosyncratic ways. In Russian hands, the Byzantine neumes behave in ways quite unfamiliar from Byzantium. And one neume, the stopitsa, is an entirely original invention.

For example, it is normal for Greek composers to give musical importance to the accented syllables in a text. But often the Russian arranger, working with the same melody on a text with equivalent accents to the Greek, chooses an apparently irregular alternative. He gives musical attention intentionally it would seem to unaccented syllables. Such curiosities in these chants have raised important questions for the philologist interested in the fundamental problems of accentuation in Old Church Slavonic. For the musicologist it gives evidence of a new approach, a refinement, or a mannerism unique to the Russian musical genius.

The Performance of Byzantine Chant

Let us now turn to actual performance practice. When speaking of medieval Byzantine chant, one must be reminded first, that not everything that was sung was written down in notes and secondly, not everything that was written in notes was sung as written. To begin with, musical notation was simply a device, a graphic tool, invented to preserve a melody that was relatively new, relatively complex, and relatively difficult to sing from memory. Familiar items were not recorded but left to communal memory and to oral tradition. Furthermore, sacred chants, whether from the Latin West or the Greek East, were never meant to be rigidly or mechanically duplicated at each performance. A chanter’s approach to the music could be compared with that of a jazz musician’s approach to a vocal or instrumental line. In both cases, improvisation was the hallmark of the style. In both cases the skill and experience of the performer affected the musical rendition. The inscribing of a chant melody in a manuscript was, in the first instance, one man’s application at one moment of a musical gloss on a traditional melody.

The Desert and the City

Byzantine liturgical music did not come about in a cultural vacuum. It has its origins in the desert and in the city: in the primitive psalmody of the early Egyptian and Palestinian desert communities that arose in the 4th to 6th centuries, and in urban centres with their cathedral liturgies full of music and ceremonial. It is this mixed musical tradition that we have inherited today — a mixture of the desert and the city. In both traditions — that of the desert and that of the city — the Old Testament Book of Psalms (the Psalter) first regulated the musical flow of the services. It was the manner in which this book was used that identified whether a service followed the monastic or the secular urban pattern.

In the desert monasteries psalms were sung by a soloist who intoned the verses slowly and in a loud voice. The monks were seated on the ground or on small stools because they were weakened by fasts and other austerities. They listened and meditated in their hearts on the words which they heard. The monks gave little thought to precisely which psalms were being used — they were little concerned, for example, with choosing texts that made specific reference to the time of the day; that is, psalms appropriate to the morning or ones appropriate to the evening. Since the primary purpose of the monastic services was meditation, the psalms were sung in a meditative way and in numerical order. The desert monastic office as a whole was marked by its lack of ceremony.

But in the secular cathedrals the psalms were not rendered in numerical order; rather, they consisted of appropriate psalms that were selected for their specific reference to the hour of the day or for their subject matter which suited the spirit of the occasion for the service. The urban services also included meaningful ceremonies such as the lighting of the lamps and the offering of incense. Moreover, a great deal of emphasis was placed on active congregational participation. The psalms were not sung by a soloist totally alone but in a responsorial or antiphonal manner in which congregational groups sang a refrain after the psalm verses. The idea was to have everyone involved in an effort of common celebration: there was no place here for individual contemplation.

II. Liturgical Music and Orthodox Spirituality

Is there a message for today in all of this? How applicable is the musical aesthetic of the medieval East to the current liturgical and ecclesiastical circumstances of the twenty-first century?

Whichever style we choose to adopt — monophonic or polyphonic — there are, I believe, three fundamental concepts in Orthodox spirituality that can be made to apply to our Church music:

  1. asceticism
  2. holiness
  3. apatheia, or ‘passionlessness’

1. Asceticism is the call for self-denial, self-dissatisfaction; and the constant yearning for improvement through hard work and energetic application. Throughout the year, but particularly during Great Lent, the Church impresses upon us the great blessings that are ours through increased prayer, prostrations, fasting, and charitable works. The Church singer has a sacred profession, and this sanctity requires a determination of character, a strong faith, great modesty, and a high sense of integrity. To be a Church singer in an Orthodox Church is to respond to a calling, to a vocation — it demands purity, sureness of faith and conviction. How hypocritical it is for singers, who transmit in melody the dogmas of the Church, to feel that they deserve congratulations and gratitude for performing before a captive audience: as if they were doing the congregation a favour. How much worse if those singers felt that they ought to be paid for the job of praising God with their God-given vocal chords — as if the Church were commissioning entertainers.

Here is where the ascetic task of self-denial is clearly applicable — we must convert the familiar image of the liturgical performer-musician to an image of someone who promotes the Christian attribute of self-denial — of putting oneself in the background, of thanking God for the privilege of allowing one to sing in the services. Singers should follow instructions from the director and from the priest in all humility, putting aside any notions of self-gratification, and the imposition of one’s likes and dislikes.

Liturgical art is, at the same time, both discipline and freedom; and to accept this duality is to be an Orthodox churchman in the truest sense of the word. To be an ascetic is to be in the world but not of it — to tame the world in oneself — to be a participant in the Truth.

The best music teachers are those that teach by example — the example of one’s life, the example of one’s attitude in Church. This also involves a participation in the sacramental life of the Church. The teacher must not be shy to point out mistakes, even to reveal another’s insufficiencies. The student must be willing to listen with humility and with a sense of eagerness to learn and to improve.

The ways of the world ought to be alien to the Church artist. We must never sell ourselves; we must not make Church music a career; we must have no ambition. We must not advertise or exhibit ourselves. Such is the asceticism of the Church; and this is what it means to be true to the holiness of our vocation.

2. And what is meant by the holiness of our vocation? “Holiness” is my second basic concept. I firmly believe that today this means freeing Church music from the heavy burden of centuries of decadence and secularism. Holiness means otherness, sacredness, apartness — not the common or the ordinary but the unique, the particular, the uncontaminated.

Musical art has become separated from the teaching of the Church — separated from the liturgy itself – because the understanding of what it means for the world to become transfigured has been lost. The musical transparency revealing the inner light of the Kingdom has been replaced by heavy, human and shimmering sound — musical gloss full of cheap sentimentality.

We must also be warned against a frequent tendency in contemporary Church music for it to be mechanical and imitation for the sake of imitation. Blind copying is incapable of giving life to the hymn or of calling the faithful to prayer.

3. The third concept, that of apatheia or passionlessness, can be applied to two aspects of music: (a) the composition itself; (b) the performance.

Needless to say, musical settings ought not to be seen as ends in themselves. They ought not to call attention to themselves or have special effects. The aim of melody is to add a special dimension to the text — to make it more audible and available for reflection. In this way, music becomes one with the text — a selfless ally of it. In this way, too, music shares in the passionlessness that in Orthodox spirituality is seen as an avenue to purity of mind and body.

This ideal of passionlessness is perhaps most reflected in the best Orthodox iconography — where the saint is painted in colours and shapes that transcend everything that is fleshy, sensuous, and cosmetic.

The most appropriate Christian music is monophonic plainchant. It does not have to be Byzantine chant, or Old Believer, or Old Slavonic or Coptic chant; and ideally it should not be polyphonic. Why do I say this?

Personally, I do not believe that there is anything intrinsically “unorthodox” about polyphonic music. And, of course, there are many kinds of polyphony, just as there are many types of monophony. Singing an ison against a melody is already a polyphonic musical gesture.

My preference for monophony — that is, single-line or horizontal melody — is more practical than it is aesthetic. It’s usually easy to sing, easy to learn, and easy to remember. The chanters can readily match their note to the celebrant’s without worrying whether it’s too high for the sopranos or too low for the basses. This style of music is ideal for congregational singing and one never has to worry about going flat. And the liturgy ceases to be interrupted by the annoying arpeggio humming of the conductor before the beginning of every troparion.

Polyphonic music, on the other hand, is by its very nature more complex, denser, and more difficult. In order for it to be done well — both musically and liturgically — one has to concentrate. The music demands a lot of attention — attention that could better be given elsewhere during a divine service. This is not horizontal but vertical music — it depends on the interplay of consonance and dissonance — that is, musical tension and release — to arouse our senses and to draw our attention to the excellence (or its lack) of the composition.

Nothing in our Church should belong to the realm of fashion — neither the vestments of the clergy, nor the icons, nor the music. Fashion implies style, and style is governed by the principle of built-in obsolescence. What is nice today will not always be nice tomorrow. The Church should never foster mediocrity.

The Church, because She is the Holy Reality of God, must be above current or past trends. In 1913, Alexander Kastalsky wrote: “I should like to have music that could be heard nowhere except in a Church, and which would be as distinct from secular music as Church vestments are from the dress of the laity.”

This does not mean that Church art is fossilised. Music, together with iconography, do and must change since they serve a vital function in a living culture. Sacred music and painting of the 6th century differed markedly from that of the 8th century — and those of the 10th, 12th and 14th century were each different one from the other. Our Divine Liturgy is not that which was arranged by St Basil or St John Chrysostom.

Change and adaptation in Church art are the inevitable and perfectly reasonable by-products of an organic and growing faith. But they must always operate within parameters that do not obscure or invalidate the intention of that art. That is why our icons cannot reasonably be painted in modern abstract designs; nor can the colours, posture or features be the objects of individual fancy. Similarly, sacred music has certain formal principles. It, too, cannot be written in modern, jazz, or folk styles. Neither can it deliberately be the product of personal inspiration.

Monophonic music serves the liturgy perfectly well. Unlike polyphony — the music of fashion in the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods — simple chant melodies can be tailored to follow the text, to amplify its meaning and rhetoric, to give it an appropriate musical dress.

But even monophonic music can be made inappropriate if the singers engage in vocal display with dominating voices, unnecessary exaggerations, poor phrasing and unclear diction. As transmitters of the sacred texts, the vocalists must edify the chant by singing well, singing together, and by praying the hymn.

Some working criteria

1. Liturgical chant must maintain a symbiotic relationship between the music and the text. The text is to be enhanced by the musical element but the music should not have an independent existence from the words. All of the elements of melody: contour, phrasing, rhythm, form, are to reflect the poetic patterns inherent in the text.

2. Where polyphony is the local tradition, the musical texture should be homophonic and homorhythmic, not contrapuntal. That is, everyone should be singing the same words and syllables at the same time in order to preserve intelligibility and avoid confusion. This also preserves the structural symbiosis between word and tone.

Where monophony is the local tradition, the musical texture should avoid extended melismas, extreme ranges, and the intrusion of meaningless syllables that distort the sense of the hymn.

3. With regard to expression, true liturgical singing should be self-effacing and objective. The sacred words must speak for themselves without the intervention of subjective, personal interpretation. Dramatic renditions and theatricality are out of place in the liturgy.

4. Within the limitations articulated above, sacred music nevertheless can use artistic means to differentiate between festal and ferial liturgical occasions, to colour words and to draw contrasts and parallels between cognitive meanings in the texts. In this way music can carry or highlight the theological meaning of the hymns.


1. ‘Mode’ is the term given to each of the eight musical patterns that provided the framework for medieval Church music. They are also commonly known today as ‘tones’.

NOTE: This is a slightly modified version of a lecture originally given at the St Sergius Orthodox Institute, Paris, in 1997. Published on Monachos.net, February 2003.