The Greek Institute’s “A Byzantine Christmas” under the leadership of Spyridon Antonopoulos in Cambridge’s First Church on Monday evening consisted of two parts: a first half of liturgical pieces from the 14th through the 18th centuries (the subject of Antonopoulos’s doctoral dissertation) with a few settings from the 20th century, before the evening turned to folk music of Greece, and introduced instruments from the Greek Islands.
Many in the audience were of Greek heritage and seemed to be familiar with the musical traditions of the Byzantine Church. As an interloper, I found it interesting to compare conceptions of melody and harmony between these works and the traditional western music with which I am more familiar. The schism between the Western and Eastern Churches is more than 1,000-years-old—older, in fact, than the foundations of counterpoint, and harmony which developed alongside the Roman Catholic Church, and was later so fundamental everything Westerners hear today. Whereas the tradition founded in the Catholic Church focuses on verticality and the development harmonic rules governing the interaction of melodies as they pile up on each other, the tradition of the Orthodox Church—indeed, even the folk songs performed on Monday evening—focuses emphasizes horizontality: melodic lines are developed along complex modal systems and intricate ornamentation virtually absent in Western music.
Set entirely for male chorus, most of the works consisted of a single melodic line, sung by a small number of psaltes, supported over a drone sung by a larger group of isokrats, seemed unvaried, at least initially, but the progression through the program from medieval melodies to composers of the 17th and 18th centuries (Petros Bereketes and Peter the Peloponnesian) through to 20th-century settings of texts and realization of the melodies by Thrasyvoulos Stanitsas and Constantine Priggos showed the remarkable increase in sophistication in the development of the melodic line; especially in the scales used in the melodies and the harmonic shifts that are present in the liturgy.
The later folk carols (kalanda) from the Greek Islands, introduced traditional instruments to accompany the voices. Much like the interplay between folk/popular music and liturgical music in the Western church, there is obvious interchange in the relationship between folk and liturgical music here too. Again, there was the interplay between the psaltes and isokrats, but with the added color of traditional instruments: violin, oud (a rounded lute-like predecessor to the guitar), and touberleki (a hand drum) played fundamental roles throughout these carols, although a few of works widened the sonic palette with Thracian and Pontiai lyres, the riq (a tambourine) and daouli (a double-handed drum).
First Church’s vaulted nave and golden apse provided a comfortable resonance to the rich male choir at the center of the evening’s music. Spyridon Antonopoulos not only led the ensemble, but also performed numerous solo passages throughout the evening with a robust, yet sincere tone. Grammenos Karanos also contributed with significant solo work: his lyric, flexible sound providing a nice contrast to the mahogany timbre of the drone. Calliope Dourou read evocative passages from Photis Kontogou’s Church Hymns and Alexandros Papadiamantis’s At Christ’s Church, At the Castle. Significant work from instrumentalists came from Beth Bahia Cohen (violin and Tracian Lyra), Mal Marsamian (clarinet and oud), and Haralmampos Hamos on percussion (tuberleki, and riq, George Alexandridis and Nick Apazidis (both playing the Pontiaki lyra) and Kostas Apazidis (daouli). The audience participated in two Pan-Hellenic carols for the Christmas and the New Year, offering a happy wish for the holiday season for audience members of Greek heritage and interlopers, alike.