Church music in the Orthodox Christian Church has been a vital component of worship in the divine services since the foundation of Christianity, following in the traditions established during Old Testament times. The music and styles of today are of composite origin, drawing on the artistic and technical developments of the classical age, on Jewish music, and inspired by the monophonic vocal music that evolved in the early Christian cities of Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, and Europe. Orthodox services are sung nearly in their entirety.
The music of the Orthodox Church offers a resplendent beautification of our worship that has built upon generations of tradition and solidified it as a near necessity in our liturgical dialogue. The premise of that dialogue is a call and response between the clergy and the people that began soon after the Resurrection of Christ and has melodically progressed through centuries of internal innovation.
The history of what is now commonly referred to as ‘Byzantine music’ began shortly following the Crucifixion of Christ. Gathering in secret due to persecution, the earliest Christians took musical influence from the Jewish, Syrian, Roman, Palestinian, and Greek traditions. Most of these influences were based on their geographical locations. Through the conquests of Alexander the Great, a few hundred years earlier, the Hellenic tradition of music was widespread throughout the Middle East. The first hymns were not new creations but were known as ‘paraphrases,’ or a set of new text added to an existing melody and were all sung monophonically. The early Christians endured persecution, and in this they held close their traditions including a simplistic form of their hymns. This later changed after three hundred years when both the epicenter of Constantinople was established and Christianity was designated as the state religion.
The fourth to seventh centuries are referred to as the transitional period of Byzantine music and the solidification of the Church of Christ. The Ecumenical Councils formulated solutions that define Church doctrine to this day. New hymns were developed to satisfy various and additional needs within the services. The call and response between the clergy and congregation lasted until this time with no distinction between the people and a designated voice, such as a choir or a cantor. The worshipers attending the service would act as the ‘response’ part of the dialogue, returning the petitions of the priest or deacon. Later in the century a slight departure occurs from, the lack of leading voices, due to the addition of new hymns. As the people could not all be expected to learn and memorize these new arrivals, churches appointed choristers to lead the congregation with gestures and signals. This was a more disorganized and earlier version of the modern-day choir, with what would now be considered the conductor or director acting in the formal role as appointed chorister. New melodies were commissioned by the Fathers of the Church specifically to priests in the fifth century, incorporating both new libretto and for the first time, new melodies. This was when many new hymns came about in formats that are utilized in every service to this day, such as the kontakia and troparia.
The core of Christian hymnography concentrated in Constantinople between the eighth and eleventh centuries, and during this time monasteries became the centers of musical innovation. Particularly Saint Ioannis of Damascus was integral in introducing a more melodic standard of execution of music. He composed and created various hymns and methods. Particular emphasis was placed on internalizing the musical innovation and progress of Christian hymnography. The desire to stay isolated from outside musical influence had been steadfast since the beginning of Christianity, but was particularly strong during this time. The fourteenth century drew an end to the Old Byzantine history of Orthodox music. With this solid basis, it offered a crucial foundation and ushered in the next phases of music in the Church. The Middle Byzantine era of hymnal music lasts from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century. It early on featured the continued elaboration and progression of the hymnography and notation, particularly by Ioannis Koukouzelis. The New Byzantine part began in 1821 and is defined by the masterful renovations to Byzantine notation, by Bishop Chrysanthos of Madtya. His style simplified and more importantly, standardized Byzantine music for the entire Church.
The New Byzantine part continues to this day with the involvement of new composers and directors implementing their calling to this ancient and beautiful artform. Geography still plays a major factor in the methods and traditions used in these innovations, specifically in North America where primarily choral music has largely been integrated into services and even utilized in extra-church performances for the general public.
The distinguished choir of Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Madison follows the stunning traditions of our Father hymnographers and utilizes both traditional and modern compositions from composers throughout the Americas and the Orthodox faith. We adhere to the Divine Liturgy setting composed in the 1960s (in primarily S.A.T.B. format) by our premiere choir director, Michael B. Petrovich.
The current director of the choir of Assumption of Madison is the decorated George Tzougros, serving since 1982. The assistant choir director is Nicholas Helser, the Church’s Protopsaltis (head chanter) is Leonidas Fafalios. And our entire crew of psaltis (chanters) include Benny Akkawi, Saed Akkawi, Michelle Bayouth, John Soloninka and Nicholas Helser.