The Emotive Universe of Sacred Music in Late Byzantium

Fourteenth-century Byzantium saw the convergence of Eastern Christianity’s mystical tradition of contemplative monasticism—Palamite Hesychasm—and the apogee of melismatic liturgical music—John Koukouzeles. How did the sacred ritual of the Late Byzantine all-night vigil unveil the emotive universe of Christianity during what Sir Steven Runciman called the last Byzantine renaissance? The historical context of kalophonic chant and Hesychasm during the fourteenth century was that of an empire on the brink of collapse and destruction. History had betrayed the Byzantines. The Fourth Crusade severely weakened Constantinople, ushered in a period of decline, and ended its reign as a political and economic superpower. With the body of the empire so humbled and the Byzantine ideal of a kingdom embodying heaven on earth shattered, feelings of disillusionment prevailed and the quest for a lost unity began.

Melismatic chant represented the final frontier of the Byzantine liturgical world and its affective mystagogy. Far from espousing a disembodied form of prayer and song, Gregory Palamas and John Koukouzeles presented Hesychasm and kalophonic chant as a participation of body and soul in divine life, cultivated through asceticism and liturgical life. Hesychasm presupposed mystical devotion to serenity—a journey of purification, illumination and deification—that entailed more than just an ever-expanding interiority. Rather than being a radical departure from Christian tradition, Palamas’ portrayal of Hesychasm was a perpetuation and renewal of Christian mysticism and holiness. It was a personal articulation of a living tradition that was scattered across the spiral of history and included the mystical experience of the first-created humans, the divine participation of a life of holiness and the eschaton.

The hesychasts’ ultimate concern was imageless prayer and wordless contemplation of the uncreated light, but their spiritual vision entailed a transformation of the whole human person. Palamas argued that a hesychast “seeks to circumscribe the incorporeal in his body” and cited the luminous face of Stephen the first martyr as an example:

Such are the realities or mysterious energies brought about in the bodies of those who during their entire life have devoutly embraced holy hesychasm.[1]  

The “transformation of our human nature” bestowed “a divine power on the eyes of the apostles” that enabled them and all who embrace Hesychasm to behold the uncreated light.[2] Palamas portrayed the hesychast experience and the paradisal bliss of Adam and Eve as identical. Of course, it was Palamas’ insistence on the deification of the body and his belief in a vision of the uncreated light that provoked Barlaam of Calabria. Barlaam denounced the hesychasts’ claim they could “see the divine essence with the eyes of their body” and sparked the hesychast controversy. 

Gregory Palamas had visited Mount Athos around 1316 and learnt from a hesychast monk at Vatopedi before moving to the Great Lavra. It was there that he probably came across a monk known as John Koukouzeles who famously instigated a Byzantine renaissance in liturgical music. However, this was not a new form of art that radically departed from the Christian tradition of the first millennium. It renewed the tradition of Christian art by looking upon it not with the gaze of nostalgia but through the prism of the eschaton. Koukouzeles’ reform of the agrypnia is apparent in the musical anthologies known as akolouthiai. These anthologies became the catalyst for a new repertory of music: kalophonic chant, which renewed the psalmody and hymnody of the past. The musical artistry of kalophonic chant was marked by its florid style, dramatic vocal leaps, melismatic creativity, and even wordless vocalisation known as a kratema or teretism. Of course, the old syllabic repertories were not done away with; they were juxtaposed with new compositions in the ritual of the agrypnia. The Late Byzantine agrypnia was a combination of Stoudite hymnography, the ceremony of Constantinople’s cathedral rite and kalophonic chant. It typically began on Saturday evening with vespers and culminated in the liturgy on Sunday morning. 

Psalm 103 is the hymn of cosmic praise that inaugurates every liturgical day and enacts the biblical narrative of Genesis: “There was evening and there was morning, the first day.”[3] Vespers takes us to that first evening when God opened the first-humans’ eyes to see the beauty and the glory of the temple in which they would dwell. The performance of Psalm 103 on Mount Athos in the fourteenth century can be reimagined from the settings of Koukouzeles transmitted in various manuscripts. Koukouzeles’ compositions of the final verses of this psalm, what we know today as anoixantaria, were creative for his time, exhibiting significantly expanded vocal ranges, ornate melisma and elaborate doxa tropes, which acted as a kind of refrain for the faithful. His settings were a watershed in Byzantine chant, overshadowing the traditional settings of the past, and paving the way for various new compositions in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They also disrupted the balance between word and melody. In Koukouzeles’ settings, music embodied the act of creation to a greater degree than the words of Psalm 103.

One could compare this composition to C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew where the “melismatic jubilus” of the Christ-like Aslan gives birth to Narnia.[4] The gullies, the hills and the trees become the material manifestation of immaterial song. The transfiguration of music brings forth the created world. In the tale of Narnia, as the Lion moves over the face of the land and sings, the stars his voice fashioned respond with their own song. Similarly, the refrains for the final verses of Psalm 103 invited the faithful to be part of the act of creation and to feel the love of Christ who created the world in an act of freedom. 

Koukouzeles intensified this emotion by changing and expanding the somewhat traditional refrains for the final verses of Psalm 103—“Glory to you, O God”—by means of tropes. He added new settings to the repertory, played with text of the simple refrain through the repetition of its elements and introduced a bolder melodic range, changing the refrain to such a degree that it even overpowered the Psalm text both in length and import. It sought to remind the faithful that the church in which they stood represented the entire created world and beyond. In the act of thanksgiving and glorification, the new song that was interwoven with the ancient hymn of cosmic praise, the believer was invited to become herself, to dwell once again in the bliss of Eden through the liturgical world that sacred ritual evoked and become once again a priest of creation. 


This blog post is an excerpt from a chapter by Dr Andrew Mellas in a forthcoming publication by the International Society for Orthodox Church Music, Liturgy and Music (Joensuu: ISOCM, 2019).


[1] Triads II.2.12. 
[2] Triads III.1.15. 
[3] Genesis 1:5.
[4] Conomos, “C. S. Lewis and Church Music,” in Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth: Studies in Honour of Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, ed. Andreas Andreopoulos and Graham Speake (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2016), 231. Of course, it was Augustine who famously wrote about jubilation: “Sing in jubilation. For this is to sing well to God, to sing in jubilation. What is it to sing in jubilation? To be unable to express in words what is sung in the heart [...] For God is ineffable whom you cannot speak. And if you cannot speak him, yet ought not to be silent, what remains but that you jubilate; so that the heart rejoices without words and the great expanse of joy has not the limits of syllables?” In Psalmum 32.

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