By Phoenix F
The inside of the palatial church is crowded. I have can scarcely move without brushing against another person. My candle is held close to my chest, its little flickering flame illuminating the bulletin I collected when I walked in. Although my knowledge of Modern Greek is negligible at best, I know what is happening in the service as soon as I hear the first chant. It is Great and Holy Friday: the most solemn service of the Greek Orthodox Church year. We are holding a vigil at the tomb of Christ. The chanters begin the first verse of the Lamentations, and I join in the chant—with the same tune I have sung every year since I was a child.
The Greek Orthodox, whether in Greece or abroad, find their ethnic identity through the traditions of the Church. Among these are traditions of the specific architecture of the church buildings, their icons and the imagery they present, as well as the wearing of crosses and the wrapping of prayer ropes around their wrists. One of the most unique and unifying elements of the Greek Orthodox Church is its music. Members know by heart the tunes of the eight ‘tones’ – the basic chants the Church cycles through every eight weeks. They know them in the same way that all Christians know the Lord’s Prayer and can recite it anywhere without effort. The eight tones of Greek Orthodox music are a common liturgical “language” through which Orthodox Christians express their devotion in worship no matter where they are. They share the tones not only with members of their local churches but also with other Greek Orthodox Christians in almost every Greek Orthodox service across the world.
This phenomenon in Greek Orthodox music can easily be approached from a functionalist perspective. The liturgical church year cycles through multiple feast days which mark different seasons of the year: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and so forth. Within these seasons are also smaller feasts which celebrate individual saints. Each feast day has its own hymnology—its own approved liturgical text which is read and sung on the occasion—and each of these texts are set to the tunes of the familiar eight tones . So, instead of having a hymn book filled with hundreds of hymns as the Protestants do, the Orthodox simply apply one of the eight chants to the different liturgical feast day texts. This way, not only can the choir and chanters sing new text with relative ease, so can the members of the congregation who have heard these tunes all their lives. The tones meet a need for a simply way to set hundreds of texts to song.
The eight chants server a bigger purpose than limiting the musical repertoire. In fact, an interpretive anthropologist would find a wealth of symbolic meaning within the music. The Byzantine chants are simple tunes, created so they are easy to apply to a text and also so they are easy for everyone to remember.
Byzantine chants of text were performed first and foremost because of the church’s deeply held belief that if a text is read aloud, the reader may impose his own interpretation of the text in the inflection he lends to the words and sentences as he reads them aloud. This is avoided when the text is set to the tunes of the eight chants. The familiar cadences of the chant ensure that all readers read the text objectively, without personal inflection.
The chants also create a sense of unity for the Greek Orthodox which I little understood until I set foot in Greece myself. I was a foreigner, traveling alone in a country where I often understood little or none of what the people around me said, but these familiar chants were soothing to me. Being able to sing along with the music gave me a sense of unity with the people singing around me in the church. In America, in Greece, and in all other countries where the Greek Orthodox Church stands, Byzantine chants are the common worship language unifying the Greek Orthodox world: a language we all speak and understand.