A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography

By Egon Wellesz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII
ORTHODOX THEOLOGY AND BYZANTINE
HYMNOGRAPHY

I. THE CHARACTER OF BYZANTINE HYMNS

BYZANTINE hymnography extended over a period of six centuries. It began in the second part of the fifth century and came to a close in the eleventh, when the introduction of new hymns into the service was forbidden by the ecclesiastical authorities. The development of Byzantine hymnography is divided into two periods, each of them marked by the introduction into the service of a new poetical form. The first, dating from the middle of the fifth century to the seventh, produced as its main feature the Kontakion; the second, beginning towards the end of the seventh century, is characterized by the almost complete replacement of the Kontakion by the Kanon, a poetical form of greater structural variety and length. In the western sphere of Byzantine authority it was only in Italy, where Nilus the Younger founded the Basilian monastery of Grottaferrata near Rome, that the local school of hymn-writers gave rise to a belated flowering of ecclesiastical poetry, which continued until the twelfth century. This Western school, however, had no influence upon liturgical practice in other parts of the Empire, and the singing of the Basilian hymns was confined to monasteries of the Greek colonies in Italy.

Byzantine hymnography is the poetical expression of Orthodox theology, translated, through music, to the sphere of religious emotion. It mirrors the evolution of the dogmatic ideas and doctrines of the Orthodox Church from the early days of the Eastern Empire to the full splendour of the service at the height of its development. Neither the poetry nor the music, therefore, can be judged independently of each other; verse and voice are intimately linked together. Nor, since they are part of the liturgy, can they be judged according to the aesthetical standards which we are used to apply to works of art which are the expression of individual feeling. The monks who composed the hymns had to bear in mind that their artistic contributions to the service must fit into the place for which they were destined. A great

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