A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography

By Egon Wellesz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VIII
THE POETICAL FORMS: (I) TROPARION AND
KONTAKION

I. TROPARION

THE rise of the Byzantine Church from an episcopal see to a dominating position in the East under Justinian and, finally, to independence from Rome, was reflected in the ever-increasing activity of Byzantine hymn-writers. Taking their models from the Churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria, they gradually built up a characteristically Byzantine style by introducing successively, in addition to the mass of originally monostrophic hymns, the two great poetic forms characteristic of Eastern piety: Kontakion and Kanon. Before we discuss these genres of liturgical poetry, which first attracted the interest of students in Eastern liturgy and ecclesiastical poetry, we must speak about the Troparia:1 from the aesthetic point of view, these hymns are as important as the longer forms which developed later; from the musical point of view they are of even greater importance, because their texture is richer than that of the melodies which are sung to the stanzas of the Kanons.

The name Troparion (ττοπάριον) was given to short prayers which, in the earliest stage of hymnography, were written in poetic prose and inserted after each verse of a psalm. In the fifth century, when the Troparia were composed in strophic form and became longer, these poetical prayers were sung only after the three to six last verses of a psalm. Hymns of this kind are known to have formed part of Matins and Vespers in churches and monasteries of the fifth century. In this period the liturgy consisted of psalms, of the nine Odes or Cantica, of certain formulae dating back to the earliest times of Christianity, and of the Troparia, added by contemporary hymnodists. This usage, however, did not apply to monastic congregations living in seclusion, such as those of monasteries in the desert. Monks of this strict rule, anchorites and hermits, rejected, as we know from reports which have come down to us, every kind of singing.

____________________
1
See the article τροπάριον in L. Clugnet Dictionnaire grec-français des noms liturgiques ( 1895), pp. 153-5.

-171-

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