PSALTIKON is a vocal ensemble whose mission includes the preservation and dissemination of the musical heritage of Greece, through original scholarship, performance, and recordings. Psaltikon refers to the medieval chant book for soloists which contained the most virtuosic chants from the now-extinct Asmatic Rite of Constantinople.
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BYZANTINE CHANT NOTATION The first manuscripts containing melodic chant notation date to the ninth century, around the same time we find notated manuscripts of Gregorian chant in regions such as Gaul and Rome. These early notations (referred to as “Palaeobyzantine”) were primarily mnemonic in character, the specific neume groups describing ascending and descending movement and stereotyped phrases, but without precision in the description of the intervals (adiastematic). The family of Palaeobyzantine notations eventually gave way to a fully diastematic notation around the middle of the twelfth century, which, while now specifying intervallic distance, still retained its relative or digital character, unlike the system of Gregorian chant which began to develop along the co-ordinate system. In other words, Western diastematic notation indicated pitch by means of heightening its neumes on a staff of 2, 3, or 4 lines, whereas diastematic Byzantine notation – called “Middle Byzantine Notation” – consisted of neumes which indicated the intervallic distance from the note immediately preceding. Although Byzantine notation developed the ability to describe melodies with this degree of precision, the notation offered incomplete information around various other details of performance. There were apparently a set of well entrenched performance conventions which singers in Byzantium learned orally and from which performance details related to rhythm, ornamentation, tuning, and expression were derived. Performance was also regulated by means other than the notated score. For example, Byzantine treatises refer to cheironomy, literally “hand-law”, which was a type of “gestic notation” (Troelsgård) by which the choir directors would elicit responses from singers by utilizing signs and gestures created especially with the fingers. This tradition, witnessed to in theoretical treatises as well as iconographic depictions in churches of Late Byzantium and its periphery, was a fundamental component of melody making in Byzantium but evidently fell out of practice as the choirs of the imperial chapel and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople were disbanded. Another practice that seemingly helped regulate performance by aiding the memory of singers was referred to as kanonarchema, in which a singer would stand in the middle of the church and recite the texts out loud to the choir before they were sung. This evidence has led Christian Troelsgård to describe the function of notated manuscripts of Byzantine chant as “neither primarily descriptive, denoting a pre-existent performance, nor prescriptive, as if the notation was used to direct the actual performance” (after Seeger 1958), but rather, paradigmatic, providing a framework and examples for performance, all within the acceptable bounds of conventions of the time. That manuscripts were manuals for reference and teaching is further supported by the fact that no two notated chant books are the same, the books themselves were very small and seemingly impractical for use in performance, and the first several dozen folios of many of these manuscripts very commonly contained didactic material (e.g., definitions of the neumes, entire treatises). Starting especially in the fourteenth century, however, new hymns would appear in the manuscripts alongside the traditional repertories. These hymns, more than ever before, resembled compositions in the more modern sense of the word and as the use of the notation became more prescriptive, composers began to assert their authority by signing their names, naming their compositions, and innovating in areas that had previously been stable for as long as the sources attest. According to Kenneth Levy, during this period of development, “the notated manuscripts seem to have achieved another status, closer to modern concepts of using musical notation.”
SPYRIDON ANTONOPOULOS is the Founder and Director of PSALTIKON. He is Honorary Research Fellow at City, University of London, where he obtained his PhD in Musicology in 2015, completing a thesis on the fifteenth-century Constantinopolitan composer and theorist Manuel Chrysaphes. A graduate of Brown University (Music and Classics) and the New England Conservatory (Vocal Performance), he is a regular member of Cappella Romana, with whom he has sung in concerts and festivals across Europe and the US. A student of the late Edward Zambara (NEC) and Robert Dean (Guildhall), he has appeared as tenor soloist in operas and recitals of classical music, in addition to performing with a variety of world music ensembles, in the US and the UK. He has spoken at dozens of international academic conferences and is currently a singer on Stanford’s Icons of Sound project as well as a singer and researcher for UCLA/USC’s Bodies and Spirits: Soundscapes of Medieval Byzantium. These multidisciplinary projects focus on the interplay of sound, space, and liturgy in late medieval churches.