NEW YORK — On the feast of the Transfiguration in 1994, then-seminarian Elias Rafaj made the journey to visit the monastic village of Ormylia in Greece, home to the largest women’s monastery in the Orthodox world. He entered into the nearly pitch-black church for Great Vespers, greeted by the strong perfume of incense and the pinpoints of light from a few lit candles.
Then, a hundred robust voices resounded between the stones of the sanctuary amid the darkness as the monastic women prayed in Byzantine chants nearly as old as Christianity itself.
“The building vibrated from the intensity of the chant,” recalled Father Elias, today a priest of the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Church.
“It was probably one of the most overwhelming experiences that I had liturgically,” he said, “and it was that chant that made it all the more intense.”
Now, Byzantine chant has been recognized by a United Nations body as part of the “intangible heritage of humanity.”
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) committee met in December and decided to recognize Byzantine chant, “a living art that has existed for more than 2,000 years,” as one of 42 traditions and practices that are part of the world’s intangible treasures.
The announcement from UNESCO noted this solely vocal form of music preserved in the Greek Orthodox Church (and shared by other Catholic and Orthodox Churches of the Byzantine tradition) is “inextricably linked with spiritual life and religious worship,” where “every aspect of the tradition serves to spread the sacred message.”
Byzantine chant is an integral part of the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches that developed from Greek-speaking Christians in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, such as the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church or the Antiochian Orthodox Church. Other Eastern Churches that sprang from the Church of Constantinople, like the Ruthenian and Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Churches, have Slavonic chants that owe a great debt to Byzantine chant.
“This traditional chant is the ancestor of our chanting tradition,” Father Elias explained, saying it was translated into Slavonic and further developed by Slavic Christians.
But Byzantine chant is held in esteem by all Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches from the Byzantine tradition.
“The chant mimics in a way the unique sound of the angels singing,” he said. The chant has a different purpose than popular music, which is to “help us focus more on the presence of God.” The priest said that, when done well, Byzantine chant sounds “otherworldly.”
University of Notre Dame professor Peter Jeffery, one of the world’s leading experts on Byzantine chant, told the Register that intangible heritages in themselves “are very fragile.” As crafts, practices and artistic traditions that depend on human transmission, they can otherwise be “very easily changed or forgotten.”
Professor Jeffery explained that UNESCO’s recognition draws people’s attention to the tradition, encouraging them to find out about it, but also provides a boost to those trying to preserve or share the tradition. This is important in approaching governments and foundations for assistance.
“You can go to them and say, ‘This is a recognized tradition. UNESCO has recognized this as part of the world’s cultural heritage.’”
Byzantine chant, Jeffery explained, emerged from multiple liturgical centers: first Jerusalem, then Antioch, then Constantinople, and later in places like Mount Athos in Greece.
“In the very early times, there were distinctly different traditions in these different places,” he said. “But by the year 1000 or so, they had largely merged into a common repertoire.”
Byzantine chant in principle, he said, is “monophonic, which means it’s basically melody without harmony, although, for centuries, the custom has been to add a drone.”
The drone note, or “ison” is a low, slow-moving vocal part that provides a steady foundation to support the chant melody without harmonization. Father Elias explained that to the chant participant the drone gives “an ethereal buzz” to the prayer.
Byzantine chant also comes in eight church modes, similar to the much later Gregorian chant.
The chants keep one’s mind “occupied with totally scriptural texts,” Jeffery explained, adding that the chants that originate in congregational singing also “set the emotional mood for the feast.”
“In Lent they’re very penitential, and in Easter they’re very joyful,” he said.
As to the origins of Byzantine chant, Jeffery said that while the Psalms certainly came from the Jewish temple, the chants likely originated elsewhere.
“We don’t have melodies from the Jewish temple,” he said. “The theory of ancient Greek music was used to teach the Byzantine tradition. And so they were sort of adapted to each other.”
Byzantine chant’s melodies were not written down until the 10th century, so, for approximately 900 years, the chants were an “oral tradition” handed down from one generation to another.
By the 10th century, he said, Byzantine chants were liturgically organized and notation had developed to indicate the melody.
Jeffery said the most famous chanted hymn in the Byzantine rite is likely Christos Anesti (“Christ Is Risen”), which is sung daily from Easter to Pentecost. Translated into English, the hymn declares, “Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling down death, and bestowing life upon those in the tombs.”
Lifeblood of the Faith
Father Hezekias Carnazzo, a Melkite Catholic priest and executive director of the Institute of Catholic Culture, told the Register that Byzantine chant is the “lifeblood” of the Melkite Church, which originated in Jerusalem and Antioch, and the other Eastern Christian Churches that developed in the Greek-speaking Roman Empire and is critical to their transmission of the faith.
“Byzantine chant is more than just singing, or just a song or a hymn,” he said. “It’s the way that we speak in the Church or the way that we communicate with God.”
Father Hezekias said Byzantine chant is the “foundation of our catechesis” in Byzantine churches, where the liturgy is the primary place for learning the faith.
In the Byzantine tradition, Father Hezekias explained, the eight chant modes are “a constant reminder that we live in the eternal day of the Resurrection.” He explained that the “heart and soul” of Byzantine theology is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day, and Christ “put to death the old Adam” with his crucifixion on the sixth day, Friday. His body rested in the tomb on the seventh day, and Christ rose on the eighth day.
“The eight tones are patterns by which everything is said,” he added.
Notably in Byzantine chant, Father Hezekias said, no instruments are used. While the Western Church came to accept instruments, he said, because Eastern Christians had long memories of the gladiatorial games where the drums and pipe organ accompanied the slaughter of Christians for public entertainment, they avoided the use of instruments in their liturgical celebrations.
Aside from historical considerations, Father Hezekias said the belief in the Resurrection is another theological reason to only have voices in Byzantine chant. Instruments are made from dead things, he said, and “once Jesus rises from the dead only the living human voice is acceptable in giving worship to the living God.”
Eastern Christians in the West have to guard against the pressure to neglect Byzantine chant or perceive it as just the equivalent of popular hymnody, he said.
Frequent participation in the chant, he said, “engenders in the soul a Christian way of life” and makes chant hymns second nature to believers.
“It just becomes the normal way we speak,” he said, pointing out that his own children on road trips will be “signing the hymns of the Church.”
Father Elias, who is now pastor of St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church in Houston, which also hosts a Melkite Catholic community comprised in part from families that left Syria, said he found UNESCO’s decision “very important.” It comes at a time when Christian communities in the Middle East, where this chant had its beginnings, face an existential threat.
“It’s almost a reminder to those of us who live in the West, who are so far removed from this tragedy of the loss of Christian presence in the Middle East, that we really should become more aware of the history of Christianity,” he said. “We should support those churches in their presence there and require the leaders of these countries to protect the Christian minorities still living where these traditions began.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.