Quick review of the four stages that took place in the evolution of Byzantine Notation inside the Greek Orthodox Church. The passages are extracted from the Great Theory of Music By Chrysanthos of Madytos, Translated by Katy G. Romanou Thesis, Faculty of Music, Indiana University, September 1973

General Characteristics

The general characteristics of the Greek church music are that it is monophonic and absolutely vocal. There exist no instrumental compositions or instrumental accompaniment of the voices. The relation of the text to the music was so close that the artists of the fifth to eleventh century – the period most productive in original works were all composers as well as poets of the hymns. The productivity of those early hymnographers was so abundant that towards the middle of the eleventh century there were enough chants for the liturgies of the entire year. The liturgy was codified and there was no place for new hymns to be written. This did not diminish the productivity of the hymnographers; it limited it to musical composition only. The music of the codified liturgy was repeatedly elaborated with several forms of variation and especially with melodic embellishments of varied length, with the result that gradually a highly florid style developed.

The Four Stages

The four stages of the Byzantine musical notation are:

9th-12th century Early Byzantine notation

The vagueness of Early Byzantine notation

There are many syllables of the text which bear no musical signs over them. To explain this fact a theory was forwarded that the notation at this stage was operating as an aid to the memory of the chanters. It is believed that the signs were symbolizing the contour of short melodic lines with which the chanters were familiar through oral tradition.

12th-15th century Middle Byzantine notation

The example in Plate IV, is from a manuscript of the second stage, we remark that the writing of neumes is here much denser. Some syllables bear two or three neumes over them, while others are prolonged.

15th-19th century Late Byzantine notation

19th-20th century Post Byzantine notation (Chrysanthean)

The Reformation of 1814

If in spite of the great need for a musical system, all previous attempts to achieve a reform had failed it was because they all adhered to either of two extremely contrasted lines: one was a complete break with tradition, while, the other displayed the traditional complexity and lack of clarity The Three Teachers secured the success of the New Method by following a middle line. They endowed their system both with the simplicity, clarity and economy which permitted musical printing (see Plate VI) and with the adherence to tradition – no matter whether substantial or just formal – that permitted the adoption of the Method by the conservative Patriarchate. Contrary to their teachers, Chrysanthos and his collaborators had absorbed many elements of European notation and contrary to Hieronymos and especially to Agapios, they disguised those elements in Greek clothing.

The innovation with regard to the quantitative neumes in the New Method was their reduction from fifteen to ten. In connection with the qualitative neumes the reformers were more radical. Their system makes use of eleven among the forty Great Signs of the Old Method. It cannot be positively said how many and which among the Great Signs have changed their original meaning and whether the change was imposed by the Three Teachers or by earlier musicians. It is certain though that they subdivided the qualitative neumes, distinguishing them into rhythmic and expressive as is done in European notation.

Another disguised Western element, the application of which had most positive results in the success of the system and in music education, is the monosyllable sol-fa system that replaced the unhandy and fruitless solmization with the polysyllables of the intonation formulae. The disguised adoption of the Guidonian system was done by adding one vowel or consonant to the first eight letters of the Greek alphabet (pA, Bou, Ga, Di, kE, Zo, nE). A plainly formal change should also be mentioned, i.e., the substitution of all Turkish musical terms largely used at the time – by Greek words.