Trinity College

History and Practice of Orthodox Liturgical Music

Course Code: 
Last Offered: 
Winter/Spring 2019
Next Offered: 
Winter/Spring 2022

In the Epistle to the Ephesians (5.19) St Paul tells the followers of Christ to speak to themselves in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” From the time of the early church, liturgy was seen as uniting human beings with the heavenly worship of the angelic choirs as expressed in Isaiah (6.1-4) and Ezekiel (3.12). Indeed, according to Exodus (25), the pattern for the earthly worship of Israel was derived from heaven. This view continues in the writings of the early Fathers, such as Clement of Rome, Justin, Ignatius of Antioch Athenagoras of Athens and Dionysios the Areopagite. It receives acknowledgment later in the liturgical treatises of Nicolas Kavasilas and Symeon of Thessaloniki.

In this course, we will explore the music of the Orthodox Church from both thematic and historical perspectives. Byzantine music is the mediaeval sacred chant of Christian churches following the Eastern Orthodox rite. This tradition, principally encompassing the Greek-speaking world, developed in Byzantium from the establishment of its capital, Constantinople, in 330 until its conquest in 1453. It is undeniably of composite origin, drawing on the artistic and technical productions of the classical age as well as on Jewish music, and inspired by the plainsong that evolved in the early Christian cities of Alexandria, Antioch, and Ephesus.

Supported by listening to many chosen musical pieces, the course will pay particular attention to several broad themes such as the development of the contemporary Orthodox Church music and the relationship between Byzantine chant and the polyphonic music used widely in the Orthodox Church today. Those two types of church music have fundamental differences such as construction of the musical scales and notation systems, as well as in the composition of melodies and the relationship of music to the text of liturgy. Throughout the course, these differences will be illustrated using computer music technology such as modern DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) like Cubase and others.

The contemporary application of Byzantine chant will be explored, including composing music in ancient chant tradition for English liturgical translations and representing chants on a five-line staff. The course will also consider the liturgical purpose and performance of Orthodox Church music and its impact on celebrants and worshippers, in the light of Orthodox liturgical theology and asceticism.

Please note that there are no prerequisites for this course and knowledge of music theory is not required.

Students with musical skills may take advantage of the opportunity to work on a creative project (eg a new musical composition in English based on ancient chant) in place of a final research essay.