Sunday, May 17, 2009

Byzantium in Rome



On May 4 I attended a concert of Greek liturgical music in the Sacramento Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. As a young person, I sang here for the Christmas midnight mass, and I remember the cathedral interior as dull and gray. You can see from the photograph that this has all changed. We were curious to see that they have put in a rood screen.

The concert is intended as a celebration of the millennial anniversary of the founding of the Abbey of Grottaferrata in the hills near Rome. Though part of the Roman Catholic Church, the monastery holds its services in the Byzantine Rite. That means that the music is all sung in Greek.

I am doing the best I can to interpret the program notes. Music in the Byzantine tradition was not part of my extensive education. The professor in charge of the group, Alexander Lingas, is currently a lecturer in music at City University in London. The group, Cappella Romana, is said to reside in the Pacific Northwest. This leads me to believe that none of them actually reside at the Abbey of Grottaferrata, but it does say that they have been allowed to perform there. It is necessary to read the fine print very carefully to figure out what is actually going on.

The music is transcribed from neumatic notation according to ancient Byzantine tradition. It doesn't sound at all like Gregorian chant. Of the chant styles that I have studied, it sometimes resembles melismatic organum. There are drones. There are ornaments in an eastern style. There are syllabic hymns. Is this making any sense? It was all quite new to me.

From the things I read it seems there has been an ongoing tradition of interpreting the Byzantine neumes, something that does not exist in the west. The present day performance of Gregorian chant is entirely conjectural and probably grossly oversimplified.

The Cappella Romana is entirely men with no falsettists, resulting in a dark, somber sound. I enjoyed very much the ornamental singing by the soloists. It's pleasing to realize that there are things one knows absolutely nothing about.

1 comment:

Cappella Romana said...

Thank you for coming to the concert on May 4 in Sacramento. We're always happy to hear reactions from people when they first encounter Byzantine music. You are correct than none of us live at Grottaferrata. The monastery was the source of the manuscripts for the program, and we did stay there as guests on tour in 2006 when we were invited to Rome and Sicily to sing the music you heard in Sacramento. I hope we can return to Sacramento before too long!