The winter holidays are over by January 1st in most parts of the world, but the holiday season stretches out into early January in some Christian traditions. On the occasion of festivals that occurred world-wide on the weekend of January 6th and 7th, there was a concert by Cappella Romana in Portland, Oregon that included Byzantine chants along with more modern works that incorporated musical elements of those chants in a program titled “The Twelve Days of Christmas in the East”. The ensemble also performed this program in Seattle and San Francisco, and two concerts in the greater Minneapolis area.
The Christian East originally celebrated the incarnation of God on January 6th in a single feast known as Epiphany (from the Greek word for “manifestation”) that commemorated both the Nativity and the Baptism of Jesus Christ. By the fifth century, most Christians had come to observe these historical events separately, adopting the celebration of Christmas on December 25th and Epiphany on January 6th. There are twelve days between December 25th and January 6th, thus this period is often referred to as the twelve days of Christmas. For many Orthodox including the Russian Orthodox Church, December 25th now falls on January 7th since they still use the Julian Calendar, 13 days behind the modern Gregorian Calendar.
Byzantine chant is defined as monophonic (unison), liturgical chant of the Greek Orthodox church during the Byzantine Empire (330–1453); in modern Greece the term refers to Greek Orthodox ecclesiastical music of any period. The chants are performed as a single melody without harmony or counterpoint, except for a single drone note (called an “ison”), leaving listeners free to adjust their focus to the effects of the melody as it interacts with the acoustical environment.
Video: Cappella Romana: Prokeimenon for the 1st of January
The Cappella Romana program on January 6th included not just Byzantine-era chants, but works across a wide span of time periods centered around the common theme of the program. For example, there was the Kontakion for Christmas, a prologue for one of the more famous hymns by Romanos the Melodist (6th century), the patron saint of music in the Orthodox East, sung from a medieval source. Also on the program was the Communion Verse for Christmas by Daniel Protopsaltes, who served from 1770 to 1789 as the first cantor of the patriarchal chapel in Constantinople. It was a prime example of post-Byzantine approaches to composition of melodically elaborate chants. An example of a modern work was The Prophecy of Symeon by Ivan Moody, who studied with Sir John Tavener, the well-known composer who incorporated elements derived from Byzantine chant tradition in his music. An impromptu and enchanting encore was added at the end of the program. The Cappella Romana performers sang in Church Slavonic one of the hymns that had been sung earlier in the program to help commemorate the occasion of Russian Orthodox Christmas on the Julian Calendar.
The overall effect of the concert, around the common thread of Byzantine chant style, was to create an uplifting and exalted atmosphere at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, an ideally suited venue for the event. The calming and evocative chants provided a perfect post-script to the festivities during the December holidays as well as uniting the local audience in celebration with others occurring around the world.
For more information on upcoming programs by Cappella Romana, see this link.