As most of us know, Byzantium was a deeply religious society where the popularity of doctrinal arguments was outweighed only by the fervent support of the citizenry for the games and races in the Hippodrome. Easter was a particularly important feast. Observance of Lenten fasts was so rigid that soldiers even fasted on campaign. Quite how they marched and often fought whilst hungry I don’t know. During one of his campaigns in the East against the Persians, the famous general Belisarius cautioned his soldiers against fighting when they were still under the effect of the fast; they would have none of it and Belisarius had to give in to their desire to attack. The outcome was, as you can probably guess, a bit of a disaster.
Something that is perhaps little known is the wealth of Byzantine liturgical music that has survived. The style of music is perhaps personified by the chant, but later pieces have a closer affinity to Western musical styles that we might associate with the Renaissance. This is no coincidence as contact between East and West increased after the retaking of the City from the Latins. There were many diplomatic missions which coincided with the start of the Renaissance. The realization that they Byzantines had been the custodians of ancient Greek philosophy was of huge interest to families like the Medici’s. At the same time there was a renewed interest in the music of the Empire.
We are fortunate that today much of this music survives and is still performed in Greek Orthodox churches. At this special time of Easter, the music takes on an enhanced spiritualuity. Recently in London’s Greek Orthodox cathedral, Saint Sophia (Divine Wisdom), we were treated to a concert by Capella Romana, a professional vocal chamber ensemble that specializes in Slavic and Byzantine repertories. The performance even included the Christmastide Imperial Acclamation for the Emperor John Palaeologus. You could imagine yourself in the other Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, surrounded by hundreds of worshippers, dressed in their finery in the presence of the Emperor, with the Augusta sitting in her special chair on the first floor balcony, listening to the acclamation:
Christ who crowned you is born, O King
Many years to the Kings
To John the most devout King and Emperor of the Romans, Palaeologus, and Maria the most devout Augusta, many years!
God make your holy kingdom last for many years. Ne for many years.
If you want to listen to this wonderful music you can listen to a sample here or buy the following from Amazon: