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Bringing Byzantium to Light: a Conversation with Alexander Lingas of Cappella Romana

October 15, 2010

A full length interview with the leader of Cappella Romana. If you are like me and adore Byzantine liturgical music, these guys are undoubtedly some of the best around. Pity is they don’t come to Europe often enough!

By Steven E. Ritter   

First published in Fanfare Magazine on Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Alexander Lingas

Greek-American musicologist and conductor Alexander Lingas is definitely a man with a mission. The founder and director of Cappella Romana, a Portland-based vocal ensemble that specializes in liturgical Byzantine music, he is one of the modern-day pioneers in shedding new light on an important and viable music that is flourishing today all over the world in Orthodox churches. Part of the success of their 12 CD releases is undoubtedly the choice to present a great deal of it in the English language, thereby rendering a formerly incomprehensible liturgical art form much more understandable to Westerners. I spoke with him via telephone at his home in Great Britain just a few miles from Oxford.

Q: You were a composition major at Portland State University some years ago. Did you have any idea at the time that your interests would evolve as they have, and what were the seeds of this interest in Orthodox liturgical music?

A: Well actually Orthodox liturgical music was part of my way into music at the beginning. I had entered the university as a physics major, and that didn’t work out and I started going in other directions. I had been very involved in the Orthodox Church as an altar server and reader, and at the time I started at university I began to get into the musical side of things as well. So that, combined with a longstanding musical interest that I hadn’t really touched much in high school, all kind of went in one direction. What I wrote for my composition graduate thesis was a setting of Great Vespers, so there was some overlap there.

Q: So it wasn’t like you were deep into the Second Viennese School or anything like that while you were in college?

A: No, no, I was interested in it and became interested in a lot of things. I was among the first generation to have access to recordings and starting to have enough performances around me of Western music of the Baroque and before, and I was also able to immerse myself in that. A local choir in Portland, a Catholic liturgical choir called Cantores in Ecclesia that is still going strong, puts on an annual William Byrd festival, so I had a chance to be exposed to quite a number of such things.

Cappella Romana

Q: Now Cappella Romana was founded in 1991, correct? The name itself is interesting—I suspect most readers seeing this for the first time would maybe think that it is some sort of early-music ensemble specializing in Gregorian chant or something similar. But to the Byzantines the very idea of being called “Byzantine” would have startled them. Did they not consider themselves “Romans”?

A: They did indeed. That was the standard term for themselves, and even in colloquial Greek up to the present day it’s customary in certain parts of the world in certain regions to speak of themselves as Romaioi. It is modern nationalism that has brought in the term “Hellene,” which in Antiquity was primarily a linguistic moniker, but came to mean “paganism” for a long period of time. It simply was a fact that it was often interpreted this way until the advent of modern Neo-Hellenism, under the influence of Western European Enlightenment and nationalist thought, and the term achieved a full rehabilitation with the creation of the modern Kingdom of Greece.

Q: So with this vision of the Roman world including Eastern and Western empires, and even the Slavs to the north, how does the name Cappella Romana tie into the repertoire of the ensemble, and why—at least what seems to me—the predominant focus so far on the Byzantine tradition of liturgical chant?

A: Well, I think in the very beginning we had a rather ecumenical vision in the original sense of the inhabited Roman world. My own interests were spearheaded by my encounter with the living traditions of Orthodox music but also with the early traditions of the West and some of the modern descendents, modern composers of the last century or so who actively drew upon those traditions, a line of composers like Anton Bruckner through people like Duruflé and going onward. So I’m cognizant from the Orthodox side in my Orthodox Christian hat, and being strongly aware of being an Orthodox Christian in the West, of the church’s wider inheritance. Actually, there is a difference between what we have done for our locally produced Pacific Northwest season and what we have put on record. For the former we have done things from time to time like the Vespers of the Ascension as it would have been done at San Marco in 1640 for example-its been a number of years since we did that-and we have done the Machaut Mass, and even on more recent programs we have done Hildegard of Bingen, and Epiphany and New Year’s Day in New and Old Rome with Byzantine and Old Roman chant. So it’s just that what we tend to offer on recordings goes beyond the full range of stuff that we do locally because obviously there are other people who are recording some of those repertoires.

Q: Let’s talk briefly about Russian music as well because I know that you have delved into that. Probably most readers are at least familiar with the Russian conversion story—how St. Vladimir sent emissaries to Constantinople, the German Latins, Bulgarian Muslims, and spoke with Jewish envoys as well, yet ultimately decided on the Orthodox faith because of its beauty of worship. Now music has always played an immense role in Orthodox worship, and there is an ongoing debate as to what kind of music initially inspired the Russian church, as today’s Russian and Byzantine music seem so far removed from one another. Can you comment on this at all?

A: Well I think that among the scholarly community there is less of a debate. You can study the early manuscripts of Russian chant—there are five particularly that have survived—and copies of liturgical books, some of them with notation, show a clear debt to the Byzantine chant of the time. And also the singing of the Old Believers, some of the most conservative singing within the Slavic tradition today, also reflects various types of commonality. I know that during the Soviet period—and the idea had come up before, but especially pushed during this period—that Russian church music grew immediately very strongly from the folk music, marching out with the official state ideology at that period. But I don’t think there is much of a doubt that what one finds is after a certain point parallel development occurs—because of the vagaries of history the two cultures become isolated from one another—but there are also continuing periods of mutual influence. We see a wave of influence on Russian church music in the 14th and 15th centuries with new developments going on in Byzantium musically and also liturgically, and those liturgical developments especially with the monastic forms of the Hesychast monks propagated to Russia. There are records of chant in Russian and Ukrainian that clearly were adopted in the 17th and 18th centuries from various Greek traditions. And vice-versa; when the new Greek state got going, when the modern Kingdom of Greece was founded first from its Bavarian and then Danish monarchs, the second queen of Greece was Queen Olga from Russia, and what did she bring along but a four-part men and boy’s choir to perform in the royal palace a whole repertoire of Russian-style Greek music from the Greek court at the end of the 19th century! So the doorways are more permeable than you would think.

Q: Let’s expand on this a little bit. Earlier you talked about some of the first recordings of the Cappella, the more “ecumenical” nature of some of the music you were bringing in. The Byzantine ethos specifically has focused on the idea of creating a worship environment where the congregant is led quietly in prayer and contemplation, to allow one to achieve a balance in one’s passions, discarding those things that get in the way of communion with God. In your opinion is there any sort of common ethos among all the various Christian chants, whether Byzantine or Gregorian, modern Russian choral music and Palestrina? Or how do you determine when a piece of liturgical music crosses some sort of line?

A: That is a question I have to approach from a couple of angles. Certainly from the ancient chant historical tradition going across the Mediterranean for which we have some kind of notation, Byzantine chant, Old Roman chant, Gregorian, Milanese/Ambrosian, what’s left of Gallican and Mozarabic, there we can see a common inheritance of late antiquity, coming out of a world where the ideas about what one should do musically in church were shaped by what one scholar has called the “psalmodic movement” the preference of psalm singing in the various Christian churches in the fourth century. And given the high degree of overlap in musical style that the same type of pieces tend to get used in the same places, for example, a cherubic hymn versus an offertorium, so there I think you do find a lot of functional/structural equivalents even if the details of individual texts that are being sung may differ according to a local rite.

As far as what goes later on, history moves on in some ways, adaptation and acculturation and various forces; my experience has been, as someone who attends these services across the Orthodox tradition, is that each tradition ends up finding its own balance somehow. Sometimes things that might be taken for granted in one tradition might be thought of as highly disturbing if transplanted into another tradition. I have had that experience myself when trying to adapt my styles of reading and chanting when I have been in Russian versus Greek churches.

All of our conceptions of these things have been shaped by modern movements of various sorts. In the 19th century you have all of these restoration movements that run parallel across traditions. You have the discovery of Bach and Schütz among the German Protestants, you have the rediscovery of Palestrina and Gregorian chant among the Roman Catholics, which culminates in the raising of those two idioms to be kind of an official music of the Catholic church briefly, and with the restoration of Medieval melodies and the invention of a new performing style, the Gregorian chant. And in Russia similar things happening, people like the Moscow Synodal School and Smolensky, so I would speak of origins and liturgical functions on the one hand, and in more recent times various ways that those have been adapted to particular cultural circumstances.

Q: Let’s move on to your most recent CD, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom as composed by Peter Michaelides. What exactly is the importance of this particular liturgy that has been recently unearthed (written in the 1960s) in the life of the Orthodox churches?

A: I think its importance, and it has a historical importance as well, is as an early setting almost completely in English (and a couple of little bits in Greek and Arabic); it really was a pioneering work in that respect. It also is a work that went very much against the grain of the types of things that were going on in the Greek Archdiocese of America at the time. Even though Peter Michaelides was familiar with what was going on, he grew up in that environment, and he knew and was a schoolmate of some of the Greek-American composers of the Orthodox Church who became active writing for the church. So as opposed to his friend Frank Desby whom he knew in Los Angeles, who had been influenced by the music of the Renaissance as it was interpreted at that time, Michaelides wrote in a style much more austere than that which his contemporaries were using. It was more conscientiously related to contemporary styles of composition, not that far off from what you would find in Stravinsky’s Orthodox works. So it has a historical significance, setting off on a different path, and a different approach in praying the liturgy in English and one that I think is very fitting in its own way.

Q: The liturgy by Michaelides is what I would call eclectic in many ways, at least in a liturgical context—you have almost pristine Byzantine-type music along with harmonized chant and even some pieces that sound completely divorced from the strict chant tradition. In the 1960s there was a lot of this type of experimentation going on; are these efforts accepted today as legitimate expressions of Byzantine chant or are they considered passé today and of historical interest only?

A: No, I would say, in answer to your second point, what are the parameters of acculturation with the Byzantine tradition is one that is very active and debated. There is a huge spectrum of opinion and practice from people who try to reproduce with every microtone the authoritative chanters of Greece and Istanbul, on the one hand, to people who have in some sense taken over the Athenian urban choral tradition in the United States in the first couple of decades of the 20th century that proceeded on its own basis, whether something simpler and closer to its original form, the form that it was put in by the teacher and cantor John Sakellarides, or in some of these very large-scale arrangements, some of which have independent organ parts and various other things. So I think that it is very relevant in that it offers a different approach to the question. And I think I find it perhaps less eclectic than you do, because there is a definite arch to the piece in that it begins and ends with chant, and that there is a gradual enrichment of the harmonic vocabulary and at the same time there is a clear tonal and thematic plan as well. The anaphora, for example, exists in its own plane that has its references to chant here and there, but it resolves at the end of the Eucharistic prayer on a plane that—one of my singers pointed this out—is kind of an arpeggiated liturgy with a single chord that one finds in, say, Stravinsky. So it’s not that you don’t run into a number of different things like the Cherubic Hymn toward the beginning of the liturgy, but there is a clear overall tonal plan, and plan in the way that different spirals and textures are clarified as well as keys.

Q: It has been suggested that compositions like the Michaelides liturgy can serve as a crossroads for people in the West to become more acquainted with this Byzantine liturgical heritage, which is often considered astringent and difficult for Westerners to comprehend. Would you agree that this more Westernized approach can serve as a stepping stone to the greater body of Byzantine music, or should these types of works be appreciated solely for what they offer and bring to the liturgical table on their own?

A: Our chant programs are actually our most popular concerts, so I don’t think that audiences exposed to a wide range of ‘World Music’ need a stepping stone. Nevertheless, that is how I came to the chant. I grew up in a fairly Westernized Greek-American parish. We did have a cantor but he was not the “main thing” in the parish according to community consensus, and emphasis was placed on the institution of the choir, the organ, and so on. So I think the music should be appreciated on its own, and that the tradition has not been a static one by any means; the Cappella has specialized in Medieval repertoire that has not been heard in 500 years or more in many cases, and what we sing in church today has been by and large edited into its present form at the end of the 18th century, and with some compositions of much more recent vintage. People didn’t start composing settings of the anaphora - with the exception of the inherited one from St. Basil’s liturgy-until the mid 19th century, and it didn’t become common until the 20th because the practice of composing certain portions was condemned by the Ecumenical Patriarch in the late 1800s. So in addition to being accepted on its own I think it part of our process of cultural adaptation that we have seen throughout the Orthodox world. Everything has to be tested over time and through the mind ( phronema ) of the church and compatibility with the overall tradition. But this setting of the liturgy is beautiful and good on its own.

Q: Those of us who love the Byzantine liturgical heritage see it as every bit the equal of the more famous (in the West) tradition of Gregorian, Ambrosian, and Sarum chants. Is there a missionary aspect to the work of Cappella Romana in trying to bring this very rich heritage to light, especially with recordings that are in English?

A: I would say yes primarily in terms of exposing people, to give them access to music that they would not otherwise encounter. It’s one of the reasons that I kept the ensemble going, especially in the early years, that all of these things that I have run into in my scholarly career or found on some recording of some limited release thing that I brought back from Eastern Europe before the fall of communism (some things were just changing at that point) are important. So I do think we have a missionary role in terms of again, making it available, and letting people “taste and see” as it were.

Q: Some of your other recordings indicate a willingness to explore the more varied offshoots of the tradition, like Ivan Moody’s Akathistos Hymn , which certainly draws on the composer’s Anglican roots as well as his current Orthodox status, or the organ-accompanied music of Tikey Zes, organs in Orthodox music also rather controversial in many quarters. What direction do you foresee Orthodox music in general taking in the future? Will we hear the complexities of a work like Frank Martin’s Double Mass for instance in an Orthodox context, or is there a general “back-to-basics” movement going on?

A: I’d say that on the whole a back-to-basics movement is probably the strongest single stream. But again, how that is actually interpreted and plays out could be a very complicated way. People oftentimes are making adaptations without knowing they are making adaptations. They may be taking things that they hear and think are really Byzantine, which is one of the reasons for a worldwide “hit,” the Agni Parthene by the Simonopetra monks. I bought one liturgical music book from the Russian diocese and it happened to have three versions in two different Slavonic metrical translations and the original Greek. So while I think that this is something that is very difficult to see where it will end up, and as far as the United States goes a lot of it will have to do with investment, to be honest, because the Byzantine tradition, to keep it up properly, to do what the service books ask you to do, it is a complicated art tradition. It is one that requires you to pull off full services, all-night vigils, and these types of things; it requires very well-trained singers. So in many cases what you have are places where people do what they say is Byzantine chant, but if you were to play this for an audience of Greek cantors, for example, they would say “Where are the ornaments?” or “How can you sing this scale instead of the tuning which was decreed by the 1881 Patriarchal commission?” So it’s often a question of what’s practical and pastoral on the one hand and what people may maintain is an ideal perhaps even without their knowledge that they are diverging from it.

Q: What are the current recording plans for Cappella Romana, or any future projects you would like to try?

A: We have several things already in the hopper, a recording of Medieval Byzantine transcripts that are kept at St. Catherine’s on Mt. Sinai, excerpts from her vigil as it would have been celebrated in the 15th century, and the liturgical drama, or what we would simply call in Greek the “service” of the Furnace, the three children in the fiery furnace. So that’s one thing, the next disc to come out. We have a recording of a piece by a contemporary composer, Robert Kyr, for three string instruments and eight solo voices that was inspired by the Patriarch of Constantinople’s environmental initiatives that includes excerpts from the Orthodox service of the environment, an English translation as well as some Biblical and other texts. Beyond that I think one of the things that we will do is to continue to work on the Medieval Byzantine tradition because there is an ocean of music out there, folio after folio, works by medieval composers that have not been sung for centuries—we could keep going with that repertoire I think, as much of it as possible, dedicated to particular composers, whether later or earlier, like the nun Cassia. We are continuing on our East/West explorations and have been digging into the Medieval Cypriot repertoire, the music of the Frankish overlords from this one manuscript that other groups have recorded from that is kept in Torino today. And also we explore the Byzantine composers of the island; we have done that in concert performances but we have yet to record that. And also music of the Cretan Renaissance, where you have a similar situation where the Venetians were ruling Crete until the second half of the 17th century and also the flourishing tradition of Byzantine composition. And of course we continue to champion the works of modern Greek composers as well.

Listen to some of Cappella Romana’s music:

Related article:

The Byzantine music of Cappella Romana

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. LauraDAL permalink
    October 15, 2010 12:29 pm

    Hi Tom, another great piece towards “Making Byzantium live for people today”.
    There could even be a section on this Blog related to Byzantine music. It could represent a way of introducing people to this form of Byzantine art expression. Little by little ’cause, let’s face it, may not result appealing to everybody.
    The one I’m more familiar with is The Glory of Byzantium CD, by Lycourgos Angelopoulos & Divna Ljubojevic. Beautiful!

  2. proverbs6to10 permalink*
    October 15, 2010 12:42 pm

    Laura, thanks for that. There is already a Music Category – https://mybyzantine.wordpress.com/category/music/ . Especially for you here is a clip from the The Glory of Byzantium CD. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CfbtJt5y_HE . Enjoy!

  3. LauraDAL permalink
    October 15, 2010 2:21 pm

    Sorry! I swear I chequed and didn’t find it. Thanks a lot!

  4. January 4, 2011 7:56 pm

    Yes, one is so grateful for Cappella Romana. I first heard of them – and literally heard them – when they sang as part of the program of events attached to the big Glories of Byzantium exhibit (I think that’s what it was called)at the Metropolitan Museum in New York some years ago. I also remember the shock of my first hearing chant in a Greek church – as compared to the Slavonic music of my own Ukrainian Orthodox Church – when I lived in Nafplion for several winters in the 1980s. I was bewildered and disappointed, not being able to hum along, as it were. So listening to the CDs of CR has been a real aural education.

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