Monday, March 21, 2016

On Athonite singing

(Pemptousia) - Once, when I was talking to an Elder who’d been on the Holy Mountain for many years (more than twice the number I had), he mentioned the following in the course of conversation: ‘the late Father E… would always sing this doxastiko [a special hymn, sung between ‘Glory…’ and ‘Now and forever’] in the way Iakovos set it’. Since anybody who’s interested in Byzantine music knows how difficult it is to execute the settings of Iakovos the Protopsaltis (fl. ca. 1760-†1800), I was astonished and asked if Father E… knew music. The Elder seemed a little embarrassed, as if he hadn’t expected the question. He was quiet for a second or two, then said, ‘The Athonite kind’.

What he meant was that he knew more or less the settings that were normally sung on the Holy Mountain. And, he continued, in an effort to explain more clearly what he’d said and also to provide an answer to my question (where the Father had learned and knew how to sing the Iakovos setting): ‘That’s how they learned. Each one with the others’.

This little exchange encapsulates the way Byzantine music was learned and cultivated on the Holy Mountain fifty years ago and earlier. This was a time when contact with the external world was very limited and, for some monks, virtually non-existent. Most monks then came to the Holy Mountain at a very early age, and therefore hadn’t been able to study music and hardly had much knowledge beyond Elementary School, far less Secondary. The number of pilgrims who came was much fewer, and contact with singers and music teachers outside Athos would have been quite infrequent. In any case, the difficulties involved in getting to Athos didn’t allow for any consorting or interaction between the two musical worlds.

I came to Athos in 1993 to live as a monk, without any particular experiences from earlier pilgrimages. I was fortunate to meet the last elderly monks in the area around my monastery, and they had the characteristics I’ve just described. They had full, rich voices, thunderous, but very sweet at the same time. Their musical knowledge was absolutely specific. What they knew, and what they were used to, they sang probably better than anyone. If they saw something for the first time, they couldn’t even make a start. The chances of correcting them in what they were singing were nil.

The way they’d heard it was the way they sang it, to the end of their lives. But this was the beauty of the katholiko [the main church of the monastery]. Everybody expected to sing some musical piece with the particular timbre of their voice, and this lent a different atmosphere to the katholiko. No sooner had they started than the younger singers would look at each other and smile.

I don’t know that there was any systematic teaching. There may have been some preliminary lessons, and then the music school would have been the singing itself. Continuous singing of the repertoire would have helped the newer monks to learn, like apprentices under instruction. They didn’t much look at music in books; they’d committed some parts to memory and if, occasionally, they lost their way in the setting, they’d supply it from the closest one they remembered. Everyone had a right to take part, even those who didn’t have much of a voice or had learned from practice. You see, the services are so long and so frequent that the good singers can’t sing all the time, because they’d soon exhaust themselves.

So, in this way, quite a large part of the burden on the Holy Mountain is borne by singers who take the ‘supporting roles’. Of course, a large part is also undertaken by the abbots, and the elders, who sing the ‘pieces of the elders’. So we see that large parts of the services, particularly those that are the same, are sung by people who aren’t musicians and who, without realizing it, also contribute in their own way to the musical expression of the Holy Mountain...
Complete article here.

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