Concert Program Notes for “From Constantinople to California” Concert Series – Part One


The Eastern Roman Empire—commonly called “Byzantium” after the ancient name of its capital Constantinople — not only survived the downfall of Rome by a millennium, but also created a musical tradition that remains both alive and influential today. In From Constantinople to California Cappella Romana will follow this tradition from its medieval origins to contemporary Los Angeles.

I – Greeks and Latins in the Eastern Mediterranean

The Crusades transformed the Eastern Mediterranean into a multicultural patchwork of shrinking remnants of the once mighty Byzantine Empire, Western colonies, and Islamic (both Arab and Turkish) states. We begin our concert with chants from the twilight of Byzantium: the Hiercharical Entrance Rite for a Sunday Divine Liturgy (Eucharist) as it might have been celebrated in Justinian’s Great Church of Hagia Sophia during the reign of the last emperor, Constantine XI Paleologos (1449–53). Embedded in this rite are chants recalling bygone days of imperial triumph: Roman acclamations wishing the emperor “many years,” and a hymn of thanksgiving addressed to the Virgin Mary by a personified Constantinople, which proclaims her as the city’s “Champion and Commander.”

Following their capture of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans greatly reduced the number of Western outposts in the Eastern Mediterranean. Of those that remained, the most prosperous was Crete, which developed a flourishing Greek Renaissance culture under Venetian rule. Active on the island during the fifteenth century were the composers Manuel Chrysaphes and Manuel Gazes, both of whom had held the title of “Lampadarios” in the Byzantine imperial chapel. In addition to being skilled in the florid kalophonic (“beautiful sounding”) style of chant pioneered by St. John Koukouzeles, Chrysaphes and Gazes were evidently intrigued by simple, usually improvised, forms of polyphony practiced by their Western colleagues.

Gazes composed several two-part works notated in parallel lines of Byzantine musical signs (neumes), among which is a prologue to the Passion hymn “Already the Pen.” In Duke University (Kenneth Willis Clark) 45, a manuscript copied by Gazes’ Cretan pupil Angelos Gregoriou, Gazes’ prologue appears alongside two other works performed this evening: the standard medieval melody of “Already the Pen” and the vernacular lament “Standing by the Cross.” Written in fifteen-syllable verse, this song in demotic Greek presents the Virgin Mary lamenting the crucifixion of her Son in words often echoing those of Byzantine liturgical texts.

Himself the author of a handful of two-voice works, the prolific Cretan composer, theorist and scribe John Plousiadenos (1429?–1500) went much further than Gazes in his embrace of the Latin West, actively promoting union between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches as a cleric (he eventually became uniate Bishop of Methone in the Peloponnese) and hymnographer. The Kontakion for St. Thomas Aquinas is part of complete festal office that Plousiadenos composed to honor the scholastic theologian.

Franghiskos Leontaritis (ca. 1518–ca. 1572), the son of a Greek mother and an Italian father, was one of a small number of Cretans known to have immersed themselves fully in the musical culture of the Latin Church. Ordained a Roman Catholic priest on the island, he worked as an organist for some years at the cathedral of St. Titus in Heraklion. In 1544 Leontaritis moved to Venice in order to sing at San Marco under Adrian Willaert, later on relocating to Munich to work under Orlande de Lassus. Leontaritis composed a significant body of polyphonic sacred and secular works, including the five-voice motet Ad dominum cum tribularer, a setting of Psalm 119 (120).

Musical manuscripts and literary sources provide incomplete data about polyphonic singing in Byzantine services on Renaissance Crete, but its echoes may perhaps be discerned in the manuscript Jerusalem Greek Patriarchate 578, an anthology by the enigmatic post-Byzantine composer Parthenios Sgoutas (17th c.?) that contains eleven folios of simple four-part sacred music in Byzantine notation. From this manuscript we perform selections from the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: the conclusion to the Nicene Creed (not normally sung in Greek practice, but set by Gazes and several of his successors), choral responses for the Eucharistic Prayer, and the pre-communion acclamation “One is Holy.” These all feature unusual parallelisms that may be stylizations of Cretan techniques of spontaneous harmonization.

From Constantinople to California

Cappella Romana presents their upcoming LIVE IN GREECE recording program in a Memorial Day Weekend Series:

Friday, May 25 – 7pm
Encino Presbyterian Church
Los Angeles, CA

Saturday, May 26 – 4pm
St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral
Los Angeles, CA