The Fall of Constantinople — Program Notes

Constantinople | Cappella Romana

Constantinople | Cappella RomanaGreeks and Latins had lived uneasily together in the Eastern Mediterranean ever since the sack and occupation of Constantinople (1204–61) by crusader knights. During the 14th and 15th centuries, however, the shrunken Byzantine Empire and the remaining Western colonies were often forced to cooperate in desperate attempts to defend themselves against the Ottoman Turks. This situation is reflected by the music on this evening’s concert, which begins with music that would have been heard by Constantine XI, enthroned in 1448 and the last Roman Emperor of Constantinople. Even though his realm consisted of little more than the capital and the Peloponnesus, the majestic liturgy continued to pray for him and his Empire with many of the same forms employed during Byzantium’s apogee a millennium before. This may be seen in the solemn texts and music of the Entrance Rite for a Divine Liturgy celebrated by a bishop. After a series of processional antiphons, the clergy would enter the sanctuary as the Introit was sung. A hymn in honor of Christ’s resurrection from the weekly cycle of the eight modes was followed by acclamations to the reigning emperor (taken here from the manuscript Athens 2401) and one or more seasonal hymns known as kontakia. The kontakion selected for this program was probably written after Constantinople’s deliverance from an Arab siege in the seventh century and recalls the Mother of God’s role as chief protectress of the City.

The choirs and clergy would then sing in alternation the traditional version of the ancient “Thrice-Holy” (Trisagion) hymn, the melody of which is taken from the manuscript Iviron 1120. Dated 1458, this MS is an autograph of Manuel Chrysaphes, a prolific theorist and composer who served as a lead singer in Constantine’s chapel. The setting for “Glory to the Father…” is relatively elaborate and was meant to accompany a blessing given by the celebrating bishop. The Trisagion concludes with a ‘Dynamis’ coda, in which Chrysaphes subtly elaborates upon the hymn’s traditional melody.

Bereft of significant financial or military resources, the last emperors attempted to consolidate their remaining territory while balancing the competing interests of Italians and Ottomans through diplomacy and dynastic marriages. These concerns are reflected in Vasilissa ergo gaude, a Latin motet by the Franco-Flemish composer Guillaume Dufay (ca. 1400–74). Written while Dufay was employed by the Malatesta family’s Rimini branch, the work celebrates the marriage in 1421 of Cleophe Malatesta da Pesaro to Theodore Paleologos, Despot of the Morea (Peloponnesus) and son of the Emperor Manuel II (1391–1425).

In the fifteenth century, the Peloponnesian port of Patras was (as it remains today) an important meeting-point between the Greek East and the Latin West. As Gregorios Stathis has recently noted, the Byzantine musical manuscript Athens 2401 is an important witness to the vibrancy of cultural interchange in the city of the Apostle Andrew’s martyrdom. Its contents include works by Patras’ Protopsaltes (first cantor) Andreas Stellon of Cyprus (one of which is a composition honoring St. Andrew) and examples of efforts by Byzantine musicians to employ some of the simpler and (usually unnotated) types of polyphony practiced by their Italian colleagues. One of these is the two-part Hymn for Great Compline by Manuel Gazes the Lampadarios, the homorhythmic texture and open sonorities of which reflect the contemporary Western tradition of cantus planus binatim (“plainchant twice”).

Despite their absence from Athens 2401, elite forms of mensural polyphony were not unknown in the eastern Mediterranean, having been cultivated most notably at the court of the Lusignan Kings of Cyprus. Shortly before Patras reverted to Byzantine rule, Pandolfo Malatesta served as the Latin archbishop of Patras and presided over the rededication of a church honoring St. Andrew. Dufay marked the event with his radiant Italian motet Apostolo glorioso/Cum tua doctrina/Andreas Christi.

The ubiquity of the Latin rite is further indicated by the transmission in Byzantine neumes of the Gregorian Kyrie Cunctipotens genitor in Athens 2401. Discovered in modern times by Michael Adamis, it further demonstrates the interest of Byzantine cantors in the music of their Western colleagues. Perhaps of greater significance is the way in which the scribe translated what he heard into Byzantine notation, providing valuable information about the way contemporary Gregorian chant was being performed. For this performance, this chant is sung both unadorned and with unwritten extra voices reflecting contemporary techniques of polyphonic improvisation.

While the separation of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches is mentioned only briefly in Dufay’s motet for St. Andrew, negotiations for reunion became more urgent as the Ottoman threat grew. This movement climaxed under Pope Eugenius IV (1431–47) with the Council of Florence, at which a small Byzantine delegation of bishops and theologians assented to union with the Roman Catholic Church on 5 July 1439 in return for military aid. Dufay was a member of the papal chapel during the 1430s and it has recently been proposed that his imposing 5-part motet Ecclesiae militantis was written not for Eugenius’s coronation, as generally believed, but to commemorate the search for union at Florence.

At all events, the aid promised by the West at Florence was never delivered and public opposition prevented the official promulgation of the union—the terms of which were viewed as total capitulation to Papal supremacy and other Latin doctrines—in Constantinople until December of 1452, after which most Orthodox refused to attend services at St. Sophia. Nevertheless, there remained a number of prominent Byzantine converts to the Latin cause, among whom was the composer and theorist John Plousiadenos (ca. 1429–1500). Later consecrated bishop of Venetian-held Methone, Plousiadenos displayed his uniate sympathies in a number of literary works including the Canons in honor of Thomas Aquinas and the Council of Florence. Both canons are set to melodies from well-known works by John of Damascus, transcribed here from the manuscript Vatopedi 1529. Like Gazes’ compline Hymn, Plousiadenos’ Communion Verse is related to the Western tradition of cantus planus binatim. This setting for Mid- Pentecost is from a manuscript presently located in the Athonite monastery of Dochiariou (MS 315), in which the upper part is labeled “τὸ τενώρει” (“the tenor”) and the lower part is described as “τὸ κείμενον” (“the text”).

This program concludes with two threnodies for the fall of New Rome to Mehmed the Conqueror on 29 May 1453. The first is Chrysaphes’s setting of verses from Psalm 78, transcribed by Markos Vasileiou from MS Iviron 1120. The Lamentatio Sanctae Matris Ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae by Dufay is the only one to survive of the four laments he composed to mark this event. These works were probably written in 1455 as part of an effort to convince Pope Callixtus III to mount a crusade against the Turks, one of many such schemes that was never realized.

—Alexander Lingas

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