The first time that I attended the service of the Twelve Gospels I had just finished studying Ancient Greek drama at uni. When my head stopped taking notes on the similarities between this form of storytelling and that of Ancient Greek tragedies, my heart was being moved. I shed involuntary tears.
In the Orthodox Church, the Passion of Christ is chanted in anticipation. The sun sets on what we would consider the eve of Good Friday before the service begins. The service, typical of the services of Holy Week is a mix of Old Testament prophecies heralding in the life of Christ and Gospel readings beginning with Jesus presaging his own death and ending with the guard at his tomb. Inbetween there are supplicating litanies, chanted hymns, blessings given and returned and the familiar prayers of the Sunday liturgy. In all that it is, it is a very full service.
But there is something else as well. I see Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles.
These three great tragedians provided drama through both monologues and dialogues. Their action was commented on by their choruses and there is implicit in their texts a variety in delivery for their actors. Their tragedies were also a part of a religious festival that began with a street procession and culminated in dramatic performance at the amphitheatre. Like the paschal services, their action occurred offstage and was retold after the events.
In the Holy Thursday evening service I shut my eyes and see with my mind’s eye an ancient messenger delivering his monologue. I imagine him addressing the audience at the amphitheatre as easily as the naos of the church.The chorus of chanters responds to him in a similar way that an ancient chorus tries to make sense of the often senseless actions of its pagan protagonists.
In the celebration/performance the interaction between chorus and priest/ actor and congregation/ audience picks up the emotional story between the lines of the historic prose of the Gospels and the narrative of the ancient myth. The irony in the drama is extolled with adjectives, imagery and personification through the choral odes.
“When the lawless people nailed the Lord of glory to the Cross, then the veil of the temple was rent, and the sun went dark, unable to endure the spectacle of God blasphemed . . .”( from the 10th Antiphon, chanted in the 6th Tone)
The sun was unable to see Jesus suffering or come to terms with it! The Gods and nature personified are mortified by mortal actions and respond in “signs”. In this way the paschal service has an ancient resonance and power.
These paschal odes chanted in between the Gospel readings are delivered in a Byzantine tradition that dates back to the 9th Century. Described as colourless, the aim of the somber delivery is to heighten the emotional impact and bring clarity to the meaning of the words. Musically, it comes from a lower register. In practice, if not in intent, it often sounds like a drone.Sobering, it inspires reflection.
Byzantine chanting in its original form is far removed from the ethereal choirs of angels of the West.The musical notation describing it, is not Western either. It doesn’t use scales and its tones are more correctly, “echoes”. It is said by Stanley Takis in his, Understanding the Byzantine Musical System Using Western Notation and Theory or Name That Tone! to have grown out of the music of the Synagogues and that of secular Greek and Syrian music. It would follow then that a better understanding of Byzantine chanting can garner an insight into the elusive qualities required to deliver an ancient chorus in performance. Conversely, could the story of the Passion of Christ be delivered in the form of an Ancient Greek tragedy complete with a chanting chorus?
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