Tuesday, August 15, 2023

A Glorious Byzantine Chant for the Assumption

At the command of almighty God, the God-bearing Apostles were caught up from wherever they were, and lifted up on high by the clouds; coming to Thy all-pure and life-creating body, they venerated it with great honor. And the most exalted hosts of heaven, having arrived with their Master, accompanied the most pure body which had received God; being seized with awe, they went forth in a heavenly manner, and cried aloud invisibly to the hierarchies above, “Behold! the Queen of all, the divine Maiden, has come! Lift up your gates, and receive her above the world, who is the Mother of the everlasting Light; for through her hath come all the salvation of mortals; upon her we cannot gaze, it is impossible to pay her due honor; for her excellence surpasseth all understanding!” Wherefore, O all-pure Mother of God, ever living with the life-bearing King, Thy Son, pray without ceasing that He closely guard and save thy new people from every assault of the adversary; for we have acquired thine intercession, gloriously blessing Thee unto the ages. (The dogmatikon of Vespers of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary in the Byzantine Rite.)

An icon of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, painted in the second half of the 15th century by an anonymous artist of the Cretan school. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
At Byzantine Vespers, a set of hymns called “stichera” is sung between the verses of a group of four psalms which do not change from day to day. (These are Psalms 140, 141, 129 and 116, in the traditional numeration of the Septuagint; similar sets of hymns are sung or read on many other occasions.) The last of these is almost always a “theotokion”, a hymn about the Virgin Mary, but on Her own feasts, it is known as a dogmatikon.
This particular composition is unusual in that each part of it is sung in a different chant mode, in ascending order, and concluding by returning to the first; the different parts would originally have been sung by alternating choirs. In Greek, the modes are named first through fourth, then first and second plagal, the “grave” or “heavy” mode (“βαρύς”, never “third plagal”), and fourth plagal; in the Slavic tradition, they are simply numbered in ascending order.

1st mode Θεαρχίῳ νεύματι, πάντοθεν οἱ θεοφόροι Ἀπόστολοι, ὑπὸ νεφῶν μεταρσίως αἰρόμενοι, 1st plagal καταλαβόντες τὸ πανάχραντον, καὶ ζωαρχικόν σου σκῆνος, ἐξόχως ἠσπάζοντο. 2nd Αἱ δὲ ὑπέρτατοι τῶν οὐρανῶν Δυνάμεις, σὺν τῷ οἰκείῳ Δεσπότῃ παραγενόμεναι, 2nd pl. τὸ θεοδόχον καὶ ἀκραιφνέστατον σῶμα προπέμπουσι, τῷ δέει κρατούμεναι, ὑπερκοσμίως δὲ προῴχοντο, καὶ ἀοράτως ἐβόων ταῖς ἀνωτέραις ταξιαρχίαις· Ἰδοὺ ἡ παντάνασσα θεόπαις παραγέγονεν! 3rd Ἄρατε πύλας, καὶ ταύτην ὑπερκοσμίως ὑποδέξασθε, τὴν τοῦ ἀενάου φωτὸς Μητέρα. grave Διὰ ταύτης γὰρ ἡ παγγενὴς τῶν βροτῶν σωτηρία γέγονεν, ᾗ ἀτενίζειν οὐκ ἰσχύομεν, καὶ ταύτῃ ἄξιον γέρας ἀπονέμειν ἀδύνατον. 4th Ταύτης γὰρ τὸ ὑπερβάλλον ὑπερέχει πᾶσαν ἔννοιαν. 4th pl. Διὸ, ἄχραντε Θεοτόκε, ἀεὶ σὺν ζωηφόρῳ Βασιλεῖ καὶ τόκῳ ζῶσα, πρέσβευε διηνεκῶς περιφρουρῆσαι καὶ σῶσαι ἀπὸ πάσης προσβολῆς ἐναντίας τὴν νεολαίαν σου· τὴν γὰρ σὴν προστασίαν κεκτήμεθα, 1st εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας ἀγλαοφανῶς μακαρίζοντες.
In the following recording, a “canonarch”, or chief cantor, sings the text out bit by bit before the choir sings it. This custom originated from the impossibility of having a book for each of the cantors (who might well number several dozen in a large monastery), given the unbelievably vast repertoire of liturgical texts used in the Byzantine Rite. (The Dormition is typical in having almost 100 proper hymns in the Divine Office.) He also announces the shifts in mode; so for example, at 4:32, he says “plagal of the first mode. ‘Coming to Thy all-pure’ ”. This extends the full recording, from the doxology at the end of the psalms to the last word of the hymn, to over 28 minutes.
The modern Slavic choral tradition, which is very heavily indebted to Western influences, and especially to the Italians, often blurs out or removes distinctions of the original Byzantine chant. In the following Slavonic version, the hymn is sung in the same melody throughout, reducing the time to just under 2½ minutes. However, partly out of respect for the older tradition of singing with a canonarch, it is still the common custom for a cantor to announce the tones of the hymns during the Office, and this recording begins with the conductor singing, ‘Glory (to the Father)’ and ‘Both now’ in the same tone” (i.e. as that of the preceding chants.)

Finally, here is splendid English version (in a different translation from my own given above), recorded at St Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church in Whiting, Indiana, five years ago. 
The holy Apostles were taken up from every corner of the world, and carried upon clouds by the command of God. They gathered around your pure body, O Source of Life, and kissed it with reverence. As for the most sublime powers of heaven, they came with their own leader to escort and to pay their last respects to the most honorable body that had contained Life itself. Filled with awe, they marched together with the apostles in silent majesty, professing to the princes of heaven in a hushed voice: Lift up your gates and receive, with becoming majesty, the Mother of the Light that never fades, because, through her, salvation was made possible for our human race. She is the One upon whom no one may gaze, and to whom no one is able to render sufficient glory; for the special honor that made her sublime is beyond understanding. Therefore, O most pure Theotokos, forever alive with your Son, the Source of Life, do not cease to intercede with Him that he may guard and save your people from every trouble; for you are our intercessor. To you we sing a hymn of glory with loud and joyful voices, now and forever.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: