A Golden Opportunity: Greek Byzantine Choir

Author: Patricia Herlevi-Balquin

The Greek Byzantine Choir
Presented by Cappella Romana
St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church
Seattle, WA
November 29, 2005

It is a regular ritual of mine to listen to an Early Music radio show, Mostly
Medieval (KBCS, 91.3 FM,

/Bellevue) every Sunday evening. I often hear interviews with choir
directors, vocalists and musicians that specialize in one type of Early Music
tradition or another. Although I feel more informed about Early Music having
listened to mostly Medieval, I still see myself as an innocent walking off of
the street into a church where this music is often performed. I’m faced with a
huge learning curve, despite my enjoyment of this music.On Sunday, November 27, 2005, The Greek Byzantine Choir from Athens, Greece was
featured on Mostly Medieval. And I learned that in two days time, the
20-year-old choir, which had never performed on the West Coast of the United
States, was going to be performing near my home. I had never set foot in a Greek
Orthodox Church before, but had seen Byzantine icons gracing the covers of books
written by religious scholars and also featured in art books. Still I was
completely dazzled when I stepped into St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church and
saw the domed ceilings covered in gold and the numerous, probably hundreds of
Byzantine icons throughout the church. And while the choir’s music was quite
somber in comparison to the lofty church atmosphere, it too dazzled in its own

I’m not Greek and I’m not an orthodox Christian so entering this church was an
otherworldly experience for me as was listening to the 19 member Greek Byzantine
Choir. The people sitting around me were members of the church’s congregation.
To congregation members, gold walls plastered in icons were a common event,
even, an everyday experience, as was listening to a Byzantine choir. And yet, a
visit from the Greek Byzantine Choir was not an everyday experience so I was
surprised that there were few attendees outside of the church’s congregation at
the concert. Someone even asked me if I’m Greek and was baffled when I told her
that I was attending the concert because I enjoy medieval sacred music

The choir led by Director and founder Lycourgos Angelopoulos, (who formed the
choir in 1977), entered in a procession from the back of the church in which
they sung, Kontakion of the Akathistos Hymn composed in the 7th Century by an
anonymous composer. Once the vocalists were ensconced near the elaborate church
altar, they performed Communion Verse for the Transfiguration composed by John
Koukouzelis (1280-1360). The contrast between the choir members dressed in black
robes and the icon art that surrounded them was distracting at times and other
times mesmerizing.

Although many sacred choral traditions are sung in polyphony and graced with
lush harmonies, Byzantine chants are monophonic with a few of the vocalists
singing bass drone. Musicologist Michalis Adamis on the Duke University site
describes this better.

Byzantine Music is monophonic. It has not called on parameters of musical
construction, such as harmony and counterpoint, yet it has produced a wealth of
extraordinary rich melodies, as well as, complex musical forms and carried the
monophonic genre to heights of refinement and wisdom… Singing a melody always
includes its cantillion, together with a continues drone accompaniment

The remainder of the first set of liturgical chants featured mostly Psalmody
sung in Greek. After a long intermission, the choir returned without fanfare and
presented liturgical chants that would normally be sung in the Greek Orthodox
Church on the Sunday prior to Christmas. These compositions beginning with Three
Heirmoi from the Canon for the Sunday before Christmas and ending with Kratima
in the First Mode by John Trapezountios (d. 1700), were longer and seemed more
complex than the chants performed during the first half of the program.
Lycourgos Angelopoulos and other choir members performed longer solos
accompanied by an intense drone which reminded me of the two duduk players
featured in traditional Armenian music where one instrument carries the main
melody and the other holds the same note through the entire song, creating a
continuous drone. And yes, the vocalists providing drone perform an important
role. At times the pace and passion of the vocalists increased, but compared to
other sacred musical traditions familiar to me, I found the Byzantine choir
vocals somewhat restrained. Although Byzantine chants possess a unique beauty,
the chants did not provoke an emotional response in me, mainly because this was
my first real exposure to the tradition.

The choir performed a short encore and then ended with a procession as they
exited the church. The extremely polite audience refrained from applauding until
the end of each set and for some members of the packed audience; this was a
difficult endeavor since they were quite passionate about the Byzantine chant
tradition. There were two women sitting near me that were emotionally drawn to
the music and seemed quite knowledgeable about the tradition. Occasionally one
of the women would wipe tears from her eyes. Of course, she might have
understood the Greek language in which the chants were performed and she seemed
familiar with each chant in general. There are times when it helps to be an
insider to a given tradition.

We were witnessing a concert, which removed the choir out of its normal realm of
a church service. The choir was performing samples of what would be presented in
either a Sunday service or special religious occasion to enhance the worship
experience. However, for those of us who do not attend church services, this is
a good way in which we can witness various sacred music traditions, either from
a spiritual-but-not-religious standpoint or a scholarly one. And then there are
journalists such as myself and radio presenters who are curious about these
ancient chants. I would rather see this music presented in a church rather than
a concert hall because the church acoustics and atmosphere does enhance the
experience of listening to sacred medieval music. Leaving baffled churchgoers in
our wake is a small price to pay for getting closer to sacred music traditions.
And in fact, if outsiders cherish these musical treasures, that can only enhance
congregational members’ appreciation for these traditions. And it certainly
helps with preserving the traditions for future generations to enjoy.

For more information about the Greek Byzantine Choir visit
http://www.cs.duke.edu/~mgl/gbc and

A list of recordings:

The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
(Opus III, 1994)

The Akathistos Hymn (Playasound, 1994)

Music of the Byzantine Liturgy
(Le Chant du Monde, 1994)

Hymnody Of The Greek Orthodox Church
(JVC, 1995)

Praise Unto God The Holy Trinity
Choir of Nuns of the Holy Monastery of the St. Stephanos at Holy Meteora (IMAE)

Music of Greek Orthodox Church 1924-30
(FM Records, 1997)

Monastery of St. John: Byzantine Patmos (FM Records,

Byzantine Liturgy of St. John
Greek Byzantine Choir
Naxos of America, 2003)

Web site:


The concert presenter: http://www.cappellaromana.org

[Photos: 1 – Greek Byzantine Choir, 2- Lycourgos Angelopoulos].