Saint Nicholas: Archbishop of Myra in Lycia

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Sotiris K. Despotis, musicologist – composer
Orthodoxos Typos, 6 February 2009

The latest publishing endeavour of the ‘Tropos’ Byzantine Choir can be described as particularly painstaking and successful from every point of view. The zeal, labour, taste, and concern of the members of the ‘Tropos’ Byzantine Choir in preserving and making more widely known the Greek cantor’s art have been placed on record in their recent CD, which includes ecclesiastical chants from the service for St Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia.

There are many reasons for describing this whole endeavour as painstaking and successful, and these have to do both with the approaches taken to the musical material of the hymns in their interpretation, and with the selection of mathemata sung. Thus we have at our disposal a recording which serves to fill, in a significant manner, a large gap in what has already been done in terms of recording, in sound and interpretation, the ecclesiastical chants from the service of St Nicholas.

In this CD, listeners are able to acquaint themselves with the composer Elder Daniil (1846 – 1929), who lived the ascetic life at Katounakia, an area of the Athonite commonwealth particularly well-known for its spiritual and artistic activities (icon-painting, chant, and woodcarving).

From the very first moment the composer’s talent of the Elder wins our attention – and for good reason. The noble simplicity which the discreetly artful elaboration of the melodic lines imparts and which the composer from Katounakia seems to employ in the chants sung here is based on theses of our tradition of the cantor’s art, a feature which serves to make apparent to us the uninterrupted nature of the evolution of our church music tradition.

The fact that we have made special reference to Elder Daniil does not mean that the rest of the composers whose works are included in the CD pass unnoticed. Iakovos Protopsaltes, as well as Panaghiotis Kiltzanidis and Petros Philanthidis are particularly well known in the Greek cantors’ family, and for this reason we have chosen to give more information about Fr Daniil Katounakiotis, who was until a short while ago unknown to many.

The challenge of the interpretation of the mathemata included on the CD has been met by ‘Tropos’ with its choirmaster and teacher Constantinos Angelidis. The variety of the traditional interpretative approaches which have been applied to the musical theses of the chants, the liturgical transpositions of the isokratemata by means of which all the changes of the tonal centres have been stressed and become intelligible, the harmonious rendering of the mathemata, the homogeneity of the volume of the sound, the manner in which the chromatic characteristics of each mode have been presented, and the correct musical space-time in which we hear each mathema interpreted justify the description of the whole endeavour of the ‘Tropos’ Byzantine Choir as successful and painstaking.

The CD includes the Dismissal Hymn of the Saint both in its heirmological form and in argo heirmological chant. The brief version is interpreted by Ioannis Angelidis and Georgios Tsourapoulis, whom we also hear as canonarches in other chants. The slow heirmological melodic and rhythmical identity of the chant is brought to us by the whole choir. This is followed by a sticheron prosomoion in the second mode, the first Doxastikon of Great Vespers, in the second plagal mode to a chant by Iakovos Protopsaltes, a selection of psalmodic verses addressed to St Nicholas, a chant by the Elder Daniil, in the plagal fourth mode, as well as the idiomelon ‘Well done, you good and faithful servant … ‘ from the order of Matins, in the second plagal mode. These chants serve to draw attention to the talent in the composition of chant of the priest-monk Daniil, who, in a particularly artful way in terms of chromatics portrays basic concepts of the poetic text with premeditated melodic climaxes which are presented to us skilfully and with particular elegance in the idiomelon mentioned above by Nikolaos Georgiou. His monody takes us along familiar as well as hitherto unknown pathways of acquaintance with the church music of our country.

A typical feature of the interpretative approach to the parts of the two canons of the Saint which are then presented is their faultless, exemplary rhythmic identity. The two mathemata which follow, the Doxastikon of the ainoi – the chant is by Petros Philanthidis – and the oktaechon mathema ‘The Rule of Faith’, a chant by Panaghiotis Kiltzanidis, certain melodic lines of which are strongly reminiscent of earlier composition work, bring before us parts of the wealth and the splendour of our cantor’s art – something which the ‘Tropos’ Byzantine Choir is able to decode and present in terms of sound with great success and expertise. The CD’s contents conclude with the megalynarion of the Saint, in the second mode, and it is with this chant that the musical tribute offered by ‘Tropos’ to him, as they carry all of us back, even if only for a few minutes, to the marvellous life and divinely-inspired work of St Nicholas, is completed.

It would be an omission, in conclusion, not to mention the exemplary recording made by Nikos Dionysopoulos, who has succeeded in this in respecting the demands made by our cantor’s tradition in giving music-lovers sounds free from those ‘effects’ which are alien to the requirements of that art.

Long may they continue the good work!