Notes and Editorial Reviews
BYZANTIUM IN ROME
Ioannis Arvanitis, dir; Capella Romana
CAPELLA ROMANA 403 (2 CDs: 82:15
Text and Translation)
This recording is unique, for it draws partly on the chant manuscripts at the abbey of Grottaferrata, 12 miles into the hills above Rome. The abbey was founded in 1004 by St. Nilus the Younger (distinguished from St. Nilus, a fifth-century disciple of St. John Chrysostom), who was born in Campania in southern Italy, a region (along with eastern Sicily known as Magna Graecia since before the time of
Alexander the Great) of Greek population, language, and culture. Nilus died a year later, but the abbey was built during the next 20 years. St. Bartholomew the Younger, the fourth abbot, is regarded as the cofounder. Like most Eastern monks, Catholic or Orthodox, they follow the Rule of St. Basil. The Italo-Greek-Albanian Rite is one of the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church and is still celebrated in parts of southern Italy and Greece that regard Grottaferrata as their spiritual center.
Only one previous recording has appeared. In 1943, the Schola Melurgica of the abbey recorded five shellac discs for Cetra (RDx 556 to 560), which were reissued on LP about 1956 as Cetra LPC 50133. In neither form were the recordings widely circulated. The discs included 16 titles, concluding on the last side with two Albanian folk songs. The choir director was Lorenzo Tardo (1883–1967), a noted scholar of the abbey’s chant. (His 125th anniversary was marked by a conference last March.) One of his chief points was that the 11th-century form of Byzantine chant as it survived in Grottaferrata and its associated churches was uncontaminated by Turkish influence after the Ottoman Empire occupied the Balkans in the 15th century. The monks fostered the continuation of Byzantine chant, composing hymns and studying the lives of the saints for several centuries. Indeed, most of the chants recorded by Cetra were dated from the 12th to the 14th centuries.
This ensemble bears no resemblance to the sound of the monks. The first point to notice is the addition of
, or drone, to the chants. This is a practice advocated by many scholars today, extending from the Orthodox cantors to such Western chant directors as Pellegrino Ernetti, who was adding it to Gregorian chant in Venice 30 years ago, and Marcel Pérès, who began adding it to Old Roman chant in 1985 and went on to add it to most of his interpretations of Western chant rites, even though the rationale of Greek influence in Rome in the eighth century diminished in proportion to the distance from the East. Byzantine scholars agree that there is no historical evidence for
singing in Byzantine chant before the 14th century. Hence the early isolation of Grottaferrata from Byzantine influence of such a late date argues against using it here.
Another issue that Artistic Director Alexander Lingas raises in the notes is any relation between performance practice of Gregorian and Byzantine chant. Why would Egon Wellesz be thought to have “sought to recreate medieval Byzantine music in a form that was aurally compatible with Gregorian chant as ‘restored’ by the monks of Solesmes”? Does the title of his 1947 book, “Eastern Elements in Western Chant,” suggest anything more than looking for influence of East on West without forcing any influence in the other direction? Does “restored” in quotation marks imply that the research at Solesmes did not actually produce new editions of chant that were based on medieval manuscripts rather than on the debased tradition found in the 19th-century editions? Is there any reason why “modern Greek practitioners” would all change their understanding of their own music in the light of some questionable work of Western scholars? The point of this is to place the director of the capella on this recording, who transcribed almost all of the chants, as the leader of a consensus between two stated extremes. Listeners “accustomed to plainchant sung in the ethereal style of Solesmes” are then warned not to be surprised by several features of the chant heard here. But given the wide availability of Byzantine chant on records, from Archiv’s Mount Athos LPs to recent CDs of Lycourgas Angelopoulos and his Byzantine Choir of Greece, why would anyone expect it to sound like an unrelated type of music? We are not warned against comparing it with southern gospel singing. There are myriad reasons why the differences between Greek and Roman culture as much as 2,000 years ago produced different styles of liturgy, chant, architecture, painting, and other forms of expression. If Antiochene and Coptic civilization had not suffered the domination of Melchite (Byzantine) liturgy and then the inroads of Islam 1,400 years ago, we would see even greater contrast among Christian liturgies today.
The singing, typical of the highly accomplished Capella Romana, is vigorous, quite unlike the rather dreary chanting of the monks. The effect of those performances was not enhanced by the ancient shellac discs, which were hardly state of the art when they were made. None of the repertoire is duplicated. Only some of the chants heard here are taken from two Grottaferrata manuscripts; many come from Florence, St. Petersburg, and Mount Athos sources. The last item is explained, but any reason why chants for the founders St. Nilus and St. Bartholomew are found in the other two locations is not mentioned. The program is a few minutes too long for a single CD, but the set is priced at half again more than a single. The recording was made in an acoustically appropriate Byzantine church in Portland, Oregon, where the Capella is based. Not mentioned in the notes is the Grottaferrata Web site, www.abbaziagreca.it. The color photos there are stunning and the history is interesting.
FANFARE: J. F. Weber
Works on This Recording
Kontakion by Anonymous
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