The Syriac Origins of Byzantine Chant: St. Romanos the Melodist
Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises! - Psalm 98:4
In this liturgical worship, the Christians of the East pay high tribute, in beautiful hymns of praise, to Mary ever Virgin,… - Unitatis Redintegratio, Nov. 21, 1964, Vatican II
The Psalms of the Old Testament of the Bible remind us of how important “sung-verse” was for worship in the ancient world, and especially in the Mediterranean basin (the ancient Near East). Even the founder of the Israelite Kingdom, the anointed chosen ruler, King David was thought to have been a singer and musician. It is not surprising therefore, that this tradition would be carried into Christian forms of worship, and most identifiably in Eastern Christianity.
Syriac Christianity produced many “saintly singers” although most of their names, biographies, and even works, have been lost in the sweep of time and the destruction of Christian civilization in the Levant. Almost all Christians have some familiarity with St. Ephrem the Syrian (ca.306-373), called “The Harp of the Holy Spirit”; in Ephrem’s works and others, it can be seen that these poems and hymns were not only verses of praise, but also of theology and doctrine. For example, many hymn’s of Ephrem show not only his great devotion to the Mother of God, but an understanding of her Immaculate Conception. In his time this doctrine was in the East often refereed to as the pre-purified state of the Virgin, and was not disputed and in need of clarification as was the case in the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. St. Ephrem writes:
Handmaid and daughter
of blood and water [am I] whom you redeemed and baptized1
Another son of Syriac Christianity who came to influence the Byzantine tradition of the Church, is Romanos the Melodist (died, ca. 560). Living some two centuries after the great Ephrem, and the Syriac thinker Aphrahat, and being more or less a contemporary of the Syriac poet-theologian Jacob of Serug. Romanos (recognized as a saint in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches) lived in a divided Roman Empire, the Western Empire having fallen to the Germanic invaders, and the Eastern Empire (Byzantine Empire) dominated by Greek language and culture. His is the era created by the Emperor Justinian I (Justinian the Great, 482-565), who attempted to recapture the Western Empire, re-codified Roman Law, enhanced the dignity of the city of Constantinople with his building projects, guided the empire through the devastations of the bubonic plaque in the 540s, which lead to extreme territorial decline, and most importantly in the life of Romanos, built “The Great Church”, the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople.2
Saint Romanos was born in Emesa (modern Homs) Syria, of Jewish parents who seemingly converted to Christianity. As a young man he moved to Beirut, and was ordained a deacon, serving in the Church of the Resurrection. From there he moved to Constantinople, to live as an ascetic in the Marian shrine known as “in the Kyros”.3 It was here, living a monastic life, serving as a deacon and cantor, that Romanos created the knontakion.4 The circumstances that pushed St. Romanos to create and sing his first hymn in the Hagia Sophia reveal the humbleness and holiness of this saint. According to tradition he was asked to sing at Vespers of Christmas Eve,5 and found himself unable to sing. That evening he remained for hours in prayer before the icon of the Holy Virgin, and after finding peace in prayer he went to his room to rest. During his sleep he had a dream/vision of the Mother of God, who placed a scroll on his lips and told him to consume it. Immediately upon awaking, his heart and mind were full of song and verse in praise of Christ and his Holy Mother; running off to the Hagia Sophia,when the time came for him to sing at Matins, he produced in twenty-four stanzas what was to become the foundation of the Byzantine knontakion. He sang:
‘Save the world, O Saviour. For this you have come.
Set your whole universe aright. For this you have shone
on me and on the magi and on all creation.
For see, the magi, to whom you have shown the light of your face,
fall down before you and offer gifts,
useful, fair and eagerly sought.
For I have need of them, since I am about
to go to Egypt and to flee with you and for you,
my Guide, my Son, my Maker, my Redeemer,
a little Child, God before the ages.’6
St. Romanos went on to produce it is believed over a thousand hymns, of which around eighty-five still exist.
- Rev. David A. Fisher
1.Hymns on the Nativity 16,10; CSCO 187,76; Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, trans. Kathleen E. McVey, CWS (New York: Palest Press, 1989), p.150.
2.The eight Corinthian columns in the Hagia Sophia were taken from Baalbek, Lebanon at the order of the Emperor Justinian.
3.This complex was officially called the Blachernae, this was because it housed the Icon of the Holy Virgin known as the Blachermitissa (now in the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow). The complex consisted of the Church of Saint Mary, the Chapel of the reliquary, called the Hagia Soros (the holy mantle of the Virgin was kept there), and the Hagion Lousma (the holy fountain)
4.A “kontakion” is a poetic form frequently encountered in Byzantine hymnography. It was probably based in Syriac hymnographical traditions,…This form became especially popular after the magnificent work of St. Romanos the Melodist during the 6th century. - From St. Romanos the Melodist, On the Life of Christ: Kontakia (Archimandrite Ephrem Lash, tr.: Harper, San Francisco, 1995), p. 1
5.In that time there were points in the Byzantine Liturgy of Hours in which a Cantor/Deacon would sing a homily/sermon like chant or hymn.
6.St. Romanos the Melodist, On the Life of Christ: Kontakia (Archimandrite Ephrem Lash, tr.: Harper, San Francisco, 1995), p. 12