There is but one country in the world, Mount Athos, said the Byzantine
chronicler Gregoras - the Holy Mountain, a place where time has been defeated.
Past and present meet in a transcendental reality: Orthodox monasticism.
Figures of greatness have lived here and have created a superb corpus of music.
Rare manuscripts on the subject have been found in the monasteries of Mount
Athos. Depictions of instruments and personages have been preserved in
codices and wall-paintings. At the Athonite Academy, instruction was given by
distinguished teachers, and brilliant students, and even saints, were produced.
In the Ark of Orthoadoxy and Salvation, the art of psalmody has written an
brilliant, centuries-long history. A host of holy and learned men have concerned
themselves with it and have enriched it with their love and knowledge.
The talanta, and the rhythmical sound of the bells with their sweet music turn
our entire attention to the fragrant Garden of the Theotokos, to the spiritual
beacon which is Mount Athos.
As early as the time of the great Byzantine Emperors (e.g., the period of the
Palaeologues, 1261-1453), a time when the arts and literature greatly flourished,
ecclesiastical music was also at its height. Major composers, copyists and
teachers preserved, studied and shaped Byzantine chant, thus creating with the
passage of time a great Byzantine musical tradition. Working in that period were:
Ioannes Koukouzeles and Gregorios Koukouzeles (12th century), Ioannes
Plousiadenos or Koukoumas (known for his inspired variations and the Athonite
method) Theodoulos or Thomas Thekaras (fl. in the 14th century, the author of
settings and methods), Ioannes Kladas (c. 1400), Theophanes Karykes, D.
Raidestenos (early 15th century), Gregorios Alyates (early 15th century),
Synesios, and others. This tradition closes with Manuel Doukas Chysaphes, who
left behind him a large number of compositions and completed the old
Sticherarion , «ornamented» by koukouzelis.
In the 16th century the Holy Mountain became an important centre for the
copying of manuscripts. A host of scribes has left us fine manuscripts, which
testify to an outstanding love of beauty and elegance, among them Makarios the
deacon (1527), Gabriel, priest-monk (1572), and the monk Leontios (1551).
The 17th century was the period of the work of the priest-monks from
Anchialos Gabriel and Gennadios. Of the former, asmatica trisaghia, dochai, and
chans have survived, while of the latter we have some anniversary koinonika. In
the early part of that century, two other teachers and fine composers were living
and working on the Holy Mountain: the monk loasaph (known as the «New
Koukouzeles») and the priest-monk Arsenios of Vatopedi. Among the muchloved
hymns of great beauty written by these monks are the chant «May the
Name of the Lord be blessed» (in the second plagal tone) be Gabriel or
Gennadios, and the chant «Now the powers» by Ioasaph. At the same period,
the priest-monk Arsenios produced settings of cherouvika, koinonika, and
kratemata. Ioasaph provided a setting for the eirmologion, abbreviated and
produced variations on kratemata and echemata of earlier masters, and is also
said to have been an unrivalled calligrapher of musical manuscripts. Arsenios
wrote settings for cherouvika, koinonika, kratemata and a calophonic eirmos.
This century also saw the careful copying of manuscripts and their wide
dissemination. We hear of many famous, and anonymous, copyists at this period
(Neophytos, priest-monk, Anthimos, Cosmas of the Iveron Monastery,
Gerasimos, Meletios, Loukas the Athonite, the monk Pankratios, Nathanel).
In the first great upsurge of Athonite music, a leading figure was Chrysaphes
the Younger (fl.1650-1685). He set a number of different kinds of church music,
as can be seen from his surviving autograph manuscripts. Another figure of this
period was the priest Balasios, a pupil of Germanos of New Patras, an
eirmologion of whom is in the Iveron Monastery. Balasios ornamented the earlier
eirmologion (he was the author of many calophonic eirmoi in the manner of art
music), and also wrote art mathemata, a number of doxologies, and many
settings. As a copyist he was prolific. Another great musician of the period,
Petros Bereketis (fl.1680-1715), was a pupil of the Athonite monk Damianos of
Vatopedi; a papadike by him is in a codex of the Xeropotamou Monastery. He set
cherouvika, koinonika, etc., and was the most «vernacular» composer of the
period of Turkish rule.
In the late 17th century, Cosmas of Macedonia, (fl.1665-1700), a fellowstudent
of Balasios, was working on the Holy Mountain. Cosmas produced many
settings (sticherarion, eirmologion), composed papadika mele (such as
pasapnoaria for Matins, timioteres, cherouvika, theotokia, etc.), was a skilled
copyist, and an excellent teacher of music. Twenty-eight manuscripts of his have
survived, and they are marked by the elegance and beauty of their script.
Cosmas was the most important figure in the world of music on the Holy
Mountain at that period, and his autograph manuscripts are the finest examples
of musical manuscripts from the years of the Turkish occupation. Another
important scribe with a strong aesthetic sense who worked on the Holy Mountain
in the years 1680-1700 was also a Cosmas, a priest-monk; three very fine
manuscripts attributed to him have been identified. Approximately at the same
time, Damianos of Vatopedi, a pupil of Cosmas of Macedonia, was living and
writing music on Mount Athos. Damianos was the composer of calophonic eirmoi,
koinonika, cherouvika, and mele. Thus in the late 17th century it was Cosmas of
Macedonia and his pupil Damianos of Vatopaidi who were the chief
representatives of the musical tradition. Among the pupils of Damianos was
Panayotis Halatzoglou (+ 1748), who created a tradition of teaching and chant
which even today is termed «style and articulation of the Great Church of Christ».
The 18th century also produced a host of musical manuscripts from the hands
of copyists and composers, and the period marks a second high point in the
history of church music in the period of Turkish rule. Working on the Holy
Mountain at the time were St Nicodemus the Athonite (1749-1809), the
hymnographer, Ioannis of Trebizond the First Cantor, a papadike of whom is in
the Xeropotamou Monastery, Petros of the Peloponnese, a composer of
apolytikia, kontakia, prosomoia, etc., an anastaseamtarion of whom is in the
Iveron Monastery, the composer Petros Vyzantios, a pupil of Petros the
Peloponnese, and many other Athonite scribes and composers.
The monasteries of Mount Athos preserve a host of musical manuscripts. The
Iveron Monastery has the most, with 348, followed by Vatopedi, with 290, St
Pantaeleimon with 150, the Megiste Lavra with 130, Xeropotamou with 130,
Docheiariou with 107, Chilandari with 103. The rest of the monasteries have fewer than 100 each. There are, of course, also manuscripts by Athonites scattered over the rest of Greece and even further afield. Thirteen folk songs have been discovered in the Iveron Monastery, dating
from the 16th century and recorded in Byzantine musical notation based on the
eight tones of Byzantine music (codices with psalms and odes are also to be
found in the Pantocrator Monastery).
Illustrations showing musicians and their compositions can be seen in the fine
codices of the Iveron, Megiste Lavra, and Xeropotamou Monasteries, to take the
best examples. Iveron has the papadike and the Mega Ison of Ioannes
Koukouzeles and poems of his set to music (viola, choros, tou vasileos,
amephantes, etc.,). Also to be found at Iveron are biographies of Ioannes Kladas
(15th century) and of Pachomios, monk of the Rousanou Monastery, who were
among the most important musicians of the 16th century, together with the
interpretation of music which determines variation and modulation. Iveron also
possesses a manuscript eirmologion and the Doxastarion of the priest Balasios,
an essay of Manuel Doukas Chrysaphes, three manuscripts of Cosmas the
priest-monk (one dating from 1686), and the Anastasematarion of Petros of the
The codices in the Megiste Lavra provide us with a picture of Ioannes
Koukouzeles (who, after John of Damascus, is the second source of Byzantine
music) and include an autograph papadike of Ioannes of Trebizond. In a codex of
Xeropotamou, Koukouzeles is called Papadopoulos. Xeropotamou also has a
picture of Petros Glykys or Bereketes and a papadike by him, while in a codex at
Docheiariou we can see a picture of the great musician St John of Damascus. In
a codex of the Megiste Lavra Monastery there is a portrayal of St John Glykys
the First Cantor.
The Holy Mountain, as the Partiarch Isidoros says, was a school for the monks
and a workshop where virtues were forged. In the thousand years and more of its
sacred history it was welcomed and given a home to men of learning and
wisdom. These, either as ordinary monks or deacons or as priests and abbots,
through their fervent faith, their learning, their humility, the strictness of their
ascetic lives, have helped both the Church and the world, as well as the arts.
They have given to the Holy Church their writings on sacred subjects, their
religious poems, services for the saints-and their very selves, willing sacrifices to
the Lord, whose earthly life they imitated.
Still today, the Holy Mountain continues to give its valuable services to
humanity. Music sweetly and movingly vitalises the awakened feeelings, without
absorbing the senses by its delight. The style of the sounds of Athonite
psalmody is reverent, grave and recollected, in accordance with the will of God,
who seeks a contrite spirit, a «contrite and humble heart». Also in the
monasteries of the Holy Mountain there are many other illustrated manuscripts,
of Byzantine hymns, particularly at the Megiste Lavra, Pantocrator, and Iveron.
In a paper codex at Iveron we can find an introduction to church music, as well
as the whole of the Divine Office (Vespers, Lityrgy, Lityrgy of the Presanticified,
theotokia, etc.) in red notation.
The year 1749 saw the foundation of the Athonite Academy by the learned Abbot
of Vatopedi Meletios and the fathers of his monastery and with the support of the
Ecumenical Patriachate. Diistinguished teachers of the Nation served at the
Academy and it produced many heroes, men of learning and saints. Byzantine
music was taught at the Academy, as it is today, given that the art of chant, as
the garment in which religion is clothed, is closely bound up with Athonite history
and tradition. One of the teachers at the Athonite Academy was Neophytos
kafsolalyvitis (fl. 1760), a man of wisdom, musician, hymnwriter, and author of
Music on Mount Athos (compositions, settings, chant) continued to be greatly
cultivated both in the 19th and in the present century. It was something with
which many of the monks occupied themselves in their spare time. Monks,
anchorites, dwellers in sketes and kellia, in addition to fulfilling their other duties
and boring their manual work, engaged in writing and evolved as first-class
artists in poetry and hymnography, in music and melody. The Holy Mountain not
only produced poets and hymnwriters in the past, as we have seen; it continues
to produce them today.
In the 19th century, the leading figure in the world of music was loasaph of
Dionysiou, the pupil of Hourmouzios Chartophylax. He was responsible for
settings, the recording of music in writing, transprositions from the old to the new
notation, polyleoi, doxoliogies (for winter and summer), doxastika for Vespers,
the lite, Matins, etc. Among his fellow-pupils were Nikolaos of Vatopedi and
Nikolaos of Docheirariou. Nektarios Vlachos, pupil of these three teachers, was
the composer of mellifluous hymns, also famed for the quality of his noise and his
experience in musical matters (he served as the First Cantor of the Romanian
Skete of St John the Baptist on the Holy Mountain).
The fine, self-taught, hymnographer Gerasimos Mikrayannatis (1905-1991),
honoured by the Ecumenical Patriachate with the title of «Hymnographer of the
Great Church of Crist», was working on the Holy Mountain almost down to the
present day. His oeuvre - 47 bulky volumes (36,000 pages) - is preserved, littleknown
and unpublished, at the Skete of Little St Anne on the Holy Mountain. He
was the subject of the recent publication O Ymnographos Yerasimos Monachos
Mikrayannanitis kai i akolouthies tou se Aghious tis Thessalonikis («The
Hymmographer Gerasimos, Monk of Little St Anne, and his Services addressed
to Saints of Thessaloniki») by Archimandrite Georgios C. Chrysostomou
(published by the «Thessaloniki - Cultural Capital of Europe» Organisation). His
poems can also be found in other publications, such as Asmatiki akolouthia eis
ton Aghion kai dikaion Lazaron ton tetraimenon («Sung service dedicated to the
holy and just Lazarus, raised on the fourth day»), produced by the Monastery of
Vatopedi. Apolytikia, kontakia, and megalynaria have also been published by the
elder of Little St Anne Charalambos Tambakis.
In the present century, many Athonites have distinguished themselves as
mucisians and composers, as cantors and professors of Byzantine music and
Byzantine style. One could mention the monk Meletios Sykiotis (a fine
calligrapher and professor of Byzantine Music and Byzantine Icon Painting), the
Danielaioi and the priest Grigoris, the Thomades, and the monk Andreas (in the
world Charalambos Theophilopoulos, professor of Byzantine Music, writer and
composer), former secretary of the Holy Community. But there are many other
unseen heroes who are deserving of many honours and prizes because by the
painstaking work they have honoured and continued to honour the Holy
Mountain, showing that the «Garden of the Theotokos» (in the words of Kaisarios
Dapontes) is a source of inspiration for art. Better known among contemporary
Athonite cantors are the priest-monks Panteleimon (Kartsonas) of Little St Anne
and Gavril (Makavos) of Karyes, the deaconmonk Dionysios (Firfiris) of Karyes,
and the monk Ignatios of Vatopedi.
Many of the faithfull like to buy cassetes with recording of choirs of Athonite
farthers or individual monks, who, apart from hymns, have recorded a series of
lessons in Byzantine music, starting out from the Anastasematarion (for example,
those of the monk Andreas). The Simonopetra Monastery has made a number
of cassetes, including the service for the Blessed Simon, the Psalterion Terpon
(psalms and terirem), the well-known Agne Parthene, etc.
In church music the primary role is played by the melody, because it is this which
constitutes the substantive part of every musical composition, its soul being the
time. The hymns of the monks, well up from their noble, fervent and kindled
hearts. Like the Church itself, the monks on the Holy Christ. Their purpose is
not be conformed to this world, but to assimilate the world to themselves, in
parallel, of course, with the unifying mission of the Church.
A monk and prayer (standardised common prayer - service or individually -
mental prayer) are synonymous with mystical experience. Services in church
occupy one quarter of the 24 hours. Prayers, Matins, the Hours, Divine Litygry,
Ninth Hour - the monks are absorbed in spiritual things in their daily worship.
Each monastery has freely shaped its own typikon (observance); these are all
the same in essence, but differ as to details. The services in a monastery are the
service of heaven in miniature. All take part in this service; abbot, priest,
typikaris, kanonaris, reader, cantors. The main burden of the melody falls upon
the words, which stir up ardent feelings.
The hymns can be divided into oikoi, kathismata, exapolisteilaria, stichera,
apolytikia, kontakia, anabathmoi, eothina, antiphons, eirmoi, ypakoes,
katabasies, efches, prokeimena, passages from the Bible, and, depending upon
their use in worship, are further classified as triadika, dogmatika, doxastika,
(stavro)anastasemata, (stavro)theotokia, megalynaria, photagoghika, martyrika,
nekrosima, and evloghetaria.
Divine music is outpoured thoughout Athos, so that visitors feel that nature itself
is joining in, together with the heavens and all the stars. This is Mount Athos:
small in area, but such a source of light that it embraces the whole world. Music
is here another special wealth.
The marvellous wall-paintings of the monasteries, particulary of the Megiste
Lavra, Docheiariou, Dionysiou, Stavroniketa, Gregoriou, and Koutloumousiou
provide us with information about the musical instruments of the Middle Ages.
Here we can see stringed, wind, and percussion instruments, as well as various
dances. Whole books could be written on this subject. Musical instruments are
also to be found in miniatures, such as those of Stavroniketa and Esphigmenou.
On the Holy Mountain even the sound of the little bells on the censer and its
movements are closely bound up with psalmody and the Liturgy. Old hand-held
semantra are also to be found in the monasteries, such as that of 1622 at the
The monks of Mount Athos have never ceased to collect and produce settings for
hymns and to be publish books. From the period before the War, and entirely by
way of indication, we could cite the monk and cantor Nektarios, elder of the Lavra
Kelli of St Athanasius at Karyes (Kalliphonos Aidon, Mousikos Thisavros tis
Leitourgias kai tou Esperinou - « The fair-voiced Nightingale, a Musical Treasury
of the Liturgy and Vespers»). In our own times there is the monk Andreas,
formerly of Simonopetra (Anastasematarion, Matins, Enkolpion Esperiou, a
musical anthology of Ioannes Protopsaltes, and many other publications. Some
of the monasteries publish series, such as the Psalterion Terpnon of the
After reaching some high point, the Holy Mountain falls silent, is at peace. The
repeated pattern is a great upsurge of activity - followed by stillness.
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