For today’s musical Sunday, I thought I would like to feature some devotional music, which is by far the most common type of music to survive from the Middle Ages. Given that literacy was confined primarily to churchmen, and nearly all manuscripts were produced in a religious setting, it shouldn’t surprise us that this should be the case. Even so, the work I want to introduce you to today, the Akathistos Hymn composed by Ian Moody and performed by early music group Cappella Romana, has enjoyed an unusually long life.
Composed early in the 6th century, when Byzantium was still a large empire with territories from the Balkans to Egypt, the Akathistos hymn was sung shortly after Christmas as a part of the standard liturgical calendar. It praises and commemorates the Virgin Mary, a popular figure of devotion throughout the Christian world who was particularly revered in Byzantium.
The version sung by Cappella Romana, however, has been adapted slightly from this prototype. First, revisions were made to the content of the hymn in the early 7th century, a particularly trying time for Byzantium. A war with the Persians at the turn of the century, for example, culminated in the besieging of Constantinople in 626, during which the Virgin was reportedly seen atop the walls. To celebrate the lifting of the siege, the wording of the hymn was phrased slightly, and the custom of standing during its performance became common (reflected in the Greek of ‘Akathist’, or ‘not seated’.)
This adapted hymn became standard in many orthodox churches across the Byzantine lands, and was performed from the Middle Ages into recent times. The recording presented by Cappella Romana, however, retains the original Greek-language refrains while presenting the verses in English translation. As a result, the listener will hear the early mediaeval melodies of the original composition, as well as complementary melodies from the more recent Russian Orthodox tradition.
Together, these melodies create a rich tapestry of choral voices that surges from the beseeching to the triumphant, with an exquisite blend of power and grace. A masterpiece of Byzantine music, it charts a course through these emotions into an exultant crecendo, typified by these verses of the Twelfth Chant:
Hail, Unshakable Tower of the Church!
Hail, Unbreachable Wall of the Kingdom!
Hail, O you through whom the trophies are raised!
Hail, O you through whome the enemies are routed!
Here, it is easy to see how the Akathistos Hymn, and early Byzantine culture in general, perceived the Virgin Mary as a powerful intercessor and incarnation of the Word of God. These attributes made her a fitting symbol of victory, and a focus for hope during trying times.
Although each of these twelve chants has its merits, sensing the rhythm of the piece, and its expressive monumentality, is best done by listening to the recording through in its entirety (although I wouldn’t recommend standing as you do it.)
By listening to the rich, reverent tapestries in sequence, you will also be repeating an experience shared by Byzantine emperors, their courtiers, and generations of orthodox faithful, creating a moment of contact with the mediaeval past through one of its best-preserved musical traditions.
The Cappella Romana website has details about this and other recordings, as well as dates for live performances in the United States.
A translation of the Akathistos Hymn is also available from the Fordham Internet Medieval Sourcebook.