One of the most powerful and stirring genres of the Christian musical tradition, Byzantine choir music encompasses the evocative mystery and poignant grandeur so central to the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
To the layperson’s ear it sounds similar to the more commonly known Gregorian chanting, but while Byzantine liturgical singing is every bit as old it has a more dramatic and exotic flavor. This unique character is primarily due to its intricate Eastern scales and methods of harmonizing the voices, which typically sing in Greek rather than Latin.
A rare and special opportunity to enjoy a new work in the style of that rich Byzantine tradition comes this weekend. The Choir Conference of the Southeastern Federation of Greek Orthodox Choirs and Musicians culminates in a live performance of a new choral setting of The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom by Chris Zervos during the regular 10 a.m. Sunday service at St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church at Bull and Anderson streets.
The performance of Zervos’s 2005 work helps cap a months-long celebration of the 100th year of the local Greek Orthodox congregation, which is hosting the weekend of workshops and seminars for Byzantine-style choirs from the entire southeast.
Wielding the baton at the performance will be acclaimed conductor Christopher Kypros, a composer in his own right and currently choir director for the Annunciation Cathedral in Norfolk, Va.
Now employed by the city of Toledo, Ohio, Zervos himself will come to Savannah to accompany the combined choir on organ as they perform his work. We spoke with Zervos last week about his Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.
Why did you pick the Divine Liturgy as the template for your new work?
Chris Zervos: It’s the most commonly used liturgy in the Greek Orthodox church, basically the standard Sunday liturgy.
It’s important to make clear that this is actually a choral setting. St. John Chrysostom wrote the text, and I came up with the music. I can’t claim to have developed all the melodic lines, because in many cases some of the melodic lines have been developed by others working in the tradition.
What’s unique about your version?
Chris Zervos: First off, I chose to do it bilingually. I was of course told it couldn’t be done, that one could not put classical Greek and modern spoken English into the same musical score. But I discovered that by using some creative musical notation that it could indeed be done.
Why would it be so difficult to combine the two languages in one work?
Chris Zervos: There’s a real linguistics problem, because classical Greek has a syntax and structure that frequently is antithetical to English. Also Byzantine music is written with the emphasis on the hymn text, whereas the western world would tend to recognize the melodic line.
Byzantine music is kind of like Byzantine art: What you see is what you get. For example, if you’re referring to heaven, the line runs up. If you refer to earth, the line runs down.
Writing a liturgical work from scratch, based on a beloved text, must be pretty daunting.
Chris Zervos: I was initially challenged by my parish priest in Toledo to develop a church hymn for the parish, with the parameters being that he wanted it done according to tradition, he wanted it so it could be sung by an adult mixed choir and also by the youth choir in unison, and finally he wanted it to be able to be sung by the congregation both in Greek and English.
I knew I’d have to set it in a lower range to meet the criteria for youth voices and congregation. And with the harmonic portion I already knew what I was going to do there.
I had just retired from a career as a custom homebuilder, working 16 or 18 hours a day, so I just tackled it in the same capacity as I would have my business. Basically from October through March I worked on it nonstop. I finished the first draft and put it out to friends and other musicians and rewrote it in December.
That’s almost like a playwright workshopping a play before finishing it, right?
Chris Zervos: Well, with any chordal progression in choral music there’s the issue of voice leading -- how you take singers from note to note to note using the shortest most comfortable intervals and get them to the right points to create the chord. Doing that successfully within a choral work is probably the biggest challenge. And yet you still have to come up with something interesting to sing and something appropriate to text.
Did you at any point feel spiritually moved while composing the work, or was it more of a technical exercise?
Chris Zervos: I absolutely allowed the spirit to move me. Whatever limited success I may be blessed to have from this, that’s the main reason.
I have to admit I did not follow strict Byzantine rules of music production. I approached it from an emotional standpoint. I saw the beauty and passion, the pleas, the emotional pathos that is contained within these hymns and prayers. I couldn’t simply write something simple and straightforward, a 1-3-5 chord type of production. I knew I had to create something that elicited more of an emotional response.
Without sounding spiritualist, there were moments when I sat in my office that I felt a presence beyond only myself. I had to work quietly on this, because I worked at night into the wee hours of morning and didn’t want to wake everyone in the house. Finally when I was able to play the music back I was shocked at what I was hearing. It’s very emotional.
The Orthodox church is often criticized for being too intellectual. But the more you really study the faith, the more you see that it actually has a quite rich and multilayered emotional foundation.
Chris Zervos: That’s very true. And I’ll also tell you I’ve been criticized for some of liberties I’ve taken. But the results bore the fruit I was looking to see borne. I’ve had more people come to me where this liturgy has been sung, sobbing and throwing their arms around me, thanking me, saying “I’ve never experienced anything like this before.”
Certainly it was very much the desired response, but I was also shocked that so many middle-aged adult Orthodox observers have never had the opportunity to experience the full beauty of liturgical worship. I probably was one of them at some point. That’s why I decided to do this.
Does the type of organ at a church dictate the quality of the performance, or are the instruments standardized from church to church?
Chris Zervos: (Laughs) Oh, they’re not standardized at all. There are any number of them, all different vintages and ages. Fortunately the organ at St. Paul’s in Savannah is an excellent organ. I have to do a little research ahead of time.
I performed in Boston at the Annunciation Cathedral this past November, and they had some antique instrument that of course they’re very proud of. It looked more like kiddy toy (laughs). I couldn’t believe it. I had to bring a special chair to sit in so I could play it properly. It was like sitting on telephone books!
The 31st Annual Choir Conference of the Southeastern Federation of Greek Orthodox Choirs and Musicians will be hosted July 26-29 by St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church. Go to www.stpaul.ga.goarch.org/choirlanding.html for more info about the event and its schedule.
The performance of Chris Zervos’s choral setting of The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom will be during the regular 10 a.m. Sunday service at St. Paul’s at Bull and Anderson streets.