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Good Friday in Jerusalem - Medieval Byzantine Chant from the church of the Holy Sepulchre
Cappella Romana/Alexander Lingas
rec. Stanford Memorial Church, California, 2013

Jerusalem was filled with people of all nations, as befits a city of pilgrimage. Droves of superior-looking tourists who had come to gaze curiously on the rites of the Eastern Church were queerly mixed with humble Eastern Christians. That was in 1984 when I was there for what turned out to be a richly memorable week.

I was told that if I wanted to witness the Greek ceremony of the feet washing I should rise at 5.00 am and join the crowds for the 8:00 am start that was eventually 9.00 am. It was here that I first heard what we could call Byzantine chant. The singing was steadily and rhythmically paced to match the slow procession of Copts and Egyptian Christians walking out of the church of the Holy Sepulchre where they had been chanting and praying for an hour before. It is quite unlike the free and liquid movement of Gregorian chant — utterly unforgettable. The church bell, which rang later, had a haunting rhythm and tone quality, which I can still recall.

Listening to this CD especially during this Holy Week (2015) has brought it all back and the helpful diagram of the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in the booklet reminds me of the astounding church which dominates the area.

The washing of feet is followed by a procession to what was that day, the sun topped crest of the Mount of Olives. It is at this point that the CD kicks in with the first Antiphon ‘Rulers of the Peoples were gathered together against the Lord’ although some texts refer back to the events of Maundy Thursday, the last supper in particular. From the Mount the highest buildings are now gilded with light. Originally this walk was done in the middle of the night but on my visit it was considered too dangerous. After that pilgrims move on to Gethsemane and Golgotha — ‘Today he who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon a tree’.

To follow the procession in the footsteps of Christ and amid the great crowds is an exhausting undertaking although the city itself is surprisingly small. It’s still worth tracking to the church of the Holy Wisdom (Haggia Sophia) built reputedly on the site of the Pavement in the palace of Pontius Pilate and then back to the church of the Anastasis, a circular ambulatory around the tomb of Christ. The CD follows, musically the very route that I so vividly recall but ends at the chapel of Holy Custody. All the time comes chant after rhythmic chant. Some are in unison and some have a drone or harmony and solo voice as in the Three-Ode Kanon composed in the 8th century by Kosmos the Monk: ‘See my friends do not be afraid for now the hour is near’. Note also Ode 8, which tells of Christ’s prediction of Peter’s denial after promising that ‘master I will gladly die for you”.

So the CD, to quote the fascinating and quite detailed booklet notes by the choir’s director Alexander Lingas sets out to feature “excerpts from the Service of the Holy Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ as it would have been celebrated in Jerusalem during the transitional period of its ritual Byzantinisation, an archaic cousin of the service celebrated on Holy Thursday evening.” The source material is taken from ‘The Typikon of the Anastasis copied in 1122 at the amazing Holy Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai. Much of its music however can be traced back a further five hundred years in some cases and the booklet essay goes into much detail about the musicians involved in its creation; men like Romanus the Melodist, a deacon of Beirut who ”established himself as the greatest composer of the multi-stanza hymns’, for example Ode 9.
As well as Hymns there are portions of psalms like 148 and 149 – praise psalms, curiously for such a penitential day: ‘the high praises of God are in their mouths and two-edged swords in their hands’. There are also sections from the gospel relating the passion narrative.

It seems that Cappella Romana have recorded another ten CDs of similar repertoire although I have not heard any of them. They are clearly experienced at reproducing these chants in an authentically believable manner. They consist of eleven named (male) singers of which six appear to be Greek including the group’s director.

Incidentally there is an error in track numbering on the back of the CD case but the booklet is a model of its kind, with the fascinating essay alluded to, colour photos, biographies and the layout of the Holy Sepulchre given. The texts are in Greek and translated into English. What one ought to do is to gaze on an icon whilst listening to this timeless music.

Gary Higginson

1. In Procession to the Mount of Olives
2. At the Pavement
3. In Procession to Golgotha
4. Kosmos the Monk (8th century) At Golgotha Three - Triodion
5. Romanus the Melodist (6th century) Kontakion on the Passion of the Lord (syllabic melody)
6. Psaltikon melody, Stella Kontakakotis, domestikos
7. Ode 8 “Greater in Honour than the Cherubim”
8. Ode 9 “O Lord, who on this very Day”
10. Lauds: Psalm 148-50
11-15 Theophanes Protothronos (9th century) Leo the Wise (866-912) and Byzantios: Sticheron prosomoion and Stichera idiomela
16. Doxastikon by a Stoudite (9th century)
17. At the Chapel of the Holy Custody