Stelyos Berber talks about the importance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople for the development of Greek Orthodox Church music and how music played a significant role in Greek Orthodox culture for centuries. Stelyos sang in the choir of the Patriarchate in Istanbul for 20 years, before which he attended as a child.
Greek Orthodox music is also called ‘Byzantine Church Music’ because the tradition dates back to the Byzantine times. After the Conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, the Patriarchate of Constantinople remained as the central church of the Orthodox Christians and they continued the Byzantine music tradition.
Orthodox music is very different from the music of the Catholic Church, which belongs to a Western tradition. The Orthodox tradition has more of an Eastern Culture. This music is kept alive in churches. This is a vocal, monophonic, a cappella tradition without instruments. To learn this, you have to work with a teacher. It is not kind of music to be learned from a book. Because you cannot write this music one hundred percent; you cannot transmit it in writing, but you can transmit it verbally. You probably saw that we had small children in our choir. In such an environment, we help those children to absorb both that aura and that music at a subconscious level. Afterwards, we reinforce this with the lessons we do and the training we give them, and we pull it up [to the next level]. So, this is the characteristic of this music roughly.
In this tradition, there are two choirs, each with male singers, standing at the two sides of the soleas which is the sanctuary platform in Orthodox Churches. The music has complex and specific modal and tonal characteristics.
Stelyos says that it’s hard to continue this tradition in Istanbul, since the city’s Greek population has diminished dramatically. Although the presence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople helps to keep this historic tradition in its homeland, its future survival is at risk because of population change.
Here you can hear the sound of hymns from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul. The Patriarch Bartholomew I attended and sang during this service. The recording was made by sound artist Tim Shaw on our visit to Istanbul in 2018. We are grateful to the Patriarchate for their permission to record this.