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The liturgy of the Syrian churches

Today the liturgical texts of the Syrian Churches can to a large extent be found on the Internet. For further information one can turn to informative web sites, such as the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch.

As an accompaniment while you read this page you can listen to a Melchite chant from the 4th century, sung by Sister Marie Keyrouz (Chants Sacré Melchites HMC901497).

Syrian Orthodox church music is presented on the home page Beth Gazo Dne`motho of the Syrian Orthodox Resources.

By clicking on Modus 1 "Quqoyo" we can listen to a chant in mode I, here called "Quqoyo", performed by Patriarch Jacob III and recorded in America during the 1960s. These recordings have been published on the Internet in RA format. The same material has also been transcribed by Nouri Isaknadar and was published in book form in 1992.

This is an excerpt from "Beth Gazo in the voice of Patriarch Jacob III". Source: Syrian Orthodox Resources & Syriac Comp. Inst. USA.

Church Music

In its present form the Syrian Orthodox liturgy dates from the 5th century. The starting point was the Greek Orthodox liturgy which was translated into Syrian and which over the years was influenced by Byzantine traditions. The "East Syrian" liturgy developed during the 7th century.

Syrian Orthodox church music, Beth Gazo Dne'motho in Suryoyo (approximately "Treasury of Chants") is exclusively vocal and nowadays consists of about 700 chants. The chants constitute an integral part of the liturgy. The church music is based on eight modes, in analogy with both the Byzantine and the Gregorian modal system. Each chant can be sung in every mode; the choice of mode depends on when it is used during the church year.

The different modes are numbered from one to eight (Qadmoyo = Mode 1, Trayono = Mode 2 and so on). The church year is divided up into eight-week cycles, starting on the eighth Sunday before Christmas. On this Sunday Qadmoyo is used, Trayono is sung on the following Sunday, and so on. As in Byzantine church music the modes are used in pairs. Modes 1 and 5 are used during the first week, modes 2 and 6 during the second week, and so on. During each church week the modes are sung every other day: mode 1 on Sunday, mode 5 on Monday, mode 1 on Tuesday, mode 5 on Wednesday, and so on.

Click to look at a chant in Trayono, notated by Gabriel Assad.

From church music to popular music

Is present-day Assyrian popular music based on Syrian Orthodox church music? The question is particularly interesting, since Assyrians themselves often point out that their popular music has an affinity with church music, and that this specific musical feature distinguishes it from other popular music in the Middle East.

Hammarlund (1990) discusses the modal system in Syrian Orthodox church music and presents the vocabulary of available pitches of its eight modes.

Source: Hammarlund 1990:79

Hammarlund states that all the modes remain within a narrower interval than the octave; the store of tones of each respective mode is restricted to groups of three to five notes with additional "introductory notes". When these modal structures are borrowed and used in profane music (popular music), the tonal range is usually extended so that the scale covers the whole octave.

Hammarlund shows that the tonal range of the church modes corresponds to the maqam system in Arabic/Turkish art music. When the range of tones is extended in popular music, this correspondence becomes even more obvious in relation to the modally based Arabic and Turkish popular music. The Qadmoyo mode, which is frequently used in popular music, is used today in the same way as the Bayati maqam or the Ussak maqam, the Tminoyo mode is used like the Hicaz maqam, the Rbihoyo mode like the Rast maqam, and so on.

Modal structures in Assyrian music:


Source: Interview with Joseph Malki, 3rd March, 1997.
Transcription Dan Lundberg.

Qadmoyo or Bayati

Hammarlund considers that "it is therefore obvious that the basic principles of the modal system used in the Syrian liturgy cannot be regarded as specific to this genre". Where Assyrian popular music is concerned, one can say that it has developed towards a kind of general "Middle East style".

Listen to the singer Ablahad Lahdo in Joseph Malki's composition Bu Shalvo Nahitina from the CD "Ninib A. Lahdo". Are we hearing the Qadmoyo church mode or the Bayati maqam?

From a musical perspective the question may seem unwarranted, since these modes are obviously related to each other. The Middle East is often described as a cultural crossroads where large numbers of ethnic and religious groups have lived side by side for thousands of years. Obviously these groups' music, dance, handicrafts etc, have cross-fertilised each other. But although the question of Qadmoyo or Bayati may appear to be about musical structures, it is in fact a political issue, an issue which is highly important for the Assyrian identity as a whole. Joseph Malki's position as cultural adviser to the Assyrian National Federation involves organising courses for young people and teaching Assyrian music. An important background to this cultural education is that the musical legacy is seen as a part of the Assyrian identity. To Joseph Malki, even if Qadmoyo sounds the same as Bayati – which as a musician he is of course well aware of – it is nevertheless completely different.

When asked if it is possible to prove – and if it is necessary to prove – that the musical legacy really is Assyrian, Joseph Malki answers:

But I'm not the one who says it, it's the Swedish, American and English researchers who say it. A nation that lived there for 4,000 years and had three great empires over the years. And there were instruments, too. The harp – the kithara – has existed for more than 6,700 years. There is evidence in history and in cuneiform script that music was performed by male and female singers, temple worshippers and all that. These maqams have existed for 2,000 years, and 2,000 years ago Assyrians were the only people living in this region. No-one outside this empire has had anything to do with it. The Arabs came with 20,0000 horse-riders, but the people were still Assyrians until the Ottomans came and began to kill them off little by little. If you try and draw a conclusion from this, then you arrive at the fact that our music is one of the oldest. Against this background it must have been our music that was practised.

But music develops to a large extent as the result of meetings. Look at it this way: there was an Assyrian culture with Assyrian music, there were Persians, Arabs, different Turkish tribes All of them bring something with them when they come. Everybody meets So it's incredibly difficult today to say what was really the nucleus.

But the structure, these main maqams, since they've survived. Books from the 4th century mention Qadmoyo, Trayono And it was an isolated nation. From the year dot to modern time. That's the strongest evidence. We haven't mixed with anybody. You know, only simple farmers, poor, illiterate people. That's the strongest evidence. I hope I'm right.

Malki and a handful of other Assyrians have put an enormous amount of work into legitimising Assyrian music and creating uniformity in the motley musical flora. But they must do more than just prove that Assyrian music is different from Arabic/Turkish traditions; they must also struggle to co-ordinate Assyrian music theory – its starting point in Syrian church music turns out to be anything but uniform.

Throughout history, local variations to the melodies of the Beth Gazo emerged forming various schools of music. The relationship between all these schools still awaits studies by musicologists. It must also be pointed out that, there are variations, albeit minor, in each local school from one chanter to another. Therefore, any serious study must make use of many recordings by different chanters from different schools.

On the Beth Gazo Dne'motho home page, seven different traditions or schools of Syrian church chanting are presented, from the Indian traditions in the East, via the Tarkit school at the Mosul Monastery in Iraq to the West Assyrian schools from Mardin and Tur'Abdin.

If we compare Hammarlund's transcriptions with the scales that Joseph Malki uses, we can see that the names don't quite match. Hammarlund's Rbihoyo is called Hmishoyo, for example. There is no record of Malki's Rbihoyo (which corresponds to the Rast maqam) in Hammarlund's material. If we also consult the material published by Syrian Orthodox Resources, which is based on the Mardin school, we find considerable discrepancies. The background to this is not primarily that there are differences of opinions about the nomenclature, but rather that it is a question of different traditions, combined with the simple fact that there is no uniform music theory.