Saturday, 15 August 2015

A morning in Kilkenny, with lost music
from Byzantium and poetry by Yeats

Aghia Sophia … the interior of the great basilica of Byzantium

Patrick Comerford

I am in Kilkenny this morning [15 August 2015] for a lecture by Alexander Lingas on ‘The Lost Music of Byzantium’. The lecture in the Parade Tower is part of the programme of this year’s Kilkenny Arts Festival. As this year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of WB Yeats, the ideas for the lecture as inspired, in part, by Yeats’ great poem, ‘Sailing to Byzantium,’ and is one two talks exploring visions of the great city.

In this morning’s lecture, Alexander Lingas uncovers the lost traditions of Byzantine music. When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, sacred Byzantine chant was almost lost and forgotten in the West.

Lingas is the founder and Artistic Director of Cappella Romana, an ensemble celebrated for its recordings of this repertoire. He promises to take us in search of the sacred music that was heard in Aghia Sophia, the great church built by the Emperor Justinian in the same century in which Saint Canice founded his monastic settlement at Kilkenny.

The last Divine Liturgy was served in Aghia Sophía (Άγια Σοφία) in Constantinople on Tuesday 29 May 1453. But it was disrupted by the Ottoman slaughter of all who were present in the Great Church that day.

Aghia Sophia was the cathedral of Constantinople until it was captured and desecrated by the Ottomans in 1453. It was then turned into a mosque and became a museum in 1935. Since then, all worship, Christian or Muslim, has been prohibited there.

There are many Greek legends about the Fall of Constantinople. It was said there was a total lunar eclipse on 22 May 1453, and that it was seen as a harbinger of the fall of the city. Four days later, the whole city was covered in a thick fog, which is unusual at this time of the year in the Eastern Mediterranean. When the fog lifted that evening, a strange light was seen above the dome of Aghia Sophia, and from the city walls lights were seen far out to the West, behind the camp of the besieging Turks.

Some people who saw it interpreted the light around the dome as a sign of the Holy Spirit departing from Aghia Sophia.

According to tradition, the Divine Liturgy in Aghia Sophia on Tuesday 29 May 1453 was being served by two priests, one Orthodox and one Roman Catholic, as Constantinople fell to the besieging Muslim forces. When the Ottoman invaders approached the altar, the south wall of the church is said to have opened at the touch of an angel and at his direction the priests miraculously passed through the wall, with the Holy Gifts in their hands. The door that had appeared in the solid wall closed behind the priests and reportedly will not appear again, nor will it opened again, until the interrupted Divine Liturgy can be resumed. It is said that when that day comes, the priests will re-enter through the same doorway through which they disappeared.

A similar legend says that when the Ottomans entered the city, an angel rescued the last emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus, turned him into marble and placed him in a cave under the earth near the Golden Gate. There he awaits being brought to life again.

Inside Aghia Sophia … the Liturgy of Saint John John Chrysostom became the liturgical norm in the Church of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople

The fall of Constantinople and the legends that have grown up about it provide many of the images in the anonymous Greek poem, ‘The Last Mass in Santa Sophia’:

Σημαίνει ὁ Θιόϛ, σημαίνει ἡ γῆ, σημαίνουν τὰ ἐπουράνια,
σημαίνει κ’ ἡ Ἁγιὰ Σοφιά, τὸ μέγα μοναστήρι,
μὲ τετρακόσια σήμαντρα κ’ ἑξηνταδυὸ καμπάνεϛ,
κάθε καμπάνα καὶ παπάϛ, κάθε παπὰϛ καὶ διάκοϛ.

Ψάλλει ζερβὰ ὁ βασιλιάϛ, δεξιὰ ὁ πατριάρχηϛ,
κι’ ἀπ’ τὴν πολλὴ τὴν ψαλμουδιὰ ἐσειόντανε οἱ κολόνεϛ.
Νὰ μποῦνε στὸ χερουβικὸ καὶ νά ’βγη ὁ βασιλέαϛ,
φωνή τούς ήρθε έξ ουρανου κι απ ̓ αρχαγγέλου στόμα:

«Παψετε το Χερουβικο κι’ ας χαμηλωσουν τ ̓ αγια,
παπάδεϛ πάρτε τὰ γιερά, καὶ σεῖϛ κεριὰ σβηστῆτε,
γιατὶ εἶναι θέλημα Θεοῦ ἡ Πόλη νὰ τουρκέψῃ.

Μὸν στεῖλτε λόγο στὴ Φραγγιά, νά ’ρθουνε τρία καράβια,
τό ’να νὰ πάρῃ τὸ σταυρὸ καὶ τἄλλο τὸ βαγγέλιο,
τὸ τρίτο τὸ καλλίτερο, τὴν ἅγια τράπεζά μαϛ,
μὴ μᾶϛ τὴν πάρουν τὰ σκυλιὰ καὶ μᾶϛ τὴ μαγαρίσουν.»

Ἡ Δέσποινα ταράχτηκε καὶ δάκρυσαν οἱ εἰκόνεϛ.
«Σώπασε κυρὰ Δέσποινα καὶ μὴ πολυδακρύζειϛ,
πάλι μὲ χρόνια μὲ καιρούϛ, πάλι δικά σαϛ εἶναι.»

God rings the bells, the earth rings the bells, the sky rings the bells,
and Santa Sophia, the great church, rings the bells:
four hundred sounding-boards and sixty-two bells,
a priest for each bell and a deacon for each priest.

To the left the Emperor was chanting, to the right the Patriarch,
and from the volume of the chant, the pillars were shaking.
As they were about to sing the hymn of the Cherubim,
and the Emperor was about to appear,
A voice came to them from heaven, from the mouth of the Archangel:

‘Stop the Cherubic hymn, and let the holy elements bow in mourning.
The priests must take the sacred vessels away,
and you candles must be extinguished,
for it is the will of God that the City fall to the Turks.

‘But send a message to the West, asking for three ships to come,
one to take the Cross away, another the Holy Bible,
the third, the best of the three, our Holy Altar,
lest the dogs seize it from us and defile it.’

The Virgin was distressed, and the holy icons wept.
‘Hush, Lady, do not weep so profusely;
‘After years and after centuries they will be yours again.’


The beautiful interior of the Church of Aghia Sophia in Thessaloniki ... its design is a replica of the great Aghia Sopha in Byzantium (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The references in the poem to the numbers of tocsins, bells, high priests, priests, and deacons do not reflect historic reality. On the other hand, the Greek in this poem, interestingly, has just one word to express the phrase “fall to the Turks” – τουρκέψῃ (turkepsi!).

The poem achieved great popularity during the Greek War of Independence and may have been the most popular demotic song among Greek-speakers in the 19th and early 20th century.

The song became the anthem of the so-called Megali Idea (Μεγάλη Ιδέα), and its emotional themes were echoed in influential literary circles. Nikos Kazantzakis made it the climax of his play Constantine Palaeologus, which he wrote in 1944 while Greece was under Nazi occupation.

The play concludes with the two last lines from another version of the poem:

«Σώπασε, κυρα Δέσποινα, μὴν κλαῖς καὶ μὴ δακρύζεις·
πάλι μὲ χρόνους, μὲ καιρούς, πάλι δικιὰ μας θά ’ναι!»

‘Hush, Lady, do not weep so profusely;
‘After years and after centuries they will be yours again.’


The reference to the Virgin Mary at the end of the poem as Κυρά Δέσποινα is interesting today as 15 August is the Feast of the Dormition in the East (Greek: Κοίμησις Θεοτόκου, Koímēsis Theotokos), or the Assumption in the West, and today is the name day for Greek women with the names Maria and Despoina.

«Σώπασε, κυρα Δέσποινα, μὴν κλαῖς καὶ μὴ δακρύζεις· πάλι μὲ χρόνους, μὲ καιρούς, πάλι δικιὰ μας θά ’ναι!» ... An icon of the Dormition

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