The New Method of Musical Notation in the Greek Church and the Μεγα Θεωρητικον της Μουσικης(a)

A New Approach to the Work of Chrysanthos of Madytos:

The Greeks owe the musical notation used today in their churches to Chrysanthos of Madytos, Gregory the Protopsaltes and Chourmouzios the Chartophylax. This notational system, known today as the New Method, was formulated by them in Constantinople in 1814.

The extant information about the development of Byzantine notation from the fall of Constantinople to the 19th century vividly illustrates the fact that Greek church musicians had become increasingly more confused and puzzled by the old system. At the same time Byzantine hymns were being sung more and more from oral tradition despite the fact that a series of attempts had been made to simplify the existing notation.

Illustration of the chaos

The first notice about ‘the need of characters for the music of the Greeks’ was made as early as the mid 16th century in a treatise of a student of Zarlino, a Greek Cypriot named Hieronymus. Realizing that his fellow countrymen had for some time misunderstood their notation and had confused one neume with another, he invented a system of his own, drawing both from Byzantine and European notational methods [1].

Hieronymus’s system received almost no attention and was soon forgotten.

Around the middle of the 17th century several of the older music books were interpreted with the understanding that their neumes were stenographic symbols which represented more or less lengthy groups of notes or extended melismata [2]. This interpretation, however, was not uniformly held in Greece. Rather, it was based on the tradition and the opinion of each teacher but not on art; and in one case they are chanted in one way and in the other in some other way; and in one echos [mode] they are chanted in one way and in another in some other way. And one teacher chants them in one way and another teacher of the same art in another way; and one teacher makes in one case a melodic line of some kind, a second teacher of the same art gives another interpretation and a third teacher, something different [3]. Each teacher of the art invented his own “method of interpretation”, improving upon the system which he had learned from his teacher [4]. The failure of these improvements became so clear, that Patriarch Gregory V showed great interest in the radical reforms proposed in 1797 by Agapios Paliermos who recommended the introduction of European staff notation in the Greek Church. The Patriarchate, naturally conservative and opposed to Westernization, rejected this proposal. Agapios then suggested the adoption of an alphabetical system of his own invention. This was given more consideration, but rejected all the same.

In order to preserve the religious, political and economic privileges bestowed on it by the Ottoman Porte since 1453, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople adopted, during the entire period of Turkish ascendancy, a strongly conservative attitude which was seriously criticized by the liberal and progressive laity. This ideology of the Patriarchate may be considered valuable from one point of view, namely, for the influence it had in preventing an early break with tradition. But owing to its lack of initiative in organizing elementary education for the majority of Greeks who did not have the opportunity to study abroad or in the schools of the Patriarchate, there were destructive results [5]. For this reason it has been stated that the level of education in Greece at the beginning of the 19th century was no higher than that of the 11th century in Western Europe [6]. With this situation at hand it is legitimate to assume that any attempt to reform the notation, whether conceived in Europe or in Constantinople, was made known only to a limited number of Greeks. The vast majority of the chanters learned the music by heart, as sung in their immediate locality and were not concerned whether their versions resembled the written prototypes. Already, from the middle of the 17th century, European travellers expressed their surprise at the fact that the Greeks never used their music books, but learned the hymns by ear [7].

There were two factors which accounted for the decadence of the musical notation. One arose as a result of misunderstanding by the educated and the other because of the ignorance of the uneducated. By the 18th century both factors became glaring realities. European travellers, now more abundant, were shocked at the ignorance of the Greeks. The French scholar, Villoteau, the first Western musician to deal seriously with the music of the Greek Church, was frustrated because, after a five-month search, he found only one person able to explain a manual of the notation—and even this explanation was imperfect [8].

The Greek musician, Constalas, was exasperated with the whole situation: “What is the right thing”, he asked, ”Is it proper for both teachers and students of this art, after so many years of endeavour, to end in finding themselves in the middle of a vast sea, not knowing where they are?”[9] This chaotic situation began to improve only after the reform of 1814.

The Reform

If, in spite of the great need for a simpler musical system, all previous attempts to achieve a reform had failed, it was because they adhered to one of two highly contradictory approaches: the first which completely broke with tradition, and the second which displayed the familiar complexity and lack of clarity. The three teachers secured the success of their new method by following a middle course. They endowed their system with a simplicity, clarity and economy which permitted musical printing [10]. Furthermore, they adhered to the traditional system to a sufficient degree thereby permitting the adoption of the Method by the conservative Patriarchate.

Unlike their teachers, Chrysanthos and his collaborators absorbed many elements of European notation and unlike Hieronymus and even more Agapios, they disguised those elements in Greek clothings. The New Method preserved the earlier distinction between the quantitative and the qualitative neumes. The former indicated the actual notes, while the latter, the rhythmic and expressive nuances or ornaments which applied to the notes. The quantitative neumes remained diastematic: they did not indicate frequency but the difference of two frequencies—not the pitch but the interval, and this only approximately, not distinguishing the difference between major, minor, diminished or augmented intervals. Hieronymus, who had considered this a defect, invented additional neumes for the exact indication of the intervals [11].


K. Romanou, Athens, Greece


[1] Oliver Strunk, “A Cypriot in Venice”. Naralicia musicologica: Knud Jeppesen septuagenario collegis oblata, Copenhagen, 1962, pp. 101-13.

[2] The earlier ‘interpretations’ known are those by Balasios (c. 1670). There followed, up to 1814, close to 45 ‘interpreters’, among which were Panagiotes Chalatzoglou, John of Trebizond, Peter the Peloponnesian, Peter Byzantinos, James the Protopsaltes, George the Cretan, Chrysanthos and his collaborators.

[3] Γραμματικὴ Κωνστάλα, Korae Library (Chios) MS 194. fol. 45v.

[4] In G. Papadopoulos’s Συμβολαὶ εἰς τὴν ἱστορίαν τῆς παρ’ἡμῖν ἐκκλησιαστικῆς μουσικῆς Athens, 1890, pp. 12, 317, 318, 329, 331 and 324, we get the impression that Chrysanthos’s reform was the outcome of a sequence of similar improvements that started in 1756 with John of Trebizond. His system was improved first by his students George the Cretan and Peter Peloponnesian and again by the students of the former, Gregory the Protopsaltes and Chourmouzios the Chartophylax, and of the latter, Peter Byzantios, the teacher of Chrysanthos.

[5] For a description of the postion held by the Patirarchate during the years 1453 to 1821 and its attitude towards the Greek people, see Steven Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity, Cambridge, 1968, pp. 391-406.

[6] Spyros B. Markezines, Πολιτικὴ ἱστορία τῆς νεωτέρας Ἑλλάδος , Athens, 1966, p. 53.

[7] Jacob Goar, Εὐχολόγιον Paris, 1647, p. 349.

[8] This person was Gabriel, first chanter in the Patriarchal Church of Cairo. Villoteau complains that Gabriel was unable to explain the function of the ‘great signs’. Villoteau, De l’art musical en Égypte (Vol. 14 of Description de l’Égypte) transl. into Greek by Eug. Perdikares, Venice, 1874, p. 32.

[9] Γραμματικὴ Κωνστάλα, Korae Library (Chios) MS 194. fol. 45v.

[10] The first printed editions of Greek music were made in Bucarest by Peter Ephesios, a student of the three teachers. There, in 1820, he published the first two music editions, the Ἀναστασιματάριον and the Σύντομον Δοξαστάριον of Peter the Peloponnesian. The first Greek musician to have his work published during his own lifetime was Chrysanthos with his Εἰσαγωγὴ εἰς τὸ θεωρητικὸν καὶ πρακτικὸν τῆς ἐκκλησιαστικῆς μουσικῆς, Paris, 1821 (hereafter referred to as Εἰσαγωγὴ).

[11] Oliver Strunk, op. cit, pp. 102-3.




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