The Byzantine Empire existed from 330 to 1453 CE, varying in size over centuries with territories in Italy, Greece, the Balkans, the Levant, Asia Minor, and North Africa. While it was significantly influenced by the Greco-Roman cultural tradition, its culture was distinct and its influence is evident even today, especially in music, religion, art, and law of many countries. A cosmopolitan culture, the Byzantine music tradition was influenced by diverse poetic and musical traditions, such as Jewish sacred music, Syriac chant, and western polyphony. The other way round, the influence of Byzantine music is reflected in Western chant, Russian and Slavonic church music, as well as the many musical traditions of the Mediterranean world.
Historical sources show that music in the Byzantine empire was a part of everyday activities, like celebrations, feasts, theatres, horse races, games, receptions, and royal galas. Undoubtedly, Byzantine music had a rich tradition of instrumental court music and dance. One of the biggest legacies of the empire was the Byzantine chant, or unison chant of the Greek Orthodox church which is still performed today as part of the liturgy of the Greek-speaking Eastern Orthodox Churches. This monophonic liturgical music flourished during the Byzantine Empire till the 16th century. The chant is music for the voice with no instrumental accompaniment. It is monophonic, with no harmony, though there is an ison, a continuous base note. It is also made up of microtones, small, subtle gradations between the whole and half steps of the Western scale. Musicologists say that we are conditioned to hear the equally tempered instruments like the piano and that it is harder to pick up the microtones.
The Byzantine chant has been a source of influence and inspiration in the music of numerous twentieth-century composers and continues to be of influence in the early years of the twenty-first century. Byzantine chant influences shop up in various ways among contemporary composers’ works, ranging from full or partial chant quotations to the use of chant musical elements. Examples of using musical elements of chant include the utilization of pitch material of an echo, use of theisokratema (drone), monophonic textures, chant melodic formulae, microtones, homorhythm, ornamentation, timbre, and vocal technique. Direct quotations of chant melodies may consist of whole or selections from specific chants, in exact or modified form. The incorporation of direct chant quotes and the use of chant elements with non-chant musical influences in compositions is a trend that varies in method, technique, and extent among composers.
Traces of Byzantine music are also present in Greek folk music, popular musical genres, such as Rebetiko, and in the work of composers from Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky to Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. The most famous example is that of “Misirlou”, which is widely recognized as an icon of surf rock, a music genre that emerged in 1961. The winding notes of the music immediately bring to mind California beaches and the carefree existence of white urban youth culture in California. Originally a folk song from the Eastern Mediterranean region, with origins in the Ottoman Empire and influences of Byzantine music, the track gained worldwide popularity thanks to Dick Dale’s 1962 American surf rock version. Modern-day audiences immediately recognize it because it is the theme track of ‘Pulp Fiction’. “Misirlou” incorporates microtones and uses the Byzantine scale. This scale, also known as the double harmonic scale, has a configuration that produces an exotic sound. The characteristics of this scale are the whole and a half semi-step intervals between the second and third and the sixth and seventh tones. It was also used in the Bacchanale from the opera Samson and Delilah by Saint-Saëns, Claude Debussy used it in “Soirée dans Grenade”, “La Puerta del Vino”, and “Sérénade interrompue” to evoke Spanish flamenco music or Moorish heritage. The legendary Miles Davis jazz standard “Nardis” also makes use of the double harmonic.
In post-modern times, this scale is primarily used to evoke an “exotic” feel when instruments are played. Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple and Rainbow used the scale in pieces such as “Gates of Babylon” and “Stargazer”. Often used in metal music, it has also shown up occasionally in pop songs, such as “Crown” by Camila Cabello which was written in D double harmonic minor. And lastly, the double harmonic scale is prominent in music by the band, Opeth – a Swedish progressive metal band. While the Byzantine Empire declined ages ago, aspects of its musical legacy live amongst us even today.