The Beauty of the Kalophonic Irmos
Within the body of repertoire we call the “psaltic art” or “Byzantine chant”, there is a sublimely beautiful genre called the kalophonic (literally “beautiful voice”) irmos. Since the genre emerged in its current form between the end of the 16th and the end of the 17th centuries, it has served as the psaltic art’s highest level of musical, artistic, and vocal expression. For 500 years, composers have set sacred texts to long, melismatic, ornamented lines and extremes of range, spinning out musical beauty of amazing complexity.
It is an important enough genre that at least one representative example from the genre is required on repertoire lists for certificate and diploma programs in Byzantine music in Greece and for the certificate exam at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology here in the United States. The way composers employ virtuosic vocal writing, melisma, extremes of range, sequences, text painting, occasionally set non-liturgical texts, and even incorporate elements of “secular” music at times, it is perhaps useful to conceive of it as being a sort of post-Byzantine, Baroque-ish a cappella sacred art song (even though many compositions predate Bach by a century or more).
And you will never hear it during a service.
The kalophonic irmos is a paraliturgical genre, intended not for the corporate worship of the Orthodox Church but for what we might think of as secular occasions -- banquets, gatherings to honor visiting scholars or state dignitaries, etc. If they are sung in church, they are typically sung after the end of the Divine Liturgy as perhaps an analog to a Western recessional.
Paraliturgical though it may be, the kalophonic repertoire has a vital place in the psaltic art, and a significant relationship to the repertoire sung in church. For one thing, we usually use the phrase “chant melody” to suggest something simple, likely within a very limited vocal range, probably short, and something not composed by composers as such, but rather constructed according to practical need from a prescriptive list of “formulae” or -- to use a word that I’ve started to hear at conferences -- “chantlets”.
The kalophonic repertoire demonstrates the fallacy of these assumptions; while still being composed according to thesis (that is, having as the basic building block a vocabulary of musical motives within each mode that go with particular patterns of textual stress), the body of compositions represents “chant melodies” that are definitely not short, decidedly not simple, absolutely not limited to a narrow range of pitches, and are unquestionably composed by composers who sign their names to their works. And yet, it’s identifiably within the same musical tradition as an antiphon refrain.
And this is one of the other important functions of the kalophonic repertoire: it demonstrates that Byzantine chant has an artistic high point for psaltic singers and composers to strive for. It is a high point that is informed by the liturgical repertoire, yes, but it should in turn also inform and help develop how the same singers and composers approach liturgical music. Understood in this manner, syllabic refrains, in context, do not represent a practical bottom, a level of “good enough” that there’s no real reason to try to exceed. To put it another way: if all you know about Byzantine chant is how the antiphon refrains or the Resurrectional apolytikia might be sung, then you are aware of but the topmost point of the tip of the iceberg. It is analogous to “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul” being the extent of what you can play on the piano.
Ideally, the kalophonic repertoire and its relationship to the psaltic art as a whole would be accessible and inspirational to all Orthodox Christians who seek to learn this idiom of Orthodox sacred music, regardless of the language in which we find ourselves singing. Certainly the kalophonic irmos as a genre has taken hold in languages such as Romanian.
However, in the English-speaking world of Byzantine chant, we continue to be troubled by the question of how to sing our antiphon refrains properly, and whether or not the melismatic musical textures employed by the classical psaltic composers are actually appropriate for English-language needs. We find ourselves with our hands tied behind our backs musically and creatively by not having the same kinds of compositional pinnacles accessible to us Anglophones, which means we do not have those pieces available as references when it comes to how we approach singing and composing simpler pieces.
Along similar lines, we can see something like Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil as a kind of Russian “kalophonic” composition; despite current occasional liturgical use, Rachmaninoff conceived of it as a concert piece, and it is at once representative of the extent of his musical genius while also being strongly informed by the liturgical repertoire (and I will go ahead and say here I do not mean to treat “Russian” Orthodox music as though it were monolithic; I know full well that it is not). That is, the liturgical musical vocabulary and aesthetic help him to craft the shape and overall approach of the Vigil without necessarily holding back how he chooses to construct it as a concert work. The Vigil thus represents a compositional high point of Russian Orthodox music that inspires later composers in writing both liturgical and paraliturgical works.
As has been written about elsewhere, in the Anglophone Orthodox world, we have difficulty assessing the value of paraliturgical works. This is partially because, as noted, we are still uncertain as to the best ways to approach building a basic liturgical music library for our language. I submit that part of the solution is recognizing that the paraliturgical “art” repertoire provides a space for developing and expanding our musical vocabulary, for producing works that are unabashedly aspirational in their musical intent, and that experiment with pushing the compositional approach in creative directions.
That is to say, it need not be sung during a church service to be worthwhile as “Orthodox music”, and just because it is “Orthodox music” it need not be limited in its expressive capacity to what the average member of the congregation can do when singing “Through the prayers of the Theotokos, Savior, save us”. That is, of course, its own kind of important liturgical music, but if we treat it as all that there is or all that there should be, then we have effectively not just defined acceptable limits for a category of the sacred arts, we have rather hobbled it altogether.
English-language Orthodox composers and cantors -- I encourage you to study the kalophonic repertoire. The standard anthology, Eirmologion Kalophonikon, is relatively easy to purchase (http://www.politeianet.gr/index.php?option=com_virtuemart&Itemid=89&keyword=%CE%BA%CE%B1%CE%BB%CE%BF%CF%86%CF%89%CE%BD%CE%B9%CE%BA%CE%BF%CE%BD&limitstart=0), and recordings are very easily accessible thanks to YouTube (including the example above). Beyond that, there are certainly far more resources available to the Anglophone world now than there once were, and it is at once an area of active scholarly interest as well as a living body of repertoire that sees new compositions continuing to be produced by today’s master composers.
Ioannis Arvanitis, one of the greatest living composers of psaltic music today, has written a number of kalophonic pieces; Grammenos Karanos, the professor of Byzantine Music at Holy Cross, is publishing English-language scholarly articles, and also encouraging students to compose English-language kalophonic works (https://www.academia.edu/13181443/The_Kalophonic_Heirmos_16th_21st_Centuries_A_Musical_Genre_s_Transformation).
Ideally, this activity will lead to a visible flowering of the art in the Anglophone Orthodox world. To broaden that hope, let us look overall for the paraliturgical, “artistic” genres of Orthodox music taking root in the hearts and souls of Orthodox Christians as part of our inheritance of the sacred arts, and part of how we claim that inheritance for ourselves.