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Poetry and Music of the Syriac Orthodox Church



Syriac Christianity has the distinction of developing one of the earliest musical traditions in Christendom. Early Syriac Christian writers preferred poetry as the mode of theological expression, employing imagery and symbolism, basic to all human experience. Mor Ephrem, acclaimed as the "Harp of the Holy Spirit," was the earliest exponent of the poetic genre of the madroshe, the teaching songs, in communicating the orthodox faith of the Church to a wide audience (Bardaisan is credited with originating this literary genre; his speculative theological ideas were countered by Mor Ephrem in the same poetic form.) Poetry permitted Syriac theologians to eschew static theological definitions and express the subjective spiritual experience of the Creator, whose mysteries the Syriac tradition held to be beyond human comprehension, in a fluid and dynamic fashion. Despite the later Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries, which drew the Syriac tradition along with the rest of Christendom into precise theological positions and resulting schisms, the poetic form continued to be the preferred mode of theological expression in the Syriac churches. The teaching songs of Syriac liturgy express the profound mysteries of the Creator and the creation in a manner that is not didactic but spiritually resonant with the soul.

Syriac theological poetry spread its influence on the Greek and Latin Christian traditions where Syriac poetic forms were adopted. Many of St. Ephrem's poetic works were translated into Greek by the latter part of the fourth century by Flavian of Antioch and Diodore of Tarsus. St. Romanos, the greatest exponent of the Greek genre of the kontakion, is widely believed to have been inspired by Syriac poetry. St. Augustine in his Confessions speaks of his mother Monica as taking part in a liturgical innovation in Milan, "where the practice of singing hymns and psalms was introduced, in keeping with the usage of the Oriental churches, in order to revive the flagging spirits of the people during the long vigil service." (Brock, 2001).

The prolific theologian-poets of the Syriac Orthodox tradition produced volumes of poetry that became the basis of an extensive liturgical music tradition in the Syriac Orthodox Church. Isaac of Antioch, Rabbula, Balay, Shem`un Quqoyo (the potter), Mor Ya`qub of Sarug, Patriarch Mor Severus, Ya`qub of Edessa are among the ranks of the illustrious poets of the Church. They created rich genres of music that survive to this day in Syriac Orthodox liturgical music.

In the early part of eighth century, during the time of Mor Ya`qub of Edessa and George the bishop of the Arabians, the Church also adopted canticles called Qonune Yawnoye ("the Greek Canons") composed by John of Damascus and his adoptive brother, Cosmas of Mayuma (as Bar `Ebroyo notes in the Ethicon, even though John belonged "to the partisans of the Council <of Chalcedon>" did not mention in his songs the disputes that resulted in the schism). Among these Greek canons are the Kuklia invented by Cosmas, and sung so commonly in Syriac Orthodox liturgical services (Teule, 1993).

Today, apart from sermons, all prayers are sung in the form of chants and melodies. Since a musical notation system was not developed in the Syriac tradition, the melodies were transmitted down the ages as oral tradition. As a result a few schools of music emerged, most notably Mardin, Edessa, Tur `Abdin, and Kharput, to name a few. Thousands of tunes and melodies were in use in the past, most of which are unfortunately lost. Yet about seven hundred melodies remain and are preserved in the Treasury of melodies known in Syriac as Beth Gazo. Musicologists have been able to identify different historical layers within the repertory, the oldest of which date back to the earliest centuries of Christianity.

The Greeks and the Syrians used a system of eight melodies called the "oktoechos" in singing hymns, based on combinations of four elements namely heat, cold, humidity, and drought. They observed that the first and fifth develop a sensation of heat and humidity. The second and sixth increase cold and humidity, the third and seventh heat and drought, and the fourth and eighth cold and drought. Two complementary melodies are used for chanting of hymns in a week, then another, rotating through the set of four according to an established system through the liturgical calendar. Music for a feast is set to a fixed melody appropriate to the occasion. For instance, the Canon of Nativity is composed in the first mode, which is very pleasant and joyful, and invokes soft and weak humidity. A stinging heat occupies the fifth mode and is prescribed for the Canon of Ascension. The second mode invokes cold giving humbleness; the Canon of Baptism is set in this mode, for the Lord condescended to be baptized by a servant. The sixth mode is abundant in humidity inclines one to weeping and grief and hence the Canons of the Thursday of Mysteries, Friday of Passion, and Saturday of Proclamation are set in this mode. The seventh invokes a fierce, strongly urging heat and the Canon of Pentecost is set in this mode, for the Holy Spirit manifested to the Disciples in the likeness of tounges of fire on that day. Cold akin to fear is abundant in the fourth; the Canon of Annunciation is composed in this mode, for the Virgin was frightened when she heard about what was to happen to her and that the Serpent would seduce her as it had seduced her mother, Eve. The eighth mode is abundant in oppressing and harsh drought; the Canon of the Martyrs, who despised tortures and showed heroism of the soul are composed in it (Teule, 1993; Barsoum, 2001).

Syriac Orthodox liturgical hymns are chanted antiphonally by two choirs (gudo). This is believed to have its roots in a vision of Mor Ignatius Nurono, the third Patriarch of Antioch, in which he saw Angels worshipping God in two great groups (Mor Athanasius Samuel, 1967). The choirs are conducted by priests or deacons skilled in the art of melody, rhythm and harmony and typically with vivid memory.

Traditionally, the use of musical instruments is avoided in liturgical services. In 1930, at the Synod presided by late Patriarch Elias III at Dayro d-Mor Mattay, the use of an organ was permitted. Today the use of musical instruments is becoming increasingly prevalent in Syriac Orthodox Churches, particularly in the services of the divine liturgy, weddings, etc. While the nominal use of an instrument enhances the spiritual experience, excessive use detracts from it, especially when it discourages the participation of the congregation. Along with the use of musical instruments, innovations on traditional Syriac melodies for hymns, especially in the divine liturgy, are now increasingly common, often influenced by the secular music of the larger society in which the Syriac Orthodox communities reside. While some of these innovations enhance the musical heritage of the Church, and provide a contemporary flavor to the ancient liturgies, departures from the Syriac musical genre and frequent innovations affects participation of the entire congregation in liturgical music and detracts from the sanctity and purpose of liturgical music.

The rich musical heritage of the Syriac Orthodox Church can be experienced today at any Syriac Orthodox liturgical service, be it the eucharistic liturgy, other sacraments such as baptism or weddings, daily offices, or feasts. Apart from the formal liturgical music, Syriac Orthodox communities also have developed contemporary spiritual music which can be often heard at social gatherings.


Brock, Sebastian and David G.K. Taylor (ed.s), The Hidden Pearl: The Syrian Orthodox Church and Its Aramaic Heritage. (Rome: Trans World Film Italia, 2001).

Mor Athanasius Y. Samuel, Anaphora: The Divine Liturgy of Saint James. (Hackensack, 1967).

Patriarch Ignatius Aphram I Barsoum, The History of Syriac Literature and Sciences. tr. Matti Mousa. (Pueblo, CO: Passeggiata Press, 2000).

Teule, Herman G.B. (trans.), Gregory Barhebraeus: Ethicon Memra I. (Louvain: E. Peeters, CSCO, 1993).

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Author: Thomas Joseph
Last Update: March 24, 2002