Tone Three

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Exaposteilarion for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ

Holy is the Lord our God. Exalt ye the Lord our God, and worship at his footstool, for He is holy.

The chanters lead this hymn, in a solemn, slow melody, and the congregation joins in. I scurry to the back of the church, pushing my way through the sea of bodies in their festal finery, almost tripping over the young children that dot the floor in pajamas and pillows. It is far past their bedtime, and Liturgy hasn’t even begun yet.

I squeeze into the soprano section of the choir just in time. There is a beat of silence: my mother, the choir director, strikes a tuning fork on her music book and listens for the whiny high C that emanates from the two prongs. She hums a third, then a fifth, down from C, and ends on F. She hums the F louder, and with her eyes and one finger points to me: the other hand is higher, indicating the whole choir, and the palm faces out in a gentle but firm “Quiet.” Very direct, communicative, subtle movements. The sign of a good director, and also of a choir with a wandering attention span.

Almost involuntarily, before I begin to sing, I hum what sounds like a sliding scale, from the middle to the top to the bottom and back to the middle again.


Those are the words to the scale, also called an apichima. They sound like nonsense, but they actually help me to get my bearings within Festal Tone Three, the mode for this hymn — much as a Western choir director might use the do-re-mi of Solfege to pitch her singers. The apichima, for chanters, is indispensable: if allows the swift changing from one mode to the next without confusion, and it adjusts to any voice range, eliminating the need for tuning forks and pitch pipes. (Of course, in our church, we are struggling to blend the church’s tradition of a few chanters leading the service with our great desire to allow the congregation to participate. Thus, my pitch was given to me.) Though the melody is lilting and exuberant, it becomes stirringly soulful when the notes wind perfectly around the end of a phrase. Festal Tone Three is used primarily for Exaposteilaria (etymologically related to “ex post facto,” “Exaposteilaria” refers to the hymn that comes after the Gospel, and elaborates on its theme) on feast days, and its endings are even more elaborate, with a familiar trill that extends each phrase to a lingering rumination.

Tone Three was brought to the Byzantines from Marcian the Greek. Its origin was Phrygia in Asia Minor, and it dates back to pre-Christian times: in The Republic, Socrates says it is most suited to peaceful and temperate times, for occasions of dignity and worship. The quiet joy of this tone is profoundly moving.

I open my mouth.

Epeskepsato imas

He has visited us. Christ has visited us. This is why we are here tonight: the children slumbering through Matins, the adults alert and expectant, the church radiant with candles and warm from so many closely pressed bodies. We are here to celebrate the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, in the humblest of circumstances: he was born in a cave, with only animals and shepherds for company. Animals, shepherds, and all the heavenly hosts singing his praises.

Epeskepsato imas ex ipson o Soteer imon

He has visited us from the heights, our Savior. The loveliness of Festal Tone Three, and the loveliness of this feast, is ornate and meditative at once. I am trying to be still, to reflect, but the rustling sound that began almost as soon as the air left my throat is growing louder with each syllable. Virtually every member of the congregation is flipping pages in their books, becoming disoriented, murmuring and finally turning around completely to seek out the source of the aberration. Our choir sings from the back of the church precisely to avoid this kind of attention, but anytime we do something out of the ordinary, the congregation whips around in alarm. I am chanting alone, which is quite normal, but I am also chanting in Greek, which is very unusual. Do I know Greek? Well, I learned it this afternoon. Our kind parishioner George helped me resurrect the feeble pronunciation skills I picked up during a summer in Athens, and this afternoon, it seemed like a great idea. But now it’s almost midnight, and I’ve been singing for several hours already, and my voice is weak, and my throat hurts. I can’t imagine what inspired me to do this.

Then I hear another voice, far stronger and lovelier than mine. I think first it might be an angel, but then I recognize it as Catherine, a friend of the parish whose vocation is opera. I don’t dare look up and break my own concentration, but I can picture her already: she’s a tiny little woman with unruly red hair and a voice to make up for whatever she lacks in stature. A big, velvety, rich voice. My mom has invited her to sing with the choir before, but she refuses — her voice doesn’t blend well with others’, she admits. This is true. She usually doesn’t sing in church at all, but I’m singing in Greek, and when Catherine hears the language of her childhood in a hymn she knows by heart, she cannot keep silent.

This is why I took it upon myself to sing something I probably shouldn’t try to sing. I’m not Greek, but my church is. This hymn was written in Greek, and it belongs there. Orthodoxy is bigger than I am; the fact that my untrained voice is cracking might humble me a little, but it won’t diminish the beauty of this hymn for those who are listening from their hearts.

Anatolee, anatolon

Anatolia, the name for the peninsula in Asia Minor settled by the Greeks, means both “East” and “Sunrise,” and in Greek this line sounds far more poetic. Our English translation has taken some liberties and come up with “A newborn day, a dawn most fair,” which is too flowery to get at the essence of the idea.

Kai i en skotee kai skia evromen tin ahleetheian

And we, in darkness and shadow, have found the truth. The birth of Christ illuminated the darkness of ages past: Taoism in China, paganism in Greece, the Great Spirit of the Native American tribes, all found their fulfillment in the One True God. There were hints before, vestiges of truth in the other religions of the world, but on this night they are all made whole, made complete, with the advent of the Christ.

We keep singing, Catherine and I, and she keeps her voice lower than mine as a courtesy, though I am wishing she would take over, and hoping she will forgive my butchering pronunciation. This afternoon, it was easy to remember that kai has a soft k, not a harsh sound. But tonight, all I can think about is the last line, where I have to make it to a high F, and I know my high F is nonexistent after a day of fasting hard and an evening of singing harder. The congregation settles down when they recognize the melody, and the choir hums along in four-part harmony. It’s not exactly correct — Byzantine music is sung with only an ison, a droning background note — but on Christmas eve, the rose-scented clouds of incense mingling with the smell of fresh pine branches hung from the windows, it is heavenly.

Kai gar ek tis Par-the-nou

For, from the Virgin — Mary is mentioned frequently in hymns honoring Christ. Though by no means worshipped as He is, she is greatly revered as the first Christian — the first to know of Christ, and hence the first to believe — and here, she is remembered as the one whose faith and sweat and tears brought Him into the world.

Etekh Theo Kyrion

Was born God, Lord. The absence of articles in ancient Greek is refreshing; three words, all important ones. The musical climax, though, is on etekh; the miracle, tonight, is that God took on flesh and was born of a woman, clothing Himself in the humble flesh of mankind. He was born, and the melody jumps from a manageable A to a high F, and sure enough, my voice quits. I squeak out a crackly, weak note, and I am thankful for Catherine’s presence, which has saved me from utter and complete embarrassment. Far more importantly, she has enabled the service to run more smoothly. The less head-turning, the better. I breathe a sigh of relief as the choir takes over, singing the hymn twice more in English (festal hymns are often sung three times for emphasis, and in remembrance of the Trinity.)

Photo: Christ & Saints Dome - Constantinople, August 2002

Copyright © 2009 Emily Jorjorian Lowe. All rights reserved.


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