Concerning John Sakellarides

The following article appeared on one of the Byzantine chant discussion groups in 2005 concerning the late and sorrowful John Sakellarides, whose negative influences on Greek Orthodox Church music can be felt today throughout the Greek Orthodox world (particularly in America) and even cryptically amongst so-called traditional chanters. The article, while written academically and objectively, speaks volumes to the dangers of the rising tide of Western musical theory and practice, even in traditional Byzantine liturgical chant. –Protopsaltis John Peter Presson

The life and work of John Theophrastos Sakellarides, teacher, arranger and erstwhile reformer of Byzantine chant, is of fundamental importance for understanding the development of sacred music in the Greek Orthodox Church since the late nineteenth century. Born ca. 1853 outside of the Greek kingdom in Litochoros, Olympus, he received his first instruction in Byzantine chanting from his father, a priest. Sent to Thessalonica for secondary school, he continued his study of chant under the noted cantor Papa-Theodoro Mantzourani, a former Constantinopolitan who also taught the young man Arabo-Persian music. Sakellarides then enrolled Medical School of the University of Athens, transferring later to its School of Philosophy. During this period he secured the first of his many cantorial positions in the Athens area, while also studying Western musical theory under a German teacher at the recently founded Athens Conservatory. Sakellarides' encounter with Western music proved decisive, causing him to reject many elements of the received tradition of Byzantine chanting as relics of Turkish domination. He began to view the repertories of florid chant as bodies of formless creations in which the meaning of the text was obliterated by senseless melismas, and to criticise traditional vocal production as barbaric "rhinophonia" ("nasal-singing").

Thereafter he cultivated a more Western manner of singing and embarked on a mission to purify Byzantine chant through a radical recomposition of the central repertory. He simplified or eliminated most melismatic chants, while rewriting many of the less florid chants to conform to his classicising theories of metre and punctuation. In 1880, while still at university, he published his Christomatheia ekklesiastikes mousikes, a book of liturgical music in modern Byzantine notation containing a theoretical prologue recommending the adoption of equal-temperament tuning, followed by a compendium of the most frequently encountered chants for the Divine Liturgy and major offices. This volume was soon followed by others in both Byzantine and Western staff notation, some of which also contained elementary harmonisations in two, three and occasionally four parts. Sakellarides justified the latter innovation with citations of classical and patristic texts, dubiously interpreting references to harmonia as evidence for harmonised singing in the modern Western sense. Moreover, he defended his harmonisations (often little more than parallel thirds or sixths over a rudimentary bass part) as "triphonia" not subject to the recent synodal and patriarchal proscriptions of "tetraphonia" (i.e. polyphonic compositions, usually in four-parts).

These rationalisations did not prevent his censure in 1886 by the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece for breaking the ban on polyphony with his choir at the church of Hagia Eirene, as well as for having introduced female voices into his ensemble. Although the synod's action forced him to resign from Hagia Eirene, it did little to stem his rapidly growing popularity. The subsequent accession of a new archbishop from the Ionian Islands brought Sakellarides toleration followed by official sanction as he successively assumed musical directorships at the most prominent churches of Athens, including its cathedral. Attracting large crowds wherever he went, he was renowned for the clarity of his tenor voice, his diction, and for inviting the congregation to participate in certain of his simplified chants with the command "Laos!" ("People!"). He eventually returned to Hagia Eirene, where he remained protopsaltes until his death on 15 December 1938.



Prior to the Asia Minor Disaster of 1922, Sakellarides worked vigorously as a composer and teacher to reconcile the musical cultures of Ancient Greece, Byzantium and the contemporary West. In addition to producing a comprehensive repertory of reformed chant that was constantly republished, he wrote incidental music for three classical dramas and composed a large number of patriotic songs intended for use in schools, many of which appear in his nationalistic collection Tyrtaios (1907). Sakellarides personally taught his music to nearly two generations of Athenian clergy and laity (both men and women) at such institutions as the Rizareios Seminary and the Arsakeion school for girls. His firm belief in the fundamental unity of Greek musical culture through the ages took him and his three children to Munich in 1903, where they presented lecture-recitals of sacred and folk music. These included a concert featuring the participation of the Munich's Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of his son Theophrastos, a composer of operetta who had orchestrated the music performed on that occasion. Back in Athens, from 1904-7 he instructed the young H.J.W. Tillyard, a future co-founder of the Monumenta Musicae Byzantinae, in the received tradition of Byzantine chanting, thereby influencing the subsequent course of Byzantine musicology in the West with his reformist views.

Sakellarides continued to clash with traditionalists even after his Hiera Hymnodia (which contains such curiosities as a Greek adaptation of Wagner's famous march from Lohengrin among its chants for the Orthodox wedding service) was recommended for general use by the Holy Synod and Ministry of Education in 1902. In that same year, he provoked a public disturbance by attempting to provide piano accompaniment for the public final examination of one of his chant students. His 1904 transcription of an acclamation for the last Byzantine emperor from a medieval manuscript precipitated a bitter debate in the periodicals of Athens and Constantinople regarding the true nature of chant in Byzantium. This was also the first of many conflicts with the newly arrived Constantinos Psachos (ca. 1866-1949), another student of Mantzourani who had just been sent by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to direct a school of traditional Byzantine music at the Athens Conservatory. []The influence of Sakellarides on liturgical music in Greece began gradually to wane after the 1950s. By the late 1980s, a revival of traditional Byzantine and folk music had relegated the vast majority of Sakellarides' reformed chants to the musical periphery. An exception to this trend is his melody for the vesper hymn Phos hilaron, which has all but completely displaced the ancient chant even on Mount Athos. For a variety of cultural and historical reasons, the music of Sakellarides has proven far more durable in the Greek Orthodox churches of the West. This is particularly true of the United States, where his reformed melodies were so widely disseminated during the heaviest periods of Greek immigration that they have since come to be regarded by most people as 'traditional.' Yet with the rise of professionally trained Greek-American musicians, his elementary harmonisations have largely given way to more sophisticated modal arrangements by such composers as Frank Desby, Anna Gallos and Tikey Zes.


Selected Further Reading

  • Desby, Frank Harry, "Growth of Liturgical Music in the Iakovian Era," in M. B. Ephthimiou and G.A. Christopoulos (editors), History of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, New York: Greek Archdiocese of North and South America, 1984, pp. 303-23.
  • Idem, The Modes and Tunings in Neo-Byzantine Chant, D.M.A. diss., University of Southern California, 1974. []Filopoulos, Giannes, Eisagoge sten hellenike polyphonike ekkelsiastike mousike, Athens: Nefele, 1990 [with a very brief summary in English]
  • Lingas, Alexander, "Performance Practice and the Politics of Transcribing Byzantine Chant," in Le chant byzantin, état des recherches, Christian Hannick and Marcel Pérès (editors), Rencontres à Royaumont Series (forthcoming).
  • Sakellarides, John Th., Hymns and Odes: [With] Translations by Philolaus Kalavros, M.D., Hollywood, California: Angelos Desfis, 1949 [Widely distributed American reprint of the 1930 edition of Hymnoi kai Odai, with an edited English translation of Sakellarides' preface].
  • Tillyard, H.J.W., "The Rediscovery of Byzantine Music," in Jack Westrup (editor), Essays presented to Egon Wellesz, Oxford:1966, pp. 3-6.