December 4, 2021

The Poetic and Musical Works of Saint John of Damascus

 By George Papadopoulos

The works of Saint John of Damascus fall into five categories: the purely philosophical or dialectical, the theological, the hermeneutical or critical, the poetic, and the musical. As a hymn-writer and musician, he transferred the simpler form of psalmody that existed prior to him, and regulated and arranged it by composing the Octoechos set to eight tones or modes. He thus reconciled the modest and sacred feelings of the Church with the Greek form of music at the time, to solemnly glorify God, without the sounds and tones that were used to arouse feelings that were obscene and indecent, enthusiastic, and war-friendly.

It is true that the hook-shaped musical signs of the eight tones had their origins about three centuries earlier, but John of Damascus made the characters enigmatic and symbolic, similar to those of the hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptian letters.

The Damascene, as a connoisseur of the theory of music, observed that the knowledge of the melody of sounds was limited only in practice, and the theoretical arrangement of the melody and the mutual relation of the sounds were neglected. He was the first to systematize the eight tones, writing a theory about the practice of sacred music based on the Greek Pentachord or Wheel. The practical application of the music theory of ecclesiastical sounds is the Octoechos.

Under the name of the Damascene is preserved on parchment "Eν τοις παλαιοίς Στιχηραρίοις τοις επί μεμβράνης γεγραμμένοις", a Grammar of Music or Canon according to the definitions and rules of the ancient Greeks, where it deals with the division of the eight tones, about the production of the plagal tones from the main ones, of the names of the eight tones and their equivalents in ancient Greek music. It is inscribed "Αρχή των σημείων της ψαλτικής τέχνης των ανιόντων και κατιόντων σωμάτων τε και πνευμάτων και πάσης χειρονομίας".

The first poetic and musical product of the Damascene is the Octoechos, which he composed on the basis of his eight tones of hymns. Of the various Troparia that make up the Octaoechos, only the Services of the Vespers of Saturdays and the Matins of Sundays are attributed to John of Damascus, as the so-called Stichera belong to Monk Anatolios the Studite who lived after the Damascene. The Octoechos, in which the entirety of Christian dogmatic teaching is found, was admitted to ecclesiastical use by all the Churches of the East and the West, at the behest of Charlemagne the Great, who lived in the time of the Damascene.

The divine composer, in addition to the Canons of the Octoechos, also composed the most glorious Canon of the feast of the Resurrection, "It is the day of Resurrection". His brother Kosmas the Melodist had also written a Canon for the same feast in the second tone. When John read it he praised him. Then John read his own Canon, which is known to us, in the First Tone. When he arrived at the hymn "Now everything is filled with light, heaven and earth and everything below the earth", then the divine Kosmas was in complete amazement and surprise, and said: "And you brother John, you included everything in these three (words), and you left nothing outside; hence I have lost, and I acknowledge my loss; therefore let your Canon have the primacy and the supremacy, and let it be sung publicly in the churches of Christ, and let mine stay in darkness and in the corner as unworthy of the light for both its content and its mourning and lamentful tone, in which it was composed, which is totally inappropriate for the brightest and world-joyful day of the Lord's Resurrection."

The Damascene wrote more than sixty Canons for the main feasts of the Church, which are an anthology of the Festive Discourses of Gregory the Theologian and others. He also wrote many other well known hymns of the Church, which were so favored that they replaced the popular at that time kontakia of Saint Romanos the Melodist, with few exceptions. Before the Damascene each local Church and each Monastery had its own Typikon, but that of the Damascene contributed to ecclesiastical unity.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.