In recent years musicologists writing in western European languages have analysed nineteenth-century efforts to renew or reform Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish liturgical music, including the 'restoration' of Gregorian chant by the monks of Solesmes, the introduction of harmonized choral music to the synagogue, and revivals of the sacred polyphony of Palestrina and J. S. Bach. Yet parallel movements in the churches of the Christian East remain, with the partial exception of the New Direction' in Russian Orthodox choral music, virtually unknown outside their native regions. Only recently has Jim Samson made a significant step towards filling this gap in his magisterial Music in the Balkans (Leiden, 2013) with a wide-ranging treatment of developments in Orthodox Christian liturgical singing that accompanied the emergence of European nation states in areas formerly ruled by the Ottoman and Habsburg empires.
Now in Greek Orthodox Music in Ottoman Istanbul, a monograph based on her 2009 doctoral thesis, Merih Erol focuses on developments during the second half of the nineteenth century in the study, teaching, and practice of church singing in an important Christian community that fell outside the geographic borders of Samson's book, namely that of the Greek Orthodox of late Ottoman Istanbul. Constantinople, as it was then generally known, was a multi-ethnic city in which Muslims did not become a majority until the 1880s. Its 'Rum' or 'Romeic' Orthodox were inheritors of the ecclesiastical traditions of the East Roman (so-called Byzantine) Empire that fell to Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the foremost episcopal see of Orthodox Christianity. From his base in the Phanar (Fener) district, the Ecumenical Patriarch not only carried out his ecclesiastical duties as Archbishop of Constantinople, but also served the Sultan as an 'ethnarch' responsible for the Ottoman Empire's Rum millet (Orthodox Christian religious community). During the politically turbulent early decades of the nineteenth century, when rebellion and foreign intervention led to the emergence of a small nation state of Greece with Athens as its capital, the Ecumenical Patriarchate had fostered and then formally adopted a revised system of chant notation and theory created by Chrysanthos of Madytos, Gregorios the First Cantor (Protopsaltes), and Chourmouzios the Archivist. This New Method' was the most important reform to Byzantine ecclesiastical chant since the introduction of fully diastematic neumes in the twelfth century. The consequences of the Chrysanthine reform continue to resonate until the present day in debates on the correctness of its tunings, the historical [End Page 298] verisimilitude of its transcriptions from the pre-reform system of neumes (generally known today as 'Middle Byzantine Notation'), and matters of performance practice.
By beginning her narrative with the Ottoman Reform Edict of 1856, Merol avoids directly confronting issues surrounding the introduction of the Chrysanthine 'New Method'. Instead she offers what is to a large extent a chronicle of an intermediate stage in its reception during a period of relative peace for the Greek Orthodox community of Constantinople. As the Ottoman Empire was transformed by the Tanzimat reforms of civil administration and the millet system was replaced with modern conceptions of equality before the law, old religious collective identities gave way to new ones determined by modern nationalisms. At the same time, substantial portions of urban society—a combination of established elites and members of the rapidly growing middle class—came to adopt and share western European cultural norms.
Merol produces a fascinating socio-economic history of increasingly self-confident Romeic Orthodox musical institutions and discourse in this period of reform from primary sources including books, encyclicals, periodicals, pamphlets, and materials chronicling the founding and operation of Istanbul's Greek musical associations. These show that the Rum community was preoccupied with attempts to understand the past and determine the future of the traditions of sacred chant that they had received through oral tradition, pre-modern manuscripts, and the transcriptions and theoretical treatises of the Chrysanthine New Method, the dissemination of which had been facilitated by...