Romanos the Melodist
Romanos the Melodist (Greek: Ῥωμανὸς ὁ Μελωδός; late 5th-century — after 555) was a Byzantine hymnographer and composer, who is a central early figure in the history of Byzantine music. Called "the Pindar of rhythmic poetry", he flourished during the sixth century, though the earliest manuscripts of his works are dated centuries after this. He was the foremost Kontakion composer of his time.
The main source of information about the life of Romanos comes from the Menaion for October. Beyond this, his name is mentioned by only two other ancient sources. once in the eighth-century poet St. Germanos and once in the Souda (s. v. anaklomenon) where he is called "Romanos the melodist". From this scanty evidence we learn that he was born to a Jewish family in either Emesa (modern-day Homs) or Damascus in Syria. He was baptized as a young boy (though whether or not his parents also converted is uncertain). Having moved to Berytus (Beirut), he was ordained a deacon in the Church of the Resurrection there.
He later moved to Constantinople during the reign of the emperor Anastasius—on the question whether Anastasius I (491-518) or Anastasius II (713-716) is meant, the renowned Byzantinologist Prof. Karl Krumbacher favours the earlier date. There he served as sacristan in the "Great Church" (Hagia Sophia), residing to the end of his life at the Monastery of Kyros, where he was buried along with his disciple St. Ananias.
If those scholars who believe that he lived during the reign of the earlier Anastasius are correct, then he may have continued writing during the reign of Emperor Justinian (527-65), who was himself a hymn-writer; this would make him a contemporary of two other famous Byzantine hymnographers, Anastasios and Kyriakos.
According to legend, Romanus was not at first considered to be either a talented reader or singer. He was, however, loved by the Patriarch of Constantinople because of his great humility. Once, around the year 518, while serving in the Church of the Panagia at Blachernae, during the All-Night Vigil for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, he was assigned to read the kathisma verses from the Psalter. He read so poorly that another reader had to take his place. Some of the lesser clergy ridiculed Romanus for this, and being humiliated he sat down in one of the choir stalls. Overcome by weariness and sorrow, he soon fell asleep. As he slept, the Theotokos (Mother of God) appeared to him with a scroll in her hand. She commanded him to eat the scroll, and as soon as he did so, he awoke. He immediately received a blessing from the Patriarch, mounted the ambo (pulpit), and chanted extemporaneously his famous Kontakion of the Nativity, "Today the Virgin gives birth to Him Who is above all being…." The emperor, the patriarch, the clergy, and the entire congregation were amazed at both the profound theology of the hymn and Romanos' clear, sonorous voice as he sang. According to tradition, this was the very first kontakion ever sung. The Greek word "kontakion" (κοντάκιον) refers to the shaft on which a scroll is wound, hence the significance of the Theotokos' command for him to swallow a scroll, indicating that his compositions were by divine inspiration. The scene of Romanos's first performance is often shown in the lower register of Pokrov icons (example above).
Romanos wrote in an Atticized literary koine—i.e., he had a popular, but elevated style—and abundant Semiticisms support the view that he was of Jewish origin. Arresting imagery, sharp metaphors and similes, bold comparisons, antitheses, coining of successful maxims, and vivid dramatization characterize his style.
He is said to have composed more than 1,000 hymns or kontakia celebrating various festivals of the ecclesiastical year, the lives of the saints and other sacred subjects, some 60 to 80 of which survive (though not all those attributed to him may be genuine). The earliest manuscripts of his works are dated centuries after his lifetime, akin to those of his successors Andrew of Crete and Kassia. The oldest editions of full texts are dated to the 11th-century.
Today, usually only the first strophe of each kontakion is chanted during the divine services, the full hymn having been replaced by the canon. A full kontakion was a poetic sermon composed of from 18 to 30 verses or ikoi, each with a refrain, and united by an acrostic. When it was sung to an original melody, it was called an idiomelon. Originally, Saint Romanos' works were known simply as "psalms", "odes", or "poems". It was only in the ninth century that the term kontakion came into use.
Among his known works are kontakia on:
- The Nativity of Christ
- The Martyrdom of St Stephen
- The Death of a Monk
- The Last Judgment
- The Prodigal Son
- The Raising of Lazarus (for Lazarus Saturday, the day before Palm Sunday)
- Adam's Lament (for Palm Sunday)
- The Treachery of Judas
His Kontakion of the Nativity is still considered to be his masterpiece, and up until the twelfth century it was sung every year at the imperial banquet on that feast by the joint choirs of Hagia Sophia and of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. Most of the poem takes the form of a dialogue between the Mother of God and the Magi, whose visit to the newborn Christ Child is celebrated in the Byzantine rite on 25 December, rather than on the 6th of January when Western Christians celebrate the visit (in the Orthodox Church, January 6, the Feast of the Theophany, celebrates the Baptism of Christ).
Of his other Kontakia, one of the most well-known is the hymn, "My soul, my soul, why sleepest thou..." which is chanted as part of the service of the "Great Canon" of Andrew of Crete on the fifth Thursday of Great Lent.
Romanos is one of many persons who have been credited with composing the famous Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos, which is still sung during Great Lent. Most recent scholarship has asserted that he is not the author of the hymn, although there is significant dissent among scholars.
Karl Krumbacher published in Munich several previously unpublished chants of Romanos and other hymnographers, from manuscripts discovered in the library of the Monastery of St John the Theologian in Patmos. There exists in the library of Moscow a Greek manuscript which contains kontakia and oikoi for the whole year, but does not include all compositions of Romanos.
Krumbacher says of his work:
In poetic talent, fire of inspiration, depth of feeling, and elevation of language, he far surpasses all the other melodes. The literary history of the future will perhaps acclaim Romanos for the greatest ecclesiastical poet of all ages.
Legacy and depictions
Although in more recent icons Saint Romanos is depicted standing on the ambo (directly in front of the iconostasis) and wearing a deacon's sticharion, the famous Russian church musicologist, Johann von Gardner, points out that in the oldest icons he is portrayed wearing the shorter red tunic of a singer and standing on a raised platform in the middle of the church.
The Armenian Apostolic Church commemorates Saint Romanos on the Saturday before the third Sunday of the Exaltation of the Cross. This is a remarkable fact given that Saint Romanos lived after the Council of Chalcedon and the Armenian Apostolic Church is non-Chalcedonian. Nevertheless, his music significantly influenced Armenian hymnography.
Editions and translations
- Sancti Romani Melodi Cantica. Vol. 1: Cantica Genuina. – Vol. 2: Cantica Dubia. Ed. by Paul Maas and Constantine A. Trypanis. Oxford, 1963–1970. (complete edition)
- J. B. Pitra, Analecta Sacra, i. (1876), containing 29 poems, and Sanctus Romanus Veterum Melodorum Princeps (1888), with three additional hymns from the Monastery at Patmos. See also Pitra's Hymnographie de l'église grecque (1867)
- Karl Krumbacher, Geschichte der byzantinischen Litteratur (Munich, 1897)
- —Studien zu Romanos (Munich, 1899)
- —Umarbeitungen bei Romanos (Munich, 1899)
- Engberg 2001.
- (in Greek) Great Synaxaristes: Ὁ Ὅσιος Ῥωμανὸς ὁ Μελῳδός. 1 Οκτωβρίου. ΜΕΓΑΣ ΣΥΝΑΞΑΡΙΣΤΗΣ.
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica. 23 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 576–577. .
- Mellas 2020, pp. 24–25.
- Levy 2001.
- Krumbacher, Gesch. d. byz. Literatur, (Munich, 1897), pp. 312-18.
- Neil K. Moran; Singers in Late Byzantine and Slavonic Painting, p. 126ff, BRILL, 1986, ISBN 90-04-07809-6
- Ancient Greek: Ψυχή μου, ψυχή μου, ἀνάστα, τί καθεύδεις; τὸ τέλος ἐγγίζει καὶ μέλλεις θορυβεῖσθαι· ἀνάνηψον οὖν, ἵνα φείσηταί σου Χριστὸς ὁ Θεός, ὁ πανταχοῦ παρὼν καὶ τὰ πάντα πληρῶν, lit. 'Arise, O my soul, O my soul, why sleepest thou? The end draweth near, and thou must speak. Arise, therefore, from thy sleep, and Christ our God, who is in all places and filleth all things, shall spare thee.'
- See page 81, note 13 in Sarah Gador-Whyte, “Changing Conceptions of Mary in Sixth-Century Byzantium: The Kontakia of Romanos the Melodist,” in Questions of Gender in Byzantine Society, edited by Bronwen Neil and Lynda Garland, 77–92 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013).
- Domar: the calendrical and liturgical cycle of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church, Armenian Orthodox Theological Research Institute, 2002, p. 505.
- Romanos the Melodist article from the Catholic Encyclopedia
- St. Romanos (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia)
- Engberg, Gudrun (2001). "Romanos the Melodist". Grove Music Online. Revised by Alexander Lingas. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.23748. (subscription or UK public library membership required)
- Levy, Kenneth (2001). "Byzantine Chant". Grove Music Online. Revised by Christian Troelsgård. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.04494.
- Schork, R. J. (1962). "Typology in the Kontakia of Romanos". Studia Patristica. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag. 6 (Papers presented to the Third International Conference on Patristic Studies held at Christ Church, Oxford, 1959, Part IV Theologica, Augustiniana, ed. F. L. Cross): 210–220.
- Mellas, Andrew (2020). Liturgy and the Emotions in Byzantium: Compunction and Hymnody. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108767361. ISBN 978-1-108-76736-1.
- public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Romanos". Encyclopædia Britannica. 23 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 576–577. This article incorporates text from a publication now in the
- Thomas Arentzen, The Virgin in Song: Mary and the Poetry of Romanos the Melodist (Philadelphia, 2017)
- Sarah Gador-Whyte, Theology and Poetry in Early Byzantium: The Kontakia of Romanos the Melodist (Cambridge UK, 2017)
- José Grosdidier de Matons, Romanos le Mélode et les origines de la poésie religieuse à Byzance (Paris, 1977)
- Media related to Romanos the Melodist at Wikimedia Commons
- Works by Romanos the Melodist at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- The Kontakia of Romanos 71 selections
- Digitalized manuscripts of Romanos the Melodist at the Princeton University Library