An antiphon consists of one or more psalm verses or some other part of a religious service, such as Vespers or Mass, alternating with verses which contain the fundamental thought of the passage. An antiphon is often sung in Gregorian chant. The word is of Greek origin, αντί (opposite) + φωνη (sound). Antiphon can also be used outside of a strict musical or liturgical context to mean a more general response. When used in this way the word often maintains its religious connotation.
A piece of music which is performed by two semi-independent choirs interacting with one another, often singing alternate musical phrases, is known as antiphonal. In particular, antiphonal psalmody is the singing or musical playing of psalms by alternating groups of performers. The peculiar mirror structure of the Hebrew psalms renders it probable that the antiphonal method originated in the services of the ancient Israelites. According to the historian Socrates, its introduction into Christian worship was due to Ignatius (died 115), who in a vision had seen the angels singing in alternate choirs.
In the Latin Church it was not practised until more than two centuries later, when it was introduced by Ambrose, bishop of Milan, who compiled an antiphonary, or collection of works suitable for antiphonal singing (also known as an antiphonal). The antiphonary still in use in the Roman Catholic Church was compiled by Gregory the Great (590). Antiphony is particularly common in the Anglican musical tradition, where the choir divides into two equal halves on opposite sides of the quire.
When two or more groups of singers sing in alternation the style of music can also be called polychoral. Specifically, this term is usually applied to music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque. Polychoral techniques are a definitive characteristic of the music of the Venetian school, and this music is often known as the Venetian polychoral style. The Venetian polychoral style was an important innovation of the late Renaissance, and this style, with its variations as it spread across Europe after 1600, helps to define the beginning of the Baroque era. Polychoral music was not limited to Italy in the Renaissance; it was popular in Spain and Germany, and there are examples from the 19th and 20th centuries, from composers as diverse as Hector Berlioz, Igor Stravinsky and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
In modern Orthodox practice, one choir or set of chanters may sing all the parts alone, but where there are two choirs or chanters alternating such hymns, the music is said to be antiphonal. The Byzantine churches tend to perform music in an antiphonal fashion more often than the Slavic. The first three hymns of the Divine Liturgy are referred to as the antiphons.
Following a liturgical reform in 1838, the Greek tradition (except on Mount Athos) replaced the older custom of singing verses from the Psalms and Beatitudes with brief refrains to the Theotokos and to Christ. The Russian tradition continues to follow an older custom and replaces the Psalter and Beatitude antiphons only at great feasts or on weekdays.
The older custom followed by the Slavic churches is that on regular Sundays, the first two antiphons are taken from the Psalter, Psalm 102/103 (Bless the Lord, O my soul) and Psalm 145/146 (Praise the Lord, O my soul). In the Byzantine tradition, the third antiphon typically consists of the troparion of the day interspersed with psalm verses, while in the Slavic tradition, the third antiphon comes from the Beatitudes.
Following the second antiphon, a hymn by the Emperor Justinian, Only-begotten Son, is always sung. It is a hymn of faith in the divinity of Christ and his incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection as "one of the Holy Trinity" for the salvation of men.
- Some differences between Greek and Russian divine services and their significance Basil Krivoshein, Archbishop of Brussels and Belgium
- The Orthodox Faith Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir's Seminary, Crestwood, NY.
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