Syriac Hymnody

To the general consideration set forth in the article HYMNODY AND HYMNOLOGY  must be added some bearing particularly on the structure and liturgical use of  hymns (madrashe), exclusive of poetical homilies or discourses  (mimre), which belong to the narrative and epic class, while the hymns  are lyrical. The chief basis of Syriac metre is fixed number of syllables of the  verses, without distinction of long and short syllables, as in  several modern languages. Verses of all lengths from two to twelve are known,  but the metres most used in hymnody are verses of twelve syllables formed of  three equal measures (4+4+4), verses of seven syllables formed of two measures  (4+3 or 3+4), and verses of five syllables also formed of two measures (2+3 or  3+2). These verses may be employed a!one or grouped in strophes, the latter form  being most frequent in hymns composed of verses of five and seven syllables. A  strophe is generally composed of equal verses, but it sometimes happens that the  first of the last verse is in a different measure from the other verses of the  strophe. All the strophes of a hymn are usually of the same construction.

Besides variety of metre and division into strophes the Syrians prior to the  ninth century knew no other artifice than the arrangement of acrostic poems. The  acrostic played an important part, in Syriac hymnody and its use, especially the  alphabetic acrostic, seems to have been introduced in imitation of the Psalms  and the Lamentations of Jeremias. Sometimes the acrostic is linear, simple when  each verse begins successively with one of the twenty-two letters of the Syriac  alphabet, multiple, when two, three, or more verses begin with the same letter  without, forming strophes; sometimes it is strophic, when each strophe is marked  by a letter of the alphabet. This letter may be only at the beginning of the  first verse or it may be repeated at the beginning of each verse of the strophe.  introduced in imitation of the Psalms and the Lamentations of Jeremias. There  may be two or more successive strophes beginning with the same letter, each  letter regularly marking the same number of strophes throughout the poem which  thus consists of forty-four strophes, of sixty-six, or of any other multiple of  twenty-two. The verbal acrostic is more rare. The name of Jesus Christ, of Mary, or  the saint in whose honour the hymn is composed serves to form linear or strophic  acrostics. St. Ephraem signed some of his poems with his acrostic.

From the ninth century the influence of Arabic poetry made itself felt in  Syriac hymnody, especially by the introduction of rhyme, this manner of marking  the final stroke of a verse had been hitherto unknown, the rare examples held to  have been discovered among older authors being merely voluntary or fortuitous  assonances. But the Syrians made varied use of rhyme. There are poems in which  all the verses have the same rhyme as in the "Kasida" of the Arabs; in others,  and these are the more numerous, the verses of each strophe have a single rhyme  which is not the same for all the strophes. In others the verses of a strophe  rhyme among themselves, with the exception of the last, which repeats the rhyme  of the first strophe like a refrain. In acrostic poems the rhyme is sometimes  supplied by the corresponding letter of the alphabet; thus the first strophe  rhymes with a, the second with b, etc. There may also be a  different rhyme for the first two measures and for the last. These are the most  frequent combinations, but there are others.

Most ancient hymns, e.g. those of St. Ephraem, Narses, and Balai, although  composed for one or two choirs, were not originally intended for liturgical use  properly so called. They were addressed as much to the laity as to clerics, and  date from a period when the codification of harmony, if we may so speak, was not  yet regularly established. The result of adapting these hymns to liturgical  offices was that they underwent various modifications: (1) in the assignment of  authorship -- the Syrian Jacobites and the Maronites in adopting those of  Nestorian origin either suppressed the name of the author or substituted the  name of one whom they considered orthodox, most frequently St. Ephraem; (2) in  revision, those which were too long were shortened and heterodox expressions  were modified -- thus the term "Mother of Christ" was replaced by "Mother of  God", etc.; (3) in general arrangement, especially by the addition of a refrain  when there was none in the original. Thus a hymn by St. Ephraem the acrostic of  which forms the name "Jesus Christ", begins with the strophe:

Jesus Our  Lord the Christ
Has appeared to us from the bosom of His Father;
He  has come to deliver us from darkness,
And to illumine us with his  resplendent light.

It was preceded by the following distich which  forms the refrain:

Light is arisen upon the just
And joy for those who are  broken-hearted.

Likewise a hymn of Narses on the Ephiphany begins:

Error like darkness,
Was stretched over creatures;
The light  of Christ is arisen
And the world possesses knowledge.

Its  refrain is the following distich:

The light of the appearing of Christ
Has rejoiced the earth and  the heavens.

Hymns do not occur only in the Office which correspond  to the Roman Breviary; the Syrians also made use of them in various Iiturgical  functions, such as funeral and mariage celebrations.

Simple hymns without refrain are called teshbuhte (glorifications);  the name cala (voice) is given to the hymns in which each is preceded by  a sentence (metrical or not) expressing a thought in conformity with that of the  strophe. It is in a manner an invitation from the first choir to which the  second replies by strophe, e.g.:

First choir: Open to me the gates of justice.
Second  choir: Open to us, Lord, the great treasure, (strophe of four verses).
First choir: And I will enter to praise the Lord.
Second  choir: At the gate of thy mercies (etc., strophe of four verses).

Sometimes the strophes are interspersed with versicles from the  Psalms.

The hymns in the Jacobite Office which conclude the part known as sedra and replace the short prayers of the Nestorian Office are called ba'utha (prayer, request). Most hymns of this class are in pentasyllabic  verses and are the work of the poet Balai (d. about 450). They show great  simplicity of thought and language and consist of two strophes, generally of six  verses each, sometimes of four, as for example:

During forty days
Moses fasted on the mountain:
And with the  splendor of its light
His countenance shone.
During forty days
Ninive fasted:
And the Lord was appeased,
And  annulled the sentence.

Instead of the ba'utha occasionally occurs a metrical composition called seblata (stairs), which  are factitious arrangements of verses borrowed from various sources and  arbitrarily arranged by those who co-ordinated or revised the Offices, and are  of no assistance in the study of Syriac hymnody. The sagitha is less  frequently replaced by the augitha, a canticle in the form of a dialogue  which recalls the "Victimae paschali" of the Roman Missal. All the poems of this  kind known to us are of Nestorian origin, and are probably the work of Narses.  They are uniformly constructed with an introduction and a dialogue; the  introduction is composed of from five to ten strophes of four heptasyllabic  verses; the dialogue between two persons or two groups of persons contains forty  four strophes (twenty-two for each interlocutor) similar to those in the  prologue and forming an alphabetic acrostic. These compositions of rather lively  measure are stamped by a certain grace. The subject is adapted to the feast of  the day; thus in the canticle for Christmas the dialogue is between the Blessed  Virgin and the Magi; for the Annunciation, between Gabriel and Mary; for the  feast Syrian Doctors, between Cyril and Nestorius, etc. These three kinds hymns  correspond to the three subjects which form their usual theme, praise, prayer,  and instruction, but as has been said the last-named was chiefly imparted by the mimre.

Extensive study of Syriac hymnody would show whether there is any  relationship between it and Byzantine hymnody, an hypothesis which has had as  many opponents as defenders; but this study has not yet been attempted, and it  is an undertaking fraught with difficulties, owing to the small number of  documents published in satisfactory condition. Indeed the knowledge of hymns  supplied by editions of the liturgical books of Catholic Chaldeans, Syrians, or  Maronites is inadequate for the reasons indicated above. The works of St.  Ephraem which contain a large number of them (authentic or apocryphal) have not  been critically edited. The Nestorian Breviaries which have most faithfully  preserved the ancient texts have never been printed and manuscripts are rare,  while the collections of hymns apart from liturgical books are few and have not  been sufficiently studied.

Transcribed by Joseph P. Thomas
Dedicated to Fr.  Cyriac Kanippillil M.C.B.S.


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