By Jamie Greenberg
The monastery of Saint John Prodromos lays claim to a vibrant musical legacy that reaches back to as early as the 14th century. Its many significant manuscripts attest to Prodromos’ musical and cultural prominence, and to its position at the crossroads of the major centers of musical production in the Late Byzantine period. The present community, under the guidance of Abbess Fevronia, has inherited and extended this tradition, as demonstrated by the high premium that the nuns place on the chanting of the Divine Liturgy and the daily hours.
Among the earliest artifacts of musicological interest to our seminar is a group of 14th and 15th century manuscripts that originated at Prodromos and are now housed in the National Library of Greece. These manuscripts are of the type of Late Byzantine anthology known as the Akolouthia, or ‘Order of Services,’ and contain chants for morning and evening offices, as well as for the three divine liturgies. The emergence of these chant collections in the early 14th century marks an important development in musical style under the Palaeologan rule, and evidences the efflorescence of liturgical composition at this time. These collections reflect the Palaeologan impulse for renovation, renewal, and codification that characterized the ruling family’s cultural and political program after the Byzantine return to the Bosphorus. One such manuscript copied at Prodromos in 1336 bears the distinction of being the earliest extant copy of the Akolouthia.
Two remarkably compendious 15th century Akolouthiai from Prodromos preserve a great amount of repertoire from Thessaloniki, Constantinople, and Mt. Athos, illuminating the monastery’s connection to the major cultural centers of the Late Byzantine period. Of special interest to the local history of the monastery is the inclusion of musical variants once used in the nearby community of Serres. In one of these manuscripts, copied in 1453, Prodromos’s domestikos and scribe, Mattheos, records the event of Mehmed’s capture of Constantinople. This anthology provides a snapshot of musical activity throughout Byzantine and formerly Byzantine territories at this turning point in Byzantine society. Mattheos’s poignant inscription reminds the music historian of the political, as well as musical, value of this document.