Praising God in the Eight Tones

Most regular worshippers in Byzantine churches have heard the terms “Octoechos” or “eight tones.” Some think that these terms refer principally to the troparia of the resurrection sung at Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. In fact, the term Octoechos refers to much more.

The Octoechos first of all refers to a system of eight musical tones in which liturgical music has been composed and arranged since the Middle Ages. Eight-tone systems are the basis of church music in several historic traditions. The Byzantine, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Latin and Slavic Churches all use an eight-tone system, although the music of each of these Churches is vastly different from any of the others.

In Byzantine practice the Octoechos also refers to the eight-week cycle of texts and music for the daily services throughout the year. Each week in succession a different tone is used, beginning in the week of Thomas, the second week of the Paschal season. Every Saturday evening Vespers begins a new tone which is used for all the services of the following week. These texts are contained in a liturgical book called the Great Octoechos or Paraklitiki, which offers a rich source for reflection.

The idea of an eight-week cycle seems to have originated with the Jerusalem patriarchate in the fifth century. Noted hymnographers at the nearby Mar Saba Monastery such as St Cosmas of Maiuma and St John of Damascus composed hymns in this pattern. The system began to spread and was formally accepted at the Council of Trullo in 692. As the system became popular in Constantinople renowned figures such as St Theodore the Studite contributed to the Octoechos. Their works form a good part of the Octoechos today.

The Saturday evening and Sunday morning services in each tone celebrate Christ’s Resurrection, leading to the often quoted idea that “every Sunday is a little Pascha.”

Proclaiming the Resurrection

The changeable parts of our Sunday services in the Octoechos are concerned with Christ’s resurrection. During the forty days of Pascha these Resurrectional hymns are not sung only on Sundays, but every day. On the five Sundays of the season they are combined with the hymns of Pascha itself and the specific commemorations of the day.

The texts in each of the eight tones are different but they all speak of the paschal mystery. The examples cited here are all taken from the first and second tones, but the ideas which they express are representative of the other tones as well.

Some of these texts recall the events described in the Gospels: the sealed tomb, the stone rolled away, the angels’ message to the women and the news they brought to the apostles. Thus we hear the following at Vespers on Saturday evening: “The myrrh-bearing women came with haste to Your tomb, with their myrrh and their lament. Not finding Your most pure body, they learned from the angel of the new and glorious wonder. They told the apostles that the Lord is risen, granting the world great mercy.”

At Orthros on Sunday this is sung: “The soldiers keeping watch over your tomb fell down as dead, O Savior, at the lightning brightness of the angel who appeared and proclaimed the resurrection to the women.”

We also hear this hymn in which the composer adds a striking image: “The women, coming early to Your tomb trembled at the sight of the angel. The tomb shone with life and this wonder struck them. And so going back to the disciples they proclaimed the Resurrection.”

Meaning of the Resurrection

Other texts speak of the meaning of the resurrection for us. Thirteen Resurrectional hymns at Saturday Vespers in addition to the familiar troparion and over fifty others prescribed for Sunday Orthros give ample scope for composers to add theology and poetry to their proclamation of this mystery.

The greatest effect of Christ’s death and resurrection is that Death’s power to separate us from God is now destroyed. Death now need not affect more than the body – our spirits can pass with Christ through bodily death to eternal life. The hymns of the Octoechos constantly sing of the annihilation of Death: “granting life, He has slain Death… He has resurrected Adam, as the Lover of mankind…” (Tone 1 Vespers).

“You have transformed the shadow of death into life eternal,” we sing at Orthros (Tone 1), “breaking the chains of man’s mortality… granting to the human race life eternal and great mercy…” “You raised up human nature, which was held captive and You enthroned it with Your Father in heaven…” (Tone 2).

The New Testament introduces the concept that Christ descended into the depths “… and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient” (1 Pt 3:19, 20). The Octoechos echoes this teaching in many hymns: “…in Your power you descended into Hades and snatching, as from a mighty monster, the souls of those who awaited Your coming, You placed them in Paradise.”

“Sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (Jas 1:15) and so the Octoechos often connects the resurrection to the defeat of sin. ‘Emmanuel has nailed our sins to the cross and… has delivered us from our transgressions… (Tone 1 Vespers).

Images of the Resurrection

Since this bestowal of eternal life is beyond our senses, the Church often uses images to describe it in a manner our senses can grasp. The destruction of Death’s power is often depicted graphically. “O Christ, you put to shame him who held them in thrall and showed him naked and destitute by your Divine Rising” (Tone 1).

“O Christ the gates of Death opened before You in fear and the gatekeepers of Hades were filled with dread at the sight of You. You smashed the gates of brass and crushed the posts of iron. Then You burst our chains asunder and led us out from the darkness, away from the shadow of death” (Tone 2).

The Octoechos often employs Scriptural allusions to glorify the resurrection, invoking images of:

The Creation and Fall (Genesis 1-3) – “The one who planted a soul within me by His divine breath, submitted Himself to slaughter and surrendered His soul to death. He loosed the everlasting bonds, and has raised the dead with Himself, glorifying them in incorruption.” “You have abolished the curse of the tree by Your cross … and cancelled the decree that was written against us”. “Paradise is again offered for us to enjoy…”

Cain and Abel (Gen 4) – “The earth of old was cursed, dyed with the blood of Abel from his murdering brother’s hand. Now it is blessed, sprinkled with the divine stream of Your blood.”

Jonah and the Sea Monster – “You have brought us up from Hades, Lord, by worsting the all-devouring monster of the deep, O All-powerful, and destroying his power by Your might…”

The Temple Priesthood – “He is our forerunner into the holy place” (see Hebrews 9:24)

Marriage – “You rose from the tomb as from a bridal chamber” i.e. showing that the heavenly marriage had been truly “consummated” and that God and mankind were one again.