The Romeiko Ensemble was founded in 1993 in Philadelphia (USA) and performs the Classical Music of Constantinople (Istanbul), namely the rich musical heritage of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.
In Byzantine times (330-1453), the Palace Court as well as the Great Church of Hagia Sophia sponsored master composers, such as Ioannes Kladas, Ioannes Koukouzelis, Xenos Koronis, Manuel Chrysafis along with others, who set to music verses from the Septuagint Psalter, Byzantine liturgical lyrics (hymns) or texts of syllables which have no meaning (kratema). Chant was performed in the Great Church a capella by male choirs under the direction of the domestikos. By contrast, in the Palace Court secular music was accompanied by instruments. Byzantine music was transmitted orally via a master/apprentice relationship as well as through a neumatic notational system (parasemantiki) that describes the melodic movement through microtonal intervals (Byzantine echos) developed in 12th century. The cantors (psaltes) wore wide-brimmed hats (skiadion) or tall "bullet" hats (skaranikon) and dressed in special cloaks (kamisionand phelonion) girded with a belt (sfiktourion). This cantors' costume tradition was lost after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 leaving the cantor dressed only with a black robe (rason) of the Eastern Church. However, for the first time since the Fall, Yorgos Bilalis has joined forces with costume designer Fatima Lavor-Peters to recreate these Byzantine vestments as they are described in several treatises or depicted on Byzantine frescoes and manuscript miniatures.
In the Ottoman era (1453-1919), Greek-speaking Christian (Romei)composers enriched the chant melodic formulas that had been developed during Byzantine times and composed a new repertory for use in the Orthodox Church liturgical cycle. The parasemantiki system went through different evolutionary phases in response to this increasing demand for a more analytical and simplified system. In 1814, a three-member committee headed by Bishop Chrysanthos, the Lampadarios Gregorios (left cantor) of the Patriarchal church at that time, and the Patriarchal Archvist Chourmouzios was appointed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to create the New Analytical Method(a.k.a. Chrysanthine notation among western musicologists). Whereas the previous parasemantikihad depicted formulaic musical phrases of greater or lesser length, the new method sought to depict the melodies analytically, that is note for note with exact time values. Chourmouzios undertook the majority of this monumental effort; he transcribed a vast repertory of Byzantine and post-Byzantine composers for twenty two years consecutively (†1840) as well as wrote his own compositions. Chourmouzios' archive was bought by the Patriarch of Jerusalem and kept in the Holy Sepulchre Exarchate's Metochion Panagiou Tafou (MPT) Library in Constantinople until 1950, when it was moved to the National Library of Athens where it remains to the present day.
Romeiko Ensemble, under the musical direction of Yorgos Bilalis and the vocal tutelage of master vocal technician John Nicholas Peters, has undertaken the task of presenting side-by-side authentic interpretations of the parallel Byzantine and Ottoman musical heritages (Christian and Sufi). Having carefully selected musicians skilled in historical performance practice and improvisation, Romeiko Ensemble has recorded unpublished medieval compositions based on thorough research of the musical manuscripts. The ensemble began its public performance career in 1994 and has traveled extensively throughout the US and Europe performing at festivals, gala concerts, church and tekke ceremonies and services as well as other cultural events. Romeiko Ensemble was catapulted to fame at the 13th International Festival of Orthodox Music in Hajnowka, Poland (1994), where the ensemble received "special distinction" among the 37 international choirs taking part. The ensemble was selected as the most authentic choral group from the US to perform at the Millennium Visit to Detroit of the Patriarch of Constantinople (2000). Its discography includes: The Sounds of the Parthenon (1996), Thy Cross We Adore (2000), The Sin of the Fig Tree(2001), From Adam unto Joseph (2002), Shall We Sing for You...? (2003), Divine Liturgy in Mode I(2006).
Given its origins from the Biblical and Semitic traditions, it is no surprise that the hymns, songs and poems used in the Eastern Rite Churches are understood as a “re-sounding” or echo of the heavenly chanting, which the hymnographer hears with a spiritual ear and transmits in his work.
These eight tones directly draw upon and developed from the modal structure of Greek music, and over time grew into the full body of liturgical music. The development of hymnody in the early and mid Byzantine period was then, both a significant musical achievement in its beauty and complexity, and a significant theological accomplishment in its content. In much the same way as the efforts of the Seven Ecumenical Councils and (among others) the Cappadocian Fathers defined the theological and doctrinal foundations of the Church, the work of the hymnographers naturally incorporated this teaching into the liturgical life of the church for the purpose of edifying the faithful and building up the faith.
This understanding of liturgical music closely parallels the understanding of the sacramentality of the liturgy itself as re-presenting the reality of the faith and as an entering into the reality of the Kingdom of God, an ascent to an invisible reality. The Church’s hymns are proclaimed by the angels, and therefore the Church’s hymnographers must follow the established types of heavenly origin, and thus there is a “model” or structure in Byzantine hymnography that is understood as a metaphysical concept rather than a rigid structure or an object of simple imitation. This structure is the Octoechos, or the eight modes of Byzantine chant.
These eight tones directly draw upon and were developed from the modal structure of Greek music, and over time grew into the full body of liturgical music. The development of hymnody in the early and mid-Byzantine period was then both a significant musical achievement in its beauty and complexity, and a significant theological accomplishment in its content. In much the same way as the efforts of the Seven Ecumenical Councils and (among others) the Cappadocian Fathers defined the theological and doctrinal foundations of the Church, the work of the hymnographers naturally incorporated this teaching into the liturgical life of the church for the purpose of edifying the faithful and building up the faith. It is said that someone once asked Fr. Georges Florovsky (a great contemporary Orthodox theologian in America) where was the best place to go to learn the teachings of the church. He is said to have replied: "Go and stand next to the chanter's stand for a full year and you will learn the theology of the Church."