St John Koukkouzeles

His life and his work

This renowed melodist of the Byzantine period, the second source of Byzantine music after St John of Damascus, also known as the «Master of music», constitutes a special period in the history of this sacred art. Not only did he embellish the ecclesiastical psalmody with honey-sweet chant, but he also imposed some changes, additions and removals to the characters of the existing symbolic music representation due to John of Damascus. His work of transcriing melodies into his new, simpler, notation, shows that an old character, e.g. the ouranisma, consists of about 20 simpler characters. The notation of Koukkouzeles was used thoroughly until the mid XVIII century, when the Archcantor of the Great Church John of Trapezon (1756), at the order of the Ecumenical Patriarch Cyril of Nicomedia, changed the musical notation, and introduced a simpler method, in order to assist the learning of psalmody.

John was born in the XIIth century in Dyrrhachion of Illiria. His name Koukkouzeles comes from the following anecdote: When his students in the emperial school of Constantinople asked him what he was eating, he replied «koukkia and zelia» (beans and peas), because he was poor.

From his youth, John had an inclination towards the letters and the sacred music. Because of his sweet voice, he was recruited by the emperor's Music School, where he became a strong mystic of the divine art. Having attracted the love of the court and the appreciation of the emperor, he became the leader musican of the emperial chanters. But John, despite having all the needs in the palace, and knowing that the emperor wanted to marry him with some girl from the peers, caring about his soul, he decided to flee the palace. He deceives the emperors that he must go to his birthplace in order to get the concession of his mother for the wedding. There he composed the lamenting song known as «Βulgarian», which he heard hidden into the house of his lamenting mother, to which John's friends falsely announced the death of her son.

Whe John returned to Constantinople, he learned about the lives of the hermites in Mount Athos by the hegoumen of the monastery of the Greatest Lavra who happened to be in Byzantium for some business. Hence he decided to flee and escape to the Holy Mount Athos, carrying with him his staff and his cloth. There in the monastery of Lavra, when queried by the porter who he was and what he wants, John replied that he was a peasant shepherd, and wanted to become a monk. When the porter commented about the young age of John, he humbly replied quoting Jeremiah (Lamentations 3:27) «It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.»

In the monastery of the Lavra, he became a monk and a shepherd of the goats of the monastery. Later his identity was revealed to the hegoumen as follows: Some day John was sitting, looking over his flock, and started chanting. Some hermit heard his sweet voice and in surprise he saw that even the goats were standing listening to their shepherd instead of eating their food. He then announces all these to the abbot of the Lavra, who then calls John, and having recognised his, he punishes him for not having timely declared that he was the beloved musician of the emperor. The abbot informs the emperor about the news, but asks him to leave his beloved musician who had fled the palace to continue his monastic life.

Since then, John lived in a cell of the Lavra, and on Sundays and other feasts he sung with compunction together with the other cantors. His toils and his zeal for music were hounoured by a heavenly visit. According to tradition, at some vigil on the Saturday of the Fifth Week of Lent, when the Akathist Hymn is chanted, after the end of the canon, John fell asleep in his seat, as he was exhausted by the vigil. On waking up, he found in his hand a golden coin, gift of the Mother of God, half of which is by the icon of the Mother of God in the temple of the Lavra, and the other half was sent to Russia. Since then, John increased his zeal for psalmody and chanted every day in the temple.

John was marvelled for his art, for the sweetness of his voice, and for his handsome figure. He was numbered among the Saints of the Church, and is celebrated on the first of October.

Koukkouzeles wrote a theoretical treaty on the art of Music, and a book containing ecclesiastical chants. He created the so-called Great Ison of the Papadic genre. Also the circular Great Wheel of music, which has around him another four smaller wheels, two of which on the top, left and right, and two below, left and right. Each one of these via signs designates the plagal mode of each plagal tone with respect to each basic tone. Hence the poet puts aside the names of our eight tones, and the eight tones of the ancient Greeks. Above and below of the smaller wheels, he has the names of the basic and plagal tones: Dorios, Lydios, Phrygios, Mixolydios, Ypodorios, Ypolydios, Ypophrygios, Ypomixolydios. He wrote cherubim hymns in the eight tones, both short and longer versions. Of these one is saved today in tone pl. II (palatiano), one communion hymn «Αἰνεῖτε» in tone pl. I, one «Γεύσασθε» in pl. I, the great and complex Anoiksandaria, the slow «Μακάριος ἀνήρ», the «Χαῖρε κεχαριτωμένη» sung at Artoklasias in tone I tetraphone; Alleluias in tones I and pl. I, the «Ἄνωθεν oἲ Προφῆται», «Τὸν δεσπότην καὶ ἀρχιερέα», polyelei, calophonic heirmoi, pasapnoaria, and many others, which have been published and others unpublished.