Listen to Music as It Sounded in the Hagia Sophia 500 Years Ago

Listen to Music as It Sounded in the Hagia Sophia 500 Years Ago March 3, 2020

The Hagia Sophia in Constantinople was one of the most magnificent cathedrals in the history of the church.  It is also one of the oldest, having been built in 537 A.D.

The building, whose name means “Holy Wisdom”–a reference to the Logos of John 1–is considered one of the greatest achievements in the history of architecture.  Its vast dome, its interior arches, and its other design elements are marvels of ancient architecture.  It was adorned with magnificent mosaics and other works of art and its acoustics for music were legendary. Built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, the cathedral–the world’s largest for a thousand years–became a major center for the Orthodox Church.

In 987 A.D., the King of the Russian tribes, Vladimir the Great, resolved to put away his people’s pagan gods and find a new religion.  He sent out emissaries to investigate the major religions of the surrounding nations:  Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy.  Vladimir resolved to adopt a religion for himself and the Russian people based on their reports.

From the website of St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral:

When they experienced the Divine Liturgy at the Hagia Sophia Cathedral there, here is what they reported:

We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget the beauty.

In an example of the role aesthetics can play in apologetics, this overwhelming experience of transcendent beauty led to Russia’s commitment to the Orthodox Church ever since.

In 1453, the Muslims invaded.  They turned Constantinople into Istanbul, turned the Byzantine Empire into the Ottoman Empire, and turned the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.  They covered the mosaics, got rid of the art, and banished the music, which is forbidden in Islamic worship.  They added minarets to the four corners of the building and made it their own.

In 1935, the secularizing ruler of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, turned the building into a museum.  It is now the biggest tourist attraction in Turkey.  Lately, due to the Islamic revival in the Middle East and with the support of Turkish president Recep Erdogan, there is a movement today to turn it back into a mosque.

All of this is background to a remarkable achievement, thanks to an alliance between science and the arts.

Two researchers from Stanford, two scholars at Stanford University, art history professor Bissera Pentcheva and computer music specialist Jonathan Abel, were discussing the Hagia Sophia.  They realized that it would be possible to analyze the acoustics of the building today and to create a filter using that data, which would make music sound as if it were being performed in the Hagia Sophia.

Prof. Pentcheva went to  Turkey, got permission to visit the museum after hours, and after setting up microphones and recording equipment, popped a balloon.

That single sound–its echoes, resonance, and tonal qualities–provided data that was analyzed by computers and turned into an algorithm that could be applied to other electronic recordings.  And thus the sound of a choir singing in the 13th century could be recreated today.

The following clip from NPR goes into more of the background and includes the sound of a balloon popping here and what that balloon sounded like in the Hagia Sophia.  And then the clip plays the modern historical music group Capella Romana singing a 13th century Byzantine chant, which would have been part of the Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church of that day.  We hear the studio version, which sounds very good in itself.  And then we hear it with the Hagia Sophia filter, whereupon it becomes transcendent.

Listen for yourself:

For a transcript, go here.  You can download tracks or buy the whole album: Capella Romana, The Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia.  And here is a wonderful video that features the music along with shots of the interior (as well as some readings in Greek):

I had always assumed that the emissaries of Vladimir were referring to the visual splendor and sublimity of the cathedral, but the link above indicates that they were hearing the liturgy being sung in that setting.


HT: Paul McCain

Photo:  Interior of the Hagia Sophia today by Ian Scott / CC BY-SA ( via Wikimedia Commons

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