Maronite Sacred Music

By Rev. Louis Hage, Ph. D.
Former Dean of the Music Department at the Holy Spirit University, Kaslik (USEK). He was recently elected Assistant General to the Superior General of the Lebanese Maronite Order of monks.

The repertoire of chants, used in the Syro-Maronite Church, is very diversified. Close observation reveals five groups which are distinct in origin, nature, and traditional significance. Here is a synthetic [synthesized; analytic] view of the distribution of the five groups in various books of the Maronite Rite.

1.Syro-Maronite Chant is found in the following liturgical books: 

  • The Daily Office (Shhimto)
  • The Festival Office (Fanqito)
  • The Holy Week Office (Haso)
  • The Funeral Offices
  • The Ritual (Book of Benedictions)
  • The Sacramentary
  • The Pontifical
  • The Syriac Mass
The texts are always in the Syriac language. The melodies are ancient and date back to the first centuries of Christianity.

2.Syro-Maronite-Arabic Chant is found in the Mass, the Benedictions and the Canticles. The texts are in the Maronite dialect of Arabic, but the melodies are Syriac or of Syriac origin.  [The terms "Syro-Maronite-Arabic Chant", Maronite Arabic" or "the Maronite dialect or Arabic" are treated below under the heading "Two methods of Composition Explained."] 

3.Improvised melodies are created by the soloists-priest, deacon, or cantor. The texts may be in Syriac or Arabic. The melodies are generally performed in a traditional style. 

4.Personal or original melodies are especially found in the liturgy of the Mass and in some Benedictions and Canticles. The texts are in classical Arabic. The melodies are of recent composition. 

5.Foreign melodies are found in some Benedictions and among the Canticles. The texts are in classical Arabic. 

Before examining each group separately, let us examine the methods of composition in Maronite music.

Methods of Composition

Using an already classical terminology, we can divide the melodies in Maronite music, according to their methods of composition, into four principal categories: adapted melodies, "centonic" [patchwork] melodies, personal melodies, and improvised melodies.

1.The adapted melodies are formed when the composer, having to put a melody to a new text, uses an extant traditional melody which he adapts, with such modifications as are necessary, to the new text (See examples 1 and 2). 

2.The 'centonic' melodies are formed by an eclectic procedure. The composer, having to put a melody to a new text, does not take an existing melody from the fund of traditional music (as in the above category), but takes little melodic formulas which he arranges or adjusts or juxtaposes, according to special rules, in order to make a new melody (See examples 1 and 2). 

3.The personal melodies are formed by free and personal procedures which are the product of the composer's talent. 

4.The improvised melodies are formed by a special procedure using traditional guidelines, which takes into account personal creation and, in varying degrees, adaptation or centonization. 

Let us now examine the methods of composition in each of the five groups of Maronite music.

The Syro-Maronite Chant 

This group is so called because of the origin of this chant, which is a continuation of the chant of the ancient Syro-Antiochian Church. Most probably, this Church had, at least in its western region, a uniform style of music. It was only with time and after the divisions within this large church, that those divergences among the repertoires of the chants became prominent in its different branches.

Two methods of Composition Explained

Syro-Maronite melodies are composed according to two methods: centonization and adaptation.

Most of the Syro-Maronite melodies are centonic; that is, they are composed from a certain number of small fragments of melodic formulas or patterns.

The melody is therefore composed in the strict sense of the word (cum-ponere), and results from the linking of a few small formulas already constructed and already known. Analysis of these melodies shows clearly that their primary elements are not isolated notes, but small formulas, each having very often its own shape and form (See examples 1 and 2).

Being of centonic composition, the Syro-Maronite chant makes no use of personal or original composition. The latter is, as we know, the individual work of a given musician. It only appeared in Maronite music around the eighteenth century. Prior to that, all Maronite music was anonymous, traditional, communal, and of ancient composition.

The melodic formulas have, then, their own characteristics, and require a deep and detailed study, which generally comprises the following three phases: the determination and delimitation of the melodic formulas; their classification; and their analytical and critical study, with regard to their characteristics, modifications, relations with the texts, etc.

The second method of composition, frequently used in  Syro-Maronite chant, is the adaptation of melodic models. This procedure sometimes occurs simultaneously with centonization; thus a given melody, A, serves as a model for the composition of another melody, B. Hence the latter reflects two methods of composition -- adaptation and centonization -- since the B melody is also composed, like its model, of a certain number of small pre-constructed melodic formulas (See examples 1 and 2). 

Like the first, this second method obeys rules which are peculiar to it: the adaptation does not occur haphazardly. No description of these rules has reached us. To reconstruct them by analyzing the melodies themselves is a hard task.

The adaptation of melodies within the Syro-Maronite repertoire was of two kinds: either by identical reproduction or by accommodation. There is identical reproduction when the application of an existing melody to a new text does not require any significant modification of the melody and consequently leaves it as it is. This method is easily and frequently applied to the Syro-Maronite chant, as to all music, because it requires only the metric uniformity of the texts. There is accommodation when the application of a melody to a new text requires particular and temporary modifications: either by addition (adding, splitting) or by subtraction (joining, omission) of one of several articulated notes (See examples 1 and 2).


It is impossible to give in this article a detailed analysis of the Syro-Maronite chant. We will therefore give only some general characteristics.

1.The Syro-Maronite chant is a strophic chant. The melody is adapted to a large number of verses whose meter is most often uniform. The model-strophe, according to which the meter and the melody of the verses must be regulated, is called the ris-qolo. It is the equivalent of the Greek hirmos. There is no responsorial chant. 

2.The chant is a syllabic chant. With the exception of the final syllable of a melody and sometimes of the penultimate, almost no other syllable takes more than two notes. Even the syllables with two notes are rare, making a connection between the two notes of an interval of a third [a three-tone interval]. 

3.The chant is monodic, having no place for harmony or polyphony. 

4.The musical scale is often not tempered. Between C and E, we find sometimes a 'neutral' third, pitched somewhere between the major and the minor. 

5.The range of the melody is quite restrained. It is generally limited to a fourth or a fifth, sometimes even to a third. 

6.The melodies always proceed in a graduated movement. We often find a tendency to "correct" even the thirds; that is, the intermediate note is placed after the second note of the third. For instance, after the do-mi interval we find re; after sol-mi we find fa. Intervals of a fourth and a fifth are rare and are generally met at the junction of melodic formulas. 

The larger intervals, the sixth and beyond, are not used. The result is a great simplicity of melody.

7.The rhythm is varied. The most frequent is the syllabic rhythm. There are also double and triple times, and their combinations, such as 5/8 or 7/8. 

8.The relationship between music and text: with regard to expression, the melody bears almost no relationship with the text, since it finds itself set to a large number of strophes. With regard to rhythm, the melody habitually espouses the rhythm of the verse. 

9.The chants are generally of a calm and simple character, resulting largely from the limited range of the melodies, the repetition of certain pre-constructed formulas, and from the conjoined movement. In performance, these traditional, communal and obvious qualities are sometimes obscured or altered by a bad rendition. 

10.There is a great affinity to be found between the Syro-Maronite chant and the ancient Jacobite chant and the popular traditional chants of Syria and Lebanon, and other neighboring regions. This affinity raises the problem of interference between sacred and secular traditional chants. 

The Syro-Maronite-Arabic Chant

This appellation is explained by the fact that the chant has an Arabic text and a Syro-Maronite or originally Syro-Maronite melody. As in the case of the Syro-Maronite chant, it is almost always strophic. The melody is adapted to a larger or smaller number of strophes which always have an almost uniform meter.

Methods of Composition

This second group is uniquely formed by the procedure of adapting a Syro-Maronite melody to an Arabic text. This adaptation may take one of three possible forms: identical reproduction, accommodation, or refashioning.

1.Identical reproduction: Around the seventeenth century, the era of the first examples of the Syro-Maronite-Arabic chant, it seems that the Maronites mostly used this method of applying a Maronite-Arabic text to a Syro-Maronite melody. This must have occurred with no great difficulty because the Maronite-Arabic language was very similar, with regard to vocalization and verification, to Syriac, which was the secular as well as the liturgical language of the Maronites (See example 2, A and B). 

2.Accommodation: Because of its progressive evolution towards classical or literary Arabic, Maronite-Arabic necessarily had to increase the number of its vocal signs and consequently the number of its syllables. This brought about certain transient or occasional modifications of the original Syro-Maronite melody, and necessitated the use of accommodation (See example 2, A and C). 

3.Refashioning: Because of this evolution towards classical Arabic, added syllables became more numerous, so that accommodation became more difficult; hence the need for refashioning. This is a special method of adapting a Syro-Maronite melody to an Arabic text. It demands a general and constant modification of the note-values of the entire melody. This differs from accommodation because it affects the entire notation of the melody, while the latter affects only certain elements in an irregular manner. 

Sometimes accommodation and refashioning occur simultaneously (See example 3).

Improvised Melodies

Unlike most Western music, that of the Near East, sacred and secular, vocal and instrumental, reserves an important place for improvisation.

In the Maronite chant, improvisation is similar to that in Arabic-Persian music and in the popular music of the Near East. Thus many improvised melodies in the Maronite Church stand out very clearly from the rest of the repertoire.

If we wish to group the different kinds of improvisation in the Maronite Church according to technique and to the degree of freedom with which the cantor improvises, we can distinguish four principal categories:

1.The cantor performs his improvisation with the maximum liberty: he chooses the melodic development he desires; he can use any kind of style from strict syllabism to extended melisma; the rhythm is free but generally follows that of the text. One must, however, notice that this complete liberty unconsciously maintains certain associations with some of the musical formulas stored in the cantor's memory. 

2.The assembly could intuitively sense the melodic line used by the cantor; in general, all the above-mentioned features of improvisation are less pronounced. The cantor's liberty is somewhat limited. 

3.The cantor is dealing with a traditional melody, already the subject of improvisation, and instinctively distinguishes between its residual framework (which is more or less fixed) and the subjective element which the melody presents at every new improvisation. The cantor tries to re-create the melody, following its original line or schema. 

4.The cantor is dealing with a more fixed melody, which he interprets with individual feeling and technique. In certain places he can sometimes add ornaments or little developments. With this kind of improvisation we thus encounter the phenomenon of ornamentation, which has a prominent role in the execution and interpretation of Oriental music. 

Personal Melodies

These are recent. Their number is constantly growing. Influenced by many kinds of foreign inspiration and technique, they are manifestly varied and heterogeneous. In general, one may distinguish four principal categories; that of Western technique and aspiration; that of Arab technique and aspiration; that of both Western and Arab aspiration; and finally that of Syriac technique and aspiration.

Compositions of the last category are particularly interesting. To the extent to which these compositions answer liturgical, sociological, and artistic requirements, they are the most welcome at a time when liturgical and musical reform has already begun.

Foreign Melodies

We do not yet know exactly when the Maronites started to apply Arabic texts to foreign melodies taken from the East or the West. This did not happen before the eighteenth century. We also find foreign melodies in other Catholic Oriental Churches of the Near East. Applicable mostly to canticles and para-liturgical poems, their use is in decline.

With the foreign melodies, we come to the end of the five groups of Maronite chant. Some mention however, should be made of the musical instruments found in the Maronite Church.

The Musical Instruments

Traditionally, only four instruments are used in the Maronite Church: double cymbals, the large cymbal, the naqus and the maraweh. The double cymbals, which have long been in use, can be of different sizes. The large cymbal consists of one suspended disc which is struck with a drumstick. 

The naqus can be single or double. The latter is formed of two metallic hemispheres connected to a stem which serves as a handle. It is played with a metallic drumstick. Its tone reminds one of the triangles. Probably this instrument originally had a purely functional role -- that of calling people to prayer, and drawing their attention to certain important moments during prayers. It had the same function as the bell and the hand-bell in the Roman Rite.

The maraweh, plural for marwaha, is a metallic disc having at its periphery some small pieces of metal. The disc is fixed to a wooden handle, about one-meter in length. To the handle is sometimes fixed a colorful flag.

Performance consists of gently agitating the handle, slowly raising and lowering it, which produces a lightly rustling sound.

The use of these instruments is entrusted to experts who have been trained by their elders. Their performance is reserved for certain solemn and joyful occasions, such as Christmas and Easter, and during certain processions.

The harmonium and the organ, which are to be found in some churches or in seminary and college chapels, are of rather recent usage. Other instruments, such as the violin and the accordion, are more recent still.

This article was published with special permission from its author.


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