The Glory and Beauty of the Liturgy

Photo: Interior of the Hagia Sophia today by Ian Scott / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Gene Veith at Cranach found a story that fascinates me. Let’s let him establish the base.

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.

And so the beauty of the sung Liturgy at Hagia Sophia is one of the reasons that Russia is an Orthodox country. It sounds a bit far fetched, doesn’t it? But is it?

I don’t think so. Compare say O Holy Night sung by some very good carolers in your local mall, to the same carol sung at King’s College, Cambridge. Quite the difference acoustics makes, isn’t it? One of the reasons I no longer go to theaters to see movies lies in the fact that a box of concrete blocks totally destroys the soundtrack and so it is much better at home. Yes, gentle reader, there are other reasons as well. If you doubt that, find one of the rare old theaters still running films, you will be amazed.

But back to Hagia Sofia:

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.

That is a remarkable thing that is completely taken for granted. It is possible to greatly change the acoustical environment this way, as you’ll see, The Link goes to an NPR report on this which is fascinating.

https://www.npr.org/player/embed/808404928/808404929

Hagia Sofia, like many churches, is obviously very live acoustically, that balloon pop is a remarkable recording in and of itself. It is also coherent, which is the difference between it and trying to understand the PA in most gymnasiums. They too are very live, but they also have incredible standing waves, which depending where you are may multiply or completely negate some sounds. Here from one of Pastor Veith’s readers is a different experiment.

Surprisingly this has some of the coherence of the Hagia Sofia, which I would attribute to a grain bin not having any parallel walls or ceilings. It is a lot ‘livelier’ because of the difference between sheet metal and stone. If you ever been in a grain bin when somebody hits it with a hammer you’ll understand.

It can also be hard to understand spoken words in a bin, but it was not designed to be a soundstage nor a church, and even six inches of grain on the floor makes a dramatic change.

That Constantine’s engineers had all this figured out in the 6th century and were able to engineer this cathedral for this specific sound is almost beyond belief. In fact, for me, it is beyond my belief in Eastern Roman engineering, but not beyond my belief in God’s engineering.

Capella Romana has released a whole album recorded with the filter for Hagia Sofia, and tracks are available on YouTube, or the album may be purchased. Here is one.

Wow!

Crossposted from Nebraskaenergyobserver.

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