A canon (Slavonic kanon) is a long, highly-structured liturgical hymn used in the Byzantine Rite. Canons are sung at Matins and Compline, and also at other liturgical and devotional services.

The addition of canons to church services gave the hymnographers (hymn writers) of the Byzantine Church endless opportunities to praise God and the saints, to expound the intricacies of the Church's teaching, and to exhort the faithful. These hymnographers (many of them saints) combined Scriptural texts, historical and legendary references, and theological discourse into song, using the elaborate stylistic conventions and wordplay of late Greek poetry. For example, many canons are acrostic - that is, the initial letters of the verses make up the letters of the alphabet, the title of the feast being celebrated, or a short prayer. Canons often make use of typology, by which events in the Old Testament are seen as foreshadowing their fulfillment in the New Testament, in the Church, or in the lives of individual believers.

Each canon is assigned to one of the eight tones, and the names of the authors are often recorded in the liturgical books. The Paschal Canon of Saint John Damascus and the Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete are among the masterpieces of Byzantine liturgical hymnography.

How a canon is organized

A canon consists of up to nine sections called odes (Slavonic pisni, "songs"), each of which is associated with a canticle or song taken from Sacred Scripture:

Ode 1 Canticle of Moses (Exodus 15:1-19)
Ode 2 Canticle of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:1-43)
Ode 3 Canticle of Anna, mother of Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10)
Ode 4 Canticle of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:2-19)
Ode 5 Canticle of Isaiah (Isaiah 26:9-20)
Ode 6 Canticle of Jonah (Jonah 2:3-10)
Ode 7 Prayer of the Three Children (Daniel 3:26-56)
Ode 8 Song of the Three Children (Daniel 3:57-88)
Ode 9 Canticles of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) and Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79)

The odes of a canon keep their fixed numbering even if not all nine are present. Some odes have special characteristics:

So a "full" canon (outside of Lent) consists of eight odes (1, and 3-9). The liturgical books also include shorter canons with two, three or four odes.

Each ode begins with an irmos or theme-song. The term irmos is Greek and means "link"; the irmos links the ode of the canon to the associated Scriptural canticle, and also provides the rhythm and melody that are used when singing the rest of the ode in Greek.

Each irmos is followed by several additional stanzas or verses called troparia. These verses expand on the theme set by the canticle and irmos. The last of the troparia is almost always dedicated to the Mother of God.

The number of troparia in an ode can vary, up to as many as twenty. For historical reasons, a total of fourteen verses (counting irmoi together with troparia) is a sort of preferred standard, and the Typikon often orders that troparia be sung several times to "make up" the correct number. In parish practice, the repetitions are usually omitted, and each troparion is sung once.

Before each of the troparia, a short refrain is sung. For example, the refrain for the Sunday canon of the Resurrection is "Glory to your holy Resurrection, O Lord", while the refrain for the Paschal Canon is "Christ is risen from the dead!". The final refrain is usually "Glory.... now and ever..."; in some cases, "Glory..." and "Now and ever..." may introduce two concluding troparia.

At the end of selected odes, an irmos called a katavasia is sung. Depending on the service being celebrated, this may be the same irmos as at the start of the ode, or an irmos from the another canon. (If the latter, it will come from the same ode of the other canon; so a katavasia for ode 3 will always be an ode 3 irmos from some canon or other.) See Katavasia.

How canons are sung

In canons written in Greek, the troparia of an ode use exactly the same poetic meter and accent pattern as the irmos. Because of this, the same melody can be used for the irmos and troparia. These melodies are often quite elaborate and require experienced cantors to sing them, or lead their singing.

When canons were translated into other languages, this connection between irmos and troparia could only be kept with great difficulty. In most cases, the troparia could simply not be sung to the irmos melody, and instead the troparia were simply "read" or intoned on a single note.

This is how canons are sung in the Byzantine Catholic Church to the present day. Each irmos has its own melody, composed to match the text. The cantor sings the irmos; for well-known canons, the faithful may sing also. The faithful sing the refrains, and the cantor or lector "reads" the troparia. (Remember that "reading" means to sing simply, using a recitative melody.) If there is a katavasia at the end, it is sung to the melody composed for that text.

Listen to the following Canon of the Resurrection in Tone 4. Each ode consists of an irmos, and three troparia with refrains. At the end each ode is a katavasia, taken from the Canon to the Theotokos in Tone 4. (This is the "ordinary" set of Sunday katavasia used throughout the year.)

Ode 1 - Ode 3 - Ode 4 - Ode 5 - Ode 6 - Ode 7 - Ode 8 - Ode 9

For more information about canon-singing in the prostopinije tradition, see Melodies for Canons.

How canons are combined

The liturgical books often appoint several canons to be sung on a given day; for example, at Sunday Matins, three canons are to be sung: the Canon of the Resurrection, the Canon of the Cross and Resurrection, and the Canon of the Theotokos, all in the tone of the week. In such situations, the canons are combined ode by ode.

For each ode, the irmos of the first canon is sung, and then the troparia of the canons are read, each preceded by its own refrain. In most cases, the irmoi of the additional canons are simply omitted. (In the liturgical books, this is sometimes indicated by giving only the initial words of the irmoi that are not sung.) For example:

Ode 1
Irmos (from the first canon)
troparia of the first canon
-- (irmos of the second canon, usually omitted)
troparia of the second canon
-- (irmos of the third canon, usually omitted)
troparia of the third canon

Ode 3
Irmos (from the first canon)
troparia of the first canon
-- (irmos of the second canon, usually omitted)
troparia of the second canon
-- (irmos of the third canon, usually omitted)
troparia of the third canon

and so on for the remaining odes.

In practice, this often proves cumbersome, especially since the faithful may not be able to keep track of which refrain to sing. In such a case, it may be best to sing only the principal canon of the day.

Canons in the daily cycle of services

At Matins, the canon forms a principal part of the service, coming after the Psalm 50 and before the Psalms of Praise. On Sundays, the Canon of the Resurrection is sung in the tone of the week; on greater feast days, there are generally two feast-day canons, sung together. There are also canons for each day of the week, and for each saint in the Menaion.

The Matins canon is typically rounded out with additional litanies and hymns after the third, sixth, and ninth odes. On most days, the Canticle of the Theotokos is sung before the ninth ode, and the hymn to the Theotokos, "It is truly proper", is sung after the ode.

At Small Compline, a canon is sung daily in honor of the Theotokos, from the Octoechos in the tone of the week. On certain days, particularly those leading up to or following a major feast, the canon at Compline is taken from one of the other liturgical books.

On Sundays at the Midnight Office, a canon to the Holy Trinity is sung in the tone of the week.

On feast days, portions of the ninth ode of the feast-day canon are sung at the Divine Liturgy, in place of the hymn to the Theotokos, “It is truly proper to glorify you.”

Canons at other services

The funeral service, which is based on Matins of Great and Holy Saturday, and the parastas or memorial service each contain a canon in memory of the departed.

The Supplicatory Canon to the Theotokos forms the main part of the Paraklisis, or Office of Consolation to the Theotokos. Because the Paraklisis established the pattern for the moleben, or general prayer service, many molebens also include a canon.

The Ruthenian Horologion or Časoslóv contains an entire section of canons, akathists and other devotional services, as well as a canon of preparation for Holy Communion.

The development of the canon

In the early history of Christian liturgy, the psalms and the canticles of Sacred Scripture formed the main part of church singing. The canticles were often sung as part of the morning service of Lauds, which was eventually incorporated into our service of Matins.

Over time, however, monastic and cathedral singers began to insert composed hymns or prayers in between the verses of the canticles, much as we do with the stichera at the Lamplighting Psalms of Vespers. Saint Andrew of Crete seems to have been the first to compose a canon as we know it, with an irmos and troparia to be sung in alternation with each canticle's verses. In the eighth century, there was a great flowering of canon-writing, and the canon replaced the kontakion as the premier hymn of the Byzantine Rite.

At some point, the singing of the scriptural canticles themselves disappeared, except on the weekdays of the Great Fast. (The Canticle of the Theokotos was retained at Matins, being sung before the ninth ode of the canon.) Simple fixed refrains replaced the canticle verses, giving us the canon as we know it today.

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