A form of liturgical chant performed by two cantors or two groups of cantors, referred to as the northern and southern chorus with regard to their position next to the iconostasis where they stand in the church. Each sings four verses alternately. This form is commonly used in the annual and Kiyahkian psalmody.
Antiphonal chanting has its origin in the Old Testament, where it was used in the tabernacle and later in the temple. In 1 Chronicles 25 we learn how David divided the Levites into groups to perform before the tent, until Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem, and in Ezra 3 we read about the sons of Asaph praising the Lord with their cymbals in the manner prescribed by David. In the days of Nehemiah at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem the Levites were brought to celebrate this event in two choirs singing to the accompaniment of cymbals, lutes, and harps (Neh. 12:27-42). It was also in antiphonal singing that Isaiah heard the seraphim praising the Lord, calling ceaselessly to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Is. 6:3).
Ecclesiastical historians differ as to the time and the process by which antiphonal chanting was introduced into the Christian church. Some attribute it to a vision seen by Saint Peter, and others to the initiative of Saint Ignatius of Antioch (c. 70-c. 107) who followed Saint Peter as bishop of that city (Rustum, 1958, Vol. 1, p. 52). According to Socrates, “Ignatius, third bishop of Antioch in Syria from the apostle Peter, who also had held intercourse with the apostles themselves, saw a vision of angels hymning in alternate chants the Holy Trinity. Accordingly he introduced the mode of singing he had observed in the vision into the Antiochian church; whence it was transmitted by tradition to all the other churches” (Ecclesiastical History 6.8).
In Theodoret’s view, “That excellent pair, Flavianus [bishop of Antioch] and Diodorus [bishop of Tarsus] though not yet admitted to the priesthood and still ranked with the laity, worked night and day to stimulate men’s zeal for truth. They were the first to divide choirs into two parts, and to teach them to sing the psalms of David antiphonally. Introduced first at Antioch, the practice spread in all directions, and penetrated to the ends of the earth” (1953, p. 85).
It is also possible to trace the ancestry of the antiphon to the Therapeutae, the Jewish community of ascetic converts to Christianity, and, through them, to the musical renderings performed in the ancient Egyptian temples. These Therapeutae, who lived in the vicinity of Lake Mareotis near Alexandria, at the time of Philo, may have played a significant part in introducing this manner of religious chanting. At Pentecost “they spent the whole night until sunrise in offering up praises and in songs of Thanksgiving sung in chorus by men and women. . . . The singing itself was rendered according to the laws of musical art, which seems to have been borrowed from Egyptian temples, and was then transmitted to the Christian Church” (Kohler, p. 139).
[See also: Music: Description of the Corpus and Present Musical Practice.]
- Kohler, K. “Therapeutae.” In The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 12, ed.
- Isidore Singer. New York, n.d.
- Lightfoot, J. B. The Apostolic Fathers, pt. 2, p. 31. London, 1889. Rustum, A. Kanisat Madinat Allah Antakiyah al-‘Uzma. Beirut, 1958.