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St. John Koukouzeles

1280 - 1360
born in Dyrrachium, Albania, composed during the Medieval period
St. John Koukouzeles was the maïstor (supreme master of music) of the Greek Byzantine sacred chant. His given name was Papadopoulos and he was born in Macedonia, likely the son of a priest; his mother was Slavic. Orphaned at an early age, Koukouzeles moved to Constantinople, and his fine voice won him the equivalent of a scholarship to an Imperial school. As the boy had difficulty in pronouncing his own name, other students dubbed him "Koukouzeles" (a combination of the Greek for beans and cabbage) after asking him what he had just had to eat. Koukouzeles grew so popular as a singer that he was given the title angelophonos (voice of an angel) once he joined the Byzantine court of Emperor Andronikos II Palaeologos. Over time, Koukouzeles grew weary with the life of an Imperial singer and ultimately managed to sneak out of the Imperial palace with an emissary from the monastery of Mount Athos. Koukouzeles would spend the rest of his life the Mount Athos as master of music to its brethren.

Koukouzeles wrought the most radical changes in Byzantine chant since St. John of Damascus in the eighth century. He entirely revised the Byzantine system of notation, retaining only 25 of the old Neumatic symbols and ushering in the era of Middle-Byzantine church music. His best-known work, Ison, oligon, oxeia, was written as a teaching piece to illustrate Koukouzeles' new system of Neumes. Koukouzeles overhauled the two main liturgical texts of the Byzantine rite, the Heirmologion and the Sticherarion, and added a third, Akolouthai. Koukouzeles also wrote treatises on music, and his extant output is of such size that only a fraction of his manuscripts are edited, published, or documented.

There is no settled idea as to Koukouzeles' birth or death dates; although many sources put the birth date at "circa 1280," the historical record shows that Koukouzeles was already a famous singer by 1300, so he was probably born somewhat earlier. A manuscript dated to 1341 refers to Koukouzeles with a Greek word meaning either old or late, suggesting he had already died by then. Tradition, however, states that he lived to a very advanced age, so scholars persist in placing his date of death later, generally in the range of 1350-1360. His Saint's Day is celebrated in the Greek Orthodox Church on October 14. ~ Uncle Dave Lewis , Rovi
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