Canon (hymnography)

A canon is a structured hymn used in a number of Eastern Orthodox services. It consists of nine odes, based on the Biblical canticles. Most of these are found in the Old Testament, but the final ode is taken from the Magnificat and Song of Zechariah from the New Testament.[1]

The canon dates from the 7th century and was either devised or introduced into the Greek language by St. Andrew of Crete, whose penitential Great Canon is still used on certain occasions during Great Lent. It was further developed in the 8th century by Sts. John of Damascus and Cosmas of Jerusalem, and in the 9th century by Sts. Joseph the Hymnographer and Theophanes the Branded.

Over time the canon came to replace the kontakion, a vestigal form of which is still used on several occasions and which has been incorporated into the performance of the canon. Each canon develops a specific theme, such as repentance or honouring a particular saint. Sometimes more than one canon can be chanted together, as frequently happens at Matins.

Biblical canticles

The nine biblical canticles are:

  1. The Ode of Moses in Exodus (Exodus 15:1-19)
  2. The Ode of Moses in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 32:1-43) (Note: this is sung only on Tuesdays in Lent)
  3. The Prayer of Anna the mother of Samuel the Prophet (1 Samuel 2:1-10)
  4. The Prayer of Habakkuk the Prophet (Habakkuk 3:2-19)
  5. The Prayer of Isaiah the Prophet (Isaiah 26:9-20)
  6. The Prayer of Jonah the Prophet (Jonah 2:3-10)
  7. The Prayer of the Three Holy Children (Daniel 3:26-56)*
  8. The Song of the Three Holy Children (The Benedicite, Daniel 3:57-88)*
  9. The Song of the Theotokos (The Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55) and the Prayer of Zacharias the father of the Forerunner (The Benedictus, Luke 1:68-79)
*These odes are found only in the Septuagint. Verse numberings according to Psalter, which differs from Brenton.

These biblical canticles are normally found in the back of the Psalter used by Orthodox churches, where they are often printed with markings to indicate where to begin inserting the irmos and troparia of the canons. The original canticles are normally only sung on weekdays in Lent.


As with all other Orthodox church music, a canon is sung by a choir or cantor in a cappella chant. An ode of the canon is begun by singing the Biblical canticle from its beginning. At some point this is interrupted by an introductory stanza called an irmos ("link") which poetically connects the theme of the biblical canticle to the subject of the canon. Following the irmos and sung alternately with the subsequent verses of the Biblical canticle are a series of hymns (troparia), set in the same melody and meter as the irmos, that expand on the theme of the canon. The ode is completed with a final stanza called the katavasia. This might be a repetition of the irmos, the irmos of the last canon when more than one canon is being sung together, the irmos of the canon for an upcoming major feast day, or some other verse prescribed by the service books. (Katavasia means "coming down" and the verse is so called because as originally performed the two choirs would descend from their places on the left and right sides of the church to sing it together in the middle.)

Most often Ode II is omitted (the Biblical canticle this ode is based on is quite penitential, and so is normally used only on weekdays during Great Lent). There are therefore only eight odes in most canons. Canons containing Ode II usually occur only during Great Lent and the Great Canon of St. Andrew.

Because a canon is composed of nine odes, it can be conveniently divided into three sections. Between Ode III and Ode IV a sedalen or "sitting hymn" is sung. Between Ode VI and Ode VII a vestigal kontakion is sung with only its prooimion, or initial stanza, and the first oikos or strophe. If an akathist is to be chanted in conjunction with a canon, it is inserted after Ode VI.

The normal order for a full canon, as chanted at Matins is as follows:

Modern arrangement

In modern practice the Biblical canticles are not usually chanted, except during Matins on the weekdays of Great Lent. Thus, each ode normally begins with the irmos (however, except for certain major feasts, the Magnificat, which forms half of the ninth Biblical canticle, is usually sung in its entirety before the irmos of the Ode IX). The troparia that follow are each introduced by a brief refrain (replacing the verses of the biblical canticle) which is determined by the subject matter of the canon. For example, in a canon commemorating the Resurrection of Jesus (used on Sundays) the refrain is, "Glory, O Lord, to Thy holy Resurrection"; in a Canon to the Virgin Mary the refrain is, "Most Holy Theotokos, save us"; in a canon to a saint the refrain is, "Holy [name of saint] pray to God for us"; and in the most general case it is "Glory to Thee our God, glory to Thee." Before the last two troparia, the refrain is replaced by the doxology "Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit/both now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen."

The total number of troparia is determined by local usage. Theoretically there are as many as fourteen for each ode, with some troparia repeated if the service books do not provide enough of them, and some conjoined if there are too many. This makes the canon too lengthy for typical parish use, so more often no more than three troparia are sung regardless of how many troparia or canons are prescribed. The total number chanted, including the Irmos, are usually an even number.

Although it is intended that the troparia be sung this is impractical in most cases, so normally only the Irmos and Katabasia are chanted, the troparia and their refrains are most often read recto tono by a single reader. However, the canon of Pascha (Easter) is still traditionally chanted in full.


Canons are used most notably at Matins, but also at the Midnight Office for Sunday; at Great and Small Compline; and at special services such as the Paraklesis and those of similar structure such as the Panichida and Moleben. In the latter cases the canon is often vestigal, consisting of no more than a selection of katabasia with refrains and doxology. The Greek equivalent of a Moleben is the Paraklesis, during which a full canon is still chanted. Canons may also be used in private prayer either as a regular part of a rule or for special needs. One traditional prayerful preparation for reception of the Eucharist is to read three canons and an akathist the evening prior. When used privately there is generally no attempt at an elaborated musical or metrical performance, and may be read silently.

Abbreviated Canons

Sometimes abbreviated canons are used. A canon consisting of only four odes is called a tetraode; a canon consisting of only three odes is called a triode. In both of these types of canons, the last two odes are always the VIIIth and IXth. The preceding ode(s) may vary with the day of the week. For instance, during Great Lent, the Lenten Triodion provides triodes at Matins on Monday through Friday: on Mondays they consist of Odes I, VIII and IX, on Tuesdays, Odes II, VIII and IX, and so on through Friday which consists of Odes V, VIII and IX. Saturdays during Great Lent have tetraodes, consisting of Odes VI, VII, VIII and IX. Because the use of triodes is so prevalent during Great Lent, the book containing the changeable portions of services that liturgical season is called the Triodion. Triodes are also used at Compline during the period between Pascha (Easter) and Pentecost. In the Russian Orthodox Church, the book containing the services for this season, the Pentecostarion, is also known as the Flowery Triodion. Triodes and tetraodes are also found during certain Forefeasts and Afterfeasts.

Poetic and musical structure

The Biblical odes are not identical in meter, and so although all the music is performed in the same mode each ode must comprise an individual composition. However, in the original Greek compositions, the irmos and troparia would by design be of the same meter and so could use the same melody. Acrostics would often be present as well, read down a canon's troparia, and sometimes involving the irmos as well if it was composed at the same time. The meter and acrostic would be given along with the canon's title.

This structure is now generally lacking in more recently composed canons, especially when the canons are composed in languages other than Greek to some setting other than Byzantine chant, and since it is now expected that large portions of the canon will be read rather than sung. Although some newer canons also contain acrostics, they are less frequent than they once were.


The irmoi and katabasia for various occasions are found gathered together in the Irmologion, one of the standard service books of the Orthodox Church.

Complete canons (irmoi with their troparia) are found in the Menaion, Octoechos and Horologion used throughout the year, and in the seasonal service books the Triodion and the Pentecostarion.

Various collections of canons can also be found, as well as publications of individual canons in pamphlet form.

See also


  1. For clarity, this article will use the term "canticle" to refer to the original biblical text, and "ode" to refer to the composed liturgical hymns.

External links

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