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St. John Kukuzel – 10 facts about the great church composer


On October 1, every year the Orthodox Church celebrates a calendar-liturgical celebration, celebrating the memory of St. John Kukuzel. St. John Kukuzel is a huge figure not only for the Middle Ages, but also for today’s church musicians and singers who step on what he created.

1. He was born in present-day Albania

John Kukuzel was born ca. 1280 His hometown is Drach, located in present-day Albania. After the capital Tirana, it is the second largest city in Albania and one of the most important economic centers in the country, a port on the Adriatic Sea. During the Middle Ages the city was inhabited by many Bulgarians.

2. Bulgarian by origin

How do we know that Kukuzel is of Bulgarian origin? One of his biographies, written in Greek, describes the touching event of John’s return from Byzantium to his native house. As he approached the house, he heard his mother crying and the words: “My child, dear Ivan, ah! Where are you? ” (Moa de milo Ioanny gdemysen, oho!). In life, these words are in Bulgarian in Greek transliteration, which makes clear the Bulgarian origin of Kukuzel. His mother was Bulgarian and his father’s origin is unknown. In the manuscripts the saint is mentioned as John Papadopoulos Kukuzel. From this fact, some scholars conclude that his father was Greek. But Papadopoulos can denote the twisted Slavic nickname “priest’s son” – i.e. to point to the presumed priestly origin of Kukuzel.

3. Kukuzel? The saint’s nickname is associated with food

When his classmates from the grammar school at the church “St. Paul ”in Constantinople (where they studied under the patronage of the Byzantine emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus) asked him what he ate, the young John answered in Greek-Bulgarian:“ kukia ke zelia ”, i.e. beans (a plant of the legume family) and cabbage.

4. Lives on Mount Athos in the Great Lavra of St. Athanasius as a hesychast

After visiting his native home, Kukuzel went to the monastic republic of Mount Athos, lived in the Great Lavra of St. Athanasius of Mount Athos and adopted the hesychastic way of life. Hesychasm is a teaching of the Orthodox Church, which is based on the ability of man to attain the likeness of God through constant silent prayer (gr. Isihia) and the gift of divine grace, in which “man becomes all that is God except the essence.” The asceticism of Mount Athos in the first half of the 14th century was also the most fruitful stage of Kukuzel’s life.

5. He had the title “Master”

Given the fact that St. John received one of the most representative honorary medieval titles “Master”, it can be assumed that everything that Kukuzel did was of a high professional level. History attributes to St. John the creation of a rich melismatic spacious style called papadic (characterized by a wide tonal range and ornamental melody).

6. Notation is named after him

We know that the Byzantine notation has undergone various changes over time [5] It was Kukuzel who named the late Byzantine notation – Kukuzeleva. According to the famous Western European musicologist-Byzantine scholar Egon Veles, the late Byzantine notation has no equal in richness and sophistication of the musical-written possibilities. Kukuzel creates richly ornamented compositions with a wide tonal range – chants exceeding two octaves. In science, this music is called calophony (gr. Kalos – nice, good and fonae – sound, voice). It includes the so-called kratimi – melodic multilingualism of individual syllables, devoid of semantic meaning such as teri-re, etc.

7. He wrote in Greek

The work of St. John Kukuzel is Greek-speaking, but let us not forget that in the Middle Ages the language was not a sign of national affiliation. Kukuzel’s works are also performed in Slavonic in the repertoire of the Bulgarian choirs, but this repertoire is an adaptation to the Church Slavonic texts of Greek-language melodic versions from the time of the calophony.

8. Creates graphic images of a circle and a tree, used in his pedagogical activity

To the work of the “Angel-voiced” Kukuzel must be added the graphic images of a circle and a tree, called the Wheel of Kukuzel and the Tree of Kukuzel, respectively. They were created to explain and make sense of the church’s octave, representing the voice relations and kinship. Their purpose was directed directly to the learning psalms. In the Wheel of Kukuzel the melody flows from tone to tone, from tonality to tonality, but does not change. It can be sung and heard, respectively recorded and interpreted in the present, but it remains to sound in eternity.

9. Second source of music

In the rich history of Orthodox church music, St. John Kukuzel is given the enviable place of the “second source of music” (after St. John of Damascus († 8th century), whose name is associated with the formation of the Octave). And following the work of the many talented artists of this music, we can see that this is not a small amount.

10. October 1 – the holiday of musicians and singers

The Orthodox Church honors the memory of the deceased ca. 1360 St. John Kukuzel on October 1.


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