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Out of the ashes: Cappella Romana and the resurrection of Byzantine music

CR’s upcoming concerts trace the revitalization of Byzantine music traditions in Greece following the 1922 fire of Smyrna.


"Smyrna's Wall of Humanity - Portion of 300,000 people caught," George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.
“Smyrna’s Wall of Humanity – Portion of 300,000 people caught,” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

“Out of the ashes”: A simple prepositional phrase that implies something recovered, rescued or renewed. 

Cappella Romana’s upcoming concert tells the story of how the Constantinopolitan and Smyrnaean cantors helped revitalize the Byzantine music traditions in early 20th century Greece. The music will be beautiful, reflecting Psalmody and Hymnography from varied composers primarily from the middle 18th through late 20th centuries. Attend and enjoy the Byzantine modality, silky lines of chant and tuning that makes your central nerve system quiver with joy. In Portland on November 11th and 12th Cappella Romana and Associate Director John Michael Boyer celebrate how the Greek Byzantine music tradition was preserved and renewed.

But first came the ashes

In September of 1922, churches, businesses, schools, refugee encampments and homes of primarily Greek and Armenian communities in the thriving Asia Minor city of Smyrna were reduced to ashes. The Turkish cavalry initiated the attack on September 9th, which soon resulted in deliberately set fires which raged from the 13th through the 22nd. A low estimate of 125,00 people–and high of 190,000–in those communities died, many as they fled to the sea to escape the fires and rescue did not come. 

Within five months came a League of Nations “solution” to the tensions, the “Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Population” (the Treaty of Lausanne). The language in Section VI, Article 1 of the Lausanne Treaty reads: “As from 1st May, 1923, there shall take place a compulsory exchange of Turkish nationals of the Greek Orthodox religion established in Turkish territory, and of Greek nationals of the Moslem religion established in Greek territory.” People designated by their religious affiliations were sent from lands in which they were born and thrived. Commodities to be exchanged.

The catastrophe of the burning of Smyrna (since 1930 called Izmir) and resulting population exchange is the backdrop of this Cappella Romana concert, “Out of the Ashes of Smyrna: The Legacy of Byzantine Chant from Asia Minor.” The seed for this program began in 2021 in director Boyer’s household. When I spoke to Boyer recently by phone he was in his home in New Orleans where he is Protopsaltis and Director of Music Ministries at Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral. Boyer said the program began to form as he and his wife, Evangelia Boubougiatzi Boyer, discussed the Smyrna Centenary coming in 2022. Boubougiatzi Boyer, who is Head of the School at Holy Trinity, wrote her PhD Dissertation on the persecution of Greeks of Western Asia Minor. Her extensive research, said Boyer, contributed new knowledge to the timeline of events leading up to September 1922. “Our working together on program notes was almost a birthing process,” he remarked. 

As Boyer began talking about the programming of this concert I realized that, in the words of Oscar Hammerstein II, “In my head are many facts, Of which I wish I was more certain I was sure!” (The King and I). It turned out I had some deep holes in my background knowledge of Asia Minor in general and Greek-Turkish history specifically, but Boyer was comfortable and passionate with his expertise and his own vast knowledge. It was inspirational and I scribbled furiously, circling things I would clarify with him or look up later – lots of circles. I needed to look at modern maps, ancient maps – lots of maps – treaties and vocabulary, and wondered how quickly I could get my hands on a copy of Boyers recently published Byzantine Chant lesson book. (Listen here to Boyer explaining the purpose of this valuable resource now available at this link).

At one point in our conversation there was background noise and Boyer excused himself for a moment to talk to his twin girls. When he returned he reflected upon being in the US when his daughters were born in Greece and the long wait during the pandemic restrictions until his entire family could be reunited in 2021. He shifted to a gentle narrative about how he first met his wife while attending a lecture she was presenting in Greece and how, the next time they met at a restaurant in 2018, they shut the place down after talking for hours. He also shared how she stumbled across her own family records while researching her dissertation. When our conversation returned to the music it was clear that this concert was not only about preservation of music, but about people and their histories. About families. 


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One of those was the family of Maria Choban, Portland pianist and Oregon ArtsWatch contributor, who shared her family’s experience in the Smyrna catastrophe in a 2016 OAW article “From Piraeus to Portland.” Choban provides a stirring personal reflection on the unfolding horrors of Smyrna and her own grandparents’ displacement and relocation in the aftermath. Read Choban’s story here

The impetus for Choban’s 2016 article was a multifaceted event, including music and a documentary, presented by the Hellenic-American Cultural Center and Museum in Northeast Portland. Sadly, the documentary movie cited in Choban’s piece – Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City is not available in local libraries or on any pay-per-view service. Happily, however, the Director of the HACCM, Maria Phoutrides, confirmed in recent phone conversation that the movie, in both English and in Greek, is included in the Museum collection. The museum is free and you can arrange a showing during museum hours (T-F, 11-3) or by special appointment by contacting the museum at 503-858-8567 or (See Connections for another upcoming HACCM event).

And, added Phoutrides, HACCM’s very first podcast was a 2022 interview with Dr. Evangelia Boubougiatzi Boyer and Christine Rulli – speaking about the burning of Smyrna. Would OAW readers like the link? Cool. Yes, please! Thank you! Here it is:

Experimental ecclesiastical music

What music artifacts did Boyer decide to pluck from the ashes and bring to us in this Cappella Romana concert? In his research Boyer found that the church cantors of the thriving Greek Orthodox community in Smyrna had developed a certain sound, had taken the Byzantine traditions and tweaked them a bit – perhaps broke with a few –ending up with a unique sound. “Experimental ecclesiastical music.” Boyer called it, both Constantinopolitan and Smyrnaean. Those cantors were among the 1.2 million Greek Orthodox population relocated to Greece in 1923.

By the 1900s, Greece was enjoying more Western European music. “Operetta was popular in Greece at the time,” explained Boyer, “with liturgical music sounding more like romantic Russian, but in Greek, and composers Westernizing everything that sounded like the ‘Turkish’ world.” It was, of course, also facilitated by advancements in travel, transport of materials and long distance communication. When the Greek Orthodox cantors and Orthodox worshipers arrived, they sought solace and consistency in their worship and the “new” sound had a significant impact on Greek liturgical music. “If not for the influx of refugees,” said Boyer, “Byzantine music may not have seen a resurgence in Greece.” It is the composers and music composed before and within this transitional period that Boyer and Cappella Romana highlight in this program of scholarship and artistry. 

We come to concerts with our own constructs: Our heritage, our musical background, our concerns over world events and even our moods inform our audience experience. How we experience the music is unique to each of us.

Some of us will do more research ahead of time – and after – because this Cappella Romana programming invites us to do so (see resources below). Some of us will come to worship as the liturgy may call us to do. Some of us will sit in stillness with the music. Something precious for you alone will come out of this concert.


All Classical Radio James Depreist

Cappella Romana performs “Out of the Ashes of Smyrna: The Legacy of Byzantine Chant from Asia Minor.” in Seattle on Friday, November 10, 7:30, at St. Demetrios Orthodox Church and in Portland on Saturday, November 11, 8:00, at St. Mary’s Cathedral and Sunday, November 12, 3:00 at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral.


A starter resource on the Smyrna fire is Giles Milton’s Paradise Lost: Smyrna. The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance, a well-critiqued and readable account of events prior to and during the Smyrna fires. In an interview with Los Angeles-based English-Armenian publication “Asbarez” Giles remarked: “We must confront history, not deny it. That is the only way we will not repeat the mistakes of the past.” Read that entire interview here.

Here’s an overview of the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres which had a tremendous impact on the way in which the following decade would unfold in Asia Minor.

With appreciation to Maria Choban for these materials suggested in her article referenced above:

And you might also enjoy:


More from HACCM

Check out the Hellenic-American Cultural Center and Museum’s upcoming event “A concert celebrating the Jews of Greece” on the evening of November 30. For more information click here.


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Portland State University concert venue change

PSU’s music department just announced a change of venue for the upcoming “From the Dust” concert. Originally scheduled for Lincoln High School, both concerts will now be held at First Christian Church, Portland. Read last week’s OAW’s November choral preview for more information about a special piece being performed at this concert.

“From the Dust” is presented by Portland State University choirs, Friday, November 10, 7:30 and Sunday, November 12, 4 pm, First Christian Church. Get tickets here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.


2 Responses

  1. What a great article connecting the Asia Minor catastrophe and the revitalization of Byzantine music in modern Greece! You mention great sources on the burning of Smyrna, including Milton and Ureneck. Your readers also might be interested in the new biography of the American Consul, George Horton: “The Gentle American: George Horton’s Odyssey and His True Account of the Smyrna Catastrophe.” It is from Gorgias Press and available on Amazon.

    1. Thank you Chris! So glad you mentioned that here. The credit for connecting the history and music, of course, goes to John and Evangelia Boubougiatzi Boyer. Great concert programming.

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