Following on the Classical and Roman eras, the rich musical life of the island became liturgical in the Byzantine period.
The sound of the island’s music is affected, as is only natural, by the religious hymns of the Byzantines – slowly Byzantine musical metres began to emerge. Thus Crete was linked even more to the musical world of the East.
Since the 13th century AD, Western influences make themselves felt on Crete: the Franks, the Genoese and chiefly the Venetians brought with them the melodies, musics and metres (such as rhyme), dances (such as the Ballos) and musical instruments (such as the viola) – which play a seminal role in the development of Cretan music.
Erotokritos - Psarantonis
Of particular importance in the creation of the island’s music is rhyme – in the form of rhyming couplets which appeared first in the late 14th century AD. The Cretan musical mind-set – always creative, open and restless incorporated western rhyme and linked it to the iambic 15-beat metre of ancient Greece. The combination is today expressed in the mantinada: couplets that lend themselves strongly to musical and poetical improvisation.
Nor does it end there. The already rich and eclectic musical identity of Crete was further enhanced following the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks by giving shelter to many practitioners, teachers of ecclesiastical musics. Schools are established and Byzantine music was taught systematically on the island, whilst Venetian musicians paid frequent visits to the island, entertaining the Venetian and Greek residents alike.
In 1457, the French physician Pierre Bellon writes on the armed dances of Crete, whilst half a century later the Englishman Sherley reports on the lively entertainment at night of dance and music in the streets of Chandakas (Heraklion).
It is now that there lived the great Cretan composer Francisco Leondaritis – the first practitioner of ‘modern’ Greek music. Now too is the time when the oldest surviving musical texts of folk songs were written down in Crete. These texts are to be found in manuscripts in the monasteries of Iviron and Xeropotamos on Mount Athos: they are the equivalent in their time of rizitika, still sung today. They were transcribed by Cretan monks, who being Cretan had not quite foresworn all worldly pleasures!
Music during the Ottoman days
However fruitful in other respects this period was for Crete and its inhabitants, all came to an end with the conquest of the island by the Turks.
The music however continues to evolve and be enriched – since the Cretans went on singing about the joys of life – and more often its miseries. A great wonder of the day was the maestro Georgios the Cretan (19th c AD), who bears witness to the Byzantine musical tradition still extant on the island.
The Cretan lyra – today the main musical instrument on Crete – first appears on the scene in the 17th century. It presence becomes ever more evident until by the 18th century it is everywhere established on the island. Initially, the lyra was pear-shaped and of two sorts – the lyraki (small lyra) with its sharp tones and the large vrontolyra (thunder-lyra) with its base tones. From this time dates the existence on the bow of the gerakokoudouna (falcon-bells) which are small and were originally attached to the harness of hunting falcons in the Byzantine era. With the help of these bells, the lyra-player kept the beat, as until then there had been no accompaniment to the lyra itself. With time another sort of lyra emerged: the viololyra – which was more used in the extreme West and East of Crete up to the 1940s.
Rizitiko & Sirto - Ross Daly
The prevailing form of the lyra today is something midway between the vrontolyra and the smaller form: it was made popular first by the lyra-maker and player Manolis Stagakis. From 1950 it has taken centre stage.
The bow of the lyra, from the start of the 20th century, shed its bells, since the beat was kept first by the boulgari (from Asia Minor) and a little later by the laouto.
It is worth noting that the laouto has been present on Crete since the days of the Venetians, but in its Renaissance form. With time and many changes, it began to be utilized as an accompanying instrument only. One can today hear very fine melodies for the solo laouto – but the boulgari is almost extinct.