REVIEW: Sweet Song, A Story of Romanos the Melodist
My editor, and friend, Jane Meyer, has always had a very gentle touch with her writing, and it comes through wonderfully in her latest book, Sweet Song, a retelling of St. Romanos and the miracle of his voice and composition ability.
For those unfamiliar with him, Romanos is the premier melodist in the Orthodox Church, past or present, save for God Himself. Originally Syrian and of Jewish convert parents, Romanos was baptized early in life and developed a deep love of God and the church. He spent most of his career in Constantinople at Hagia Sophia as a sacristan and deacon. He wasn’t originally gifted in music, and in fact, was the butt of ridicule and taunting by his fellow deacons and readers because of his inability to improvise lyrics and melody, his rough, untrained voice, and the favour the Patriarch showed him. Romanos, though he was only a lowly sacristan, in charge of cleaning and supplying the church, was paid the same as the deacons and readers. He, however, wanted to sing praises to God and His mother, and yearned to have a voice that would show them the honour they deserved. It was through the intervention of the Theotokos that he became a prolific composer and a superior singer and reader, and this is the story Sweet Song so beautifully tells us.
St. Romanos is credited with composing at least a thousand poems, odes, hymns, and psalms, many of which have been lost, but some, which have survived, are still in use in churches the world over. His Kontakion of the Nativity is considered his masterpiece, and we still sing another of his kontakia in the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete during Lent.
His compositions, in the original Greek, aren’t just brilliant hymns of praise – Romanos had a sense of play in his work too – he used acrostics in his compositions, spelling out words and phrases in the first letters of each line of the kontakia.
Jane captures Romanos’s spirit of generosity, humility, and goodness in the text, which is a straightforward retelling of how he came by his remarkable musical gifts. The story is suitable for children, but adults too will be captivated by how well Jane brings not just Romanos and his faith to life but shows us his love, humility, and pain as he strives to be a faithful, loving son to God and the Theotokos. Even his tormentors, as brief as their appearance is, seem more rounded than most picture book minor characters, and the story of his miraculous gifts and his gentle, faithful character teaches us about faith, humility, repentance, and generosity.
Dorri Papdemetriou’s illustrations complement the text beautifully. She uses a “simple” style of work, somewhat evocative of the styles used in iconography, so that the perspectives are not the western three dimensional, but nevertheless give a sense of life and truth that underline and emphasize Jane’s story. Quiet earthtones predominate, but are heightened with blues and greens throughout the book. The colours in each panel work well to help establish the mood that Jane evokes in each section of the story, and all the illustrations glow with light and warmth.
An afterword gives more information about St. Romanos, the icon to which he prayed, and some information about readers and singers during the fifth century, as well some information on Hagia Sophia itself.
This is a book worth owning even if you don’t have children, and I would recommend it highly for church schools and church libraries, as well.
A Story of Saint Romanos the Melodist
By Jane G. Meyer Illustrated by Dorrie Papademetriou
Published by Ancient Faith Publishing, 32 pp