Dumbarton Oaks Archives / Dumbarton Oaks Fellows / Hagia Sophia / Robert Van Nice

The Basically Byzantine Singers

As a treat to start off the new year, we are proud to present the international debut of the Basically Byzantine Singers. Over the holidays, Bob Ousterhout managed to find the original cassette recording of the Santa Sophia song that we highlighted in our last post. Bob recalled that the Basically Byzantine Singers included himself, Fr. John Baldovin, William Turpin, Leslie Brubaker, Kathleen Corrigan, Susan Arensberg, Bruce Lippard, and Claudia Vess. Baldovin and Turpin sang the harmonies, while Vess provided a musical interlude with her wristwatch. With the help of James Carder, Archivist in charge of the Dumbarton Oaks Oral History project, we gained access to a cassette player.

We thought that the Basically Byzantine Singers had been a one-hit wonder, but from the tape, we learned that they had actually serenaded Robert Van Nice and Howard Trevellian with two songs. We provided the lyrics to Santa Sophia in our last post. Those for the second song follow below, sung to the tune of “There is Nothing Like a Dame.” According to Bob, the title came from the fact that after rebuilding the chevet of St.-Denis, Abbot Suger wanted to know how it compared to Hagia Sophia.

Abbot Suger’s Lament

There is nothing like a dome, nothing in the world
Nothing else can fit the form that is Byzantine like a dome.
There is no vault like a dome, It don’t exalt like a dome
There is no squinch like a dome, It doesn’t clinch like a dome
There is no apse like a dome, It don’t collapse like a dome.

There ain’t no fault with a ribbed groin vault but it just don’t halt with the same Gestalt
As a tessellated brick-ribbed Byzantine dome!

Now, without further ado – and with many thanks to Bob Ousterhout - we can present to you an encore performance by the two-hit wonder, the Basically Byzantine Singers. If you listen closely, you can hear a faint chuckle, which we like to think is Van Nice himself.

Basically Byzantine Singers, Dumbarton Oaks, July 1981 from Dumbarton Oaks Videos on Vimeo.

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