An Outline History of Russian Sacred Music

 

Ivan Moody

 

 

Introduction

According to the oft-repeated story in the Russian Primary Chronicle, it was the beauty of the liturgy which attracted the attention of the emissaries of Prince Vladimir of Kiev to Constantinople in the 10th century. "We did not know whether we were in Heaven or on earth", they said after attending a celebration at Aghia Sophia.

Liturgical art in Orthodoxy is an expression of prayer, which in turn is a means of living eschatologically, ever conscious of the Revelation (ApokalupsiV): the transfiguration of our everyday lives in order to prepare the coming of the heavenly Kingdom. Without bearing this in mind, it is impossible to understand the essence of Eastern Orthodox art and why it is different from western liturgical art, and why their visit to Constantinople made such an impact on the two Russians that in 988 the Grand Duke of Kiev, Vladimir, chose to be baptized into the Orthodox Church.

The Beginnings of Sacred Music

The acceptance by Russia of the Orthodox faith from Greek- speaking Byzantium meant that initially liturgical practice must inevitably have been strongly influenced by Greek procedures [see Gardner 2000: 9], though Bulgarian links meant that church singing probably also had a Slavic influence from the beginning; in any case it rapidly took on a Russian style. There arose from this mixture a peculiarly Russian kind of neumatic chant, called znamenny, from the word znamia, meaning sign or neume.

The earliest manuscripts with musical notation appeared in the late 11th or early 12th century, though they have proved difficult to decipher. Very few survive, principally on account of the Tartar invasions. Continued development of the liturgy meant that, whereas initially the musical notation was simply written above the text, gradually special musical books began to appear - the Sticherarion, the Octoechos (book of eight tones), the Heirrmologion, and special collections for great feasts and Sunday offices, the Obikhod.

Parallel with znamenny there grew up a second kind of musical notation, now called kondakarny, or kondakarian, differing from znamenny both graphically and in the kind of text which it was employed to accompany. The evidence from the few manuscripts that survive is that kondakarian singing, highly melismatic in style, was employed for the performance of kontakia, lengthy homilies constructed from a prooemion or koukoulion (opening stanza) followed by a series of up to twenty-four oikoi, stanzas ending with the same refrain as the first. Recent research indicates that this notation was modelled on that used in Byzantium during the 10th and 11th centuries. [See Morosan 1986: 6 and Velimirovic 1990: 65] This style disappeared during the 14th century.

The 15th Century was a period of great expansion and tremendous creativity in the field of liturgical singing in Russia. Moscow began to grow while Kiev declined, never fully recovering from Mongol occupation. Russian desire for independence from the Oecumenical Patriarchate at Constantinople increased, the Russians seeing themselves as the natural successsors to Byzantium. Because of their refusal to accept the Council of Florence, the Russian bishops had since 1448 appointed their own Metropolitan; from 1543, with the Fall of Constantinople, Moscow and Constantinople were again in communion, but the Russian Church was now autocephalous (in addition to which Russia was the only nation capable of taking on the rôle of leader in eastern Christendom, most of Bulgaria, Serbia and Rumania already having been conquered by the Turks). [See Gardner 2000: 179 ff., and 205-208]

The liturgical and artistic expansion which accompanied this emancipation, beginning with the great flourishing of musicians in Novgorod between about 1480 and 1564, and then continuing at the Imperial Court when Ivan IV (The Terrible) brought these singers to Moscow, tended to emphasize national characteristics. For liturgical chant, this meant that the repertoire of signs for znamenny increased, and manuals (azbuki) began to be written explaining the neumatic system. [Velimirovic 1990: 65]

 

The 16th century

Two new types of musical notation appeared at this stage, znamenny chant being at its height. It developed to the point that each of the eight tones had its own distinct musical expression. Each tone is constructed from the juxtaposition of different musical motifs proper to it, the popevki, of varying length and elaboration. Znamenny melodies are divided into three groups according to their place in the liturgy. Bolshoi rospev, or "great chant", is used on great feasts as well as the most important moments of the office. Maly rospev, "lesser chant", is used during the weekday offices. The remaining chants form a third category simply called Znamenny rospev, "neumatic chant".

During the course of the later 16th century developed a new kind of chant derived from znamenny, called putevoy, literally "chant of the road", or "chant of the way". It differed in having a new notation and in employing a more complex rhythmic structure. Parallel with putevoy there appeared another kind of chant, this time standing outside the system of the eight tones of the octoechos. This chant is known as demestvenny, the name deriving from demestik, which word may refer to the chief chanter of the chapel; its golden age was during the 17th century. [for a summary of the controversy concerning the meaning of the word demestik, as expressed in the work of Metallov and Gardner, see Morosan 1986: 10] The first appearance of the word demestvenny is in a chronicle dated 1441, but it was only in the 16th century that this kind of chant came to be written down. The system of melodic construction is similar to that of znamenny, based on the popevki, but there is a fundamental difference in the fact that demestvenny does not come within the octoechos system, which means that its melodic and modal scope is expanded. In addition, even more than in the putevoy repertory, there is a tendency towards rhythmic complication and the use of much shorter note values. The correspondence between the spirit, if not the letter, of this repertory and the earlier kondakarian chant is striking, and it was likewise probably performed by soloists.

 

17th-19th Centuries

The chant tradition

During the course of the 17th century appeared three new types of liturgical chant. Firstly the Kievan chant, in essence a drastically simplified form of znamenny; then the so-called "Bulgarian" chant, highly melodic and rhythmically supple; and thirdly what are known as "Greek" chants, originating in southern Russia, and bearing evidence of folk influence. The straightforward melodic character of these latter made them ideal for harmonized performance, and indeed all three of these repertories are in use today in harmonized versions in the Russian Church. The precise origins of the latter two repertories is still the subject of controversy.

The most surprising development within the znamenny tradition was the appearance of polyphony - strochnoie penie (line singing). The earlier pieces in this tradition were written in a "descant" style (whereby a chant was harmonized by two voices, one above and one below) called troiestrochnoie penie (three-line singing), but the harmonic sense in these works is, by western standards, very wayward. There is no use of imitation or canon in the manner of western renaissance composers, and no hierarchy of consonance and dissonance - polyphony here is quite simply a division of the unison. It was this attitude to harmony which led those who originally began to work on this repertory to lose confidence in the fruit of their researches. Comparison with indigenous folk repertoires, however, helped to encourage the work anew in the early years of this century (the level of dissonance in Georgian folk singing is often considerably greater than here, for example). Unprepared dissonances, parallel fifths. sevenths, octaves, and ninths, are all part of this style of composition. [The standard work on this remains Uspensky, 1965 and 1968]

The precise origins of this early polyphony continue to be disputed by pro- and anti-western factions, but the abundant links between Novgorod, source of the earliest surviving evidence, and western Europe (the city was a member of the Hanseatic League, and had a Roman Catholic church) make it impossible to rule out western influence. [Morosan 1986: 17]

Of this early polyphony (referring specifically to a three-voiced setting of Eis polla eti Despota taken from Uspensky's anthology), Gardner says "it is clear that the texture, the voice leading and the sonority of this piece of music are fundamentally different from those of Western polyphonic compositions of the seventeenth century. Particularly noteworthy is the abundance of dissonant combinations and the distinctiveness of the assymetric rhythm." [Gardner 2000: 298] Such observations may, indeed, be made about the generality of the repertoire. Antonowycz is more forthright, and describes it as "eine Kakophonie" [Antonowycz 1990], but the large number of successful performances recordings made in recent years by Russian choirs (and especially the work of the Russian Patriarchal Choir under Anatoly Grindenko), belies this.

The Polish-Ukranian Period

The 17th century, though a time of flourishing creativity, was for liturgical art in Russia also a time of decadence and crisis, both related to historical events; firstly, the Time of Troubles, following the death of Boris Godunov, during which there was a rapid succession of tsars and Russia was

invaded by Poland; and secondly, the accession to the throne of the first Romanov. For the arts, as for life in general, the immediate consequence was a strong influx of foreign influence, accompanied by political centralization and a significant strengthening of the monarchy and attendant social divisions between the people and the ruling classes. The need for a strong state to defend the country against her agressors, in conjunction with western political, social and philosophical ideas, led the Tsar to attempt to submit the Church to the State in order to attain his political goals. The Church, for its part, tried to check the Roman Catholic influence brought by the Polish invasion: the people had been impressed by the organs and orchestras of Polish churches and there was a sharp drop in attendance at Orthodox churches. One means employed in order to try to remedy this was to copy Polish-style polyphonic music, though the traditional Orthodox ban on instruments continued to be enforced. [Morosan 1986: 37, 39-42]

With the accession of Mikhail Romanov to the throne in 1613, westernization was the order of the day in Russian culture, theology itself not escaping from this tendency. Much came from Poland across her borders with the Ukraine. By the end of the 17th century, both the court and the patriarchal singers were performing a repertory that was largely polyphonic, sometimes in many parts (there survive from this period works in twelve, twenty-four and even thirty-two parts). While the negative elements of these developments are easy to see and to emphasize from an Orthodox point of view, it must also be admitted that what resulted was something highly original in that the Russians' and the Ukranians' attitude to their native languages was not compromised by their usage of western counterpoint: this, added to the creative eployment of elements from folk polyphony, led to a repertoire that does not quite sound like anything else, however much the shadows of Schütz or Gabrieli and, often, earlier composers, hover over some of these works. [See Morosan 1986: 56-59]

The name for this style (written, with few exceptions, in western notation) is simply partesnoe penie, part singing, and its chief representative was Nikolai Diletsky (c.1630-c.1680), Polish- and Lithuanian-trained. He wrote an influential book entitled simply A Musical Grammar, first published in Polish at Vilnius in 1675, which expounds the basis of western music theory (including, interestingly, the earliest known mention of the circle of fifths) and discusses the composition of sacred music according to western models of voice-leading. Fellow composers of the partesny konsert include Titov, Pekalitsky, Kalashnikov, Bavykin and Trediakovsky.

Parallel with this complex style of writing is the kant, a paraliturgical pious song, melodically simple and usually in three (rarely four) parts. The kant became so widespread owing to its easily memorable character that it began to penetrate into churches and monasteries and influenced liturgical chant: maly znamenny or Kievan melodies were harmonized in parallel thirds with a bass, thereby becoming the basis of what one hears today in many Russian parish churches.

The Italian Period

From the 1750s onwards, the Imperial Court began to look more towards Italy for inspiration in cultural matters. During the reign of the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, a large number of artists, arhitects, sculptors and musicans left Italy for St Petersburg. The list of chapelmasters of the Court Choir during the 18th century is a continuous stream of foreigners, including Galuppi, Paisiello, Sarti, Cimarosa, and Martˇn y Soler. They wrote for the Court chapel and had a lasting influence on many young Russian composers, including Degtiarev, Vedel, Bortnyansky, Berezovsky, Davydov, and Turchaninov. Bortnyansky (1751-1825) studied with Galuppi and studied in Italy from 1769 to 1779. On his return he became Chapelmaster at the Imperial Court, and then Director. He is the undisputable master of the Italian style, as is shown by his large number of virtuosic choral concerti as well as his considerable quantity of secular music. His lyrical style, in combination with western counterpoint, made him the outstanding composer of this period. Morosan observes of him and his contemporaries "their creative orientation and musical vocabulary were almost entirely European, as were the performance techniques mastered by the singers of the Court Chapel". [Morosan 1986: 61] Dunlop, in addition, defends Bortnyansky against later criticism, observing that, in view of his education at the hands of Italians, "it would have been highly remarkable had his music not strongly reflected their influence. In addition, the characteristics later condemned as 'Italian' were common in much Western European music of this time." [Dunlop 2000: 113]

The German (St Petersburg) Period

With the death of Bortyansky in 1825, for political as well as cultural reasons, Germany succeeded Italy as the dominant influence. The Imperial Chapel was taken over by Lvov (1798- 1870), who had travelled in Germany and knew Mendelssohn, Schumann and Meyerbeer. His music for the Church is characterized by four-part harmony, in German style, predominating over the melody (though he did employ chant) which is always placed in the top voice. His influence was considerable, and among his followers are Lomakin (whose still frequently-sung setting of the Cherubic Hymn actually departs rather from this style in favour of something rather more original, albeit undeniably western), Vorotnikov, Bakhmetev, Golitsyn, amd Strokin. This time, known as the St Petersburg period, was important precisely for its simplification and the beginnings - though the results were not entirely positive - of a return to chant traditions. [See Morosan 1986: 78-83 and Dunlop 2000: 72-75]

In 1879 occurred a famous incident which would have significant consequences for Russian church music. Pyotr Jurgenson, the Moscow music publisher who frequently worked with the Imperial Chapel, published Tchaikovsky's Liturgy of St John Chrysostom without the authorization of the Chapel - indispensable since Bortnyansky's time. Bakhmetev attempted to forbid publication, but Tchaikovksy sought and received authorization from the Senate. Though many have considered the work too "western", it may be considered truly Russian in spirit, and marks the end of the period of German domination and the initiation of the study and recovery of the Russian Church's musical past. Tchaikovsky himself later worked more seriously with the chant repertoire, and his settings for the Vigil show a genuine preoccupation with finding a valid style of genuinely liturgical composition. [See Brown 1992: 283-287]

The Moscow School

This return to Russia's liturgical and musical heritage was begun by Prince Vladimir Feodorovich Odoievsky (1804-1869), a philosopher, writer, critic and musicologist. He was a founder member of the Russian Musical Society, which would play an extremely important rôle in Russian musical life at the end of the 19th century. He was a lover of old music books, and of znamenny chant manuscripts and prints in particular. Around him he gathered a number of musicians interested in studying chant, including archpriest Razumosvky and Stepan Smolensky. The latter numbered among his pupils Kastalsky, Chesnokov and Nikolsky. It is to Smolensky that Rakhmaninov's Vigil ("Vespers") is dedicated.

As a composer, Kastalsky (1856-1926) best exemplifies the influence of Smolensky's work. His music, almost all of it liturgical, is profoundly rooted in znammeny, putevoy and demestvenny chant, combined with a harmonic language deriving from the modal implications of the chant and from Russian folk tradition and which he soon went on to develop independently of the citation of actual chant, as the pseudo-chant style Miloserdiya dveri otverzi nam, for example demonstrates triumphantly. [Morosan 1986: 232-233] This return to sources was deeply influential on many composers, including Kompaneisky, Tolstiakov, Nikolsky, Grechaninov, and Chesnokov. The height of this movement was undoubtedly reached, however, with Rakhmaninov's monumental Vigil ("Vespers"), based on chant and one of the peaks of choral writing in any century: "he (…) scales new heights of expressive intensity, such as have been achieved in only a few choral masterpieces in the entire history of music." [Morosan 1986: 248]

 

The 20th Century

Many composers (such as Arkhangelsky, Allemanov and Vinogradov) continued in their allegiance to the Germanic principles of the St Petersburg School, and it was this tradition, in spite of the unparalleled achievement of Rakhmaninov, that was influential upon most of the musicians of the Russian diaspora following the October Revolution. Arkhangelsky (1846-1924) was one of many composers during this period to set the principal parts of the Vigil - Tchaikovsky, Ippolitov-Ivanov, Grechaninov also did so, as well as Rakhmaninov. Similar settings of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom also abound from the mid-19th century onwards; certainly there was a feeling that composers who did not write only sacred music could approach the sacred repertoire in this fashion, creating large cycles rather than isolated settings specifically destined for particular liturgical occasions.

Since the recent political changes in the former Soviet Union, works by a number of Russian composers have appeared relating to church music traditions, though not specifically liturgical in intent (such as Apocalypse, Easter Music and Christmas Music by Vladimir Martynov [b.1946], the Concerto for Mixed Choir by Alfred Schnittke [1934-1998), Svete tikhi by Edison Denisov [1929-1998] and Zapechatlenniy Angel by Rodion Shchedrin [b.1932]); it remains to be seen, however, whether there will be any widespread return to the composition of genuinely liturgical music.

 

References

Antonowycz 1990 Antonowycz, Myroslaw: Ukrainische geistliche Musik, Munich, 1990

Brown 1992 Brown, David: Tchaikovsky: A Biographical and Critical Study - To the Crisis 1840-1878, London , 1992

Dunlop 2000 Dunlop, Carolyn C: The Russian Chapel Choir 1796-1917, Amsterdam 2000

Gardner 1980 Gardner, Johann von, trans. Vladimir Morosan: Russian Church Singing vol. 1: Orthodox Worship and Hymnography, Crestwood, New York, 1980

Gardner 2000 Gardner, Johann von, trans. Vladimir Morosan: Russian Church Singing vol. 2: History from the Origins to the Mid-Seventeenth Century, Crestwood, New

York, 1980

Morosan 1986 Morosan, Vladimir: Choral Performance in Pre-Revolutionary Russia, Ann Arbor, 1986

Uspensky 1965 Uspensky, N.D: Drevnerusskoe Pervcheskoe Iskusstvo, Leningrad, 1965

Uspensky 1968 Uspensky, N.D: Obraztsy Drevnerusskovo Pervcheskovo Iskusstva, Leningrad, 1968

Velimirovic 1990 Velimirovic, Milos: "Russian Chant" in Crocker, Richard and Hiley, David, eds: New Oxford History of Music Vol. II: The Early Middle Ages to 1300, Oxford, 1990

 

 © 1995, 2001 Ivan Moody

 

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