¹18 (181) February, 2004
RUSSIAN LITURGICAL CHORAL AESTHETICS:
ITS PAST IN TRADITION AND PRESENT IN RUINS
We, the descendants of pre-revolutionary times, beg Russia's forgiveness for disrespecting her heritage, for letting it fall into enemy hands, for not cherishing her best attributes, for neglecting to preserve her moral sense of integrity, and for turning a deaf ear to this century's extermination of the Orthodox Russian State and its millions of Martyrs.
The aesthetic loss experienced by the Russian Orthodox Church and caused by international socialism is one of this century's greatest tragedies. The brutal enforcement of communism in Russia at the expense of millions of lives was not so much an economic war, as it was a war against the country's national identity and especially against its religion, Orthodoxy. Along with secularization, an almost complete de-russification of Russia has taken place. The rich national aesthetic wealth of expression that was present in liturgical singing gave way to singing that no longer has any identity, but is fraught with bland nothingness, uncommitted to any national style. Will Russia find the strength to begin to shed the cancer of internationalism that has infested her in all facets of life? Will her best national attributes ever resurface, so that out of ozverievshie liudi or the beastly Homo Sovieticus its denigrated people have been forced to become, will rise a nation cleansed, ready to live according to God's laws and capable of regaining its national identity? For now, not much has changed. Parishes are brutally taken over by armed militia, while some churches are presumably opened, only to become brainwashing centers leading followers into further abysses. The present study is not meant to duplicate or supersede, but to complement existing histories of Russian church music and to take that initial step in developing sensitivity to listening, keeping in mind its holy purpose, as well as its association with Russia's rich aesthetic heritage. With the help of taped audio examples, one can begin at least to confront the process of destruction that has been forced on Russia. Because of that destruction, our knowledge is less than adequate. Much needs to be done in the study of texts and their relationship to music. Something as rudimentary as a theory or sight-singing textbook that would consist of musical examples taken from the church repertoire has not yet been written; we must resort to secular manuals that have no connection whatsoever to the sacred realm. But prior to writing textbooks one must first examine the situation and understand that recapturing the sound our ancestors created over centuries will require much study and dedication to the past, a past that has been dishonored and defamed and will take a great deal of effort to rebuild. Difficulties encountered by those in choir lofts are astounding, both in Russia and in emigration. The present work, however, is not meant to raise anyone's sense of self-esteem, nor to praise for "doing the best one can under the circumstances," as that would feed rather than solve the problem. It is meant, on the contrary, to overtly assess the damage, present it in sound for all to hear, and, hopefully, with the help of those most sensitive and gifted, begin to reconstruct that which should be heard in churches.
In this initial step towards understanding the past in order to begin to cultivate the future, the author has chosen to include a large number of quotations from those who witnessed Russia before and after its downfall in 1917, hoping that they will serve as inspiration for future generations. Quotations are so valuable to us today, it is in them that we discover the country that was Russia, a world we know so little about but are so quick to judge and misunderstand. Quotations that contrast the past and the present frame the book; they also appear interspersed throughout, serving to punctuate or illustrate that which is under discussion. The historical approach is complemented by an analytical study of the different genres and styles of singing that are part of Russian Orthodox services. We begin to address manners of singing associated with phrasing, breath control, conducting techniques, vocal timbre, metered vs. unmetered singing, all, of course in conjunction with, and emanating from the Word.
One very important term reappears again and again throughout the book and that is torzhestvennost' [solemnity]. Torzhestvennost' is an integral component of Russian Orthodox spirituality. It means being uplifted, elevated and ennobled by the Word. It is to be transmitted with utmost reverence and respect into the heart of man. It incorporates a strong sense of exultation associated with the celebration of a holy event. Its roots lie in the holy text itself, as well as in the artistic eloquence with which it is to be interpreted. In singing, it does not entail a loud, aggressive, fanfare-like sound characteristic of secular celebration, but of a harmonious, long-winded seamlessness, with a full, rich sound - majestic, solemn, noble and beyond man. Torzhestvennost' is also associated with elements other than the liturgical text, such as the external aesthetics that beautify and enhance the services - architecture, iconography, frescoes, bell-ringing, vestments, singing - all the arts are to be fused in profound spiritual reverence. Torzhestvennost' is also identified with large cathedral settings, with services led by bishops and high ranking clergymen who provided a festive atmosphere for everyone, regardless of rank or social status. But it is not limited to large churches. It can entail the arrival of the bishop and his entourage for a particular feast day, an occasion that called for preparation and celebration even in the smallest of parishes. People eagerly awaited and participated in this holy event. Enemies of Russian Orthodoxy are well aware of the tremendous impact torzhestvennost' can have on the population, and their intention is to eradicate especially that aspect of Orthodoxy, resisting any patriotic or nationalistic spark that might reawaken and ignite the nation to reclaim spiritual Holy Orthodox Rus'- and abandon materialistic Soviet atheism- thus the lack of funding, not to mention support, for the study of Russian Orthodox choral music - the major proponent for torzhestvennost' - and for the better and more gifted choir directors and singers.
Whoever will take our place will have to build on ruins,
in the middle of silence, that of the dead in cemeteries.
- "Pravda", July 1921.
Before the outbreak of World War I, Russia's population was undergoing such a rapid natural growth that it was predicted that, by the end of the twentieth century, it would consist of six hundred million people. Not only are we short of a few hundred, but at the end of the bloodiest century in history, here is a nation on its knees, a nation that spiritually, mentally, and physically, is in ruins. Russia now lies as a vast concentration camp, a slave state of the living dead, crippled in every way, devoid of its spiritual and national identity, and devoid of its singing in the Orthodox Church, singing that had once stunned the world.
Metr. [Patriarch] Tikon's Epistle to the Soviet People's Commissar, 26 October, 1918:
While you were seizing the power, you asked the people to trust you, and made promises to them. But have those promises been fulfilled? You gave a stone instead of a loaf, and a serpent instead of fish (Matt. 7:9-10). You have substituted a soulless international concept for our Motherland. You have divided the people into enemy camps and plunged them into a fratricidal war of an unprecedented cruelty. You have openly replaced Christ's love by hatred; you have not brought peace, you have incited class hatred. There seems to be no end in sight to the war instigated by you, because with the hands of Russian workers and peasants you are trying to bring about the triumph of a phantom world revolution. No one feels safe under your regime, where there reigns a constant fear of search, robbery, arrests, and exile or execution. You promised freedom, but there can hardly be anything more painful and cruel than violation of religious freedom… the press is blasphemous and full of a malicious ridiculing of sacred things. You have stolen Church property, collected by generations of faithful believers… You have barred the entrance to the Moscow Kremlin - the sacred inheritance of all pious Russians… We know that our accusations will anger you and cause severe reprisals, that you will use our words as a pretext to accuse us of resisting your government. But the greater your anger and punitive acts, the more the truth of our accusations will be confirmed. Mark the anniversary of your rule by liberating those imprisoned by you; by ceasing bloodshed, violence, destruction, and oppression of religion… Otherwise all righteous blood shed by you, shall be required of you (Luke 11:51), and you that take the sword shall perish by the sword (Matt. 26:52).1
Russia is perishing!... Nowadays, not one who has a voice speaks of the motherland, of Russia. It no longer exists. What does exist is the proletariat of all nations… What is most horrible, irreparable, is that Russia for ever has been humiliated before the entire world, due to the accursed and absurd politics of today's rulers - the bolsheviks and socialists… And this, during a war in which, when it started, people went to battle loving their country, fighting and dying for its glory, for its future!… We grew up loving Russia, from childhood we were accustomed to respect this high ideal - patriotism, love of the motherland. Now all has collapsed. This motherland, which we considered great, has been defamed before our very eyes, trampled in the mud! What I would not give, to help save our motherland, our bright ideal, raise it to unheard of heights, and prove to the entire world, that Russia is still alive, its honor and strength have not been decimated and trampled under the dirty boots of hooligans and comrades!… No, comrades, it is too late! You will not return peasants, having become unscrupulous workers, to their previous honest state. Can a worker, who is now ruling Russia, accustomed to spending his time only at meetings and armed demonstrations3 and receive for this interesting pastime large sums of Russian and German monies - can this corrupt worker become a principled and good human being? No, it is too late!… You have managed to demolish Russia, to annihilate it completely, according to all the practices of your socialistic art. But who will create the new Russia, with that, of course, you will not concern yourself!2
And now, having lived through these seventy lethal years inside Communism's iron shell, we are crawling out, though barely alive. A new age has clearly begun, both for Russia and the whole world. Russia lies utterly ravaged and poisoned; its people are in a state of unprecedented humiliation and on the brink of perishing physically, perhaps even biologically.4
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Even the clergy seem to be universally possessed of musical ears. In the long ectenae, which recur so frequently… neither the deacon who sings the suffrages nor the choir which responds ever seem to lose the right pitch, and get flatter and flatter as we often hear in this country. In fact, I don't think that anyone who has had the opportunity of comparing the ecclesiastical music of the various nations of Europe will refuse Russia the credit of surpassing all other countries in the general excellence of her church singing.5
Many Western historians who verbally reject the official viewpoint of Soviet historiography in fact accept it. They find the sources of the 1917 revolution in the internecine warfare of the Kievan princes, the Tartar yoke… Similarly turning to the distant past, Western historians draw a direct line from Ivan Vasilievich (Ivan the Terrible) to Joseph Vissarionovich (Stalin)… One particular characteristic - the total influence of the ruling party on all spheres of existence on a scale never before known - acts as a determining force in all Soviet institutions and on the typical Soviet citizen, Homo Sovieticus. This total influence has distorted the normal processes at work in contemporary societies and has resulted in the emergence of a historically unprecedented society and state. The transition from pre-October Russia to the USSR, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has said, `was not a continuation of the spinal column, but a disastrous fracture that very nearly caused the nation's total destruction.' The history of the Soviet Union is the history of the transformation of Russia - a country no better or worse than any other, one with its own peculiarities to be sure, but a country comparable in all respects to the other countries of Europe - into a phenomenon such as humanity has never known. On the date of October 25, 1917, a new era began. The history of Russia ended on that day. It was replaced by the history of the Soviet Union. The new era affected the entire human race, because the whole world felt, and still feels, the consequences of the October revolution.6
About communism: It is impossible to find any utopia more absurd, anything more in contradiction with the natural tendencies of man. And how boring and intolerably colorless life will probably become when and if equality of property is established. Life is a struggle, and if there were no struggle there would be no life, just a senseless vegetation.7
- P. I. Tchaikovsky
The Soviet Government, it seems, is officially antireligious. The people have been asked to help carry on antireligious propaganda, but the authorities find many still so wedded to the old traditions and beliefs that they not only refrain from cooperating with the Government, but actually weaken the Government's position by publicly taking part in religious ceremonies.8
While the Bolshevik party as a whole conducts this antireligious struggle, individual members of the party not only refrain from cooperating, but even assist in strengthening religious prejudices by the public fulfillment of the most stupid religious rites and by not possessing the necessary force of character to combat the prejudices and demands of the backward sections of the population among whom they are living and with whom they are bound up by material, economic, and family ties.9
The cataclysmic political events that shook Russia in the year 1917 had an unprecedented impact upon the nation's spiritual, cultural, and musical life. Never before had the artistic and creative life of an entire nation come under such vicious ideological attack, imparting to entire social classes and categories of artists the status of pariahs and "enemies of the people.10
Vladimir Lenin's Letter to Molotov for Politburo Members,
Document 94, Top Secret, 19 March, 1922:
For us this moment is not only exceptionally favorable but generally the only moment when we can, with ninety-nine out of a hundred chances of total success, smash the enemy and secure for ourselves an indispensable position for many decades to come. It is precisely now and only now, when in the starving regions people are eating human flesh, and hundreds if not thousands of corpses are littering the roads, that we can (and therefore must) carry out the confiscation of church valuables with the most savage and merciless energy, not stopping at [short of] crushing any resistance… We must, come what may, carry out the confiscation of church valuables in the most decisive and rapid manner, so as to secure for ourselves a fund of several hundred million gold rubles (one must recall the enormous wealth of some of the monasteries and abbeys). Without this fund, no government work in general, no economic construction in particular, and no defense of our position in Genoa especially is even conceivable… later we will be unable to do this, because no other moment except that of desperate hunger will give us a mood among the broad peasant masses that will guarantee us the sympathy of these masses or at least their neutrality, in the sense that victory in the struggle for the confiscation of the valuables will be indisputable and entirely ours… we must in the most decisive and merciless manner crush its resistance with such brutality that it will not forget it for decades to come… pass a secret resolution of the congress that the confiscation of valuables, in particular of the richest abbeys, monasteries, and churches, should be conducted with merciless determination, unconditionally stopping at nothing, and in the briefest possible time. The greater the number of representatives of the reactionary clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we succeed in executing for this reason, the better. We must teach these people a lesson right now, so that they will not dare even to think of any resistance for several decades.11
Immediately after Lenin wrote the above letter, more than ten thousand Orthodox faithful were liquidated in the town of Shuia.12
For Russia and the Russians, the Party always played the role of the main destroyer, sacrificing Russian interests for the sake of igniting world revolution, building socialism, helping communist China, or performing our international duty in Afghanistan.13
New Year's Day, 1922: And so, another year passed, and one is about to begin, at the end of which [if one lives that long], one will have to write about yet a new vulgarity. There is no evidence of any ray of hope for Russian life. On the one hand [ruling side] - there is idle talk, bragging; on the other hand, [the enslaved people] - whispering and inert waste. There are no gods, no Russia, no freedom. Left are only chastushki, meyerholds, neps, maiakovskys,* "red" words, titles, cities, villages and red functions, not red** as in the beauty of nature, people, and deeds, but from the redness of the merciless, relentless, indiscriminate bloodshed of the past and future.14
"The aim of the Soviet authority was and is [today] not at all the subjection of the Church to itself, and not even her enslavement, but rather her total and definitive annihilation. Militant atheism is the State doctrine of the USSR. The subjection, the enslavement of the Church are only intermediate moments, steps toward her total annihilation. While the governmental authority openly announces its battle against faith and the Church, the Patriarchate gives the appearance of not noticing this, and even more, it strives to convince everyone of the contrary."15
- Ivan Andreev, Russia's Catacomb Saints
One of the most significant aspects of the Russian Orthodox tradition is its singing; singing is an integral part of the Service, inseparable from it, existing in conjunction with the other arts that are part of the Orthodox Church. "One thing may be said at the outset about the music of these Russians; it is unmistakably religious. It could never be mistaken for anything but what it is. It springs from the fertile soil of an ecclesiastical tradition of great antiquity."16
The Services at the Lavra conveyed the most profound religious and aesthetic gratification. They were performed according to a distinct ritual in the midst of the ancient monastery setting in majestic churches. Magnificent were the ringing of the Lavra bells calling for prayer, the splendid artistic vestments of the clergy, the gigantic candles mysteriously lighting the old arches, ancient icons, the golden iconostasis, and finally the distinctively unique and fascinating singing of the Lavra choirs… For this kind of praying, for these tears of humility, people often walked for thousands of miles. Dusty, tired, sun-burned, but bright in spirit, in their hearts they carried during their lengthy and difficult journey a profound faith and love… now the powerful distinctive melodies of the Lavra are flowing around the oldest church…to the accompaniment of the captivating singing, incitingly exalted, elevated, and focused.17
Over the centuries, Russia developed a genuinely sacred type of singing for the church. Prior to the revolution, her singing was hailed worldwide as a true emissary of spirituality. To achieve such quality required a solid religious and musical preparation, which due to the destructive forces of atheistic communism over the course of the twentieth century, lost its creative vigor. As we sorrowfully witness impoverished singing in our churches, we stand crippled at the overwhelming task of restoring our ancestors' pursuit of excellency. This catastrophic process has been so brutal that we no longer have a model. The present study is a humble attempt at reawakening in each one of us a reverence for the past in which, with time, we will find answers for the future. Not long ago, singers and choir directors in Russia risked their lives just for entering the church. Today we are suddenly asking them to sing.
The mere discovery of copies of religious music in anyone's possession during a search might involve that person in the greatest difficulties. Many choirmasters were exiled or shot… many changed sides in order to save their lives… Opera singers were forbidden to sing in church choirs… If one compares the present position as regards the publication of music for church choirs with the position in 1917, it can only be described as disastrous… In this way, this original and valuable branch of Russian musical culture, whose traditions stretch back to the eleventh century, is doomed to extinction, confined as it is within the small quantity of material published before 1917 that has escaped destruction.18
No, we are not, as some less than patriotic members of our generation profess, about to forget the genocide of millions, and "burying" (by Soviet officials) the Martyrs Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1998, did not put an end to an epoch. This book is intended to serve as a tool for those who are deeply committed to restoring dignity and national identity in the Russian Orthodox Church. Churches in Russia (or is it now Asia, The Russian Federation, Eurasia?) are seemingly beginning to come back to life and music for choirs is re-issued in "modern" editions, but this is only a facade, as anything genuinely Russian is suffocated the moment it appears on the horizon. The more gifted choir directors withdraw - their choirs dismissed as a direct result of no support from the administrative authorities.
Where can we now find a church, in which the best intentions of choir directors would be supported by the administration?19
Through faithful self-criticism and progress, Russia once stood at the zenith of European cultural artistic expression. It is now crawling out from under the rubble and its people are desperately trying to regain their national identity. There can be no blame for not remembering the features that made Russian choral music so great, as people who were in any way associated with Orthodoxy have either been annihilated or suffered terrible persecution. Thus today's highly inadequate singing is in danger of becoming the model for the twenty-first century. It is time to re-evaluate and, for clergy, administrators, parishioners, and singers alike, to take a sober look at the full spectrum and determine that which needs to be done to bring our singing back to life.
A great number of sources have been used for this project, including Johann von Gardner's monumental two-volume Liturgical Singing in the Russian Orthodox Church (in Russian),20 which should be read in conjunction with the present study. Vladimir Morosan's Choral Performance in Pre-Revolutionary Russia, remains a fundamental source in English. Particular attention should be drawn to chapter seven, entitled "Problems of Performance Practice in the Sacred Music of the New Russian Choral School," as it presents conflicting sides of various issues related to performance practice techniques, such as metronome markings, tempi, accentuation, legato singing, etc., substantiated by precious [to us now] quotations from pre-revolutionary sources. There are many other studies mentioned throughout, all available through Inter-Library Loan from University Libraries. It is interesting that E. M. Levashev finally made available his valuable "Bibliography and List of Compositions," preceded by a survey of Russian Orthodox church music from 1825-1917, entitled Traditional Genres of the Orthodox Art of Singing in the Music of Russian Composers from Glinka to Rachmaninoff 1825-1917 (in Russian). It was written in 1979 "at that difficult time in our country's life where not only could there be no talk of publication for such a study, but materials were kept in basements…"21 The fact that this publication deals with the nineteenth-century repertoire is ironic, since there seems to exist a trend today, prescribed by some, to impose a one-sided view of our heritage and to promote only the music that was composed prior to the seventeenth century. To consider everything that appeared after the sixteenth century as the "downfall of Russian Orthodox church music"22 and to neglect the developments that took place during the next few hundred years, leads to a highly unbalanced and hence, destructive view of our heritage. One might ask, how is a pontifical service to proceed in a major, centrally located cathedral, without choral singing? Or is there an intent to do away with the magnificent singing or torzhestvennost' which prevailed in pontifical services over the centuries? Judging by the disabled, incapacitated state of Russian choral singing today, the answer is, unfortunately, in the affirmative, and destruction a reality.
One of our errors this century has been a blind race towards modernization, innovation, the endeavor to be "first to have done something," all so egocentric and destructive in nature.
In the twentieth century the necessary equilibrium between tradition and the search for the new has been repeatedly upset by a falsely understood "avant-gardism" - a raucous, impatient "avant-gardism" at any cost… Destruction thus became the apotheosis of this belligerent avant-gardism. It aimed to tear down the entire centuries-long cultural tradition, to break and disrupt the natural flow of artistic development by a sudden leap forward… In Russia, this impulse and its manifestations preceded and foretold the most physically destructive revolution of the twentieth century… It is there that we first heard scathing imprecations against the entire Russian and European way of life, the calls to sweep away all religions or ethical codes, to tear down, overthrow, and trample all existing traditional culture, along with the self-extolment of the desperate innovators themselves, innovators who never did succeed in producing anything of worth.23
We went so far as to pride ourselves in being considered the first to have included instruments,24 or more recently, electronic music25 in the church.
As we look at the centuries of Russian church music development and read about the many diverse views concerning its strengths and weaknesses, we cannot help but observe that everything took its course. Composers were products of their age and did their best to serve the Almighty amid historical conflicts and musical changes that were beyond their control. Those who stayed close to tradition served the Church best. Westernization was a fact of life in the eighteenth century and to turn away from it and search for the innately Russian (as did Bortniansky) required great courage. The same can be said about Lvov's probing into asymmetrical meter in an age when such thinking was considered "uncivilized." It is also of no use to pronounce a composer, as some textbooks do, too conservative or not innovative enough, since musical avant-gardism is a secular phenomenon. To say that Lvov's language was some years behind the times26 is irrelevant and not applicable to church music. Church music, after all, requires a certain amount of restraint and compositional boldness has no place in it. The fact that choirs today are incapable of rendering Lvov's seemingly simple and "conservative" It Is Truly Meet is our tragedy and dilemma. It would be well, before we proclaim who is "behind the times," to understand and respect that which we inherited from our masters. They were much more knowledgeable than us, who have just emerged from under the rubble.27 Destruction came easy, reconstruction will require much humble study and veneration of the past. For those who doubt how important aesthetics and the arts (including singing) are to Orthodoxy,
Gardner made the following observation on the synthesis of the church-related arts, as he witnessed them in 1915:
I was astounded by this singing… At that moment I felt the penetratingly rare and untold beauty of everything that surrounded me… I understood the monolithic character of the whole: this ancient cathedral with its heavy round pillars reaching into the heights and their elaborate austere frescoes, and equally the altar resplendent in gold. The aromatic smoke of the censer, the rich vestments of the clergy, the angelic singing, the devotional noise of the crowd, the words of the sacred songs, the assiduous making of the sign of the Cross of the worshippers - all this was inseparable and interrelated.28
Foreign travelers to pre-revolutionary Russia left us many accounts of their impressions, and one in particular can serve as an illustration of what we should aspire for:
The Russian Nation has been frequently described as the most religious in Christendom. In some respects, I believe this is true, and there is no doubt that in no other country do the people give a more whole-hearted allegiance to the Christian Church in its local embodiment… It is not merely National in the technical sense, it is National because it enshrines the deepest convictions of an overwhelming majority of the Russian people… Preaching has no place at all compared with what it has in our English Church. What they have is worship, and it is here I feel, and indeed, many feel, we have a great deal to learn from the Russian. It is this quality of reverence and worship which has entered into the Music of the Russian Church, giving it in its best forms, a wonderful quality of elevation, nobility and beauty, which at once lift the hearer above all material things… a spiritual dignity and a quality of elevation quite its own. These are surely qualities greatly to be desired in our own Church Music, especially at a time when so much is tolerated that is utterly trivial, cheap and unworthy… the introduction of some of this beautiful Russian Church Music would be helpful, it would have an immediate effect in raising the standard of our choir singing. It would introduce a purer and more worthy type of music in our Churches, and so act as a corrective to some of the banalities at present tolerated. It should also inter-act helpfully on our own composers, encouraging them to give us work worthy of them, and worthy of use in Churches consecrated for the worship of Almighty God… Bad though the condition of things is for the mass of the population, the condition must be terrible for musical people. It must be fearful to find the country under the heel of Bolshevism.29
Unless we take a critical look at our singing, both in Russia and abroad, erroneous practices are in danger of becoming permanent fixtures. The present author is well-aware of the fact that singers hold outside jobs and have families, that there are no funds to pay them, that it is hard to get people together for rehearsals, etc. Perhaps the answer lies in each one of us extending a personal contribution to genuinely sacred singing by cultivating and encouraging certain types of voices, such as rich [rather than harsh] basses and light sopranos, by addressing one's breathing skills through the proper training acquired from reputable voice teachers, by supporting talented conductors willing to learn, by creating a learning atmosphere in the choir, and by listening carefully to the sound one emits, both individually and as a choir. Hard work will restore order, harmony, and reverence in our churches.
Since morning the church has been packed with worshippers who had already occupied their seats beforehand.30
On the eve of great festivals the churches are packed, there is wonderful singing… so good - better than at concerts where one pays to go in.31
Early Singing and the Chant Tradition
When Christ served His last Paschal Service He gave it new meaning, that of the first Christian eucharist service. After they had sung a hymn they ascended to the Mount of Olives (See Matt. 26:30). Thus singing was established in the Christian Church; its liturgical use was blessed through the example of the Creator Himself.32
When examining the history of early Rus', even prior to Christianization, one encounters a nation fraught with tradition rooted in the arts and aesthetics. The people, a relatively wealthy society, were artistically inclined, with a taste for weaving, embroidery, jewelry, and a quest for that which elevated man's existence on earth. During the process of selecting a religion and especially during Christianization, their inspiration came from Byzantium's rich tradition, with an emphasis on beauty and the arts. As churches and monasteries were built, iconography and frescoes became a prime concern in the process of enhancing the spiritual meaning of that interior which was to envelop those who worshipped within the church. Monasteries became the heart of Russia's artistic expression, with educational centers for singing, painting, bell-ringing, and copying of manuscripts. It is here that Russia developed the foundation for that very unique style of singing that was to startle the world.
Music, from its beginning in the early Church, played a very prominent role in Orthodox Services. It was directly connected with the Word of God, an intrinsic part of worship. Music functioned in connection with all the arts that were incorporated in the construction and beautification process of a church, including architecture, iconography, and frescoes. Due to its role as the enhancer and transmitter of the holy text, music was of primary importance to the services and its aesthetic value was highly esteemed.33
Church music, as a branch of musical art in general, serves as one of the highest manifestations of true spiritual art on earth. It has the power to exert an influence on the moral renewal of man's spiritual nature. Church singing is a manifestation of man's artistic genius and as such it cannot and must not be non-artistic. The artistic element in liturgical singing existed in the Orthodox Church from the times of the Apostles and developed gradually from its rudimentary form, to the highly artistic Byzantine eight-tone system in the eighth century under St. John Damascene.34
It is to the great masters of the early Church that we owe our tradition of singing. Through total immersion in God's Law, through fasting and self-denial, they created verses and melodies of unsurpassed depth and beauty, a result of total communion with God. It is with profound respect for these melodies that we approach our task today, knowing full well how insufficient we are while even attempting to interpret them. In the centuries following the Apostles, singing was transformed from congregational simplicity to that of profound beauty and aesthetic sophistication. There were many great men, poet-musicians, who wrote for the Church, among them, Saints Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Romanos the Melodist, Andrew of Crete, and John of Damascus. They lived and labored prior to Russia's official acceptance of Christianity in 988.35
The issue associated with the early-church practice of having the entire congregation sing rather than a choir, has been raised recently as well in pre-revolutionary Russia. It was already determined then, that it lowered the standards of religious expression through suppression of aesthetic beauty. Not caring about enhancing the exterior or interior of a church (and singing is part of this) was really more representative of sectarian inclinations than of the Orthodox Church. Also, it was realized that having the entire parish sing could serve certain small, rural churches with a non-changing population (perhaps possible in 1905 but not in 1998), but was not realistic in most situations even then.36 Singing is an art and in order to be done properly, it requires a high level of skillful competency. An English traveler to St. Petersburg remarked:
...in its devotion to pure song without instrumental interference, the Orthodox Church has never allowed its singing to be crippled or debased by organ "support"… However noble an instrument the organ may be in itself, when it is relied upon habitually to lead the singing it inevitably emasculates it, becoming a glorified prop, like a golden crutch for a man too lazy to walk. Hence the thin, soulless, spectral character of most English church choir singing… Our appreciation has fallen so low in this matter that even musical people sometimes do not take notice of the level; they assume that church music, for some unexplained reason, must remain on the same inartistic level to which our worship has generally sunk.
It is ironic that today some continue to propagate the idea that church music must remain on a low, inartistic, and unaesthetic level. Yet Russia used to be known for its superior "sacred" singing. Monasteries, such as the Alexander Nevsky Lavra, were noted for the "superlative beauty of its singing even among a galaxy of cathedrals."37 America had great respect for Russian church singing:
The music of the Russian ecclesiastical composers sounds genuinely religious, and here in America, we have a special need for the bracing effects of this unaccustomed idiom. Not only do we have to combat the dry-rot of academic formalism, we have, on the other hand, to offset the vitiating effects of secular music of inferior quality set to "sacred" words, and the puerile claptrap of the gospel hymn school which still represents church music in an astonishingly large number of communities. It has not been so many years since adaptations of the sextet from "Lucia," the quartet from "Rigoletto," were put forth by supposedly respectable publishing houses as "anthems" and eagerly consumed by the church public. It is to be hoped that much of this Russian music will find a permanent abiding-place in our church repertoire and even more to be hoped that it will not be without effect upon our own composers… It is to be hoped that we can so digest the spirit and intensity which characterize the best Russian choral compositions that we may adapt the message and manner to our own needs.38
In the early Russian Church, manuscripts evidence a Byzantine influence that stimulated rather than stifled native growth. The early teachings of the Church and its singing inherited from Byzantium lie at the core of the Orthodox Service and are fused in total harmony. That perfect synthesis of all the arts in a church service39 (that which Scriabin and many others strove for in the modern secular world) was formulated in the expression of the early medieval Church and it extended to all the arts that complement the services. It is important to preserve and emulate that synthesis as we begin to think of reviving tradition after the destruction of the twentieth century.
Frescoes, icons, and miniatures edified. The contemplation of icons, the hearing of singing closely related to them in context stimulated profound thoughts and emotions. The icon and the sung prayers which resounded in its presence established the pulse of ancient spiritual culture of Old Russia; thus iconography and hymnography were always on a high level of creativity… All the arts, simultaneously synthesizing in a church, with extraordinary might instantly affected the emotions of man, and carried him into an exalted world through contemplation of icons and the hearing of singing.40
The official adoption of Orthodoxy which took place from the tenth through the eleventh centuries was not the mere transplanting of Byzantine models to Church Slavonic texts, but a process of transformation of melodies, and the creation of new melodies that had to be adapted in compliance with the translations into the new language. There was also some degree of native expression in the work of scribes/copiers who acted somewhat independently and artistically in setting new melodies to the translated text. The resulting chant, even in its early stages of existence, thus acquired a more distinctive, national profile. By the twelfth century, Russia developed a chant known as Znamenny chant, along with a notation of neumes (znamya), known as the znamennaya or kriukovaya notatsia. Inherited from the Byzantine tradition was the eight-tone system of osmoglasie which consisted of eight modes or glasi, each one used for one week of the church calendar year in rotation. One of the most unique features of osmoglasie is that it was based on popevki (melodic formulae) or short melodic motives that were characteristic of a particular tone. The Kiev Caves Lavra was in close contact with Constantinople, whose bishops, singers, etc. were often received at the Lavra. They brought with them their Ustav or Typicon that governed the order of the Services. These were disseminated throughout Russia, to other monasteries, but did not apply to the details of singing which reflected local regional practices and the use of melodic properties and manners of singing.
There existed a number of different styles of singing chant. One was antiphonal singing which was performed by two choirs at either end of the Iconostasis, both groups engaging in a dialogue, followed by combined forces to heighten important moments of the service. Another was responsorial singing in which an initial singer, with the best voice, called the golovshchik, began a phrase to which the choir responded [and joined him in singing]. Together with canonarchal singing, in which the canonarch leads the ceremonial aspect of the services and solemnly intones the text which the choir repeats, this great variety of styles became part of an elaborate tradition that served to complement the beauty of the liturgical texts.
The canonarch and the golovshchik had to be very well versed in both liturgics and music. As for the singers, each had a function as singer and reader. Evidence points to a high level of literacy within the Church, even in low-ranking clerical positions.41 Tsars and princes, also well-trained in the art of liturgical singing, sang along with their choirs. Singing was an integral part of the services, inseparable from them, rather than a decorative element. Aside from professional singers who sang during most of the services, parishioners also participated in simple responses appropriate for the congregation. In monasteries, the entire brotherhood standing in the church participated in responses.
Singing existed in synthesis with icons, frescoes, incense, and magnificent vestments. It was carried out from both left and right kliroses at the front of the church, on both sides of the altar. Important sections of the services were done from the ambo, a raised area in the middle of the church reserved for soloists and the best singers. Only trained and skilled singers stood on the ambo, dressed in white vestments, with a domestic or choir director/teacher at the head, leading them with hand gestures. The art of conducting, known as khironomia in the early Church, incorporated a very sophisticated system of hand gestures that guided singers in manners as well as dynamics of singing. Only the hand (not the whole arm or waving of arms) was instrumental in coordinating text with music.
Historically, the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries were difficult times for Russia. The East belonged to the Mongols and the West to the Lithuanians ruled by Polish kings. A Latin/Western influence slowly began to permeate Russia from the West. The fourteenth century was especially difficult, with the burning of books by the Tartars in Moscow, pillaging of churches in the Kremlin, as well as in other parts of the country, where many books and manuscripts were lost. Another blow was the break with Byzantium around 1436 due to their acceptance of the Union with the Catholic West in Florence. However, during the fifteenth century and the final emancipation from the Mongol Yoke, the number of manuscripts increased considerably (unfortunately only a fraction survive today), and monasteries such as the Holy Trinity Monastery (in Sergeiv Posad) flourished, becoming the centers of liturgical and aesthetic development.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Muscovite Russia experienced a Golden Age in its development of church music prior to the infiltration of Western ideas. A professional, highly skilled body of singers, known as the Gosudarevy pevchie dyaki (The Tsar's Choir), was established under Ivan III in 1479. The number of singers varied but the choir is known to have been divided into stanitsy or sections with five members in each for a total of seven stanitsy or thirty-five singers.42 The dyaki came from different ranks and classes, and were all trained and educated not only in Liturgics and Rubrics, but also in the techniques of singing, as well as in theoretical musical concepts. They accompanied the Tsar everywhere he went and were always on the right kliros of the Dormition Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin. They rose in rank from apprentices in the fifth and fourth stanitsy to top singers in the first and second, which consisted of the best and most skilled performers. At the head of each stanitsa was the ustavchik who took care of the order of the services and trained the young singers. The golovchik was its main or leading singer, the one with the best voice.
Aside from the Tsar's Choir, there existed many other choirs in cathedrals, monasteries, parishes, and in the service of various church officials or private families, such as that of the Stroganovs, who had choirs not only in Moscow but on their numerous estates. They contained libraries that housed a large number of music manuscripts.43 Another prominent choir in Muscovy was that of the Patriarch, which was established in 1589 and stood on the left kliros while the Tsar's Choir stood on the right. During the reign of Ivan IV, composers as well as singers took part in church services.44 There existed a large number of composer/singers, teachers, and tvortsy or "master creators" of variants of the znamenny chant, who composed chant-based compositions known as perevody. The brothers Vasilii and Savva Rogov, from Novgorod, for instance, were associated with Ivan IV's court. Others included Fedor Khrestianin, Markel Bezborodnyi, Ivan Nos, Ivan Lukoshko and Ivan Shaidurov. Some represented a particular region, as is the case of Stefan Golysh who taught Usolskoe masteropenie [Usolsk Master Singing],45 a variant of znamenny chant that reflected the regional characteristics of the Ural area.
The entire cycle of liturgical texts for the church year has been set to znamenny chant, a rich melismatic chant rooted in the Russian modal system, with expansive and flowing melodies that represented not only a fusion but an intensification of each word of the text. It is in the study of this chant that we find answers to Russian performance practices throughout the centuries. Due to its long sweeping melodies, the znamenny chant contributed to a style of singing that acquired a lofty, majestically flowing and seamless profile. There seemed to exist, in later choral works, a continuous yearning and striving for a style of singing that reflected that noble melodic affluence, resulting in a natural intensification of the text through smooth melodic lyricism.
Napevy or Melodies
In addition to znamenny chant, there existed a great number of local variants called napevy, which carried within them musical characteristics of a particular region, monastery, cathedral, etc. These included the Moscow, Optina, Usol'skii, Valaam, Synodal, Kiev-Caves and many other napevy, that appeared at various stages in the development of Russian church music.
On the magnificence and artistic ingenuity of monasteries, precious is the description of the Solovetsky Monastery prior to the revolution - contrasted with the wreckage it became after the communist takeover:
From this vast swamp on the island of Solovki, the monks, by virtue of their dedicated and methodical work, succeeded in creating one of the most prosperous and wealthiest regions of Russia. The achievement of the monks is awesome. They built miles of irrigation and drainage systems, on what was previously uninhabitable land. Thanks to their labor, it became an island of profound beauty, with forests and fields all connected by canals and sophisticated landscaping. All was done without any help from outside specialists but by the monks themselves. They were, in fact, artists, because they succeeded in creating one of the greatest centers of natural resources and agriculture the world has ever known, very picturesque and attractive. Thousands of pilgrims visited each year, often with their children. Monks created schools for all grades so that children would not fall behind in their homework while on pilgrimage. Monks also regulated hunting which was permitted only in certain areas of the island, thus animals of all sorts, roamed around completely unafraid and mingled freely with humans. The monks installed some of the latest machinery from England and America for agriculture and in the shops, thus progressing quickly to become one of the largest exporters of various goods. They had architects, builders, printers, lithographers, painters, tailors, artists of all crafts, cooks famous for their dairy products, baked goods and many other traditional monastic dishes. They even had modern steam boats built in the Monastery workshops - indeed Solovki had become an industrial and commercial center of tremendous proportions. Monks were never inactive, all working according to their individual capacity. People from all walks of life were welcome at the monastery, welcome to live in a peaceful and prayerful environment for the rest of their lives… all in the magnificent cathedral, churches, and buildings, resplendent with artistic creativity, frescoes, and art treasures.
The sinister Chekists, such as Mikhelson, and Raiev treated the prisoners with utmost refined cruelty - these innocent people are veritable martyrs… After the evacuation of Crimea by General Wrangel, Abel Kahn, also known as Bela Kun and his assistant Mikhelson became the chief terrorists at Solovki, killing and torturing thousands and thousands of officers, soldiers and civilians…. The clergy were especially tortured with great atrocity…. The land of the monastery quickly withered, unkempt, desolate and no longer habitable… Those mortally ill were left to die in hallways, turning their eyes to the walls which retained remnants of the magnificence of the old frescoes, and praying for the end to come soon.46
The Putevoi Chant, also based on the eight-tone system, was a more melismatic variant of Znamenny Chant, with a strong resemblance to the Great Znamenny Chant. It was employed for festive hymns such as those sung during the consecration of a church, and its motives tended to be of a more complex melodic structure. It faded away in the eighteenth century as its melodies were frequently designated as Znamenny Chant. The Putevoi Chant was notated in its own neumatic or staffless system (putevaya notatsia), as well as in the traditional znamenny notation.
The Demestvenny Chant was not based on the eight-tone system and was used for festive, solemn occasions, as well as for the "Ordinary" parts of the services which do not depend on the eight tones. This lofty type of chant was also often used for Pontifical Services and existed from the fifteenth (or earlier) through the mid eighteenth centuries, then faded away. It was notated in a distinctive neumatic notation, known as the demestvennaya notatsia, with some signs borrowed from the putevoi as well as from the znamenny notations. The term comes from domestic which meant "leader of the choir," and it was performed both in unison, as well as polyphonically in four parts with the main part known as demestvo and znamenny chant as the middle voices. The demestvenny chant and its polyphonic settings are in great need of scholarly research, and any kind of speculation as to their performance practices (as is often done in recordings today) is premature and even damaging.
Kievan chant, also a full cycle of chants for the church calendar year based on the eight-tone system, appeared in Muscovite Russia sometime in the seventeenth century, as a southwestern variant of the znamenny chant. It developed in the southern Orthodox region which was originally part of the principality of the Rurik dynasty, but then came under the rule of Lithuanian and Polish kings, to be reunited with Muscovy in 1654. Its melodic element was not as fully developed as that of znamenny chant. Kievan chant was also more syllabic, less expansive, with more western cadences and a pronounced use of the major/minor system. It was notated in the kievskaya notatsia or Kievan square note staff notation which began to be used in Russia early in the seventeenth century.
Greek chant, based on the eight-tone system, with some categories of hymns not represented and thus not a complete cycle, is not Greek in origin but yet another variant of znamenny chant. It made its appearance in southwest Russia in the middle of the seventeenth century, sharing some resemblance to the Kievan chant in that it reflects Western mensural and tonal influences, and is notated mostly in square note notation (although some examples do exist in the neumatic notation). It has been said that the Deacon Meletios, a well-known singer/composer from Constantinople, was called by Tsar Alexei to teach Greek melodies. Thus at Pascha in 1667, at the Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin, on the right kliros sang the guests Meletios and his singers in Greek, and on the left the Patriarchal Choir in Slavonic. Today, the practice of singing Ton Despotin, to a Metropolitan or Bishop during a Pontifical Service, reminds one of the respect with which Greek hierarchs were greeted in Russia.
An incomplete cycle, yet also based on the eight-tone system, the Bulgarian chant, a southwestern variant of the znamenny chant, appeared in Muscovite Russia sometime around the middle of the seventeenth century. It had nothing in common with contemporary Bulgarian music, but featured a distinctive melodic profile, as exemplified in the well-known "The Noble Joseph."
The Obikhodnyi Chant
Known as obikhodnyi/obichny (common) chant, this was an abbreviated chant that contained melodies from a variety of other chants (including some of unknown origin), mostly sung by the St. Petersburg Court Chapel Choir. During the developmental years of the Choir, it became known as the pridvornyi napev [Court Melody]. The distinctive features of its harmonized setting are characterized by a homorhythmic recitative-like style with shortened cadential formulae, a smooth flowing style dictated by the speech inflections of the text, and at appropriate moments, an octava doubling the bass line an octave lower. It is in this seemingly simple, recitative-like procedure that one can truly observe the presence (or absence) of a choir's genuinely Russian style of performance practice.
One of the most important phenomena of Russian church music is that of solemnity and majesty (divine, uplifting celebration of a Holy event), in which all voices merge in their diversity, rather than exactly duplicated parts (let alone instruments) for volume or resonance. The linear approach was to be complemented by a proportionately paced, gradual accumulation of voices, rather than a straining of existing voices. Throughout the centuries, singing in the church was perceived as elevated, dignified, smooth, and seamless, all elements associated with a spiritually profound majesty that was to complement the sumptuous architecture, iconography, and vestments of the clergy in a synthesis of aesthetic beauty, reaching out to glorify the Almighty in a solemn, dignified manner. The text served as a departure point to help shape the musical phrase and generate sound.
To be continued.
Note: The article above, edited by Holy Trinity Monastery, is the first installment in a series of extracts from the original book, Russian Liturgical Choral Aesthetics: Its Past in Tradition and Present in Ruins, by Olga Dolskaya, Associate Professor at the Conservatory of Music, University of Missouri, Kansas City. The extracts published here contain the main historical section of the original book and only some important excerpts from the analysis and interpretation of specific Liturgical compositions. The full version of the book, including cassette tapes, may be ordered from: Olga Dolskaya- The Conservatory of Music- University of Missouri-Kansas Ciry, 4949 Cherry St., Kansas City, MO 64110-2499 or by e-mail at AckerlyO@umkc.edu