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Russian Sacred Music
May 14, 2009 15:58

Sirin Ensemble

'Angel'skie sily' (Performed by Sirin Ensemble)

Church singing was the only type of professional written music in Russia starting from the country’s conversion into Christianity till the late 17th century. Together with Christianity the Russians adopted from Byzantium the system of church singing – the eight ecclesiastical modes and the system of its writing - the neumes (in Russian it went as “signs - znaki, znamena, hence is the Znamenny chant, the Russian name for the echoes chant). Since the oldest forms of this notation are not exactly deciphered, it remains unclear if Russia adopted church singing from Byzantium or via the Southern Slavic countries. It is obvious however that in the 15th–16th centuries already the Russian Znamenny chant was quite an original music phenomenon.

'Veruyu' (Composed by Lev Pankratov, performed by Blagovest)

The Old Russian church singing, just like icon-painting, was anonymous, and yet, some written sources mention the names of the outstanding masters of the 16th – 17th centuries; among them are brothers Vasili (Varlaam as a monk) and Savva Rogovs from Novgorod, Ivan (Isaiah as a monk) Lukoshko and Stephan Golysh from the Ural, and Ivan Nos and Fyodor Krestianin (i.e. Christian) who worked at court of Ivan the Terrible.

'Gospodi, pomiluy' (Composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, performed by Gosudarstvenny Kamerny Khor Ministerstva Kultury)

In the 16th century classical choirs of tsar’s and patriarch’s singing sextons were founded in Moscow. That was the epoch of development of the original Russian church polyphonic singing, which had different types, such as strochnoe, demestvennoe and putevoe. The elaboration of church singing and complication of notation forms conditioned the appearance of detailed theoretical manuals; the most remarkable of them was Azbuka (Notice on Harmonious Notes) created by the Elder Aleksander Mesentz in the 1680s.

'Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospoda' (Composed by Pyotr Chesnokov, performed by Khor Moskovskogo khrama vsreh skorbyashikh Radoste)

The mid 17th century marked the turning point in the Russian church music: gradually there established a new style of choir polyphony – partes, which was first spread in Moscow by singers of Ukrainian, Byelorussian, and Polish origin and based on elementary devices of West-European harmonic and polyphonic notation. The simplest type of partes singing was harmonization of znamenny tunes, whereas the most complicated one was a choir concert for many voices. Among the famous authors were Vasily Titov, Nikolay Kalashnikov, Nikolay Bavykin, Fyodor Redrikov, and others. At the same time five-line notation started to prevail, though the neumes persisted for a long time, with Old Believers having used it till date.

'Velichit dushe moya Gospoda' (Composed by A.Frunza, performed by Khor Moskovskogo khrama vsreh skorbyashikh Radoste)

Very popular became a new type of spiritual chants – the psalm, or the canticle, using both Russian or Church Slavonic verses and translations, usually from Polish. Later secular choir canticles appeared, including historical, military, romantic and comic ones.

'Voskliknite Gospodevi vsya zemlya' (Composed by Alexander Gretchaninov, Performed by Khor Troitse-Sergievoi lavry)

Though the reforms of Peter the First had no direct impact on the art of chanting, and yet deep changes in the country’s life, touching also the church ways, resulted in the fact that the 18th century became the age of decaying of church chanting as the national art and a system of high artistic merit. In big cities, and first of all in Saint Petersburg, chanting was getting more and more secular, especially in the second half of the century, when invited Italian masters Baldassarre Galuppi and Giuseppe Sarti came to work at court. They composed music to Orthodox texts and taught singers of the Court Capella (the country’s central choir, which was transformed from the choir of tsar’s sextons), who along with church services, also took part in worldly entertainments at court and even sang in the opera.

'Ne otverji mene vo vremya starosti' (Composed by Maksym Berezovsky, performed by Kapella im. M.Glinki)

In spite of that in the same 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, far away from the court, the Old Believers’ art of chanting was developing independently on the same basis; ancient chanting was being kept up in large cathedrals of some old Russian towns, and original chants were taking shape in large monasteries.

In the late 18th – early 19th century the style of partes singing faded away, giving way to the genre of classicist sacred concerto after the fashion of the Western motet. Actually, the “concerto” at that time stood for an extensive choir composition, which replaced traditional Communional anthems in Sunday and holiday liturgies; other chants of various masses, mainly liturgies, were also performed in the concerto style.

The most prolific and bright representative of this genre was the director of the Court Capella Dimitry Stepanovich Bortnyansky (1751–1825); popular were also concertos by Maksim Sozontovich Berezovsky (1745–1777), Stepan Anikievich Degtiarev (1766-1813), Artemy Lukyanovich Vedel (1767?–1808), Stepan Ivanovich Davydov (1777–1825), and others. Most of the authors of sacred music of that period studied in Italy or under Italian masters in Russia.

Later started the period of the so-called German influence on the Russian sacred music; it was introduced by the activity of the director of the Court Capella Alexei Fyodorovich Lvov (1798–1870, the author of the hymn Bozhe, tsarya khrani (also known as God Save the Tsar) and his assistants (Gavriil Yakimovich Lomakin, 1811–1885; Pavel Maximovich Vorotnikov, 1810–1876, and others), who harmonized all the Orthodox book of church songs in the style Protestant choral. By the order of Emperor Nicholas I the use of these harmonizations was prescribed as obligatory for all Russian churches, whereas chanting from manuscript notebooks was prohibited, as well as printing and performing in church any compositions without their being approved by the director of the Court Capella. The order for a long time barred the way for professional secular composers to church music, and consequently in the epoch of quick development of the national Russian school this genre remained on the fridges.

'Hvalite imya Gospodne' (Composed by Alexander Gretchaninov, performed by Khor Moskovskogo khrama vsreh skorbyashikh Radoste)

However, already the epoch of Bortnyansky saw the first attempts to return to the authentic “ancient chanting”, and Bortnyansky endeavoured to revive it in the form of some edited versions of old chants. He was followed by another member of the Court Capella, protoiereus Pyotr Ivanovich Turchaninov (1779–1856). The model of “harmonius chanting”, i.e. polyphonic transposition of traditional Russian melodies by rules of classical harmony, was used in creations by composers from the Petersburg school, such as the above mentioned A.F. Lvov, and G.A. Lomakin, as well as Nikolai Ivanovich Bahmetev (1807–1891), Grigory Fyodorovich Lvovsky (1839–1894), Alexander Andreevich Arhangelsky (1856–1924), and others, up to the 20th century. The idea of return to the national fundamentals and search of “one’s own”, “Russian” harmony and “own” counterpoint first acquired theoretical grounds in the treatises by V.F. Odoevsky, protoiereus Dmitri Vasilievich Razumovsky (1818–1889), and other authors (mainly related to Moscow as the keeper of ancient traditions) and later in creative experiments of M.I. Glinka (in several arrangements of chants that he made in the late years of his life) and starting from the 1880s in compositions and arrangements by P.I. Tchaikovsky, N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov, A.K. Lyadov, M.A. Balakirev, S.I. Taneyev, and others.

Initially basic was the idea of the affinity of ancient epochs in Western and Russian church singing, i.e. composers were guided by the example of ancient polyphony of the epoch of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and the special, pre-classical modal harmony of that epoch, the so-called chaste style (in particular, a number of arrangements by Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, Lyadov, and Taneyev adhered to this style).

'Edinirodnoi Syne' (Composed by Pyotr Turchaninov, Performed by Khor Svyashennikov Spb Eparhii)

A special role in search for national church singing style belonged to the Liturgy of St. St. John Chrysostom composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1878). Chronologically it was the first sacred music composition by an eminent Russian composer that was printed and performed in a public concert without permission of the Court Capella. The law suit concerning the publication of this composition resulted in the downfall of Capella’s monopoly, thus serving as an important precedent for composers of the following generations.

By the early 20th century the so-called “new school” had taken shape in Russian church music; it was sometimes called the Moscow school, or synodal school of church singing. The foremost figures in historical-theoretical and practical spheres of this movement were Stepan Vasilievich Smolensky (medievalist researcher, composer, director of Synodal School and its reformer) with his co-workers, and precentors of the Moscow Synodal Choir (Choir of the Big Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin) Vasily Sergeevich Orlov and Nikolai Mikhailovich Danilin. Among the composers whose sacred compositions can be referred to the “new school” were S.V. Rachmaninoff, A.T. Gretchaninov, A.D. Kastalsky, P.G. and A.G. Chesnokovs, Vict.S. Kalinnikov, Aleksander Vasilievich Nikolsky, N.N. Charepnin, and Semyon Viktorovich Panchenko, as well as M.M. Ippolitov-Ivanov, V.I. Rebikov, Konstantin Nikolaevich Shvedov, N.S. Golovanov, Nikolai Nilovich and Pavel Nilovich Tolstyakovs, Father Dmitry Vasilievich Allemanov, Dmitry Moiseevich Yaichkov, Nikolai Ivanovich Kampaneisky, protoiereus Mikhail Aleksandrovich Lisitsyn, and others.

'Otche nash' (Composed by Dmitry Bortniansky, performed by Khor Spb Akademii i Seminarii)

The typical features of the “new school” were as follows: applying methods of folk music and experience of the national composers’ school to church music composition; resorting to church statute and the singing traditions enjoined by it; liberation of choir texture, rhythm and harmony from scholastic standards and looking for means corresponding to forms of national church singing.

The revolution of 1917 forcefully cut down the development of Russian church singing as contemporary art. However, some musicians in Russia and Russian emigration kept up these traditions. Abroad A.T. Grechaninov and N.N. Cherepnin went on creating sacred compositions; among precentors there stood out Sergei Alekseevich Zharov, Nikolai Petrovich Afonsky, Pyotr Vasilievich Spassky, Boris Mikhailovich Ledkovsky; among researching composers - Ivan Alekseevich von Gardner and Albert Swan.

Since the late 1980s Russia has seen revival of church singing art: numerous new choirs spring up, research works are published, a range of composers turn to sacred music genres. Among the authors whose compositions meet the requirements of Orthodox service one can point out deacon Sergei Zosimovich Trubachev, archpriest Aleksander Ivanovich Vedernikov, and Vladimir Ivanovich Martynov. As for the majority of modern sacred compositions they are meant for spiritual concerts, which are held in secular halls, as a rule, though sometimes at churches as well.


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