Russian version
Russian Orthodox Hymnody / Polyphonic hymnody


Russian culture of the XVIIth century preserves all the characteristic features of the Middle Ages, but the end of the century brings new elements to it.

The XVIIth century marks the beginning of a new period of Russian history. The broadening of Russian international relations plays an important role in the development of a new culture. The Byzantium traditions changed, turning towards a new Western orientation.

Questions of the character, extent and limits of cultural relations with other countries were raised and discussed for the first time in the XVIIth century.

The Royal Court of Poland was the most evident example of European lifestyle seeping it to that of Russian traditional life. Especially it concerned the part of Polish nobility who preserved Orthodox Christianity, but adopted much from what was brought in by the Italian Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment.

A great role in transference of Western culture to Russian soil belongs to Ukrainian and Byelorussian scientists, poets, philosophers. Many of them were coming to Moscow in the XVIIth century in search of favourable conditions for their work.

The academician A.Beletsky writes that "Western influence came to Moscow Rus in Ukrainian clothes". Some forms of Western musical art, contrary to half a thousand years of old medieval tradition, came to Russia through Poland and the Ukraine. This was the source of numerous discussions and arguments, some of which acquired a violent form and lead to the splitting of the life of Russian society and its ideology.

The introduction of Western polyphony into Russian church singing practice was connected with these new tendencies. Part singing won great popularity in the XVIIth century; Russian choir leaders set all the hymns of the year cycle to parts, rejecting monophonic Znamenny chant, without any regret.

Russia had its own polyphonic hymnody, long before the introduction of the Western variant. It came into existence in the XVIth century, a hundred years earlier than Wastern "part singing". It was called "Strochny singing" or "Russian harmony", named in opposition to Western polyphonic singing.

Thus two periods of the development of Russian polyphonic hymnody are distinguished: the period of Strochny singing - original Russian singing, the basis of which was formed by Znamenny and Demestvenny chants and the period of part singing - the Western type of singing, based on new principles of harmonious thinking and melodies of non-canonical type.

Strochny singing

Strochny singing preceded "part singing" in the history of Russian polyphony development and then coexisted with it. For the first time Strochny singing was used by Novgorodian masters.

In the written monument of the XVIth century, "The Archbishop of Novgorod and Pskov Order", which reflected the ecclesiastical order of the Cathedral of St.Sophia in Novgorod, diphonic singing is mentioned more than once.

Tsar Ivan the Terrible suggested to the Synod introducing the Novgorodian style of singing to all the churches of Moscow in 1551. Thus we can speak of 1551 as the year of the official recognition of polyphonic singing.

It is not accidental, and it is a fact of great significance that polyphonic singing first appeared in Novgorod. As it was said before, Novgorod has always been famous for its singing schools, skilful choir leaders, and numerous choirs. But of greatest significance was the atmosphere of great political freedom and cultural variety in this Great Northern Republic that of "Lord Novgorod the Great". This Republic had been always opened to the West and had long and fruitful relations with it. Therefore the fact that there were churches of different denominations in Novgorod favoured the emergence of church polyphony there.

The development of polyphonic Strochny singing was influenced by folk singing and the instrumental music of ancient Novgorod. Russian folk songs are diphonic, triphonic but very rarely quadrophonic. Usually the first voice sings the melody, other voices play supporting roles. There is no division of voices according to their compass and timbre (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) in Russian folk choral singing. Female and children's voices sing the same melody with male voices, but they do it an octave higher. The melody is usually sung by the most skilful singer, no matter what members the choir includes. He is a directing singer, who sets the tune and begins a song.

These typical features of folk songs were inherited by Strochny church singing. It is also diphonic or triphonic. Four part scores are very rare. All parts of a score are melodious. The leading voice was denoted by the word "Put"(way, road). The melody higher than "Put" was marked as "up" and the lower melody - as "down". Four part scores had one more voice, called "Demestvo". The "Put" and "Demestvo" parts dominated all others in a score; those were the melodies of Znamenny, Putevoy or Demestvenny chants. The scores were usually written for male voices. The range of a score corresponded to a full church successive row of musical sounds, from sol of the great octave to re of the one-line octave, included. High tenor register was not used, but bass voices that could sing all the sounds of the great octave and partially the sounds of the contra octave, used to sing an octave lower than the written melody (today it also happens sometimes). There were no special parts for boy-choristers. They sang the same melody, but an octave higher.

The range of a melody rarely exceded an octave and was limited by a sixth or seventh. It made the execution of any line of the score easy for the majority of singers. That was the reason of the absence of separately written parts, all singers used one and the same score.

To make the reading of a score easier, "ups" and "downs" were written in black ink and "Puts" - in red ink, or on the contrary.

In the written monument of the XVIIth century, "The Order of St.Sophia Cathedral", different types of polyphonic singing are mentioned.

At some feast days both the right and the left choirs sang the service in turn, they performed Strochny singing of Moscow and sometimes - Demestvenny singing. Voices of Strochny singing are fixed in two special ways. One of them is the strict observance of the established interval between voices (between a human voice and organ in Western music), which is not very typical of Russian polyphony.

The second one was based on the primary use of folk polyphonic singing methods, in which each part (voice) develops in its own way.

Strochny singing can be in some ways compared to Western polyphony. But this comparison is impossible when regarding Demestvenny singing. Demestvenny singing is characterized by discord sounding, though discord it may seem only to the ear that is accustomed to usual tempered music.

"Demestvo" was usually sung by the most skilful singer with a strong voice - by a choir leader. Choir leaders were sometimes called "domestics". The word "Demestvo" originated probably from the word "domestic". Singing with a domestic was the same as singing with a soloist.

Perhaps we can find the sources of Demestvenny discord singing in the instrumental music of ancient Novgorod. Medieval musical instruments of Novgorod which could have influenced church polyphony were psaltery and bells.

The fact that vocal music is influenced by its instrumental counterpart needs no proof. Many musical researchers consider that the introduction of an organ to the church practice of the West, (first in monasteries for the purposes of the teaching of singing, and then at divine services), greatly influenced the development of choral polyphony. Western choirs tried to imitate even the timbre of an organ - they worked out levelled interflowing timbres of voices, "closed" sounds, and so on.

Russian musical instruments greatly influenced the manner of singing. It was characterized by the brightness and "openness" of timbres, the piercing sounds of voices. As for the development of polyphony, we must point out that psaltery - that original musical instrument of Novgorod - helped the Novgorodians to get accustomed to harmonical listening, because they used to play psaltery in chords. It is not accidental that the parallelism of chords, so characteristic of psaltery playing, is the usual phenomenon of Strochny singing. The sounding of a bell ringing with its discord and combinations of incompatible intervals was adopted by Demestvenny singing.

Strochny singing is the most original page in the history of Russian church singing art. Unfortunately, that page has not been written up to the end, because after the introduction of part singing (the polyphony of Western type) into Russia, the development of Russian sacred music underwent a considerable change. Anyway, the experience of years was not wasted. It gave Russian part singing and church polyphony of the following centuries a new special colouring, which is impossible to compare to anything else.

Part singing

Part (from Latin "partes"- singing in parts) or harmonious singing was brought to Russia in the middle of the XVIIth century from Western Europe. The process of its introduction was similar to that of Byzantine monophonic hymnody being introduced to Kievan Russ in the Xth century.

Part singing as a specific kind of polyphony appeared in the West. Brought to Russia it underwent the process of development in the Western and Southern regions of Russia and finally appeared in Moscow in the middle of the XVIIth century. That is why it is impossible to understand Russian part singing without investigating its Western roots. Those roots should be searched for in the depths of Western medieval civilization, which was formed after the conquering of Rome by the barbarians in the Vth century.

Despite the foundation of Constantinople by emperor Constantine in 324-330, and the essencial difference between the Western and Eastern parts of the Roman Empire, the Church preserved its unity, and church hymnody had one and the same basis, both in the East and in the West; the difference between them laid in the interpretation of the details of one and the same system.

At the time when in the Eastern Church monophonic Byzantine singing was being developed, the Western Church gave preference to the monophonic Gregorian chant. Gregorean chant got its name from that of the Rome Pope St. Gregory the Great (590 -604) who collected and regulated Western church singing, compiled a book of chants, and opened a special singing school in Rome (Schola Cantorum).

First notational manuscripts appeared in Western Europe in the IXth century. Western variety of neum notation "Nota Romana" was used in them ; later it was substituted by lineal notation. The melodies were based on the system of octophony as well as in Byzantium. Church singing stayed monophonic and had no accompaniment till the IXth century. The organ was brought to the West from the East, the first mention of this instrument dates back to 757 and is connected with the presenting of the Frankish king Pepin the Short with an organ, by the emperor Constantine in 757.

While in Constantinople an organ was used at secular court ceremonies, in Rome they used it as a school instrument in cloisters for teaching Gregorian singing. Later they began to use it at a divine service. At that time there also appeared polyphonic singing, that got the name of parallel Organum.

Organum is the earliest type of polyphonic music. A Gregorian melody with the second voice added presents the simpliest example of the organum. That second voice sounds in parallels, a fourth or quint higher or lower than the first one. Sometimes Organum has one more voice, an octave higher or lower. Gregorian chant as one of the voices of Organum, got the name of "Cantus firmus"; the voice played by an organ had different names, depending on the type of polyphony.

The theoretical base of both Western and Eastern church singing was presented by the ancient Greek theory of music. The great philosopher and mathematician of ancient Greece Pythagoras (the VIth century B.C.) substantiated mathematically all musical-philosophical systems of the antiquity, and created his own teaching of sacred and secular music, that of the purification through the union of the soul and celestial harmony. Pythagoras wrote about musical intervals; he distinguished between consonances (harmonious intervals) and dissonances (nonharmonious intervals).

According to Pythagoras' teaching, the octave, the fourth and the quint are perfect consonances, while the third and the sixth are dissonances. The order of sounds in Pythagoras' system was regulated in accordance with the qwints going up or down. It created the order of sounds different from the modern tempered one, in which all intervals, besides octaves, are as if out of focus, because of modern temperament (each sound is a semitone lower or higher than the preceding or the following one). That is why in modern tempered musical order the third and sixth are consonances, while in the Pyphagorean order their sounding is discord.

The octave, the quint and the fourth, are the first elementary tones of natural overtone musical order, then goes the third. That is why in harmonious sounding the octave, the quint and the fourth are perceived as the unison which is close to monophony. The chain of those intervals is perceived by human consciousness as a horizontal line, while the third is perceived as the harmonious vertical line, because the sounds of it do not fuse completely. That is why we speak of Greek singing as a monophonic one, though the leading voice may be accompanied by the second one, an octave or a qwint higher.

First experiences in polyphony were based on such intervals as the octave, the qwint and the fourth both in the Western and Eastern Church.

Gregorian singing with an organ of the IX - XIIIth centuries developed into so called "free Organum" with the time. In contrast to more or less strict parallelism of early Organum, it includes quite a different movement of voice. The intervals between voices are still the same (the octave, the quint, the fourth), though the thirds accidentally come into use as well; but they are still considered to be dissonances.

In the middle of the XIIth century the Notre Dame school of composition was founded in Paris. Later in the XIIIth century it acquired the leading status among other schools of composition. The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris became the centre of sacred music, it played an important role in the development of polyphony. Outstanding composers of this school Pirotin the Great and Leonin created a lot of polyphonic compositions for two, three or four voices.

That period was characterized by the appearance of metrical system in music (music was divided into bars). The most prominent feature of the Notre Dame school musical technique was the use of the triads as the beginning of new chord harmony.

At that time (between the XII - XIIIth centuries) a new phylosophical system appeared in the medieval world. Its influence was mostly felt in cities, because of their quicker evolution and development, in comparison with villages.

The first period of the Middle Ages after the fall of Rome, was perceived by the Christians as a global catastrophe, which betokened the end of the world. This perception found its reflection in the renunciation of anything earthly, in the feeling of contempt to the world. The art reflected this tendency in reserved monophonic Gregorean chant, severe Romanic architecture, and static lines of iconography.

The period when Gregory the Great was the Pope (590 - 604) is very enlightening. Gregory was elected the Pope at the time of a terrible plague in Rome. He propogated that the duty of the Christians was penitence, repudation of earthly matters and preparation for the future celestial life. He said : "Why should you reap, if a reaper is not to live? Let everyone glance over his life. He will understand how little he needed in it". These words may serve as the epigraph to the art of the early Middle Ages. Music, architecture and painting of those times limited the representing of the earthly world, which was considered "to be lying in the evil" and destined to perish. Anything earthly was depicted only as the symbol of the celestial.

This acute perception of the earthly life as something temporary and transient was reflected in the contemptuous attitude to life on the whole and to a woman and a child in particular.

Childhood in the Middle Ages was considered to be a useless period, both for an individual and for the society. The Middle Ages simply did not notice children. Images of the Baby Christ in paintings and sculptures of that time were rather ugly, neither the public nor the artist were interested in their beauty. This attitude was altered at the end of the Middle Ages, when the cult of the Virgin began. Christmas subjects became very popular with the artists, sculptors and musicians. The interest in the Christmas topic is usually connected with the name of St.Francis of Assisi.

The realization of the human nature of Christ, alongside with his divine nature, drew people's attention to the problems of humanity. This realization paved the way for the humanistic ideas of the Renaissance.

People realized their own significance with new force. They understood that the world was created for them and that a man was a co-creator of the world. Christ had also walked the Earth. He blessed fields and forests, lakes and mountains, he blessed the labour of a farmer, a fisherman, a herdsman.

Labour becomes the basic value of society during these years. Paraphrasing the words of Pope Gregory the Great, we may say that "The reaper works now, in the hope of gathering the harvest".

Pessimistic Romanic art was substituted by an optimistic Gothic one. It was like a dawn after a night of dark ages, but just the beginning of the dawn, which later was transformed into the bright golden morning of the Renaissance. The world both colourful and multidimensional was sensed by a man. Gothic cathedrals took the form of beautiful stone flowers. They shot up, denying all the attraction of gravity. The walls of the cathedrals were decorated with stained-glass panels, through which floods of light went inside.

Alongside, with vertical lines in architecture, there appeared vertical lines in church polyphony. The use of the third in music became a natural phenomenon.

Contrary to the cold and reserved octave, qwint or fourth, the warm emotional third formed the beginning of new chord harmony, harmonious thinking, and church singing.

The source of the new world outlook, that appeared in late Middle Ages in the West, should be searched in a more personal Western attitude to Christ and Mother Mary, in comparison with the Eastern attitude. A new world outlook promoted the quick development of all forms of church art, and the penetration of secular elements into it. The appeal to the human nature of Christ, serving Him as a master or a patron and the cult of Madonna, had their roots in the institution of knighthood, which was totally unknown to the Byzantine East, with its mystical teaching of denying any human passions. The name of this teaching comes from the Greek word hducia which means "silence", "quiet", "asceticism". This teaching appeared in the monasteries of Sinai and Mount Athos. The aim of the spiritual activity, according to that teaching, was not the perception of God through the investigation of the World, but the unity with Him through the purification of the heart and deliverance from all human passions. This teaching called for the breaking of the ties with the earthly world, which was full of evil and violence, for the serving of God in silence and loneliness.

The institution of knighthood was founded on the relations between a patron and a vassal. A vassal used to make a vow to be loyal to his patron, while the latter promised his protection in return. This relationship was dynamic, it demanded the absolute obedience of a vassal to his patron.

The roots of knighthood are even deeper. They are found in the heathen folk culture of the Germans, the French and other barbarian peoples, that occupied the Western part of Roman Empire, to where they brought their own culture and epos. This combination of the antique culture of the Romans, and the heaven culture of the barbarians, was very fruitful.

Heroic poems of the XII -XIIIth centuries, recorded by professional poets whose names are unknown, include ancient tales, myths, legends of the Celts, the Germans and the French, for example, "Nibelunglied" and "Chanson de Roland".

The common feature of all epic poems is their heroic content. The main hero of these poems is a hero-warrior, who struggles with different obstacles which stand in his way.

Human personality, its independence and self-consolidation, its claims to power and victory, and its ability to self-secrifice, is highly estimated by the society. This "strong personality" acquires its own significance, only in its social role - in the loyal service to the patron.

At the time of the Crusade, when a patron left his domains for a long time, he left his wife and his children under the wardship of his vassal. The main fund of the medieval lyrical verse consists of songs, the topic of which is the service to the Fair Lady.

In paintings of that time, the performers of lyrical songs were usually depicted holding some musical instruments. The instruments were used for preludes, interludes and conclusions. The songs were performed by professional singers at feasts, holidays and fairs, on the squares of big cities and in feudal castles. Sometimes the music and the verse were written by one and the same person. The main form of such songs, composed by minstrels, troubadours or trouveres was the ballade. It was an element of secular folk culture.

Gradually secular images of some songs were substituted by religious ones. The patron was substituted by Christ and the Fair Lady - by the Virgin Mary. The motif of service obtained a religious colouring, but it preserved a deep personal attitude to Christ and the Virgin which was close to the feeling of earthly love.

In the life story of St.Francis of Assisi, such an episode is described. When St.Francis heard "Chanson de Roland" performed by a vagrant musician on the town's square, he went to that square next day and sang his own song of Christ and divine love in his enchanting voice.

New religious subjects of songs did not contradict their instrumental accompaniment. Singing a capella or with an organ, gave its place to singing with instrumental accompaniment. Composers used such instrument as a flute, viol or oboe.

When playing sacred music these instruments could, probably, duplicate the vocal parts, or were used to play interludes without any text. Those experiments paved the way for the appearance in Venic at the end of the XVIth century of a new form of church singing with an instrumental (orchestral) accompaniment which was called the concert.

The composers who worked in the cathedral of St.Mark in Venice, paid great attention to the problem of combination of voice and instruments. They composed grand musical compositions for several choirs in a so called multichoral style. Those compositions were called concerts (concerto means mutual performance) for voice and instruments.

The XVIth century is marked by great changes in the spiritual life of the West. The Reformation of the XVIth century that sprang to life as a protest against the suppression of anything human by the Church, gave birth to Protestantism. The period of Protestantism is marked by the greatest development of sacred music, which achieved its peak in the compositions by J.S.Bach.

A new baroque style appeared in the second half of the XVIth century as a result of the reaction of catholicism in Italy and Spain. The Baroque becomes the main artistic style of the whole epoch, which followed the epoch of the Renaissance.

Choral concert which came into existence between the XVIth and XVIIth centuries expressed the aesthetics of the Baroque in the field of music.

Contrary to the clear harmonious character of Renaissance art, the Baroque is characterized by the confrontation of different, often antagonistic components, and the abundance of decorative ornamental elements. The art of the Baroque combines the inclination to everything poignant and startling, with the joyful life assertion ; tense dramatic nature, even tragedy with magnificence, solemnity and an abundance of colours.

The development of this "luxurious style" reached its climax in multichoral compositions of Andrea and Giovanny Gabrieli. The main feature of their concerts is the effect of the opposition of two choirs on the basis of the principle of the contrast between the mighty sounding of the whole choir (tutti) and the group of soloists.

The beauty of sounding was amplified with the help of musical instruments which duplicated the voices of the choir.

In the first part of the XVIIth century this type of baroque choral concert was widely spread in Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and other European countries. Eastern European countries got acquainted with the genre of the choral concert through the works of Polish composers such as M.Melchevsky, I.Ruzhitsky, G.Gorchitsky. These names are met in the musical Grammar book by N.Diletsky - a Russian composer and musical theorist. Adopted from Catholic Poland, baroque forms were developed by Orthodox monastery choirs in the South - West of Russia. Recognized by all the Orthodox people in the Western regions of Russia, "Part singing", in its final shape, appeared in Moscow in the middle of the XVIIth century.

The historic role of the Baroque in Russia differs greatly from its role in the countries of Western Europe. In Europe it grew up from the Renaissance and its ideas. In Russia it developed the very ideas of the Renaissance, alongside with its own aesthetics. Brought to Russia through Poland, the Ukraine and Byelorussia, the Baroque acquired the functions of the Renaissance, but those functions were greatly altered. They became Russian in form and in content.

Dramatic mood was not characteristic for Russian Baroque. The motifs of estrangement from anything earthly are alien to it. Most Russian part concerts are written in the major key, they are filled with the feeling of joy, triumph, exultation. They are a kind of analogy of Russian architecture of that time, the brightest specimen of which is the cathedral of Our Lady of the Don in Moscow, especially in terms of its interior, which produces the impression of festivity, spaciousness and clearity.

Musical expert S.Skrebkov, who investigated Russian choral culture of the XVII - XVIIIth centuries, came to the conclusion that the way Russianpolyphony developed was similar to the development of Western polyphony, but did not repeat it exactly. The Russian way of development was fast and close to folk musical traditions. So speaking about it, we should repeat the words of the academician D.Likhachev : "The alien came and became one's own".