WORDS AND MUSIC IN ORTHODOX LITURGICAL WORSHIP

AN HISTORICAL INTRODUCTION

by Professor David Drillock

[On October 17, 1998, Professor Drillock presented a workshop, sponsored by our Diocesan Liturgical Music Commission, at Christ the Saviour Church, Paramus, NJ. In his talk he showed through numerous musical examples how the settings of Orthodox hymnography have struggled historically with the balance between words and music. While not originally intended for publication, his prepared notes offer an excellent and concise history of this issue.]

 

Earthly worship is an imitation of heavenly praise. The earthly church at prayer unites the faithful with the prayer of the angelic praise. This thought is not simply a Byzantine theoretical supposition combined with platonic imagery, but is the vision of the Prophet Isaiah and the account of heavenly worship expressed in the fourth chapter of the book of Revelation. That the song of the church on earth is united with the praise in heaven is a theme found in the writings of many of the church fathers. St. John Chrysostom writes:

"Above, the hosts of angels sing praise; below men form choirs in the churches and imitate them by singing the same doxology. Above, the seraphim cry out in the thrice-holy hymn; below, the human throng sends up the same cry. The inhabitants of heaven and earth are brought together in a common assembly; there is one thanksgiving, one shout of delight, one joyful chorus."[1]

Byzantine mystical thought developed the idea of the angelic transmission of the chant itself. In the sixth century Pseudo-Dionysios articulated the concept of the divinely inspired "prototype"; the idea of an "intuitive divine inspiration … in which the hymns and chants are echoes of the heavenly song of angels, which the prophets gave to the people through a sense of spiritual hearing." [2] These divinely inspired hymns and chants, which were viewed as models of the heavenly songs, serve as the foundation for all creativity. God and beauty are interrelated, and in the words of Pseudo-Dionysious:

"Divine beauty is transmitted to all that exists, and it is the cause of harmony and splendor in all that exists; like light, it emits its penetrating rays onto all objects, and it is as if it called to it everything that exists and assembles everything within it." [3]

The task, then, of the church artist or musician is not self-expression, not creation that reflects individual, personal feelings, attitudes, and principles, but "the comprehension and reproduction of heavenly songs, the re-creation of divine images that were transmitted by means of ancient religious archetypes." [4] These songs are not his, they do not belong to him. They have been revealed to him and he transmits this revelation to the collective body of the church. This explains why the names of the composers during the early Byzantine and Slavic periods remain anonymous; their works are not their self-creations which they personally own, but are the inspired revelations which they transmit to all of humanity. The artist submits his will to the will of God in order to be able to receive and to transmit the divine revelation.

Is not this the essence of the story of the writing of the Nativity Kontakion by Romanos? In his recorded "Life" we read that the great poet-hymnographer "received the gift of composition of kontakia when there appeared to him in a dream the likeness of the Holy Virgin who gave him a piece of paper and commanded him to eat it. He thought it best to eat the paper. This was the feast of the eve of the Nativity and, straightway from arousing from sleep he mounted the ambo and began to sing 'Today the Virgin …’ [5]

This is the concept that has served as the root for the development of both music and icon painting in the church and has much to offer us today in understanding the function of the artist in the life and work of the church. It strongly emphasizes that the artist, the iconographer or the composer — does not work in a vacuum. There are patterns, models, prototypes that serve as the foundation for the creative process. These models are the collected treasury of the church and the prototypes which serve as the artistic canon or rule. "The more lasting and firm the canon," writes Pavel Florensky, "the more deeply and purely it expressed general human spiritual need; the canonical is that which belongs to the church; that which belongs to the church is collective, and the collective belongs to all humanity." [6]

For the early church musicians, then, the compositional process consisted in fitting together, with slight modifications dependent on the text, such transmitted short melodic patterns (called by musicologists music formulae or kernels) which constitute the melodic substance of the hymn. These formulae came into existence as a result of constant oral repetition so that in the course of time, they became crystallized into fixed melodic patterns that were organized and then associated or assigned to a certain church mode, or echos. In church iconography, the icon’s beauty is understood to be a reflection of the holiness of its prototype. When the artist lost this understanding and replaced it with the goal of representing people and objects in their visible, daily condition, that is, what is disclosed to the eye alone, to the emotions, and to human reason, not only was the spiritual value lost but the aesthetic quality itself deteriorated. [7]

 

Byzantine Chant

The music of the Greek Orthodox Church developed in Byzantium from the founding of Constantinople in 330 until its fall in 1453. Although Byzantine musical manuscripts exist from the 10th century, the earliest notation which is readable and can be transferred into the modern Western system dates from only the last quarter of the twelfth century.

Evidenced by these manuscripts, Byzantine psalmody and hymnody were organized and transmitted in a system of eight church modes (echos, echoi, pl) referred to as the Octoechos (lit. eight echoi or modes). While in the West the modality of the tonal system is predominantly associated with a certain scale, in the Byzantine tradition, the echos or mode is defined on the basis of the types of melodic patterns that are grouped together, and make up the material for a complete mode.

On the basis of these manuscripts, the early Byzantine chant can be defined as a unison chant whose melodies are diatonic. The music is closely related to the words and, with the exception of the final cadence, very seldom, if ever, do any of the words appear improperly accented.

The compositional process for the Byzantine church musician consisted in fitting together, with slight modifications dependent on the text, short melodic patters of formulae which constitute the substance of the hymn. These formulae came into existence as a result of constant repetition so that, in the course of time, they became crystallized into fixed melodic patterns. Basically a pattern is assigned to only one particular mode. However, there are instances where several modes are employed in the chanting of a particular hymn. Musicologists frequently refer to the chant tradition of the Greek Church after the fifteenth century as neo-Byzantine.

In this tradition many of the old Byzantine melodies have survived, though often with considerable modifications, including the use of chromatics in the basic melodic patterns and the employment of the ison, one pitch or sound sustained throughout a musical phrase to support the modal identity of the melodic line.

 

Znamenny Chant

The development of the early unison Slavic chant (called znamenny, from the Slavic word znamia, or "sign", referring to the neumes or musical signs used in notating the chant) reached its apex in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Trained singers associated with singing schools of city cathedrals embellished the simple chants with the creation of new and more elaborate musical patterns — a single tone might have as many as ninety or more short melodic patters (called popevki) which could be selected by one singer as he was "creating" the music for a given liturgical text.

The developed melodies of the later znamenny form reveal a deep emotional expressiveness. Musical "picture painting," the highlighting of strong or important words in a text, is accomplished with the fita (from the Greek, theta), an extensive melismatic passage sung on a single syllable, which not only emphasizes a particular word but draws attention to the exceptional vocal talents of the singer-virtuoso.

 

Bulgarian Chant

Although Bulgaria accepted Christianity almost one hundred years prior to the baptism of Rus, no Bulgarian musical manuscripts contemporary with the Christianization of Rus have as yet been discovered. Present-day Bulgarian liturgical singing is late-Byzantine, adopted to the Church Slavonic language with Bulgarian pronunciation. In the seventeenth century hymns with the inscription "Bulgarian Chant" appear in western-Ukrainian singing books. Some musicologists see in this chant melodic kernels with Bulgarian folk song characteristics, others find it to be closer in spirit and character to Russian singing, although the melodies are quite different from the znamenny symmetrical movements. The Bulgarian chants are more melismatic in character than recitative. It is not unusual that a melodic line is repeated precisely in succession throughout several textual lines of the work, as evidenced in the setting of "The Noble Joseph" sung in so many of our churches on Holy Friday.

 

Carpathian Chant

Similar to the Byzantine and the Znamenny, the Carpathian chants, whose origins date at least to the second half of the seventeenth century, are subordinated to a full eight-tone system, called osmoglasnik (lit., eight tones) and the principle of composition is formulaic, that is, existing musical patterns are used which are identified with the particular tone or mode.

The eminent Slavic musicologist, Johann von Gardner, after 1917, spent four years living in Subcarpathian Rus and was particularly amazed at the religious knowledge of the simple peasants, acquired simply by singing in church. He describes the singing which he heard in the churches of the Carpathian regions: "In Subcarpathian Rus’ in all the villages both among the Uniates and also among the Orthodox, there was always practiced only congregational singing of the complete services, not excluding the changeable (proper) hymns in all the varied chants. They sang according to the Great Zbornik (collection of prayers and liturgical texts) which contained every necessary text. The numerous chants (including all the podobny, not even found in the Synodal notated liturgical books) were known by everyone, even the children of school age. The leader of song — the most experienced singer from the parish — standing at the kliros and sang the chant. As soon as the worshippers heard the beginning, they would join in the chant and the entire church sang; they sang all the stikhery, all the troparia, all the irmosy — in a word, everyone sang properly." Usually when the worshippers join in the singing, a second part, sung in parallel thirds to the melody, occurred.

 

Polyphony

A new style of polyphonic church music, developed in the Ukraine and Byelorussia under the influence of Polish religious vocal music, was adopted in the Orthodox churches of southwestern Russia in the seventeenth century. This new style of singing was called partesny singing (from the Latin partes, meaning parts) and was taught in the schools established by the Orthodox Brotherhoods. Its development in northern Russia was greatly promoted by Patriarch Nikon who encouraged its use in churches, cathedrals, and monasteries in Novgorod and Moscow. Its spread throughout Russia was greatly facilitated through the publication of Nikolai Diletsky’s Musical Grammar. Dilelsky, a Kievan musician who studied in Poland, first at Warsaw and then at the Jesuit academy at Vilnius, was recruited from the southwest and taught the art of composing western-style polyphonic music in Smolensk and Moscow.

Diletsky presented two musical styles in his grammar, the kontsert and the kant. The chief stylistic features of the kontsert were continuous alternation of musical motives, canonic imitation, contrasting passages of solo voices (concertino) with full choir (tutti) and a clear tonic-dominant harmonic relationship. In time the kontserty grew larger and more complex, employing dynamic and polychoral effects that many musicologists are fond of comparing to the Gabrielli’s Venetian works (without instruments, of course).

The powerful injection of Western influences, culture, and traditions begun with Peter the Great and the move of the Russian capitol from Moscow to St. Petersburg resulted in a vast cultural transformation of the Russian mode of life and had immense consequences for the development of Russian church music. A stream of foreign craftsmen came into Russia during the first half of the eighteenth century — French, Italian and German architects, German actors and musicians, Italian painters and composers — in order to teach the Russians the elements and techniques of their skills.

Of the Italian composers who were brought to serve at the Imperial Court, Baldassare Galuppi and Giuseppe Sarti were the two most prominent and both had a lasting influence on Russian church singing. Both trained a number of Russian church composers and both wrote a number of compositions based on Russian liturgical texts. Galuppi was the first to introduce to the Russian Orthodox Liturgy the singing of a special musical composition, in the form of the sacred concerto, during the priest’s communion. Although some of these concerti were composed on the texts of the prescribed Communion Hymns, many were simply selected freely by the composer and had no relationship whatsoever with the liturgical celebration.

The works of these Italian composers were adorned with arioso solos, bold or daring passages of extraordinary leaps or runs, trills, and grace notes, in general, all of those vocal devices which gave the greatest possibilities for a vocal soloist to display his or her beautiful, voluminous, and cultivated voice. The religious idea was certainly animated, but the required correspondence of text to music was clearly lacking. "All of the sacred works of the foreign kapellmeisters," wrote the Archpriest Dmitry Razumovsky, "were acknowledged in their time and even now are recognized as truly artistic and classical in a musical sense. Yet not one of these works proved to be perfect and edifying in a church sense, because in each work the music predominates over the text, most often not at all expressing its meaning." [8]

The first Russian composers influenced by this "Italianate" style of sacred music — Artemy Vedel, Maxim Berezovsky, Stepan Degtiariev, Stepan Davydov, Dmitry Bortniansky, and the Archpriest Pyotr Turchaninov — were all students of Italian maestri and produced hundreds of compositions for use in the church services. For the most part, they are all in the same Italianate style and are distinguished primarily by the relative artistic talents of the individual composer. Many of these works have not only survived but still can be heard on any given Sunday in the cathedrals and city churches throughout Russia today.

Particular note must be made of Bortniansky, the most renowned personage in 18th century Russian music, for his prolific compositional activity — 72 liturgical hymns (26 of them for double chorus), 45 sacred concertos (10 for double chorus), 10 Te Deums, the Liturgy for three voices, and eight sacred trios. He also was the first director of the Imperial Chapel who was given the right of censorship in the field of church music, a "circumstance that greatly affected the direction of church music in the 19th century." [9]

Although the works of Bortniansky have been acclaimed by many musicologists, both Russian and non-Russian, secular as well as sacred, the words spoken by Metropolitan Eugene of Kiev, delivered in a speech presented while still a professor at the semminary in Voronezh in 1799, might serve as a summary of this period in the history of Russian church music. The Metropolitan said:

"Besides this famous Russian choral director (Bortniansky), the works of many foreign kapellmeisters have in our time been adopted as compositions of the Greek-Russian Church, for (example, Galuppi (teacher of Bortniansky), Kerzelli, Dimmler, and the eminent Sarti. But even so, the truth must be stated that either because of their unawareness of the power and the expressiveness of the texts of our church poetry, or because of a prejudice only for the laws of their music, they have often disregarded the sanctity of the place and subject of their compositions, so that, generally speaking, it is not the music which is adapted to the sacred words, but instead the words are merely added to the music and often in a contrived manner. Apparently, they wanted more to impress their audience with concert-like euphony than to touch the hearts with pious melody, and often during such compositions the church resembles more an Italian opera than the house of worthy prayer to the Almighty." [10]

 

Nationalism and the Return to the Old Russian Chant

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, a search for new ways of liberating Russian liturgical singing from foreign influences emerged. The Moscow Synodal School was the center for this new movement, at the head of which stood such church music historians, composers, and directors as Stepan Smolensky, Alexander Kastalsky, and Vasily Orlov. The leaders of the Moscow school attempted to establish a new direction in church music by returning to the indigenous Russian church unison melodies and using those melodies as the basis for the composing of church music, as Palestrina and others would use Gregorian chant melodies as cantus firmi for their polyphonic compositions.

At the same time scholarly studies and investigations on many and varied aspects of the old Russian Chant appeared. Such studies were concentrated on three areas: 1) the history of church singing, 2) semiogaphy, that is, the study of the various notations used in chant, and 3) the forms and style of canonical church singing. A chair in church music was created at the Moscow Conservatory. Archpriest Dmitry Razumovsky, author of a three-volume work on "Russian Church Singing", published in 1877-79, was appointed to this new position.

Simultaneous with the development of research in the area of the old Russian chant, Russian studies in historical lituriology laid the groundwork for later theological evaluation of Orthodox worship. Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian theological schools produced a number of first-rate scholars and studies of Byzantine liturgy, the archeological investigations of Alexander Dmitrievsky standing at the forefront. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann has acknowledged, "as a result of their work not only did Russian liturgical study win a recognized and glorious position in the realm of scholarship, but also a solid foundation was laid without which it would be impossible to speak of liturgical theology in any real sense of the term." [11]

In a very short period, from the 1880’s to 1917 and the Bolshevik Revolution, a vast repertoire of Russian church compositions was created, numbering into the thousands. Well-known composers such as Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Grechaninov, Chesnokov, Ippolitov-Ivanov, and Rachmaninov, as well as a host of other lesser known musicians wrote church music using the old Russian chants as thematic material. Still others wrote free compositions. But it was Alexander Kastalsky who was generally recognized as the source of inspiration for this movement.

In his later years, however, Kastalsky became disenchanted with much that was being written for the church, even if such compositions were based on the old Znamenny chant melodies. In 1925, in an interview entitled, "My Musical Career and My Thoughts on Church Music" (published in The Musical Quarterly), Kastalsky said:

Of late (church music) has tended to become complex, To disregard the difficulty of performance for the sake of effective sonority, to choose harmonic and melodic means without any discrimination, provided only that they be new and beautiful, and if this tendency continues to develop, church music will end in becoming like any other, except that it will have a religious text. This would be extremely unfortunate …

He continued: And what about style? Our indigenous church melodies when set chorally lose all their individuality: how distinctive they are when sung in unison by the Old Believers, and how insipid they are in the conventional four-part arrangements of our classic (composers), on which we have prided ourselves for nearly a hundred years: it is touching, but spurious … In my opinion it is first of all necessary to get away From continual four-part writing … The future of our creative work for the church can … be merely surmised, but I feel what its real task should be. I am convinced that it lies in the idealization of authentic church melodies, the transformation of them into something musically elevated, mighty in its expressiveness and near to the Russian heart in its typically national quality … I should like to have music that could be heard nowhere except in a church, and which would be as distinct from secular music as church vestments are from the dress of the laity.

Notes

1. Homily I in Oziam seu de Seraphinis I; PG lvi, 97.

2. Vladyshevskaia, Tatiana, "On the Links Between Music and Icon Painting in Medieval Rus" in Christianity and the Arts in Russia, edited by William C. Brumfield, and Milos M. Velimirovic (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991), 18.

3. Pseudo-Dionysious, The Divine Names (Mahwah NY, Paulist Press, 1987) 76. This translation in Vladyshevskaia, op. cit., 18.

4. Vlaldyshevskaia op. cit., 18.

5. Germanos, Life of Romanos.

6. Florensky, Pavel, Iconostasis (Crestwood NY, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 87. This translation in Vladyshevskaia, op. cit., 19.

7. Ouspensky, Leonid, Theology of the Icon, Volume II (Crestwood NY, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992), 345.

8. Razumovsky, Dmitry, Tserkovnoe Penie v Rosii [Church Singing in Russia].

9. Morosan, Vladimir, One Thousand Years of Russian Church Music (Washington DC, Musica Russica, 1991), 756

10. Preobrazhensky, Anton, Po Tserkovnomy Peniiu [Church Singing]

11. Schmemann, Alexander, Introduction to Liturgical Theology (Crestwood NY, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986), 11.

 

References

Conomos, Dimitri, Byzantine Hymnography and Byzantine Chant, (Hellenic College Press, Brookline MA, 1984).

Gardner, Ivan (Johann von), Russian Church Singing, Volume 1 (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1980).

Roccasalvo, Joan L., The Plainchant Tradition of Southwestern Rus’ (Eastern European Monographs, Boulder, 1986).

Uspensky, Nikolai, The Early Russian Art of Singing (in Russian) (Vsesoiuznoe Izdatel’stvo, Moscow, 1971).

David Drillock is Provost and Professor of Music at St Vladimir's Seminary

From Jacob's Well
Newspaper of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey
Orthodox Church in America
Fall/Winter 1998-1

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