Russia Liturgical Music

The Russian nation began its important participation in the musical art of the world only in recent times, after all the other great European nations. It might seem strange that it could have reached today’s musical richness in just a century of development, if one did not think of a very important fact: that Russian art music absorbed the sap of two very fruitful sources: those of popular music. and those of liturgical music, both particularly flourishing in Russia. It will therefore be necessary first of all to examine, albeit with the necessary brevity, both of these sources, especially since, as we will mention, the same art of recent or contemporary Russian musicians would not be fully understood without popular or liturgical precedents.

On the first beginnings of Russian liturgical music we have no direct documents, given that the oldest manuscript that remains (a collection of hymns in Russian) dates from 1152. By way of induction, a certain importance could be attached to the fact that the Prince Vladimir was baptized in Bulgaria, which shows the consideration that the Russians have for the Bulgarian Church. Hence the possibility of thinking that Byzantine liturgical chant entered Russia not directly from Constantinople, but through Bulgaria. However, given that Bulgaria was Christianized a century before Russia, and that it was Christianized by Byzantium, it is to be believed that that liturgy (and its song) were in this early epoch still strictly dependent on the Byzantine.

And it is important, especially to account for further developments, that the Russians received the Christian liturgy in the Slavic language, even if whole passages and formulas were sung in Greek and Byzantine were the ways of singing. The mixture of Greek and Slavic is also manifested in the ceremonies for Vladimir’s wedding to the Byzantine princess Anna, and especially in the fact that in the Russian service in Kiev the right choir sings in Slavic, the left one in Greek. This custom was maintained for three centuries. It is natural, from what has been mentioned so far, that the Byzantine liturgical chant exercised a strong influence on Russian in that period. And in reality we find in the latter the same three ways of the first: the songs of the Oktoechos are in fact in an “irmological” style simple; the Kontakia in the richest style of the Sticherari, and the domestikos – of which handwritten notations exist only from the end of the century. XVII – takes advantage of the rich blooms of the so-called Kallofonos genus of late Byzantine chant.

The notation, in the most ancient Slavic manuscripts, still shows great affinity with the Byzantine; later (in the 14th century) it develops its own with characteristic neumes: the so-called krjuki. These notations, however, lacked a Sicilian way of indicating the pitch of the sounds. Great importance assumes, in the century. XVI, the notation introduced by the Novgorod cantor. In 1668 it was perfected and simplified by Aleksandr Mezenec. Nonetheless, a krjuki (therefore a neumi) was still maintained in the manuscripts and indeed, in 1678, an attempt was made to adapt it to prints. But the printing did not continue, and this notation was definitively removed from use with the introduction of the European line system.

The ancient liturgical chant, which thus mixed Byzantine, Bulgarian, Serbian, and – later – Polish elements, from the time of Peter the Great came to succumb to the Italian currents, soon ascending (with Catherine II) to hegemony. However, not only were Italians exponents of this trend (B. Galuppi, G. Sarti, etc.), but also Italianized Russians such as Massimo Berezovskij (1765-1777) and Dmitrij Bortnjanskij (1751-1825), who laid the foundations of the form of the new Russian sacred music.

After them we must remember Biardi, Heine, Allegri, Markov and Makarov. In the century XIX we must remember A. L′vov (1799-1870), author of Psalms, a Stabat and other works, as the most vigorous personality of his time in this field. His main work is a collection of ancient Russian sacred songs, harmonized and arranged in 11 volumes.

Russia Liturgical Music