Russian Choral Music





Russian Choral Music

Russian choral music is a polyphonic form of Russian church singing that came into being following the adoption of European polyphonic singing in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.  It replaced a variety of older monophonic chant forms (Znamenny, Kievan, etc), though drawing on elements of these historic forms.  This development led to the flowering of the modern Russian choral tradition led by the Imperial Court Chapel and the Moscow Synodal Choir. Russian choral music is characterized by beautiful four part harmonies, large choirs, and often striking basso profundos.


As noted above, the early forms of monophonic chant that developed in Rus after its acceptance of Christianity and the Byzantine Rite (Znamenny, Kievan, Kondakaria, etc.), were eventually supplanted by western-style harmonizations.  This was initially due to the music influence from Poland, and with the accession of Mikhail Romanov to the throne in 1613, westernization was the order of the day in Russian culture, theology itself not escaping from this tendency. Much came from Poland across her borders with the Ukraine. By the end of the 17th century, both the court and the patriarchal singers were performing a repertory that was largely polyphonic, sometimes in many parts. While the negative elements of these developments are easy to see and to emphasize from an Orthodox point of view, it must also be admitted that what resulted was something highly original in that the Russians' and the Ukrainians' attitude to their native languages was not compromised by their usage of western counterpoint: this, added to the creative deployment of elements from folk polyphony, led to a repertoire that does not sound quite like anything else.

The name for this style (written, with few exceptions, in western notation) is simply partesnoe penie, part singing, and its chief representative was Nikolai Diletsky (c.1630-c.1680), Polish- and Lithuanian-trained. He wrote an influential book entitled simply A Musical Grammar, first published in Polish at Vilnius in 1675, which expounds the basis of western music theory (including, interestingly, the earliest known mention of the circle of fifths) and discusses the composition of sacred music according to western models of voice-leading. Parallel with this complex style of writing is the kant, a paraliturgical pious song, melodically simple and usually in three (rarely four) parts. The kant became so widespread owing to its easily memorized character that it began to penetrate into churches and monasteries and influenced liturgical chant: many Znammeny or Kievan melodies were harmonized in parallel thirds with a bass, thereby becoming the basis of what one hears today in many Russian parish churches.

From the 1750s onwards, the Imperial Court began to look more toward Italy for inspiration in cultural matters. During the reign of the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, a large number of artists, architects, sculptors and musicians left Italy for St. Petersburg. The list of chapel masters of the Court Choir during the 18th century is a continuous stream of foreigners who wrote for the Court chapel and had a lasting influence on many young Russian composers, including Bortnyansky who became Chapel Master at the Imperial Court, and then Director. His lyrical style, in combination with western counterpoint, made him the outstanding composer of this period. Vladimir Morosan observes of him and his contemporaries that "their creative orientation and musical vocabulary were almost entirely European, as were the performance techniques mastered by the singers of the Court Chapel.” 

With the death of Bortyansky in 1825, for political as well as cultural reasons, Germany succeeded Italy as the dominant influence. The Imperial Chapel was taken over by Lvov (1798- 1870), who had traveled in Germany and knew Mendelssohn, Schumann and Meyerbeer. His music for the Church is characterized by four-part harmony, in German style, predominating over the melody which is always placed in the top voice. His influence was considerable in what came to be known as the St. Petersburg period. In 1879, a famous incident occurred which would have significant consequences for Russian church music. Pyotr Jurgenson, the Moscow music publisher who frequently worked with the Imperial Chapel, published Tchaikovsky's Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom without the authorization of the Court Chapel. Tchaikovsky sought and received authorization from the Senate, and though many have considered the work too "western," it may be considered truly Russian in spirit, and marks the end of the period of German domination and the initiation of the study and recovery of the Russian Church's musical past.

This return to Russia's liturgical and musical heritage was begun by Prince Vladimir Feodorovich Odoievsky (1804-1869), a philosopher, writer, critic and musicologist. He was a founder member of the Russian Musical Society, which would play an extremely important role in Russian musical life at the end of the 19th century. He was a lover of old music books, and of Znammeny chant manuscripts and prints in particular. It would not be until after the lingering effects of the Revolution could be overcome that this  work could continue.  In recent times a revival has begun in Russia to explore it’s history and tradition of early chant forms, and to incorporate them into contemporary Russian choral music.














Music, Language, and Orthodox Worship


All Orthodox services are sung. The priest and reader chant the prayers and scripture readings using simple melodies. The choir responds with musically more complex hymns. Only the sermon is read in a speaking voice. In most countries the music is unaccompanied by any instruments. Some Greek Orthodox churches in the United States have adopted organs in imitation of other Christian churches, but this is not the norm in Greece itself.

The Orthodox Church has always held services in the local language. Thus, the earliest missionaries to North America, when Alaska still belonged to imperial Russia, translated the Bible and service books into Aleut, Inuit, and other local languages. This principle, however, did not prevent languages from evolving. At the time of the Christianization of Russia, all Slavs spoke a common language, known today as Slavonic. All the books needed by the Church were translated from Greek into Slavonic. After Slavonic evolved into the contem­porary Slavic languages, such as Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Czech, Orthodox con­tinued to use Slavonic in services. Its pronuncia­tion in different countries, however, was influenced by the pronunciation of the local modern language. We therefore find Slavonic pronounced differently in these countries, just as Church Latin has different pronunciations in Italy, France, Spain and Germany.

As Russians, Greeks, Syrians and other Orthodox groups from Europe and the Middle East began arriving in America in significant numbers, they gradually began adopting English for the services. Initially, they set the English texts to their own chants and composed music. “The Beatitudes” and “The Angel Cried” are examples of English texts set to chant and to composed music. Over time, new compositions specifically for English texts were written, and several of the pieces in our program are from this later period. Today, there are numerous composers actively producing new pieces for liturgical use.

Daily Services

Orthodox worship consists of a daily cycle of seven services (from the Book of Psalms, “Seven times a day I praise Thee…”). The main services are Vespers, which begins the new day in the evening; Compline, the midnight office; and Matins, served early in the morning. All of these have significant parts sung by the choir. The remaining four services are the Hours: First, Third, Sixth and Ninth, named after the Roman times of day (7am, 9am, noon and 3pm). These are much simpler collections of prayers and psalms, as appropriate for private as for corporate worship.

Vespers and Matins are a mix of fixed and variable texts, the variable ones depending on the day of the year, the date relative to Paskha (Easter), and the day within an eight-week cycle that begins at Pentecost. To say that these texts are extensive is an understatement: they fill the bulk of the twenty-five thick volumes that prescribe the liturgical services throughout the year. They constitute the main teaching texts of the church, describing the lives of the saints, the major events in the life of Jesus Christ and of his mother, the Virgin Mary, and later events in church history.

Most of the compositions for Vespers and Matins have been created for the fixed texts of these services. Sung day in and day out, not just in monasteries but even in village churches, these texts warrant the choir’s effort to learn several musical settings so that the services do not become monotonously repetitive.

While original compositions exist for a few of the most important of the variable texts, it would be impossible for most choirs, or even highly trained individual chanters, to learn unique music for every text. The Russian Church therefore evolved from the Byzantine model a system of chant melodies and assigned each text to a particular “tone.” The chant systems—for there are many of them, originating in various cities and individual monasteries—have sets of eight tones, corres­pond­ing to the eight-week cycle. Within each tone there are four melodies that may or may not resemble each other: one for troparia, one for prokeimena (verses, generally from Psalms, that introduce scripture readings), one for verses in Vespers and Matins, and one for the canon hymns of Matins.

Chant melodies are flexible, adapting easily to lines of various lengths. Notes may be added to or subtracted from the beginnings and ends of phrases, allowing the best possible fit of the text and its stresses to the music. Church musicians are taught that the text is always primary: The music is adapted to the text; the text is never altered to fit the music.



There are four services that include the sacrament of Holy Communion, the receiving by the faithful of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. All have the word “Liturgy” in their names. The most common of these are the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great. These two differ only in the prayers offered by the priest and in the text of one hymn to the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ. The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is served only on weekdays of Great Lent, while the Liturgy of St. James is served only once a year, on the day St. James is commemorated.

All forms of the Liturgy have extensive parts for the choir. Very few of the variable texts are included in the Liturgy. Numerous composers have written settings for all, or nearly all, of the hymns of the Divine Liturgy. Collections of settings for these hymns, including both ones based on chants and others composed, have been printed in this country, first in Church Slavonic and then in English, since at least the 1940s.

In the Orthodox Church the two forms of the Divine Liturgy are not served on weekdays of Great Lent, with the exception only of the great feast of the Annunciation. To support the faithful in their Lenten efforts, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, a special form of the Liturgy combined with many elements of the evening service of Vespers, is served on Wednesdays and Fridays. The Gifts of bread and wine, transubstan­tiated into the Body and Blood of Christ, are prepared on the preceding Sunday and used for the communion of the faithful at these services—hence, the term “presanctified” in the service name. The service is offered late in the day, with candles the only light in the church.


M. M. S.