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Ivan Moody

Spiritual reality

1:59, 7th November 2017

As we approach the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Ivan Moody charts the development of Russian choral music before and since that cataclysmic event

Rachmaninov’s famous Vigil (‘Vespers’), written in 1915, is not only an outstanding choral masterpiece: it is also a symbol, a watershed, a turning point. It marks simultaneously the ending of a tradition and the beginning of something new. To understand why, it is necessary to understand something of the history of the development of Russian choral music.


Russian sacred choral music had developed over the course of nearly 1,000 years (1988 would mark the Millennium of the Baptism of Russia) in unpredictable and original ways. Its early chant repertoires, taking their cue from what was sung in the churches of Byzantium, were inextricably linked with the development of Russian culture in general, and though the exact dates of the appearance and subsequent development of the various repertoires of chant are still disputed by scholars, what is not in doubt is their singular originality. These included what are known as Znamenny, Demestvenny and Putevoy, and repertories named ‘Greek’ and ‘Bulgarian’, and they reappear later in this story.


The earliest polyphony in Russia, which appeared in the 16th century, was initially based on these monophonic chant repertories. The richly dissonant harmonic vocabulary of much of this music has been made relatively accessible to listeners in the west by means of recordings of a number of specialist ensembles, but perhaps most visibly by the Choir of the Moscow Patriarchate under the direction of Anatoly Grindenko, who made an astounding series of discs in the 1990s for the now-defunct Opus 111 label, some of which are still available as mp3 downloads or on streaming. From the 1650s onwards, the indigenous styles came into contact with the first partes polyphony, of western origin. Each type of polyphony retained its own notation, though there is evidence of transitional points at which polyphony could be notated, say, in Znammeny notation and the indigenous Russian repertories could be written with western staff notation.


From the mid-18th century, the Russian Imperial Court began to look towards Italy for inspiration in cultural matters. During the reign of the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (1709-62), many artists, architects, sculptors and musicians came from Italy to work in St Petersburg, and a number of them became chapelmasters of the Court Choir. These included Baldassare Galuppi (1706- 85), Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816), Giuseppe Sarti (1729-1802), Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801), and Vicente Martín y Soler (1754-1806). The music they produced for the Court chapel had a deep influence on many young Russian composers, including Stepan Degtyaryov (1766-1813), Artemy Vedel (1767-1806), Dimitri Bortnyansky (1751-1825), Maxim Berezovsky (1745-77), Stepan Davydov (1777-1825), and priest Pyotr Turchaninov (1779-1856). Recent research by Russian musicologists, notably Iryna Gerasimova and Nataliya Plotnikova, has uncovered baroque liturgical music in as many as 24 parts by composers such as Titov and Diletsky.


Bortnyansky, a pupil of Galuppi, went to study in Italy from 1769 to 1779. On his return, he was named chapelmaster at the Imperial Court, and subsequently director. His mastery of the Italian style is evident in his large number of virtuosic choral concerti (written in spite of the Emperor Paul’s prohibition of this non-liturgical genre in 1797), as well as his considerable quantity of secular music. His influence on the development of Russian music is hard to overestimate: he was appointed as the Church’s musical censor in 1816, and thus had total control over the publishing and dissemination of liturgical music. However, after his death in 1825, Russian music looked towards Germany rather than Italy, for both political and cultural reasons; this is what the scholar Ivan Gardner named the ‘St Petersburg Period’. The Imperial Chapel was taken over by Fyodor L’vov (1766-1836), and then, until 1861, by his son, Alexei L’vov (1798- 1870), who had travelled in Germany and knew Mendelssohn, Schumann and Meyerbeer. The German chorale style is clearly audible in his work, with chant melodies placed in the uppermost of the four voices. His followers included Gavriil Lomakin (1812-85), G.F. Lvovsky (1830- 94), M.A. Vinogradov (1810-88), Ye.S. Azeyev (1851-1918), Pavel Vorotnikov (1806-76), Nikolai Bakhmetev (1807-91) and Prince Yuri Golitsyn (1823-72).


Bortnyansky’s Cherubic Hymn no.7: on his return from studying in Italy from 1969-79, he was named chapelmaster, and subsequently director at the Imperial Court, whose sumptuously decorated chapel is above
Bortnyansky’s Cherubic Hymn no.7: on his return from studying in Italy from 1969-79, he was named
chapelmaster, and subsequently director at the Imperial Court, whose sumptuously decorated chapel
is above

In 1846 L’vov, with the assistance of Vortonikov and Lomakin, published an edition of the Obikhod. This was a volume intended to standardise the chants used in the Russian Church, set in simple fourpart polyphony, and intended to be the basis for the future of liturgical music in Russia, which indeed it proved to be: the final reprint of the edition as revised by Rimsky-Korsakov was in 1909, just eight years before the Revolution. Not only was this book made obligatory for any church in Russia when a member of the royal family was in attendance, but L’vov promoted it extensively, as well as the repertoire of the Royal Chapel, and its omnipresence was reinforced by a programme of training and certification for church singers. L’vov’s successor, Nikolai Bakhmetev (1807-91), continued his work, and was even more rigorous as a censor, though the daring chromaticism of some of his own compositions might today surprise those who associate his name with pallidly harmonised, foursquare music.


In 1879, eighteen years after Bakhmetev’s appointment, the situation changed radically. Tchaikovsky’s setting of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom was published by Jurgenson, a firm that collaborated frequently with the Imperial Chapel, but which in this instance did not seek its authorisation, indispensable since the time of Bortnyansky, and which Bakhmetev attempted to block, requesting instead permission of the Senate, which was granted. Tchaikovsky’s setting has often been considered in Orthodox circles as inappropriate for liturgical use, too dramatic, too much influenced by western models, but the advance it represents in a return to a specifically Russian soundworld is highly significant, and the work can be said to initiate the study and recovery of the Russian Church’s musical past. Tchaikovsky himself later worked in much greater depth with the chant repertoire, and his settings for the Vigil show a genuine preoccupation with finding an appropriate style of genuinely liturgical composition.


Surprisingly, it was Mily Balakirev, one of the ‘Mighty Handful’1 (the others were Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov) who succeeded Bakhmetev, in 1883, and he lost no time in bringing Rimsky-Korsakov on board as his assistant. The latter made a thorough revision of the precentors’ courses offered by the Chapel, and also contributed some very original liturgical settings to the repertoire, which are for the most part still rarely heard today.2 One of the significant aspects of Rimsky-Korsakov’s work was his approach to chant melodies, whose melodic characteristics he endeavoured Kastal’sky’s Angel vopyashe, a Paschal setting based on Znamenny chant to exploit in his polyphonic treatment of them. At the same time, however, other composers were beginning to go even deeper into Russia’s musical past, with the aim of building its future.


This remarkable initiative was initially due in large part to the enthusiasm of Prince Vladimir Fyodorovich Odoyevsky (1804-69), who was a philosopher, a writer, a critic and a musicologist. He was a founder member of the Russian Musical Society, which played a vital role in Russian musical life at the end of the 19th century. He was also a bibliophile, and an admirer of Znamenny chant manuscripts and prints in particular. Around him he gathered a number of musicians interested in studying chant, including archpriest Dmitri Razumovsky (1818-89) and the conductor and scholar Stepan Smolensky (1848-1909). The latter numbered among his pupils the composers Aleksandr Kastal’sky (1856-1926), Pavel Chesnokov (1877-1944) and Aleksandr Nikol’sky (1874-1943), and it is to Smolensky that Rachmaninov’s Vigil Service is dedicated.


Kastal’sky was undoubtedly the clearest inheritor of Smolensky’s precepts. His liturgical music is deeply rooted in the various repertories of Russian chant (Znamenny, Putevoy and Demestvenny), its harmonic language arising from the chant’s modal character and also from Russian folk music. He went on to develop this style independently of the citation of actual chant, as Miloserdiya dveri otverzi nam, in pseudo-chant style, for example, brilliantly demonstrates. This return to chant sources influenced many composers, including Nikolai Kompaneisky (1848-1910), Aleksandr Grechaninov (1864-1956), Nikol’sky and Chesnokov. The height of this movement was undoubtedly reached, however, with the monumental Vigil Service by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1944), based on chant and, as it is now almost unnecessary to say, one of the peaks of choral writing in any century in the power of the writing and its technical mastery, notably its use of ‘choral orchestration’: a more powerful symbol of new creation which taps deeply into the past would be hard to find.


This revival of interest in ancient Russian chant traditions even led the Holy Synod to prepare a new edition of the Obikhod in 1915, but it is also the case that a great number of composers, including Aleksandr Arkhangel’sky (1846-1924), priest Dmitri Allemanov (1867-c.1918) and priest Mikhail Vinogradov (1810- 88) continued to compose in the earlier German-inspired style. Arkhangel’sky was also the composer who established the use of female voices in church choirs, beginning in the 1880s.


The Red Army Chorus used choral music as propaganda for the Revolution, exacerbated by the dismissal in 1929 of the moderate commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky (right)
The Red Army Chorus used choral music as
propaganda for the Revolution, exacerbated
by the dismissal in 1929 of the moderate
commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky (right)

The Revolution brought with it choral music as propaganda, of which the Red Army Chorus was the bestknown symbol.3 But the suppression of any manifestation of religious belief, especially after the dismissal of the relatively tolerant, and highly cultured, commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky in 1929 from NARKOMPROS, the People’s Commissariat of Public Education, also cut artists off from a significant part of the artistic heritage of their native country. In his discussion of ‘L’héritage spirituel d’un monde athée’ (‘The spiritual inheritance of an atheist world’), Frans C. Lemaire usefully traces the trajectory of the attempted spiritual extinguishing of Russia, beginning with the premiere of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil and working through the survival of a religious sense, even in the disguised religiosity of cantatas and other works glorifying Lenin, a reinvention of that part of their heritage to which composers could not refer if it had the slightest religious overtone.4 Lenin replaced Christ as the object of veneration. Mayakovsky’s poem Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (a 3,000-line poem written in 1924 after its subject’s death) gave rise to large-scale homages from composers such as Shebalin, Sviridov, Kholminov and Eshpai. Hundreds of years of the experience of sacred music, uniquely Russian, could not simply be extinguished in a total reinvention of the cultural world: instead, they were subsumed into a reconfiguration of that world’s spiritual, or mythological, consciousness. While Russia’s sacred heritage could not be built on in Russia itself during most of the the Soviet period, emigré composers including Stravinsky and Grechaninov kept the flame burning.



Curiously, the one exception was precisely Rachmaninov’s Vigil, the terminus of the reinvigorated sacred choral style: during the mid-1950s, the work began to be performed again, liturgically, once a year under the direction of Nikolay Matveyev at the Transfiguration Church in Moscow, and then in 1965 came the famous recording by the State Academic Choir under Alexander Shveshnikov, who had been a member of the Synodal Choir, and was aged 24 at the time of the work’s first performance.


As we know, the trajectory of spiritual extinction ended in failure, and music was once again allowed to be a vehicle for the sacred. Lemaire speaks of composers ‘rediscovering the right to the spiritual “unreality” which had been taken from them in the name of socialist realism.’5 The fact that works overtly based on spiritual texts, such as Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto for Mixed Choir and Rodion Shchedrin’s Stikhira, could not only be written in the late 1980s, but performed and even recorded, was the clearest possible indication of the resurgence of this ‘spiritual unreality’


Since the fall of the Soviet regime in 1991, works by a number of Russian composers have appeared relating to church music traditions, though not specifically liturgical in intent. These include Apocalypse, Easter Music, Christmas Music and Lamentations by Vladimir Martynov (b.1946), the Concerto for Mixed Choir and Penitential Psalms by Alfred Schnittke (1934-98), both of which develop the inheritance of Rachmaninov, Svete tikhi by Edison Denisov (1929-98) Zapechatlenniy Angel and Stikhira by Rodion Shchedrin (b.1932), and many works by Alexander Knaifel (b.1943) and Alexander Raskatov (b.1953). The composition of genuinely liturgical music has also resumed, in parallel with a huge resurgence of interest in the monophonic chant traditions of Old Russia – the golden thread, one might say, that ties the entire history of Russian choral music together.



  1. ‘Moguchaya kuchka’. The name was coined by the critic Vladimir Stasov in a review of a concert of Russian music in Moscow in 1867.
  2. For more detail see Marina Rakhanova, Introduction to Vladimir Morosan, ed., Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: The Complete Sacred Choral Works, Musica Russica 1999, xxxi-xli.
  3. For a useful discussion, see Neil Edmonds, ‘Soviet Musical Propaganda in the 1920s’, in Neil Edmonds, ed., Soviet Music and Society under Lenin and Stalin: The Baton and Sickle, London: RoutledgeCurzon 2004, especially 108-9.
  4. Frans C. Lemaire, La musique du XXe siècle en Russie, Paris: Fayard, 1994. I have elsewhere referred to this phenomenon as a ‘change of icons’, following the art historian Oleg Tarasov. See Ivan Moody, Modernism and Orthodox Spirituality in Contemporary Music, Joensuu: ISOCM/SASA 2014, 96-159.
  5. Lemaire, ibid., 354. 6. Schnittke’s work was recorded in 1989 by Melodiya, and Shchedrin’s appeared in 1990 on Pervyy Russkiy Kompakt-Disk (‘The First Russian CD’) (Melodiya SUCD 10-00007).


Ivan Moody is a composer, conductor and musicologist, as well as a priest of the Orthodox Church.

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