The History of Early Russian Music: A Research Paper by Courtney Van Cleef


*Since I spent so much time on this paper I figured it would be a good idea to post it on the blog. DISCLAIMER: I did not include my bibliography in this blog post nor are the sources cited. Although I compiled the research and wrote it in a cohesive manner, I am not the original author of the information presented.

The History of Early Russian Music
Courtney Van Cleef
Quite unfortunately, Russian music before the 19th century is often overlooked due to its so called lack of development. The truth, however, is that the Russian culture is rich in its music history with ancient pagan and spiritual traditions. Much of these assumptions can be blamed on the fact that many of the early folk songs were not written down until the reign of Catherine the Great in the 18th century but certainly a lack of notation is not equivalent to a lack of material. Furthermore the rise of the Orthodox church influenced many development in liturgical music practices that are comparable to their western European counterparts. This paper aims to explore Russian music history from its origins and throughout its medieval times.
In its early history there is much evidence that Russians employed music in many of their day to day activities. The Obryadovye, or ritual songs were full of symbolism that imitated work. Ritual songs that represented the harvest were called Zazhynky and ritual songs that celebrated the completion of the work were referred to as Obzhynky. The idea was that if music simulated work tasks such as reaping and sowing it would “promote productivity”. Women would commonly join in singing together when they met to spin in the winter.
Young people especially enjoyed performing Khorovod or dance songs. Such songs would be entirely vocal and would cover tales of romance between royalty. People of all ages were also fond of singing Starina meaning “what is old”. These epic songs would tell the achievements of heroes real and fictional. This form of song was a lasting tradition and when Moscow became the center of Russian culture by the 16th century, many Starina were rewritten to include figures in the big city. In the 1830’s the Starina was given a new name, Bylini, meaning “what has happened”; however, peasants continued to call it by it’s old name.
Games and songs of all kinds varied with the seasons. For example, in the spring “dance songs often featured pastoral deities like “Did Lado and Lei”. Vesnjanki, another kind of spring song, was sung to call the birds back from their migration. Haivky represented songs in the form of a game that was commonly played in the spring. In the winter, a particularly interesting tradition is that of the Kolyada. Much like Christmas caroling, bands of young people would go from household to household on the winter solstice and ask to sing their Kolyada songs. The songs would be a narrative, first telling the story of them finding the home, then offering the family blessings, and finally asking for food. Depending on the quality of the food singers would then continue to either praise the family for their generosity or “give comic abuse and promise misfortune.”
Russian peasants were superstitious and once again music played an important role in their various traditions. Fortune telling songs called Podbliudnyia (“under the plate songs”) were sung on New Year’s day by women. The women would place their rings in a bowl of water that was concealed with a plate and then sing a song with themes ranging from marriage to death. A ring would then be selected at random and the owner of the ring would have the fortune of whatever song had just been sung.
An important characteristic to notice in early Russian music is its use of heterophony. Heterophonic music is a type of polyphony where two or more performers produce essentially the same melody with slight modifications on the parts. Heterophony suits Russian music in that the rules that govern its form are vague and allow for the performers to have some freedom to choose interesting tonalities without making any one voice more prominent than another. There would however be a leader singer called a Sapevala. The Sapevela would start the piece by singing the melody as a solo, thus directing the general course of the music. The rest of the ensemble would then join in, splitting suddenly into separate parts that eventually converge into a unison ending. Concerning tonality, most Russian folk music contains a dubious tonic and the performers were never queasy when it came to employing parallel 5ths, octaves, and other dissonant parallel intervals. The problem with this wide use of heterophony is that its nature makes it difficult to notate, thus contributing to the lack of records of early Russian music.
The fact is that the majority of Russian music was meant only to be vocalized. Very likely, the reason for this lack of music instrumental repertoire was the lack of money to buy musical instruments. Many Russian peasants lived in poverty making vocal music a much more practical way to participate in the art. As a result, many of the old Russian instruments that music historians are aware of are simple in build and can in fact be constructed by the performer. One such instrument is the 2-stringed Domra of oriental descent. It is widely believed that the Domra was delivered to Russia in the 12th or 13th century by Mongolians who were ruling Russia at that time. With a body not unlike the lute, it is either strummed or plucked to produce sound. The Domra would later give rise to the three-stringed Balalaika in the 17th century. The Balalaika is particularity prominent in Russian music history because a brand of street musicians known as, Skomorokhi commonly used it in their performances where they frequently made jokes concerning the Tsar and the Orthodox church; this eventually led the Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich to order a public burning of all instruments under the rather severe penalty of death.
Another popular instrument in traditional Russian music is the Bayan or, more commonly, the button accordion. Before the 19th century the Bayan would be called a Garmonika which derives from its Asian ancestor called the Shen. It is likely that the Garmonika was introduced to the Russians by the mongols in the mongol invasion of the 10th- 13th centuries. Originally it was made with a single row of buttons and large bellows up to two meters long.
Other instruments of old Russia include an array of percussive instruments. For example the Treschyotka is a rattle constructed of wooden slats threaded together on a string. This instrument is played by stretching the string and then constricting the slats together. The Treschyotka would often be used in ceremonial occasions such as weddings. The instrument could be decorated with ribbons and bells to give it a more festive look. Evidence stemming from its construction and use in weddings also points that the Treschyotka may have been believed to play a role in protecting newlyweds from evil spirits. Another percussive instrument whose origins are traced back to the early Slavic people is the Lozhky or musical spoon. The spoons would be made of thick wood with longer handles and a polished surface. Sound was produced by clanging the spoons together and different pitched could be obtained from variations in size. Russians also used their version of the tambourine called the Buben. The Buben was also a popular instrument used by the Skomorokhi.
All Russian wind players were referred to as Svirels which covers a variety of pipe instruments made from hollow reeds and branches. In particular, a double pipe consisting of a whistle and three holes per pipe is recognized to most likely be the traditional Svirel. Although the origins of these instruments are unclear an archeological excavations of the Old Novgorod in 1951-1962 yielded two pipes that suggest they precede the eastern slavic community. One of the pipes dates back to the late 11th century with four finger-holes while the second pipe dates back to the early 15th and has only three holes.
The Gusli is the most ancient of Russian instruments with it’s origins in the sixth century. The Gusli of the 12th century resembled a harp with it’s five strings attached to a long board. The Gusli is played by using a play stick to press down on the open strings. If a string was not to be played, it could be muted with the left hand. Although the Gusli could be played as a solo instrument, it was widely employed as an accompaniment to a song.
Russia throughout history has remained a largely isolationist country. The separation from the rest of Europe dates back to the fall of the Roman Empire. Whereas the western European countries then turned to the Catholic Church, Russia inherited the Byzantine civilization and the practices of the Greek Orthodox Church. At the end of the 10th century when Vladimir I came to power in Kiev he made it his priority to convert his subjects and also to bring in priests along with their choristers. This led to a huge revolution in Russian music; the shift from the old pagan traditions to a world of christian music. In truth, music in the ceremonial part of church began in the Byzantine Empire where vast amounts of poetry were written to be set to music and spice up the liturgy. The Byzantine Chant was almost entirely vocal without instrument accompaniment. It is from the Byzantine chant that the Russian Znamenny chant evolved.
Znamenny chant at its inception was sung in Greek but over several hundred years it eventually was sung entirely in Russian. Znamenny chants were written in Kruik, a musical alphabet derived from Neume notation of its western counterparts; however, there were quite a few differences between the notational systems which makes it difficult for historians to know exactly how the music would sound. The positive is that liturgical music was written at all, making it much more accessible to historians than the unwritten folk songs. Instead of being written in an echoi, Russian tonality in Znamenny chant is based on glassy. Each glas may contain up to 90 melodic patterns that distinguish one glass from another. A glas is less like a mode built on a series of whole and half steps but rather it is more like a set pattern that the people chose to standardize. The rhythm of the Znamenny chant never included eighth notes or lesser value but rather it used whole and half note values to make the text particularly easy to understand.
Unlike the western church, Russian church music forbids the use of any musical instruments including the organ. Only a series of wooden boards called a Semantron could be struck with hammers to produce a percussive rhythmic accompaniment; however the Russians hardly considered the Semantron to be recognized as a musical instrument considering the sound that it makes is not much different from any of the normal sounds of daily life. Furthermore the vocal parts are almost entirely monodic with subtle polyphony only occasionally in the form of a drone.
When the Znamenny chant eventually began to see changes in the form of innovations such as elaborate coloratura passages, the Tsar became distressed that it would lead to corruption of the text. Thus when Ivan III came to power in 1462 a school was erected to train young musicians the proper way to perform liturgical music. These young men (women were not yet eligible for school) were known as “The Tsar’s Singing Deacons” and their primary role was to prepare and perform the Divine Liturgy at the Imperial Chapel.
The composers who wrote the Znamenny chants are elusive of identity because generic patterns were given and the performer was expected to use and tailor the patterns appropriately to fit any new words (for glorifying new saints or celebrating other church occasions). Thus the performers can be thought of as the composers too. The first composer of the chants that can be clearly identified by name was the Tsar Ivan VI. During the mid 16th century he is credited with writing two Stichera (collections of more elaborate canticles) at the ripe age of seventeen. Furthermore, the fantastic singers whom he attracted played a key role in identifying classic master in Russian church singing. Now the Gospel Stichera (the morning resurrection hymns) was identified as being composed by the Byzantium Emperor Leo VI in the 10th century. Also the commonly sung Christian chant was connected to the Pope Feodor (surname Christian). Although it is unconfirmed as of yet, the famous musicologist Maxim Brajnikov hypothesizes that Feodor was also responsible for the creation of the Greater Chant and more importantly is responsible for injecting folk song patterns into the liturgical repertoire. This is particularly important because should his theory be valid it could prove that Feodor was also proficient in folk singing and that the arts of folk singing and church singing are more closely related than previously thought.
A curious phenomena during the age of the Znamenny chant is the complete lack of a secular counterpart. Unlike the west which had madrigals and allowed artists to explore music outside the domain of church, the strict policies of the Orthodox church prevented any secular art song form from taking root. The church was especially against the folk songs sung in households that represented the old pagan views. Nevertheless, a strong attachment of the Russian people to their traditional songs at least allowed a class of musicians known as minstrels to continue performing them. Since the clergy were strict on banishing these wandering performers from the big cities, minstrels generally stuck to Russia’s river banks so they could move more easily between smaller towns. The early minstrels were welcomed by the people as a relief to the pressures placed on them by the church. In fact, aristocratic homes would often invite minstrels to perform in their homes on special occasions. Unfortunately the minstrels never achieved a high status in society unlike their counterparts in the west such as the great Troubadours in France. The church eventually managed to root them out almost completely leaving only a few desperate performers who often sang vulgar songs and stole from the villagers
Another refreshing example of bending the strict rules placed on Russian Music was the art of bell ringing highly developed in Novgorod. As previously mentioned instruments were largely forbidden from church ceremonies; however, the practice of casting the brass bells in the city led church leaders to allow bell ringing to be an important part of the church practices in certain large cities. People appreciated the aesthetic differences between the bell and the percussive Semantron. Since the ringing of bells was often used to signal the beginning of church and also certain patterns were recognized to begin various parts of the service, people associated the bells as something positive. The sound of bells meant a pause from the hard labor of their day to day lives.
The so called polyphony of the Znamenny chant began to appear in the 16th century when suddenly as many as four lines of neumes were written per line of text. The debate lies in whether or not all these lines were meant to be sung together simultaneously. A larger half or Russian theorists including Odoyevsky in the year 1867 believed that it out of the question to sing the lines simultaneously. The main argument to support this theory points to the fact that the lines do not seem to have any harmonic relationships and that extensive use of successive parallel fifths and seconds make it nearly impossible to sing. Others including the theorist Smolensky in1888 argued that the seemingly rough harmonizations are simply derived from the heterophonic music of the folk songs. The idea is that Russian music is not governed by the same rules and modes observed by the western church composers such as Palestrina, thus the sound is merely something different that what the western ear is used to.
When studying music history it is often important to take into account the politics that surround the era being covered. For example, unlike the western European countries who left the medieval times and entered into a great renaissance due to vast innovations, Russia was ravaged by the Mongol invasions and thus remained stuck in its dark ages for several more centuries. Old systems of hierarchy with the barbaric levels of serfdom had long left the west but remained in tact in Russia; thus the development of new ways of thinking was often hampered by the Tsars or the powerful leaders of the Eastern Orthodox church. Important to note, however, is that despite the mongol occupation of Russia from the mid-thirteenth century until the 15th century, little about the culture was actually changed in Russia. The mongols only wanted to dominate Russia, not necessarily rule it, thus the Eastern Orthodox Church and its practices were left untouched.
There is no doubt the history of early Russian music is obscure for a variety of reasons. The total lack of written forms of the early folk songs and indeed the heterophonic forms of the music itself makes it difficulty to identify the traditional music of pre-Eastern Orthodox Russia. The situation was little improved when the byzantine church came to power with the use of the archaic Kruik music alphabet that differs enough from the neume notation of the west to cause a fair amount of uncertainty in the performance of Znamenny chant. Furthermore, the tight hold that the Clergy and the Tsar kept on any developments in secular music, instrumental accompaniment, and real polyphony add to the myth that Russian music before the late 18th century was largely negligible; however, through careful research and surviving documents that have been unearthed fairly recently, music historians can factually support that Russia indeed had very unique and specific developments in its music from its origins and through its dark ages. The much appreciated music compositions of Russia’s later centuries may have borrowed many traditions of the western European nations, but its distinctly Russian qualities with origins in the homeland are what separate works of Russian art from those of any other country.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: