A Brief History of the Monophonic Chant
Tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church

by Nikita Simmons

I. Types of Chanting

In modern times, Russian Orthodox ecclesiastical music is divided into two major categories: i) Canonical Singing is music where the melodies are notated in officially approved liturgical chanting books (whether the choir harmonizes them or not). ii) Uncanonical Singing consists of freely-composed monophonic melodies, polyphonic choral settings of liturgical texts, and paraliturgical compositions and texts (such as the modern Russian 'concert', which is inserted after the Communion Hymn). The Orthodox Church has never fully approved of the use of uncanonical singing within its services, but has tolerated its use for nearly 300 years. Indeed, the uncanonical choral music is now so commonly used that most church-goers (except the Russian Old Believers) are unfamiliar with the authentic canonical chant melodies. Foreigners who walk into the cathedrals of Moscow and hear the majestic and sumptuous choral singing (especially with the deep Russian basses) are being presented with a tradition that is hardly more than a few hundred years old, and seldom do they ever hear the ancient Byzantine-Slavonic plain chants, untouched by Western European culture, that are the authentic heritage of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Canonical Orthodox Church Music can be divided into two main types: i) Chants based on the 8-Tone system, and ii) Chants outside the 8-Tone system. Both Eastern and Western cultures have recognized the existence and significance of eight 'Modes' or 'Tones' in the development of their music. When the Greek Byzantine chants were brought into Russia following the nation's conversion in 988 AD, the basic concepts of singing according to the Tones were preserved. As in the Byzantine tradition, the Russian Tones also consisted of numerous melodic patterns, which are the building-blocks of melodies.

Russian Chants based on the 8-Tone System include: Great Známenny Chant, Small Známenny Chant, Podobny, Put' Chant, Kievan Chant, so-called "Greek" and "Bulgarian" Chants, and Carpatho-Russian Chant. There are also several different types of melodies within each Tone, which are used for refrains, short simple hymns, long ornate hymns, etc. Chants lying outside the eight-tone system are similar to tonal chants, but they have their own peculiar melodies and melodic formulas; these include the Deméstvenny Chant system, and many common chants used in the offices and the Divine Liturgy (such as the litanies, the Lord's Prayer and the Creed).

II. The First Epoch of Russian Liturgical Music: Monophonic Chant

i) The First Period: Of Byzantine-Slavonic Chant (late 10th century to c.1500)

a) The Kievan Era: 10th to 13th centuries

It is customary to refer to the year 988 as the official date for the christianization of Russia: the date at which Prince Vladimir accepted the Eastern Orthodox faith, and according to tradition, the inhabitants of the city of Kiev were baptized in the Dnieper River. The services in Kiev were conducted during the first few generations by Greek and Bulgarian clergy, readers and chanters, using both the Greek and Old Slavonic languages for the readings and using the original Greek hymns. Gradually the Greek texts of the hymns were translated into Slavonic, but the melodies and notation remained the same.

The ancient chants of the Russian Orthodox Church, prior to the 1660s, were notated with a system of neumes, which was derived from an early stage of the Coislin system of the Byzantine neumatic notation, dating from the middle Byzantine period (10th century). Presently we can only guess how the notation is to be interpreted, since Byzantine scholars have only come to a partial understanding of the neumes. Subsequently, the notational system in Byzantium underwent a gradual transformation which contributed to its readability, and rendered it fairly stable and systematic. In Russia, however, neume forms remained unchanged and without modernization, retaining their ambiguity.

Scholars are not sure just when the present concept of the musical scale originated among the Russians. Certainly the concept of a scale theory existed in the Byzantine system of chanting (as we know from Byzantine musical treatises), but it differs significantly from the later Známenny Chant scale that has been preserved by the Russian Church; in addition, musicologists are not completely certain that their findings are totally accurate, since the early neumes were not accompanied by any system of pitch markings. While it has been proven that the early Byzantine eight-Tone system was based on scales having diatonic intervals, research has demonstrated that the later Russian Tones or Modes are instead based more on melodic patterns and formulas which are unique to each Tone.

Because of invasions during the 13th century the contacts between the Russian lands and the fragmented Byzantine Empire became less frequent; furthermore, a great part of the Russian lands was also fragmented as a result of the Tatar invasion. With the demise of Kievan Russia, spiritual, economic, political and cultural ties with the Byzantine Empire were almost entirely severed, and the Russian Church began its own independent course of development.

b) The Novgorod and early Moscow Era: 14th to 15th centuries

During the 14th century new centers of religious and cultural activities appeared. With the decline and fall of Kievan Russia the Orthodox Church and its culture spread North into the various Russian principalities, chiefly Novgorod. Novgorod became the great spiritual and cultural center of the Russian Church for a few centuries, and a couple of important singing schools were established there, in which the Byzantine-Slavonic Chant flourished, was Russified, changed and developed, resulting in a highly refined tradition. By the second half of the 15th century one finds not only an increase in the number of musical manuscripts copied in Russia but also the first so-called Ázbuki (literally 'alphabets') listing neumes and giving Slavonic names for some of them. During this time the technical term známennyi raspév appears, meaning 'chanting by signs', usually referred to in English as 'Známenny Chant'.

Developments in Russia during the second half of the 15th century, in music as in other fields, were almost certainly associated with the downfall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 and with the new situation in which Russia was to find itself as the only defender of Orthodox Christians in eastern Europe. With the end of the Tatar invasions at the close of the fifteenth century, the former unimportant principality of Moscow rose to power both politically and religiously. In 1478, Moscow annexed the wealthy city of Novgorod and assimilated the latter's chant tradition. During this transitional period a change in meaning of the neumatic notation took place and elements of Russian melodies (primarily folksongs) made inroads into the body of religious chant. After the year 1500 neumatic notation in Russian musical manuscripts no longer seems to have any of the interpretations associated with Byzantine neumes.

ii) The Second Period: Of Russification and Development (c.1500 to c.1600)

a) The middle Moscow Era

With the emergence of Moscow in the 16th century as the new political center of the Russian principalities under Ivan IV the Terrible (ruled 1533-84), the various principalities were united into a single nation and the center of Russian Orthodoxy was transferred from the city of Vladimir to Moscow, where the Metropolitan Archbishop was elevated to the position of Patriarch over the whole Russian Church. Whole schools of singers were transferred from Novgorod to Moscow; here the ancient chant tradition underwent a complete renovation and a new direction of development. While the Carpatho-Russian Známenny Chant tradition of Southwestern Russia (now under the Polish-Lithuanian Empire) was being shortened and simplified (see below), the Muscovite Známenny Chant tradition was being expanded and made more complex.

Developments during the first half of the 16th century were rather subtle. Without a doubt there was a distinct shift away from the older Byzantine neumatic values, and the Russian neumes began to have their own manner of being interpreted. Musicologists believe that there was an influx of Russian folksong elements, leading to the emergence of distinctly Russian tonalities and melodic formulas. However, during the second half of the 16th century several new variants in the types of chanting first made their appearance, primarily due to the Russian love of pomp and ritualism. Highly trained cathedral choirs began singing lengthy, ornate chants, such as the body of music called Great Známenny Chant, as well as the Deméstvenny Chant and the Put' Chant. It was during this time that the melismatic passages known as fíty and lítsa began to emerge. A native form of polyphony, called Stróchnoye pyénie (Part-singing) began to emerge during this time, including its own unique form of Russian folk harmony and odd intervals; this disappeared by the mid-1600s when the more pleasant-sounding Western European harmonic practices arrived on the scene.

By the end of the 16th century, chant melodies had assumed an unwieldy complex form. Phrases had grown excessively long with an overuse of melismatic passages, the repetition of vowels, and other vocal embellishments. The constant use of the Russian dialect also made it more difficult for people to understand the Old Church Slavonic liturgical language, and eventually the need for reforming the chant books became a necessity. While the project of textual reform was not accomplished until nearly a hundred years later (c.1660), there was a backlash on the parish level during the Time of Troubles (early 1600s) against the overly-complex "high church" cathedral music. The length of the melodies considerably lengthened the liturgical services, and the laity felt over-burdened by such time commitments. Thus began a grass-roots movement toward simplification of the chant melodies, which was eventually recognized and supported by the Church authorities as a genuine spiritual need. Furthermore, the neumatic notation became increasingly more difficult to read and to transmit because of its growing complexity, and wide divergences existed in texts and melodies, as well as how the ambiguous neumes were being interpreted in various regions.

b) Southwestern Rus'

Ukraine (including Kiev) and the Carpathian provinces were for the most part outside the Great Russian state and its sphere of influence from the fall of Kievan Russia in the thirteenth century until its annexation by Muscovite Russia in 1654. Ukraine was under Polish (and Lithuanian) rule during this time, while the provinces of Subcarpathia and Transcarpathia (Gallicia, Volhynia, Podolia and Bukovina) were mainly under Hungarian (Magyar) rule. The Ukrainians and Carpatho-Russians (or Ruthenians) came under a heavy Western influence in both cultural and spiritual matters. Their culture (particularly their music and its notation) was influenced by the Polish Renaissance and Baroque styles, while their spiritual education was at times either directly in the hands of Roman Catholics (especially the Jesuits) or was simply influenced by the mingling of the Orthodox people with the Catholics who inhabited the same land.

In 1596 the Union of Brest compelled the Orthodox Christians of the southwestern provinces of Russia (within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) to accept union with the Roman Catholic Church; they were, however, allowed to retain the 'Eastern Rite'. Those who accepted this union were henceforth to be known as 'Uniates' or 'Greek Catholics'. To counterbalance the influx of western culture, several Brotherhoods of lay men were organized, particularly in Lviv, Vilnius, Lutsk and Kiev, to provide a more Orthodox education among the peoples. Schools were set up as early as 1570 to train youth in church singing, as well as to prepare candidates for liturgical ministries. Training in church singing was systematically organized and accomplished according to textbook manuals using an early experimental form of the Kievan staff notation, which was based on the western (Polish Renaissance) five-lined staff.

Current in Polish music of the late sixteenth century was the polyphonic choral style of the late Renaissance and early Baroque music; Polish composers in particular preferred the Italian style of chordal harmony. This proved irresistible to the Ruthenians, and eventually part-singing was introduced into the Uniate churches. Choirs of pupils from the Brotherhood schools set a trend by singing composed church music as well as improvised part-singing, and a majority of the parishes of Southwestern Russia were forced to accept this liturgical practice (although the monophonic plainchant tradition continued to thrive in various places). Around 1600, various church musicians managed to transcribe the authentic traditional Southwestern Russian rescension of the Známenny Chant into staff notation to be preserved for all time; the present Carpatho-Russian Church has for the most part returned to this simple monophonic chant tradition.

iii) The Third Period: Of Definition and Stabilization (c.1600 to c.1660)

The late Moscow Era to the Church Schism

Following the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1584 a long period of power struggles ensued, culminating in the collapse of the Riurik dynasty in 1598 and the 'Time of Troubles' (1604-13). Without a consistent leadership in the country, Russia underwent numerous dramatic upheavals, many on the grassroots level (such as the reforms advocated by the archpriest Avvakum and the 'Zealots of Piety', which advocated more religious education and more informed preaching by the clergy).

During the last two decades of the 16th century the need for textual and notational reform became a matter of great urgency. The status of church music was made confusing by the various reform efforts attempted by the surviving chanters and scribes from Moscow's singing schools; none of them could agree on the proper course for reform, resulting in a large degree of inconsistency in the musical manuscripts of the early 1600s. While the notational reforms began c.1600, the textual reforms were unfortunately not made until c.1660, when it was really too late to do any good for the mainstream tradition of traditional Známenny Chant.

The Deméstvenny and Put' Chants, while attaining a high degree of refinement in this period, began to fall into disuse in rural areas. This led to the eventual shortening of the length of the church services to some degree. With the loss of organized singing schools to teach chanters, to cultivate the Great Chant and to set examples for the rest of the Church, the Russian Church was already well on the way toward musical and spiritual change.

The first significant reform (usually dated c.1600) is associated with Ivan Shaidúrov, a singer active in Novgorod and possibly Moscow. This consisted in adding special signs (stylized letters) to most neumes, indicating the particular pitch to which the neume referred at that point. These small marks were written in red ink and are sometimes referred to as 'cinnabar marks'. As they were first presented c.1600, the marks lack refinement and consistency as used by various scribes, but by 1615 the system had stabilized in its present form.

As part of the reform, the concept of a scale (or rather a gamut of pitches) encompassing the range of notes seems to have solidly emerged. To Shaidúrov (or a musician in his circle) may perhaps be attributed the concept of dividing the gamut (or tonal range) into successions of trichords (three notes), each separated by a semitone from the next trichord. (i.e. Sing DO-RE-MI-FA, change the FA pitch to the word DO, and sing upward again: DO-RE-MI-FA; do this four times, leaving off the very last FA, to get the twelve pitches of the Russian gamut.) This system strongly resembles the Western hexachord system, from which it was probably derived. Each trichord received a special name such as 'dark', 'simple', 'bright', and 'thrice-bright' (corresponding to the low, medium, high and very high pitch ranges).

In the process of simplification of the long ornate melodies, another style of chanting rose to prominence in the early part of the 17th century: the Small Známenny Chant, which consisted of easily memorized formulas for singing any given text according to a specified Tone or Mode, where only the text is provided in a service book. These eight simple melodies (one for each Tone) made it possible to sing any of the hymns for any day of the year if the proper chant books were missing (which was often the case in small rural communities). Eventually most communities began using only these Small Chant formulas, even on feast days, resulting in the almost total abandonment of the Great Chant melodies by the time of the reforms of the 1660s, as well as the loss of how to read the neumatic notation. During this same period, the practice of singing certain hymns to special melodies (Greek autómela or Slavonic podóbny) reached a very high standard. Similar to the principal of the Small Chants, the Podóbny melodies are also sets of melodic formulas, each one being a type of Tone in itself.

iv) The Fourth Period: Of Decline (c.1660 to the present)

a) The Late Moscow Era: The Liturgical Reforms and the Russian Church Schism

Three concurrent circumstances shaped the growth, but more precisely, the transformation of the Muscovite chant tradition in the seventeenth century. The first was the reign of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (1645-76) and Patriarch Nikon (1652-58); these two individuals (later followed by Peter I the Great) are most responsible for the importation of foreign (Western European) elements into Russia during this period.

The second circumstance for change was the annexation by Muscovy in 1654 of Kiev and the Ukrainian lands east of the Dnieper River. After the annexation of Ukraine, Western culture began to pour into Moscow through the wholesale importation of Ukrainian culture. Ukrainian singers were deliberately recruited (especially by Patriarch Nikon) for the Tsarist and Patriarchal courts in Moscow, while others came of their own initiative. They brought with them part-singing, largely improvised polyphonic choral music, as well as the 'Kievan staff notation' (the quadratic or linear notation), which was already in use at the Kiev Caves Monastery since c.1600. They immediately had an effect on the upper class churches of Moscow, where the part-singing became the 'latest fad'. Before long, the liturgical singing practice of Southwestern Russia had made significant inroads in the north.

The third circumstance which helped reshape the Muscovite chant tradition took place from 1652 to 1656, when, under Tsar Alexei's supervision, Nikon initiated and presided over a series of extreme and comprehensive reforms in liturgical practices. Because the Divine Liturgy and religious ritual have held a place of particular importance among Eastern Rite Christians, it comes as no surprise that the faithful Russians were greatly pained in relinquishing what they loved and revered. There was much disagreement within the Church as to the validity of these reforms, and to what degree and in what manner they should be introduced. Unfortunately, Patriarch Nikon and Tsar Alexei chose to be intolerant of any opposition in the process of reform, and all who did not accept the reforms were persecuted by the Church and State, eventually being excommunicated by the Russian Church Council of 1666-67. Those who did not accept the reforms became known as "Old Believers" or "Old Ritualists", and these people were eventually subdivided into various factions.

While the new polyphonic singing was being patronized and promoted by Patriarch Nikon, he did not, however, disregard the old monophonic chant tradition, but instead tried to institute further reforms and clarifications of the musical manuscripts. To accomplish these reforms, he enlisted the aid of Alexander Mezénetz and a commission of assistants to revise the neumatic notation. Vocal practices such as excessive melismatic passages and the vocalization of mute vowels were banned. Simultaneously the chant melodies were adjusted to fit the new pronunciation. This commission was concerned with preserving and clarifying the neumatic notation, but in reality, most of the texts used were pre-reform texts, and ironically these were accepted for use by the Old Believers within central Russia. The new staff notation and the harmonized chants became so popular in cathedral parishes, that they began to completely displace the authentic plainchant melodies. While this process took more time in rural areas, the lack of printing technology left most parishes without printed chant books, and so they had little choice but to accept the newer chants that were being printed in the Kievan staff notation.

b) The Old Rite Churches to the Present

Following the schism, the Russian Old Believers refused to accept the new styles of harmonized singing into the liturgical services, especially the introduction of composed choral music. They staunchly adhered to the preservation of the chant repertory handed down from ancient times, and many even died for this cause which eventually split the Russian Orthodox Church by internal schism.

By the end of the 1600s, the Old Believer movement split over the issue of whether the priesthood was to be retained, since no bishops left the State Church to join the schism. The 'Priested' Old Believers, primarily residing in central Russia, recognized the need for notational reform for the chants that they preserved, and so they accepted the reformed manuscripts prepared by the commission headed up by Alexander Mezénetz in the 1660s. This is the final development of the Známenny Chant tradition, and is preserved intact by the Priested Old Believers to this day.

The 'Priestless' Old Believers (also called Pomórtsy or Shore-dwellers), residing primarily in the Northwestern frontiers of Russia and in Poland and the Baltic states, refused to accept any reforms resulting from the schism, including the notational reforms of Mezénetz. Thus their chanting tradition represents the earlier notated chants from c.1600 to c.1650, which retain the vocalization of certain mute vowels and numerous melismatic passages. The Priestless Old Believers maintain a staunch adherence to their ancient chant tradition and conduct a rather vigorous educational program in Russia to preserve the chants among their faithful.

With the advent of printing presses, both the Priested and Priestless Old Believers have worked together at various times to reprint various liturgical books. The Priestless Old Believers at the Preobrazhensky Monastery in Moscow have reprinted numerous chant books, as have the Priested Old Believers through the St. Petersburg Academy and various private presses. With the freeing of Russia from the yoke of Communism, computer technology is making the process of reproducing and reprinting liturgical books much easier and efficient.

c) The New Rite Church to the Present

The process of transcribing the chant melodies was slow in the process, especially since most parishes within the State Church had nearly abandoned the Známenny Chant and were using the new harmonized singing. Finally, after several previous attempts by other musicians, Gabriel Golovnia, a court singer from Gallicia and an advocate of part-singing, prepared an Obikhód (Book of Common Chants) written in Kievan notation for publication in 1766; these chants were rather simplified versions of the traditional chants and do not truly do the original melodies any justice. The Synodal singers rejected this edition, but unfortunately it became the model for subsequent editions. In 1772, S. Byshkovsky, head technician of the Moscow Synodal printing office, and some singers from the Moscow Synodal School who had preserved many of the revised manuscripts from the time of Mezénetz (1660s), had the Známenny melodies printed in four books by the Synodal Publishing House: the Obikhód (Book of Common Chants), Heirmológion (Chants for the Canon), Októikh (Chants in the Eight Tones) and Prázdniki (Hymns of the Great Feasts). The Tríod (Chants for Lent and Easter) was not published until the 19th century, while the Trezvón (Hymns of the Lesser Feasts) was not published due to the Revolution of 1917 (although it was completed and ready to printed).

Eventually, the Russian Orthodox Church gave its full endorsement and blessing to the use of harmonized singing executed by trained choirs. This had the twofold result of a) excluding the general masses of worshippers from participation in the singing, and preparing them for passivity, weariness, and even boredom, and b) it shifted the center of attention from an interior attitude of simple liturgical prayer that was sung by everyone to an external posture-that of focusing on external esthetics.

III. The Second Epoch of Russian Liturgical Music: Polyphonic Music

Since the realm of Russian polyphonic music is outside the scope of this article, the history and developments of the Second Epoch will not be discussed here, but for reference, the Second Epoch is divided into the following periods:

"The estrangement of Russian church music from its proper and legitimate source-the znamenny chant -- which began with the introduction of the seventeenth century innovations, forms one of the great and tragic enigmas of all Russian music. It is as if a broad current of the purest spring water were suddenly to disappear underground and continue flowing beneath the surface. Thus, anyone suspecting its hidden flow had first to shut himself off from all that he could hear in churches and even monasteries, and dig down into the soil in order to partake of the crystalline liquid." -- Alfred Swan, Russian Music, page 33.

For more information consult the article on 'Russian and Slavonic Church Music' by Milos Velomirovic in Groves New Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians. See also Russian Church Music, vol. 1, by Johann von Gardner (Ivan Gardner), SVS Press.