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Russian Orthodox Church Music

In the early centuries of the church, Christians sang in unison. The music used was never written out, but simply transmitted orally. These early Christians also utilized some elements and features of the Jewish liturgical chanting of the time. It was not until the third century A.D. however, that a system of church melodies was put together.
The use of instruments in Christian worship was discouraged by the early church fathers (i.e., St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom) as they felt that instrumentation distracted the mind from thoughts of God and turned them toward the self.
The book of Psalms played a central role in early Christian worship, and in the East, the antiphonal method of chanting the psalms was well established by the end of the fourth century A.D.
After having received Christianity from Byzantium, the early Russian Church soon began to modify the newly-acquired Byzantine chant, while at the same time drawing upon the musical experience of pre-Christian Russia.
The Russian Church attributes the creation of the system of the eight tones of the Byzantine Church to St. John of Damascus (8th c. A.D.) and although the Russians accepted the Byzantine form of chanting according to the system of the eight tones, the Russian tones differ considerably from the Byzantine.
During the time of the Christianization of Russia, Byzantine priests brought with them the best Bulgarian chanters who made use of Bulgarian melodies (Byzantine melodies adapted to fit the language of the Bulgars, i.e., Slavonic). The Russians were attracted to these melodies which seems only natural considering that the Bulgars and the Russians share a common language. The Bulgarian chants, which were accepted by the Russians, are similar to the Russian Znamenny chants.
The Znamenny chant is a particular type of Russian chant which is slow moving and makes use of lengthy melodic lines. It was originally written down using a series of signs (the word znamenny itself originated from the Russian word znak, or sign). The Russians invented hundreds of different signs which represented single notes, two or more notes, or short musical patterns, and placed them above the liturgical text.
As time passed, the system of musical notations using signs fell into disfavour, and was replaced by a system of square notations, kvadratniya noti, which more closely resemble modern notations. This square notation was brought to Kiev from the West in the late 17th century, and it was actually not introduced in Moscow until the middle of the 18th century. Until the chanters were able to convert completely to the square notation, many chants were written with both square and sign notation.
Kievan chant is basically a plain chant which also closely resembles the Znamenny chant. It has its own system of the eight tones, and there are many Kievan melodies which are still being used in the Russian Church today.
For a brief period prior to the advent of sign notation in Russia, a method of chanting called khironomiya was used. This consisted of the choir director making signs with his hands, fingers, and feet which were easily understood by the chanters. This method of chanting was used mainly during special church ceremonies.
Part-singing was introduced into Russia at the beginning of the 16th century. Its origins are found in the chanting of the Latin church in Poland. This type of chant paved the way for further harmonization and westernization of Russian liturgical chant which took place over the next three hundred years.
The 19th century produced a wide variety of composers of liturgical music. Nikolai Bakhmetev, Peter Tchaikovsky, Mili Balakirev, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Anton Arensky, and others. These compositions, however, fall well out of the range of liturgical chant and under the heading of choral performance.





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