OLD RUSSIAN MUSIC. A PARADOX IN MUSICAL HISTORY
As we have already mentioned, professional music of Ancient Russ was exclusively church music. But, you may rightly remind us, wasn’t this the case with all peoples, or certainly – Europeans?
Yes, this is true. And in the case of the Russians, their professional music takes its origins in the art of ancient Byzantium. Church music came to us from there together with Christianity, adopted by Russians in the 10th century.
So, where is the paradox, you may wonder?
Well, Byzantine art was built on rigid, strictly observed canons. They regulated the process of creation and performance of music to the minute detail. So, it would be natural to assume that Ancient Russ, after adopting Christianity, had similarly copied the Byzantine music, together with its canons. But here lies the paradox: approximately a hundred years later our country had its own church music, completely unlike any other.
How could it have happened? In fact, by the 10th century the Slavs possessed a national culture, formed many centuries prior to this. There was a particularly powerful singing tradition. Singers and songwriters intuitively ‘sang out’ the canonic melodies brought in from abroad in their own traditional manner. And if the very ancient Russian chants were still somewhat similar to the Byzantine ones, the Russian church polyphony, born some time later was nothing short of unique, unparalleled in the world. And it certainly has its roots in national folk culture.
In conformity with tradition, stemming from the very first centuries of Christianity in Russ, the reading of the Gospel occupies a special place in church services. In a very special manner, too – in a sing-song. Since time immemorial the Gospel was read out in the native language. Quite naturally, this reading was filled out with the traditional intonations of Slav peoples. Here you have yet another explanation of how the seemingly severely canonic art acquired national flavor.
Old-Russian church music has a special name for it – ‘znamennoye singing’. It comes from the old-Slav word ‘znamya’, meaning ‘sign’.
This music was written down with the aid of a certain intriguing system of signs, ‘znamiona’, having nothing in common with music notes. Every one such sign stood for a whole small melody.
These signs, and the melodies they stood for, numbered thousands! It was out of their specific sequences that the chants were formed.
The Russian word ‘znamya’, or ‘sign’ is imbued with a certain mystic symbolism. This was the case with Old Russian music – certain ‘signs’ were used to symbolize the grandiose “Essence” of the Biblical texts! Incidentally, even the unique graphical representation of these signs, reminiscent of the hieroglyphs, carried across a sacred message.
Thus, the sign ‘cross’, indeed, showed the form of a cross. It was traditionally placed at the end of all the chants, as though “sealing” them.
The sign ‘cup’, used when mention was made of the Trinity, called to mind a church chalice. Incidentally, the chalice in the world-famous icon “The Trinity” by Andrei Rublyov is depicted precisely in the form of this musical sign.
Or take the sign that is referred to by the sweet-sounding Russian word ‘golubchik’, which simultaneously means ‘dove’ and ‘dear, beloved person’. The shape of this sign resembles a bird with outspread wings. In Russian icons a dove traditionally symbolically depicted the Holy Spirit. While the musical sign was used in chants about Him…
You are probably wondering how on earth music could be played not with the use of traditional music notes, but such a puzzling system of signs… How could one memorize their meaning if each one stood for a whole melody? There were signs, or ‘znamyona’, which could stand for a melody consisting of no less than 90 sounds! There was a special name for these sounds – ‘tainozapechatannye’ (secretly sealed).
The familiar to us all sheet music, invented by Guido Aretinsky, already existed in the 10th century. However, make note: in Europe, similarly, the creators of church music didn’t seem eager to make use of it, and wrote down their music with a system of signs, more resembling ‘codes’. Perhaps, this is where the answer to the mystery lies.
The music of those distant centuries spoke to people of the Heavenly, of the Eternal. It permitted access to its mysteries only to those, who aimed to embrace the Truth, by spending long years striving to seek it out.
Music was a special moral criterion for our ancestors. The most faithful and dedicated, who created art in the name of our Lord, were elevated by them to the rank of Saints…