Introduction to Znamenny Chant
As a general rule, Christian chant has eluded people for many years because of a lack of understanding. Like any music, chant can be found superficially beautiful, but a true appreciation for it only arises through a thorough understanding of its history and its process of composition. In this way, chant can amazingly be compared to twentieth-century twelve-tone music; people rarely fully appreciate it without understanding how it was composed.
Western chant has been experiencing a bit of a renaissance recently with the successful marketing of new recordings. Eastern chant, including Russian, is still relatively unknown to Western audiences. This aversion is probably reinforced by the inaccessibility of Eastern chant as far as its notation and its system of composition. Indeed, a great deal of research is still needed to decipher the earliest body of Russian chant. Nonetheless, chant scholarship has unravelled many interesting secrets of Eastern chant and some of the most rewarding finds have been in Russian znamenny chant. By understanding the nature of znamenny chant, one discovers a type of music that is intrinsically beautiful.
The illustration above is znamenny notation with Shaidurov's red (cinnabar) letters designating the height and inflection of tone. The excerpt is an Irmos, the theme-song of each of nine canticles introducing the tropar and the hymn of the Feast. It is taken from the book Irmosy tserkovanago znamenny penia, and published by the Knigoizdatelstvo Znamenny Peniye, Kiev, 1913. (Nicholas Brill, History of Russian Church Music, Bloomington, IL: Nicholas Brill, 1980).
Znamenny chant was the principal chant of the Russian Orthodox Church for the time Christianity was imported from Byzantine to roughly the late seventeenth century. Like many things in Russian culture, chant was originally imported from another country, but it soon took on characteristics that made it distinctly Russian.
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History of Russian Chant
The story of Christianity coming to Russia is well-known. Vladimir I took it upon himself to chose a single religion to unite his people. Scouts were sent out to examine the religions of other countries, and the ones that came back from the Byzantine Empire had the most magnificent tales to tell. Christianity and all of its glories appealed to Vladimir, who thus proceeded to declare his country Christian in the year 988.
Eastern Orthodoxy was directly imported into Russia with all of its cultural appendages; the architecture for churches, the painting style for icons, and the music of the church were all included. Orthodox music was and still is strictly vocal chant. Just like the architecture and painting, this chant was quickly transformed by the Russians. In New Monuments of the Znamenny Chant Maxim Brajnikov writes:
Russian Church music — the Znamenny Chant — was in the long past derived from Byzantium, but was no sooner on Russian soil that it encountered an entirely new medium — the musical perception of the Russian people, its whole culture and custom, and thus began its second Russian life.
The largest influence Byzantine chant encountered in Russia was the huge body of Russian peasant folk-songs. Since a very important part of znamenny chant is its strict rhythm (as will be seen below), this influence was limited to mostly intervalic relationships and fragments of melody.
Znamenny chant scholarship is generally divided into three periods: the pre-Mongol period (from 988 to the mid-thirteenth century), the Mongol period (from the mid-thirteenth to the mid-fifteenth centuries), and the period of late chant (from the mid-fifteenth to the late seventeenth centuries). The pre-Mongol period chant is characterized by its departure from Byzantine chant as far as its musical content. There is a surprisingly large amount of manuscripts from this period, around twenty-five, that contain znamenny chant. However, the notation of this period was Kondakarion notation, which was what the Byzantines used and is to this day undecipherable:
Twelfth-century Kondakarion notation.
D. Razumovsky, plate from the
Library of Nizhni-Novgorod Monastery. (Q. I No. 32, p.113)
The Mongol period is no less frustrating, but this time it is because of the lack of sources for chant. The devastation of the Mongol yoke can indeed be seen as there are basically no manuscripts of chant from this period. The notation had been evolving since its inception into Russian culture, however, so that by the later period the numerous sources of znamenny chant are actually readable to knowledgeable twentieth-century enthusiasts.
This last period of chant saw a large flourishing of znamenny chant and thanks to a readable znamenny notation (not to be confused with the name of how the music sounds), there has been much study of this chant. The demise of znamenny chant came about in the late seventeenth century, when the Southern and Western Slavs developed their own style of chant. This would initially seem tragic for znamenny fans, but by being tossed aside in favor of the new chant, znamenny was able to escape the huge influence of Western musical thought, especially Italian, which was flowing into Russia unchecked. Ironically the victim of this contamination was the the new chant of the Southern and Western Slavs. Thus znamenny chant was tucked under the wings of the Old Believers who saw it as "their" chant, and was remarkably well-preserved throughout the years.
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Musical Analysis of Znamenny Chant
Russian chant was composed using parameters alien to Western music systems. Although znamenny chant was diatonic (recognition of whole-steps and half-steps), the similarities to Western music end there. The scale used in znamenny chant is a little over an octave consisting of twelve pitches from a low B to a high D. Every three pitches are divided into a different "accordance" (Russian, soglassya): low, somber, bright, and very bright. When writing a chant, the composer would indicate in which accordance the chant was to be sung. A single chant could also move between different accordances, which was indicated in the notation.
Melodic Motion and Rhythm:
The melody was usually in strict conjunct motion (no skips in the pitches) and leaps of a fourth or a fifth were used for added drama in a cadence at the end of a chant. The rhythm was mainly quarter notes and half notes, with the beat determined by half notes. There were occasional whole notes that when used were only to end a phrase or line. Eighth notes can be found in the manuscripts, but overall were very rare. Singers could take expressive liberties by sustaining half notes and whole notes longer, but sometimes the notation dictated this lengthening.
Influence of Text on Composition
The text was all-important to the construction of the znamenny chant. Since the whole purpose of having the chant in church was to convey the holy liturgy in a beautiful and worshipful manner, it would not behoove a composer to treat the text lightly and conform it to a pleasing melody (as was the practice at this time in folk-songs). Rather, the text dictated the shape of the melody. No words were repeated, and care was taken to preserve the integrity of every word of the text. A feeling of great dignity and reverence was preserved by limiting the notes per syllable to two, and at a maximum, four.
Perhaps the most peculiar thing about Russian chant that would baffle a Western chant composer of this time would be the system of tonality that the Russian composer employed. The best Western equivalent of this system is probably the system of key signatures (which was not used in Western chant). Russian chant composers used a system of eight glassy that were roughly derived from the eight Byzantine echoi. This system was probably of Arabic origin, and it grouped melodies not by an underlying scale, but according to typical melodic patterns that certain groups of melodies were found to have in common. These patterns were called popefki or kokizi.
For example, the first glas was characterized by ninety-three of these popefki, and all of these popefki could be considered to have a festive tone, but at the same time, a general feel of solemnity was preserved. Each of the eight glassy had such defining popefki, and each had a certain mood or feeling that it conveyed. For example, the second glas was sweet and tender, the sixth was mournful, etc. A master znamenny composer would have all of these glassy memorized, all of the popefki memorized, and even the names of the 400 or so popefki memorized as well. Obviously, there is a lot more to znamenny chant than what initially meets the ear!
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The Notation of Znamenny Chant
Notation of znamenny chant had undergone a lot of improvements since the time it was imported from Byzantium. The Byantine notation consisted of the written text with symbols above the syllables that indicated, as far as can be gathered, pitch, duration and other essentials for the performance of the chant. However, these symbols were never documented by the Byzantines, and their meanings were so obscure that they have never been deciphered. However, the Russians that used znamenny notation as opposed to Kondakarion notation were a bit more helpful than the Byzantines in that they actually took the time to compile somewhat of a glossary of their symbols. The znamenny notation symbols indicated a range of musical ideas, including the initial accordance and subsequent movement between accordances, rhythm, duration of notes, volume, and manner of voice. Thus the singer could get a basic idea of what he was supposed to sing.
The main problem of this notation was that the average singer could gather in what accordance to sing, but he had no idea which of the three notes in the particular accordance he was supposed to sing. For the singer to know, he would have to memorize every individual popefki to be able to recognize it immediately and know on what pitch to begin. This was obviously a significant problem that had to be addressed, as only years of training and rote memorization of hundreds of popefki would assure an accurate performance of a particular chant. Only the most masterful of chant singers were this advanced and they were far and few between.
The answer to this vexation came in the mid-seventeenth century when the Novgorod master Ivan Shaidur, or Shaidurov, invented a system of auxiliary red letters to be placed alongside the znamenny notation above the text of the chant. Each of these letters corresponded to a particular note in the church scale, thus any singer could more easily sing a chant with much more accuracy than before. (Cf. picture at top of page.) The body of chant with Shaidurov's red letters is quite obviously the most accessible to the general public and it is a shame that znamenny chant was so soon put aside in favor of the new Westernized South and West Slav's chant, since a whole new expertise was again needed.
Thus znamenny chant retreated into relative obscurity, the only keepers of it being the Old Believers. In fact, the Old Believers have done such an admirable job in preserving the znamenny chant that many scholars armed with tape recorders seek them out in order to gather chant sustained primarily through an oral tradition.
Many secrets of Russian znamenny chant have been unearthed through the efforts of many persevering musicologists. Even though the earliest body of chant is still indecipherable, much has been done and is being done to solve these notational problems. This notation may be in part why Eastern chant in general is still very unknown to Western audiences, even though it is certainly very worthy of every kind of attention.
Composers of znamenny chant lived in a different world in relation to Western compositional techniques. To them, mastery was achieved when one had managed to imitate their teacher as closely as possible. Theirs was an art so confined by parameters, such as accordances, glassy, etc., that when they managed to successfully convey the meaning of the liturgical text the effect was absolutely beautiful. Centuries of time are reduced to nothing when a twentieth-century listener can learn the basics of znamenny chant and hence appreciate this unique music as well.
Dawn Gauthier. This page is reproduced by permission of the author.
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Books and Resources
Brother Ambrose (ca.1849-1909), A Short Introduction to Znamenny Chant and its Notation, S.l.: Old Ritualist Society, c.1980.
Maxim Brajnikov, New Monuments of the Znamenny Chant, Leningrad:1967.
Nicholas Brill, History of Russian Church Music, 988-1917, Bloomington, Ill.: Brill, 1982.
Dimitri Conomos, The Late Byzantine and Slavonic Communion Cycle: Liturgy and Music, Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1985.
Zivar Gusejnova, "Russian Znamenny Chant in the First Half of the Seventeenth Century" in International Musical Society Study Group Cantus Planus: Papers Read at the Fourth Meeting in Pecs, Hungary, September 3-8, 1990, by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Institute for Musicology. Budapest: 1992, 311-318.
Inok Khristofor (17th century), Kleiiuch Znamennoaei: 1604 (Key to Znamenny Chant), Moskva: Izd-vo "Muzyka," 1983.
Gregory Myers, The Lavrsky Troitsky Kondakar, Bulgaria: 1994.
Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, "The Role of Religion in the Development of Znamenny-Russian Chant" in Diakonia, vol. 26 (1993) 41-66.
________, "The Znamenny Chant" in The Musical Quarterly, vol. 74, no.2 (1990) 217-241.
________, The Plainchant Tradition of Southwestern Rus'. New York: East European Monographs 1986.
Alfred J. Swan, "The Znamenny Chant of the Russian Church" in The Musical Quarterly, vol. 26 (Apr., July, Oct., 1940) 232-243, 365-379, 529-545.
________, Notes on the Old Liturgical Chant of the Russian Church and the Russian Folk Song, Jordanville, N.Y.: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1967.
________, Russian Music and its Sources in Chant and Russian Folk-Song, New York: W.W. Norton, 1973.
Milos Velimirovic, ed. Studies in Russian Chant, New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.
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