In 1979 a young American graduate student named Vladimir Morosan won a Fullbright Scholarship togo to the Moscow Conservatory to study choral performance in pre-revolutionary Russia. The Soviet state had banned public performance of sacred music decades before that in 1923, and vicious attacks on and repression of the Russian Orthodox Church combined with strong censorship over creative output practically eliminated Russians’ access to their own sacred musical tradition and the continuity of that tradition throughout the Soviet era. Nevertheless, because Morosan was an American citizen, not a Soviet citizen, he was allowed to access historical materials, articles and sheet music relating to the Russian Orthodox sacred tradition. Recognizing the extraordinary opportunity this presented, Morosan’s supervising professor at the Conservatory, himself secretly a believer, said, “Vladimir, you understand our situation, of course. We cannot perform our great sacred music openly. So I’m charging you to gather everything that you can and take it to the West, and teach them in the West how this music is to be performed so that it’s not lost forever.”
By 1987 Morosan had founded Musica Russica, setting out to compile a historical anthology of Russian sacred music to mark the millennium of Russian Christianity celebrated in 1988. The result, published in 1991, was One Thousand Years of Russian Church Music, a collection of 79 pieces covering a wide range of styles and genres of sacred music from early chant fragments through Golovanov’s “Lord’s Prayer” (“отче наш“/”Otche nash“), originally published on the eve of the 1917 Revolution. Major figures like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Rimsky-Korsakov are not included in this anthology but are instead given their own volumes, each focusing on a single composer’s complete sacred works. Today Musica Russica’s growing catalog encompasses Russia’s major sacred works, as well as a number of folk songs, and continues to extend back into the rich historical catalog and to support the reinvigorated Orthodox tradition of the post-Communist era.
What is it that distinguishes this music from the Western sacred choral traditions? Perhaps most instantly recognizable are the octavo basses, followed very closely by a fullness of sound across voice parts and registers. Though some of the more recent choral works contain optional instrumental accompaniment for concerts conducted outside of church settings, all of the music is composed to be able to be sung a cappella, as Russian churches don’t use instruments at all. As such, a lot of what we’d recognize instrumentally in the Western style became internalized in the choir, including those very same deep octavo basses.
The most critical element of Russian sacred choral music, though, is the word. In fact, some people say it’s not even appropriate to call Russian sacred choral music “music,” as “music” was something created in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance as the interplay of instruments. In the Orthodox understanding, Russian sacred choral music is deemed to be “singing,” which illustrates that the core experience is the sung word and that what is sung draws its raison d’être from the word. How the singers and conductor interpret something, how they experience it and how they communicate it to the audience, therefore, is of the utmost importance.
This is also true musically. Performing Russian sacred choral music without a sincere regard for the words is rather different than doing the same with Western sacred choral music. If we listen to the masses of Bach, Mozart or Brahms, for instance, what we hear is an interplay of musical sounds that incidentally have some text. The core, however, is an instrumental musical structure. In stark contrast, Russian sacred choral music contains little in the way of imitative counterpoint or fugal structures. There are a lot of vertical chords that aren’t always so interesting if you strip away the words, but if you pay close attention to the linguistic phrasing, what emerges is an ancient chant synthesized with the ancient Russian tradition of communal folk singing delivered through the lens of some of the greatest compositional masters of human history. This makes it some of the most singable repertoire in the world. As Morosan says:
“Russian choral music is idiomatically choral. It encompasses so much of what we experience any time a group of people gets together and sings something in common.”
To give you a glimpse into this quite remarkable catalog, perhaps listen to a short piece by Rachmaninoff, “Rejoice, O Virgin” (“Bogoroditse Devo”), the sixth movement from his All-Night Vigil (Всенощное бдение/Vsenoshchnoye bdeniye), often considered to be one of the most beautiful choral pieces ever written. In many ways this piece is rather simple, but perhaps that is why we can connect with it so deeply.
As one of Rachmaninoff’s favorite compositions, he even requested that the fifth movement, “Lord, Now Lettest Thou” (“Ньине отпущаеши”/“Nine otpushchayeshi”), be sung at his funeral. This movement has a notorious final descending scale in the low bass line that ends with a sustained B-flat 1 (i.e., the third B-flat below middle C). Rachmaninoff recalled that when he first showed this passage to Nikolai Danilin, conductor of the Moscow Synodal Choir, before the premiere, “Danilin shook his head saying ‘Now where on earth are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas!’ Nevertheless, he did find them. I knew the voices of my countrymen.”
For those already familiar with Rachmaninoff, it’s perhaps worth taking a look at the 20th-century neoromantic composer, Georgy Sviridov. Living most of his life under the Soviet regime, Sviridov wasn’t able to simply publish sacred music. Like many of his contemporaries, he wrote sacred music “into the desk drawer,” knowing that the pieces may never be heard, but he also managed to find clever ways to get around the Soviet censorship system. A 1973 staging of Alexei Tolstoy’s play, “Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich,” a Romantic-era play set in the late 16th century, provided an opportunity to present a trio of sacred choruses at Moscow’s Maly Theater under the guise of incidental music. These Three Choruses — “Rejoice, O Virgin” (“Богородице Дево”/“Bogoroditse Devo”), “Sacred Love” (“Любовь сбятая”/“Liubov sviataya”) and “Verse of Repentance” (“Покаянный стих”/“Pokayanniy stih”) — employ actual liturgical chant melodies, as well as a heterophonic texture stemming from ancient folk singing.
Musica Russica offers these pieces and many more, complete with performance notes, detailed transliterations, English translations, pronunciation tracks and even a DVD called The ABC’s of Russian Diction to help choirs outside of Russia connect not only with the language, but with the entire essence of this deeply soulful and uplifting musical tradition.