Brilliant Creativity: A Gift from the Reformation

“Lutherans have the best coffee, tuna hot dish, and college choirs in Minnesota.” So I heard when I joined the marketing staff of the Ecumenical Group at Augsburg Fortress in 2000. The quality of the local Lutheran choir was well-known to me, since I breathed the rarefied air of Lutheran greats during countless rehearsals and performances at Luther College and Gustavus Adolphus College as an aspiring high school singer (a bass who would grow up to be a tenor). I, too, got goose bumps when they rolled out the elite college choruses for a performance of Pavel Chesnokov’s “Salvation is Created,” which was once a staple of the Minnesota musical repertoire.

I felt at home during these performances at Luther and Gustavus Adolphus—the music sounded like the classics sung by my émigré choir at Saints Volodymyr and Ol’ha parish on Victoria and Lexington in St. Paul, though they preferred stuffed cabbage rolls and varenyky to tuna hot dish.
At the time, I had no idea that my own native Ukrainian Orthodox community had experienced a radical reform of liturgical music that began in the sixteenth century. The Orthodox Church of medieval Rus’ inherited the Byzantine system of liturgical singing, with hymns sung to the music of regional chants. Liturgical texts had signs indicating the appointed melodies to be employed in a complex system of eight tones. Liturgical music evolved within the native contexts of the diverse regions of Rus’, so the chant melodies sung in Vladimir were different from those used in Kyiv, for example. Liturgical music took a new turn among the Ruthenians in the late sixteenth century, as musicians began to use square notation for the texts of Kyivan chant. The hegemony of canonical chant was challenged in the local Kyivan Church, as polyphony began to influence liturgical music, beginning in the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century, polyphonic compositions shaped by the musical culture of Austrian, French, and Italian masters were staples of Orthodox worship in many cathedrals of the Russian Empire. Composers like Artem Vedel and Maxim Berezovsky were among the first pioneers of this new tradition of liturgical music; Dmitry Bortniansky is the best known of them all, and his music is performed widely in the Orthodox world today, epitomized by his famous Cherubikon no. 7 and his 35 concerts.

The reformation of liturgical music was a paradigm shift in the worship experience of the Church. The new, polyphonic singing was popular, and supported by the emergence of paraliturgical hymns heavily influenced by the Reformation. These hymns originated in Central European centers such as Prague, Wittenberg, and Krakow, and included simple kanty and festal hymnals. Poetry, rhetoric, and language arts were required courses in the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, the collegia in various Ukrainian cities (e.g., Chernihiv), and schools sponsored by brotherhoods. Teachers learned how to compose the poetry and construct entire religious dramas on a wide variety of religious themes that were performed by students and included the singing of popular kanty and Church music. Ukraine inherited the tradition of religious dramas performed for didactic and polemical purposes by Luther and the Jesuits. The curriculum of classics, rhetoric, and poetry, along with musical performance, created an artistic environment that gave birth to the immensely popular genre of paraliturgical music. This music was published in hymnals.

Some of these hymnals are analogous to the Menaia and Triodia that provide the texts for the hymns of the Byzantine liturgical services: the popular hymns follow similar patterns in the arrangement of the texts, but diverge in cadence, rhythm, and (of course), performance. Many young Ukrainians learned how to compose the religious poetry and sing the verses in three-part harmony, with a simple folk motif decorated by a parallel third and supported by a bass. Contemporary Ukrainian musicologists have traced the history of the development of these paraliturgical collections and simply refer to them as spivanyk (hymnal or songbook). As the tradition of religious poetry set to simple music traveled eastward throughout Ukraine and Belarus, and into Russia, the hymns were copied and codified into anthologies often called the Bohohlasnyk. Yury Medvedyk’s careful historical documentation of the history of paraliturgical music shows that the phenomenon of wonderworking icons influenced the composition of new hymns and hymnals in Ukraine, especially at the Pochaiv Monastery in Ternopil.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the metamorphosis of liturgical music was almost complete: not only had polyphony overtaken chant, but the experience of worship had changed, too. The assembly’s musical function disappeared, and many liturgical texts were dominated by the composer’s flourishes with long melismas and excessive repetition of words. The choir was separated from the rest of the assembly and moved to a gallery, making the arrangement of sacred space take on select features of a concert hall. The responsorial psalm for Communion (Koinonikon) became a good fit in the liturgical structure for a choral performance, since the clergy were busy receiving Communion: the koinonikon became the “konzert,” an opportunity for the choir to sing a religious piece it had rehearsed—and in many places, paraliturgical hymns like kanty replaced the responsorial psalm.

Liturgical singing was one of many topics discussed by clergy and academics during the long period of preparation for the Moscow Council of 1917-18. The Moscow synodal choir shaped multiple generations of liturgical musicians who sought to reform the reform that shaped Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian liturgical singing from the end of the sixteenth century. The reform sought to restore substantial features of native church singing by reintroducing chant, resetting the proper relationship between music and liturgical texts, encouraging assembly singing, and cultivating new setting of liturgical music that were based on chant. Despite the Bolshevik regime’s disruption of the Moscow council, the Moscow synodal school successfully implemented a reform of the reform that took root primarily outside of Russia, especially in Western Europe and North America through the pioneering efforts of Boris Ledkovsky, whose promotion of canonical singing shaped the musical cultures of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and the Orthodox Church in America. The canonical singing of the Moscow synodal school did not eradicate the choral tradition that entered Russia through the West, but the two traditions exist side-by-side today, even in individual parishes.

Did popular paraliturgical hymns coming from the contexts of Protestant Germany and Counter-Reformation Poland threaten the established tradition of liturgical singing in the Orthodox Churches of Rus’? The desire to distinguish between the two genres of singing and stop the permeation of the paraliturgical into the realm of the liturgical suggests that the content and styles of Central European music were deemed as alien to the native Orthodox traditions of chant. In early twentieth-century Ukraine, a cohort of musicians sought to restore the tradition of creating liturgical settings on the basis of folk music motifs. Kyrylo Stetsenko, who was one of the pioneers of this movement, appealed for the creation of a national capella of Ukrainian musicians who would teach this style of music, akin to the Moscow synodal school and its promotion of chant restoration. For Stetsenko and his colleagues, the longstanding popularity of paraliturgical music was a popular confirmation of the legitimacy of using folk music motifs for liturgical music. In this sense, the paraliturgical was not a threat to the liturgy, but was actually its ally. Artists needed to learn a lesson from the corpus of religious poetry and anthologies of paraliturgical music that dominated the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by drawing from the people’s devotional practices. In 1918, Stetsenko composed a panakhyda (requiem) designed to promote this new method of composing liturgical music, but the movement was stifled by devastating Soviet persecution of the Church and eradication of its intelligentsia.

The Reformation’s contribution to the reform of liturgical music in the Churches of Rus’ was indirect but significant. The musicians who adopted musical styles prevalent in Central European centers drew from diverse religious sources of poetic and musical composition, in the milieu of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations. I view the musical output of this period as one of brilliant creativity. What, then, do we make of the reform of the reform—the attempt to restore native chant traditions and excise the ornamented polyphonies that came from the West? The attempt to restore canonical chants and singing did not result in the eradication of the polyphonies that came from Western and Central Europe. They exist alongside one another in the Orthodox Churches of Central and Eastern Europe. The Moscow Synodal school and its disciples produced beautiful settings rooted in chant, encouraged the revival of chant-based singing, and have encouraged pastors and musicians to promote the assembly’s singing of the responses appointed to it. The Moscow style of music is also a product of brilliant creativity. Perhaps the overarching lesson is that the Reformation reminds us that the Churches are constantly engaging the process of liturgical reform in response to their cultural contexts, and that in some cases, the products of this reformation are blessings to be celebrated, and not curses to be excised.

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  1. Father Deacon, you don’t mention the Carpatho-Rusyn, Lemko, Boiko, and Galician Greek Catholics who maintained their congregational plainchant traditions (and brought it with them wherever they went). And yes, they also have a strong tradition of para-liturgical hymnody (mostly from Polish and Austro-Hungarian sources after their reunion with the Catholic Church) but which never impeded their plainchant singing during the Divine Liturgy.

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