Recording: Moscow conservatory. January to April 1998
A Russian Season Recording 1999
"The Orthodox Singers" male choir
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Musicians and music lovers of western Europe have always been fascinated by this peculiarity of Russian choirs, namely the basso profondo, or in Russian "oktavist." In 1838, after having heard the choir of the Imperial Chapel of Saint Petersburg, Adolphe Adam pointed out the gripping effect these basses, whose timbre resembles that of an organ, produce of the nervous system of the listener. During his trip to Russia in 1847, Berlioz was full of enthusiasm upon hearing the basses from this same Chapel sing the low A below the bass range. In 1844 Schumann also compared the sonority of Russian basses to the low notes of an organ. An anonymous French traveler during the 17th century observed that the cantor's voices in Kremlin churches were so extraordinary and powerful that he thought they must use the iconostasis, the separation covered in icons between the nave and the alter, as a resonating board! Paul Einbeck was sent to Saint Petersburg by Friedrich-Wilhelm III of Prussia to closely study the Imperial Chapel in order to reorganize Berlin's "Dom-Chor" in its image. He noted that the choir was comprised of 25 male sopranos, 25 altos (boys), 18 tenors and 22 basses, of whom 7 octavists. During the execution of the usual chants from the religious offices, the first basses sung the melody, the "cantus-firmus," doubled one octave higher by the tenors singing the same melody mezzo piano, themselves doubled one octave higher by the male sopranos singing pianissimo. The altos sung the melody on the third or on the sixth, whereas the second basses or "oktavisty" completed the chord.
In order to research the origins of such a vocal disposition centered on the bass, it would be necessary to go back to polyphonic Russian chant from the 17th century, those called "troyestrotchny" and "demestvenny."1 Originally a monody was sung by a natural voice which generally, with Russians, corresponded to a western bass-baritone. Little by little this monody was ornamented by a counterpoint in the same vocal range. From the end of the 17th century, a growing number of singers coming from the Ukraine created a Polish influence. Slowly these singers began to hold the majority of choral positions in important choirs such as those of the tsar, the patriarch and of several bishops and rich aristocrats. Under this influence, the choral sonority evolved towards a resemblance to the organ which so impressed western visitors to Russia in the 19th century.
It should also be pointed out that the Russian church followed a secular tradition whereby the deacon, he who intervenes and lectures the most during the liturgy, is a bass. The origins of this tradition are as old as the Russian church. It could be explained by the natural tessitura of Russian male voices, or by Russian religious architecture, or following the theories of P. Tomatis, by the length of the religious services in Russian churches and monasteries. No matter the reason, it's always difficult to find logical explanations for a passion, and the Russian people truly have a passion for the basso profondo, be they deacons, singers or opera soloists. This passion is illustrated here in this recording of different liturgical and secular chants by the male choir "The Orthodox Singers" of Moscow.
1. Verily, He is worthy
This hymn to the Mother of God is sung during various offices (matins, Eucharist...). Here it is used for the rite welcoming the bishop to the church before the Eucharistic liturgy. While the choir sings the Marian hymn, the deacon pronounces the introductory prayers. The polyphonic arrangement of this old melody is characteristic of the "Pertessian" style from the beginning of the 18th century.
2. We bow down before Your Cross
During the celebrations of the Cross (Veneration of the Holy Cross the fifth Sunday of Lent and the Exaltation of the Cross on 14 September), this hymn replaces the Trisagion during the Eucharist and accompanies the faithful as they bow before the Cross. It's the only surviving composition by P. Gontcharov and dates from the second half of the 19th century.
3. Before Thy Cross
A.F. Lvov (1798-1870) was director of the Imperial Chapel from 1837 to 1870 and a renowned violinist and fervent admirer of German music. He imposed this style on Russian liturgical music through the power of censorship he held over religious music publication. He
selected this excerpt from the Wednesday matins from the fourth week of Lent because it resembled the Stabat Mater of the Roman church. In addition, he reorchestrated Pergolesi's Stabat Mater and arranged it for choir.
4. We hymn Thee
An excerpt from the Eucharistic Canon, this chant is sung at the culminating moment of the
Eucharist during the Transubstantiation. It's a "Znamenny" neumatic chant from the 15th
5. Blessed is the man who seeks no counsel among the impious
The verses of Psalm 1 are sung at each Saturday vespers. P. Tchesnokov (1877-1944), one of the most exemplary composers from the School of Moscow, adapted this traditional melody called "from Kiev," taking pains to conserve the antiphonal style of the Psalm as required by the Ordo, the liturgical canon.
6. Do not reject me in my old age
P. Tchesnokov was also one of the most accomplished specialists in choral direction in Russia.
His work on combining differing vocal timbres and on intonation still carries weight. This
piece is a "concert" for choir and soloist. Even though composed on verses from Psalm 70, it
isn't part of the liturgical repertory; however, it highlights the particular timbre of the "octavist"
7. The litany of supplication
This litany was interpreted in its time by Feodor Shaliapin and is taken from the Liturgia domestica op.79 by Alexander Gretchaninov (1864-1956). It was originally written for voice with piano accompaniment and later was orchestrated and arranged for choir by the composer. This version is an adaptation for male a cappella choir. Its pompous and melodramatic character is closer in style to opera than it is to liturgical declamation.
The Orthodox Church customarily cites each year the anathemas against heresy on the first Sunday of Lent called the "Sunday of the Orthodox Triumph" in memory of the Church's victory over iconoclastic heresy. The deacon enumerates the heresies condemned by the Church while the choir proclaims the anathema. During the centuries, the lists of heretics has had a tendency to grow as governments began including their political enemies.
9. Eternal memory
This chant concludes the mortuary offices (burials or offices of remembrance) and is also sung during the "Triumph of Orthodoxy" office. The deacon recites the names of the deceased after which the choir sings an original melody from Kiev, Eternal memory.
10. Many years
Each office in the Orthodox rite concludes by wishing long life to the local deacon. This chant by an anonymous composer from the period of Peter the Great is based on the same principle as the previous one: the deacon recites the names and tides of those dedicated followed by the choir wishing Many years.
11. Song of penitence for Russia
P. I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was inspired by a Russian Church melody in the sixth mode in
writing his No. 23, At Church, from his Children's Album op. 86. Much later, at the beginning
of the 20th century, he adapted it for choir using a poetic text based on Russia's misfortunes in
12. Lord of my days
Alexander Pushkin made a brilliant poetic adaptation of the Syrian Saint Ephraem's prayer "Lord, master of my life." It is a prayer of compunction and at the same time an ascetic exercise repeated numerous times during Lent. A. Gretchaninov was one of the many Russian composers to put these verses to music.
13. God, save the Tsar
A. F. Lvov composed this Russian Imperial hymn on a request by Nicholas I. Even though composed in 1833, the hymn's melody was used by Tchaikovsky in the concluding section of his 1812 Overture, musical expression taking precedence over historical veracity...
14. How glorious is our Lord in Zion
This composition by Dmitri Bortniansky (1751-1825), Lvov's predecessor as head of the Imperial Chapel, is a hymn to the Creator initially used in Masonic lodges which proliferated in Russia under the reign of Alexander I. This work quickly left esoteric circles and became, after God, save the Tsar, the second Russian Imperial hymn.
15. The legend of twelve robbers
The legend of twelve robbers and their leader Koudeyar who left his companions to enter a monastery to atone for his sins was written in verse by the poet N. Nekrassov. The music is by an anonymous composer whose westernized style is indicated by the use of three part rhythms never encountered in true Russian folklore.
16. Oleg the wise
A. Pushkin was inspired by the almost legendary life of Prince Oleg of Kiev who died bitten by a viper hidden in the head of his just killed favorite horse. His death had been predicted by a seer. This poem was put to music at the end of the 19th century and used as a military march as demonstrated by the refrain proclaiming glory to the tsar.
- Jean Drobot
"The Orthodox Singers" male choir ("Pravoslavnyie pevtchie") was founded in 1992. Comprised of 14 singers chosen from among the finest professional singers in the churches of Moscow, it belongs to the old Russian tradition of the "choruses of clerks" which had existed since the 16th century. The conductor and artistic director of the ensemble, Georgy Smirnov, concluded his studies of choral conducting at the Moscow Conservatory in 1959. Besides his work with " The Orthodox Singers ", he is the choirmaster of the Monastery of St Daniel in Moscow.
The choir's repertoire embraces Russian religious chant from its origins to the 20th century, with particular emphasis on the composers of the Pre-Revolutionary Moscow School: Kastalsky, Tchesnokov, Gretchaninov.
The "Orthodox Singers" have taken part in numerous festivals of religious art and music in Moscow, Germany (Festival of Marktoberdorf), the United States and Switzerland. Irina Arkhipova is a regular partner of the choir, with whom she has appeared in the televised festival "The Stars of the Kremlin", and in numerous concerts in Russia, Athens and Geneva.