Russian Music before Glinka:

A Look from the Beginning of the Third Millennium  

I Introduction

Due to the events of history and their complex intertwining, the artistic treasures of Russian music before Glinka have only relatively recently begun to attract public attention even in Russia itself, while outside Russia they remain virtually unknown.1 Anyone studying this fascinating repertoire from a broad historical and cultural perspective must address intriguing questions. We know, for example, that J. S. Bach wrote in 1726 to his Lyceum-friend George Erdmann, the resident Consul of Danzig at the court of Empress Catherine the First (widow of Peter the Great), asking about a possible position (Pantielev, 1983). Similarly, Mozart, exhausted by his freelance existence, authorized Count Andrew Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador in Vienna, to start negotiations with Prince Gregory Potemkin about his possible service in Russia (Klimovitsky 1998, 232). What attracted these eminent West European composers? What knowledge might they have had concerning contemporary Russian musical culture?

The Russian musical culture of the 18th century always strikes one by its unevenness and the contradiction of its manifestations, the old and the new interact with each other, sometimes becoming thoroughly mixed. This is the time when the European-like infrastructure of musical culture crystallized. And yet, as crucial and fascinating as the 18th century is in terms of Russian musical history, in order to truly understand the history of Russian music we must step a little farther back in time. The present article is an attempt to conceptualize the full spectrum of pre-19th-century Russian musical culture, the known facts as well as the underlying processes.

We begin by surveying musical culture in medieval Rus’. Here we find the seeds of animosity toward everything “secular,” “strange,” and “new,” which dominated Russian musical history practically up to the 18th century. The rise and fall of the skomorokhi (the Russian equivalents of European medieval minstrels), discussed in Section III, provide a fascinating illustration of the conflicting forces that shared in the shaping of Russian musical culture.

1 Quite naturally, the bulk of material concerning early Russian music stems from Russian research. Among the older generation, Nikolai Findeizen, Yuriy Keldysh, Sergei Skrebkov, Vladimir Protopopov, Nikolai Uspensky, and Maxim Brazhnikov deserve particular mention. Of the non-Russian scholars, Robert-Alois Mooser’s works (1932; 1945, 1948-51) provide a vivid picture of musical life of that time.

Ironically, the demise of the skomorokhi secular culture coincides in the 17th century with the westernization of Russian church music (Section IV), a first step in a long and complex process championed in the early 18th century by Peter the Great (Section V). Ukrainian music plays an important role in this process of westernization and secularization (Section VI). Finally, we conclude that the intense interaction between the repertoires of various social classes formed the basis for the musical mentality in 19th-century Russia..

II Musical Culture in Kievan Rus’ (9th early 12th centuries)

When Kievan Rus’ became Christianized, in the year 988, the country was not yet a sovereign state. The Church, therefore, strove from the very beginning to dominate all aspects of its culture, which had already been established according to the contemporary pagan East Slavic mode of life. The general political situation, which led Prince Vladimir (? – 1015), in search of Byzantine protection, to choose Orthodoxy, isolated Rus’ from the surrounding countries. Choosing Orthodoxy by Kievan Rus’ resulted in facing paganism from within, Catholicism from the West (“Latin heresy”), Islam from the East, and Judaism (“Jewish heresy”), maintained by a significant part of the native population that remained from the Khazar Empire.1 In an attempt to eliminate these alien influences, the Russian Orthodox Church adopted an isolationist policy. Particularly aware of the power of music, the Church endeavored to control all aspects of both religious and secular music. As M. H. Brown notes: “The dominant position of the Russian Orthodox church in pre-Petrine Russian cultural life promoted a skepticism toward secular art in any form that endured into the eighteenth century. Even folk music, though never suppressed, had suffered periodic ecclesiastic ire, while secular music of the art tradition had simply never struck root in the inhospitable soil of Russia’s pietistic culture” (1983, 57).

As a result of these policies, the Russian Church succeeded in establishing a national tradition that was later adopted by the secular authorities and, eventually, by the broad nationalist stratum of Russian society. This tradition succeeded in uniting the concepts of sacred and national into a single symbol of Russian genuineness, no matter how “sacred” or “national” a particular element actually was. With time, the rhetoric of old (canonized, stable) became a necessary proof of national authenticity, and the symbols of secular and alien were subsequently regarded as Western evils. Reinforced by their link with the new (changeable), the triad now comprised the social image of the enemy, projected and constantly reconfirmed by the Russian Church until its retirement from the political scene in the time of Peter the Great (1672-1725). Although Peter broke the Church’s dominance, he could not eradicate this thorny duality between religious–national–old (stable) and profane–extraneous–new (changeable), and it was this antinomy that constituted one of the important factors that prevented Russia from completely joining the Western European entity. We can now understand that Minister of Education Prince A. Uvarov’s notorious triad—Orthodoxy, autocracy, nationality—did not originate during the period of Czar Nikolai I (reigned 1825-55), but rather reflected a well-formulated reinvention, or variation, of a doctrine that had crystallized in pre-Petrine Rus’. The goal of this pronouncement, which perpetuated old prejudices, was intended to divert Russian public consciousness away from modern–outlandish–non-religious ideas of liberation.

Music,as a highly sensitive index of sociohistorical change, developed during the first seven centuries (11th–17thcenturies) of Russia’s history despitethe stifling cultural environment. Russian peasant folklore, beingmodal and often monodic, was generally compatible with the Byzantine chant established by the Church. Hence, the later symbiosis of ancient and sacred was quite natural, even aesthetically; it was never oppressed,censored, or unwelcome in any way. But dance rhythms culled from ritual songs, dances, and instrumental  music—the legacy of Rus’ian pagan culture and the result of intercultural connections—were the target for the curses and prohibitions of the Church’s propaganda. Thus, dance and instrumental were added to the “negative” triad secular–strange–new.Accordingly, chant andvocal joined the“positive” triad sacred–native–old(Rytsareva 1989, 196). While it is true that dance and instrumentalmusic experienced persecution not only in Orthodox countries butoccasionally also in societies controlled by other Christianreligions, no other church destroyed traditional folk instrumentalismto the extent that Orthodoxy did in ancient Rus’.

Illustration 2: A rare 17th-century score of an anonymous three-part liturgical chant written in neumes

III The Rise and Fall of Skomorokhi Culture

From its inception at the end of the tenth century, the Orthodox establishment in Kiev waged a constant and ruthless war against folk musicians, particularly instrumentalists. This opposition stemmed from the Church’s hostility toward Catholicism, which supported instrumental music, and from its rejection of paganism, which was promoted and preserved by the folk instrumentalists.1

1 The Russian Orthodox Church persistently condemned pagan Satanic games, often associated with rituals and entertainment accompanied by instrumental music. Remarkably, the texts of such condemnations, mentioning Satanic games, Rusaliias, and gusli in Kievan Rus’, are literally the same as those known in Bulgaria. Bulgaria had converted to Christianity almost a century earlier than Kievan Rus’, and had also retained its pagan culture in a way that was very similar to that of Kievan/Muscovite Rus’ (Krastev 1970). Apparently, it was not only Orthodoxy that spread from the Byzantine Empire; rather, as a center of world culture it also served as a model for a secular (primarily entertainment) culture that appealed to the pagan or recently pagan population. Orthodox encounters with pagan culture, therefore, were not an entirely new problem in the lands of Kievan Rus’ or Bulgaria.

Orthodox animosity toward Catholicism was not an isolated phenomenon in Russian history; rather, it was part of a more general negative attitude of Russia toward the West. The West, as noted by Y. Lotman and B. Uspensky, was perceived as much more than “… a specific political-geographical reality, but as an ideal, which was either adopted or rejected. Enthusiasm for such a position was based on the idea that it was not the real West being discussed but some concept in the system of values of Russian culture…. According to the ancient Russian tradition, the conception of the West as the part of the world had a most definite character: West is where hell is” (Lotman and Uspensky 1974, 277).

In Kiev the Orthodox Church implemented its policies by pressurizing the local secular authorities, which, however, remained fond of secular music-making and continued to practice it at the courts. Nevertheless, regulated by the political situation, grand dukes were often dependent on the Church authorities and were forced, at least in public, to subject their interests to the religious dictates. Privately, they continued to enjoy secular music in closed court circles. At least two Russian chronicles in the 11th and 12th centuries and Pateric Kievskogo Pecherskogo monastyria in the 13th century mention one popular and much quoted episode, which describes Saintly Monk Feodosiy Pecherskiy’s visit to Prince Svyatoslav II of Kiev in 1073:

Once the holy Father Feodosii came to Prince Svyatoslav Yaroslavich. Entering the hall where the Prince sat, the Father saw in front of him many musicians playing gusli [a kind of zither or kantele], organs, and other instruments and enjoying themselves as usual. The holy Father, sitting at the side, looking down, lowered his head, and bowing slightly, said to him: “Will it be so in the future age?” The Prince, immediately touched by the words of the holy man, shed a small tear and ordered the musicians to stop playing. Afterwards, whenever listening to music, if he became aware of the holy Father visiting him, he would stop the music. (Rogov 1973, 49)

Thus, as early as the 12th century, we find a hypocritical tradition among the ruling classes. Formally, they observed the official ideological constraints, while informally they continued to enjoy forbidden pleasures.

  Pre-ChristianRus’ used typical medieval European musical instruments, includingthe gusli, svirel— a woodwind instrument equivalent to theoboe; gudok, similarto a fiddle; and also horns, as well as shamanic accessories likedrums, small bells, tambourines, and noise-makers. Such instruments were typically used during rites, entertainment, court ceremonies,and probably in pagan temples. Folk musicians, who played these instruments and organized weddings in Kievan and later in Muscovite Rus’, were called skomorokhi.These musicians also engaged in acrobatics, puppet shows, and juggling, perpetuating the traditional medieval popular culture. The source for the term or the phenomenon of the skomorokhi  remains unclear. It may be of Byzantine, Western European origin(Famintsyn 1995, 1), or of Eastern (possibly Syrian root) (Findeizen1928, I, 53-57). Zguta suggests that it may be of native origin, but resulting from foreign influences (1978, 14-15). There are about 20 different explanations of its etymology (Belkin 1975, 23-27; Koshelev1994), although none are recognized as definitive.4

 The various approaches to the origin of skomorokhi may not be as contradictory as they seem. The lack of available evidence about the ethnic and cultural complexity of the population of Kievan Rus’ in the tenth century does not imply that this area was homogeneous or isolated. The proximity of the Khazar Empire toRus’ from the seventh to the tenth century (and whose very existence on pre-Rus’ian territory was a traditional taboo inRussian historiography) stimulated connections that affected the population of the future Kievan Rus’. Rus’ians absorbed not only the town of Kiev (the word itself means “lower settlement” in the Khazar language), but many of its social characteristics as well.These include its system of government, legal procedures, and military organization, as well as certain crafts, costumes, and coiffure. Several words derived from the Khazar lexicon (yet paradoxically regarded as “pure Russian”) include bogatyr(“brave warrior”), telega(“wagon, chariot”), bayanor bojan (“singer”),as well as many others (Brutzkus 1944;Vasmer 1953-58). Lastly,Khazarian and Rus’ian populations formed a single super-ethnos.5hazaria, a multiethnic state connecting West and East, had intercultural contacts with the Byzantine Empire, the Arab Caliphate,Persia, the Caucasus, and with Eastern and Western European countries. The difference between the multireligious establishment of Khazaria (Judaism, Islam, Christianity, not to mention the obviously strong pagan substratum) and the late paganism of the Rus’ianEastern Slavs did not exclude cultural interrelations. Since Khazaria was a strong empire and a cultural center for at least two centuries,it accumulated various contemporary trends. Whatever the sources of Rus’ian skomorokhimay have been, some elements could have been transmitted via the Khazarian culture and inherited by Kievan Rus’.6

MarinaRitzarev (Rytsareva)



1.Quite naturally, the bulk ofmaterial concerning early Russian music stems from Russian research.Among the older generation, Nikolai Findeizen, Yuriy Keldysh, SergeiSkrebkov, Vladimir Protopopov, Nikolai Uspensky, and Maxim Brazhnikovdeserve particular mention. Of the non-Russian scholars, Robert-AloisMooser’s works (1932; 1945, 1948-51) provide a vivid picture ofmusical life of that time.

2.The Khazar empire was destroyed by Slavic tribes in 965 with the support of Nordic forces. According to different sources, the time of destruction varies and lasts as late as the mid-11th century.

3.The Russian Orthodox Church persistently condemned pagan Satanic games, often associatedwith rituals and entertainment accompanied by instrumental music.Remarkably, the texts of such condemnations, mentioning Satanic games, Rusaliias, and gusli in Kievan Rus’, are literally the same as those known in Bulgaria. Bulgaria had converted to Christianity almost a century earlier than Kievan Rus’, and had also retained its pagan culture in a way that was very similar to that of Kievan/Muscovite Rus’ (Krastev 1970). Apparently, it was not only Orthodoxy that  spread from the Byzantine Empire;rather, as a center of world culture it also served as a model for a secular (primarily entertainment) culture that appealed to the pagan or recently pagan population. Orthodox encounters with pagan culture,therefore, were not an entirely new problem in the lands of KievanRus’ or Bulgaria.

4My thanks to Izaly Zemtsovsky for discussing the subject, and to Margarita Mazo for her help with the materials.

5.I follow here L. N. Gumilev’s definition of super-ethnos as an ethnical system, consisting of several ethnic entities that have arisen simultaneously in a specific geographical area, and which display themselves in history as a mosaic whole (1989, 499).

6.P. Wexler gives a bibliography relating to the possible Jewish (Khazar) impact on Slavic literature and culture, and the possible Khazar contribution to the East Slavic pantheon (1993, 249).


SOURCE https://www.biu.ac.il


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