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Introduction To The Court Chant

Beginning with the year 1870, the Kapella or music center in Moscow, which had previously received the right to train choirmasters and to edit sacred music, initiated an attempt to simplify and unite the chants which were then extant in Russia. These were called Znamenny, Kievian, Old-Bulgarian, New-Bulgarian and the New-Greek chants. Heading the Kapella before 1861 was Lvoff; from 1861 to 1883 Bakhmetieff, and from 1883 to 1895 Balakireff. The musicians who assisted these choir masters in their work would be too numerous to name, but their names would be familiar to music lovers the world over. The Plain Chant which evolved from all their work was called the Court Chant, because at first it was used in the presence of royalty, but it finally spread over most of Russia because of its simplicity.

The melodies which are used most frequently in the Vespers and Matins are the 8 tones for the Verses of the Psalm 141 (140) "Lord, I have cried to Thee." Their melodic structure is given below:

Tone 1 - a - b - c - d - a - b - c - d - ending.

Tone 2 - a - b - c - d - b - c - d - ending.

Tone 3 - a - b - a - b - a - b - ending.

Tone 4 - a - b - c - d - e - f - d - e - f - ending.

Tone 5 - a - b - c - a - b - c - ending.

Tone 6 - a - b - c - a - b - c - d - ending.

Tone 7 - a - b - a - b - ending.

Tone 8 - a - b - c - d - b - c - d - ending.

In singing these Tones it makes no difference whether a Verse is long or short; whenever the last phrase is reached, the cadential ending is used.

This same set of melodies are also used for the second set of verses during Vespers called the Apostica; for the Sedalens of the Kathisma in Matins; for the verses of the Praises in Matins; and for the Gospel hymns.

The 8 Tones of the Troparia are a different set of melodies, and are slightly simpler than the melodies of the "Lord I have cried."

Slavonic Chant is simple not only melodically, but also harmonically. Any first year music student should be able to read it at sight, and could probably name every chord used. The keys (usually F) are medium for an average amateur choir, and may be raised or lowered according to the capabilities of the choir. There are no bars in the usual chant except at the ends of phrases, therefore no signs for rhythm. Attempting to straight-jacket a chant into 2/4 or 3/4 rhythms would make it too mechanical. Expression and tempo should depend on the thought and melodic content of each phrase and verse. Parts of phrases sung a little faster than beginnings and endings of phrases, with a retard at the end of the verse. Half notes usually appearing at accented parts of phrases, are not meant to be exactly 2 beats, but slightly longer. NEVER should the words be sung or recited faster than necessary for good diction. The melody (usually the soprano) should generally be brought out, so that the congregation may more easily follow it. An organ or piano will only screen the words, and cannot be of any use or help except at rehearsals.

An interesting facet of the careful work of the Russian composers in their selection of melodies and their harmonization, is the fact that most of the music in the services can be sung in several different ways and this surely is not accidental. The close harmony of the 4-part mixed chorus can also be sung by a male chorus by simply dropping the key a fourth; or by a women’s chorus by raising the key a fourth. Where the soprano and alto parts are both melodic and run along in thirds, a wide harmony can be achieved by giving the soprano part to the alto, and the alto part an octave higher to the soprano, with no change in the bass and tenor parts. This step will not make a singing congregation happy, as the melody will then be too high to be sung with ease by most of the congregation.

Excerpted and revised from The Music of Great Vespers and Matins by Michael P. Hilko - Choirmaster, St. John’s Russian Orthodox Church Of Passic, New Jersey


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