The Orthodox Church and the Paradoxes of Russian Music History


  • Marina Ritzarev Author


Russian Orthodox chant, paraliturgical music, Pathétique, passion-symphony, Taneyev, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Sergei Slonimsky, Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Anton Rubinstein


Thousand years of the Russian Orthodox Church present the dramatic history of its music, crucially affecting Russian musical culture in general. This history is full of sore inter- and intra- collisions due to the defensive policy of the Russian Church to two rivaling religions: Roman Catholicism from the West (“inter-” conflict) and Slavic paganism from within the country (“intra-” conflict). The main vectors accompanying these collisions were chant versus polyphony and modality versus functionality. However, what united these two highly different inter- and intra- musical threats to the Orthodox Church was using instruments, which were, and still are, strictly prohibited in Orthodox music. Moreover, the Church used all its influence for centuries to oppress instrumental music in secular culture. This explains why Russia and other Orthodox East-European countries were far behind the West-European ones concerning instrumental music, which developed under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church. Even in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when Russian instrumental music reached its world level, the influence of old Orthodox doctrine can be traced in its nationalist/modernist aesthetics. 
The article focuses on the fascinating story of Russian paraliturgical music, which, overcoming many limitations and prohibitions, found its way into the operatic and symphonic genres allowing the use of allusions and subtextual messages in compositions by Tchaikovsky, Taneyev, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Sergei Slonimsky, and others.