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Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.2 (2006) 279-282

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Compact Disc Review

"Classicism" à la russe

University of California at Berkeley
The Powers of Heaven: Orthodox Music of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Paul Hillier, conductor. Harmonia Mundi CD HMU 907318 (2003).


  1. Dmitry Bortniansky, Da ispravitsia molitva moia ("Let My Prayer Arise") no. 2.
  2. Giuseppe Sarti, Nyne sily nebesnyia ("Now the Powers of Heaven")
  3. Bortniansky, Khiruvimskaia pesn (Cherubic Hymn) no. 7
  4. Anonymous (ca. 1675), O presviataia Mariye Devitse ("O Most Holy Virgin Mary")
  5. Vasily Titov, Slava/Yedinorodnyi Syne ("Glory/Only-Begotten Son")
  6. Baldassare Galuppi, Plotiyu usnuv ("In the Flesh Thou Didst Fall Asleep")
  7. Bortniansky, Concerto No. 24: Vozvedokh ochi moyi v gory ("I Lift Up My Eyes to the Mountains")
  8. Nikolai Diletsky, Khvalite imia Gospodne ("Praise the Name of the Lord")
  9. Bortniansky, Concerto No. 27: Glasom moim ko Gospodu vozzvak ("With My Voice I Cried Out to the Lord")
  10. Artemy Vedel, Na rekakh vavilonskikh ("By the Waters of Babylon")
  11. Bortniansky, Concerto No. 32: Skazhi mi, Gospodi, konchinu moyu ("Lord, Make Me to Know My End") [End Page 279]

Five of the eleven selections in this beautifully sung recital are by Dmitry Bortniansky (1751–1825), the Ukrainian-born, Italian-trained composer who in 1796 became the first native-born director of the Imperial Chapel Choir in St. Petersburg, and whose prolific output of sacred choral music (following an earlier period as a composer for the musical stage) formed the basis for the modern musical repertory of the Russian Orthodox church. The great value of this CD is the opportunity it affords for placing this important and often misevaluated figure in several relevant contexts: those of his direct Italian predecessors, his somewhat remoter Ukrainian forebears, and his younger contemporaries.

Before the 17th century, thanks to long centuries of seclusion behind an iron curtain of Mongolian captivity, the music of the Russian church developed in isolation from that of Western Europe. It was not even called music, but "singing" (peniye), and continued to rely on the sort of staffless neumatic notation that had begun to pass out of Western European use as early as the eleventh century. In Russian usage, musika (originally pronounced moose-ika), later Italianized to muzyka, meant secular instrumental music—a pleonasm for the Eastern Orthodox, who have never allowed the use of instruments in church. (The reason for the ban is the last line of the Psalter, which says, "Let everything that has breath praise the Lord." In Greek and the Slavic languages, the same word—pneuma in the former, dukh in the latter—means both "breath" and "soul.") By the seventeenth century musika meant staff-notated Western-style music, and it began infiltrating the precincts of peniye as soon as "Western" became associated with high social prestige. It happened first, slightly before the time of Peter the Great, in Kiev, where Polish musicians began training local singers in Western ways.

Polish Catholic music, like German Protestant music, was by then an offshoot of the impressive concertato repertory of St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice. That is where the word concerto was first used to designate a musical genre, and the genre it then designated was that of liturgical settings (previously called motets) for mixed ensembles of voices and instruments, each with specifically assigned roles. When the Italian style was adapted to Orthodox conditions it had to become a cappella, but it retained the textures of the vocal-instrumental medium. That is the style exemplified on this CD by the work of Nikolai Diletsky (probably born Mikolaj Dylecki), who in 1679 published Idea grammatiki musikiyskoy ("An idea of musical grammar"), the first treatise on musika for Russian use. (It contains, incidentally, the first known chart of the circle of fifths, so that the Russians may, if they wish, claim that invention along with the radio and the airplane.) Compared with the Venetian model, Diletsky's music (cf. track 8) is crude stuff, full of parallel fifths and retaining from traditional peniya a propensity for ornate rolling bass parts. Its "paraliturgical" companion on the CD, the...


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