Day 1: Thank God for the Italians!

Welcome to Day One of a new series I’m trying out for this blog. As I mentioned in my last post, I was inspired by the daily gratitude practice of a poet and gardener named Rudy Gay. Noting a certain (Russian… ahem) tendency to see the doom and gloom, I’ve decided to take Ivan Ilyin’s advice about accepting the world as a necessary step in creating culture. If you need a quick update on what I’m talking about, I suggest you read that post first.

On the Old Calendar, it’s the Circumcision and St. Basil’s day today. It’s also something that Russians call “Old New Year” (and not Russians only, apparently there are villages in Wales that still celebrate the Old New Year). More practically, for me, it’s “one of those days when the seminarians are gone and I have to somehow conduct a choir of 3.5 monks.”

Usually, I cringe at that thought. But today, during the service, I had an unexpected thought. It was actually a lovely, quiet service sung in three-part harmony. We even managed to sing some Georgian music (always a plus). And then, it hit me. A thought I never thought I’d have. Thank God for the Italians.

The Search for Angelic Singing

No, I honestly have nothing against the Italians as a people. Quite the opposite. But I was taught by my music teachers according to a very specific worldview, one that should be considered when discussing culture-making, by the way. In short, there’s an opinion among some people that polyphonic singing in church (which began in Russia as the so-called “Italian School”) is a harmful Western influence, and only monophonic singing (Znamenny chant or Byzantine chant) is actually “churchy” music.

Before you dismiss this idea out of hand, it’s important to know some things about Znamenny chant. It has a pretty unique history, one that perhaps is not paralleled in any other culture. Apparently, the style of Byzantine chant that came into Russia with the baptizing Greek missionaries was a very particular kind of singing. Without getting into the details, this chant style was not tied to any concrete musical structure (like modes or scales), but was more concerned with the relationship of individual micro-melodies to each other relationally.

Although Byzantine chant developed later into a very complex system, abandoning this more free-form, improvisational style of singing, Russians believed that this way of singing, because it was freed from any kind of system, could become the closest approximation to angelic singing. The very fact of its independence of system made it a kind of “incarnation of singing itself.” In this way, it was the closest approximation to a Platonic Form of Music, and through a series of secretly-passed-on styles of improvisation, one could actually approach theosis through the act of singing itself.

Such an idea had never before been expressed, nor has it ever been expressed again. So, for a brief moment in history, there was a “school of musicians” whose express purpose was to make the act of singing in church a practical aid to deification, both for the singer and the person standing in church. The problem was that such a system is unsustainable, especially since it relies on esoteric knowledge passed on from master to student. Eventually, some of it had to be written down, and when it was, it lost that original freshness and quickly began to become decadent. So by the 17th century you have the bizarre phenomenon of adding nonsense syllables to words merely to fit the craziness of the melodies.

Polyphonic Weirdness

This also led to a wonderful kind of polyphony that was not at all based on Western models. It sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard, probably:


This was no longer the search for angelic singing, but something else. I find it beautiful, but it’s an acquired taste, certainly.

So perhaps it wasn’t so surprising when Peter the Great insisted that all Church music sound something like this:

This is a lot more pleasing to a Western ear, certainly. But there are many issues with this kind of music. It completely disregards the importance of the text in church singing. There are phrases repeated so many times, you lose the plot. Some words are incorrectly accented, just to fit a certain “pretty melody.”

The hard-line Znamenny chant lovers of that time (and maybe of this one too) called this the devil’s music.

But what about those Italians?

Sorry, getting distracted in this PhD thesis about Russian music. But one more point to make. There’s something about polyphonic singing that I noticed beautifully this morning in church. If you do it enough with the same people, over and over again, the individuals become, as it were, subsumed into a collective sound that is sublime. And the beauty of that sound is largely determined by how well the individuals deny their “prickly individuality” and learn to be “one body” with their fellow singers.

Are you getting goosebumps yet? It turns out that this Western devil’s music encourages a living icon, if you will, of the Church. One body made up of many members. And that is beautiful!

This is why, I think, no matter how many people try to return to the old forms of Znamenny and Byzantine (as wonderful as they are), there will never be a complete return to “the way things were.” Not because we Westerners are too enamored of our devil’s music. No. Because Western music, in its ideal form, is also conducive to an experience of sobornost’ that is perhaps just as powerful as the deification-through-music that Znamenny chant attempted.

This reality was, and still is, embodied in later music, such as Rachmaninov’s sublime compositions:

And so, as our 3.5 monks made a prayerful, quiet sound singing 3-part non-Znamenny harmony today, I thought, “Thank God for the Italians.”

But what about culture creation?

Right, sorry. That music distracted me again.

No culture, Christian or otherwise, can ever hope to find its renaissance unless it creatively synthesizes both past and present into a vision for the future. And that’s certainly very difficult, but worth every minute of seeking and trying out and failing. Ultimately, someone like Rachmaninoff comes along. And you’d better believe that there are many, many people who have come to the Church because of his music alone.



  1. This is a great post.
    Under the Polyphonic Weirdness heading I hear two very different things, as I’m sure most do. How I hear it may seem strange.

    The first example with its freer form sounds angelic with an Old Testament flavor of Angelic.
    Angels in Old Testament under IAO Sabbaoth, the Lord of (**Battle**) Hosts. Beings that were largely amoral (to our perspective), harbinger/destroyers. Weather patterns of storm and gales and rough seas for the sailer. Fire and quakes. There is a terrifying symphony to inimical and destructive weather patterns and phenomena. This first example of music sounds, to me, like it’s riding that event horizon of battling to keep order and beauty in something that always threatens dissolving into chaos. That tension yields something unique, probably not able to grasped consciously, but speaks on a very deep level.
    This gives an embodied structure to the phrase ‘God Fearing’, because while there is structure to it, the listener can feel where it could go of the order was disbanded.

    The Second example is also quite lovely but much much safer. This is chaos completely reigned in. This is God closer to us? Easier to understand. Something much more comfortable. Calm weather, no earthquakes or storms. These Angels are gentle messengers, not the bane of sea folk or the farmer.

    I suppose it could even be a sonic icon or representation of the visual Icon of Christ Pantocrator of Sinai. The jarring binaries in that Icon speak very strongly of these onion layers to reality and to God.

    At least, that’s how I’m hearing these wonderful music examples.

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