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Tongues of men and angels

There is something timeless about the music of the Orthodox Church – as indeed about the gilded icons, the noble
ecclesiastical architecture and the scent of incense. The only instrument allowed in Orthodox churches is the human voice.

BY Tove Djupsjöbacka

Krysostomos Chamber Choir. Photo: Petter Martiskainen

There is something timeless about the music of the Orthodox Church – as indeed about the gilded icons, the noble ecclesiastical architecture and the scent of incense. The only instrument allowed in Orthodox churches is the human voice.

The Orthodox Church has considerable appeal for modern Finns. Only about 1.1% of the population belong to the Orthodox Church of Finland, but membership is growing. This is partly because of Russian immigrants, but Orthodox sacred music and ecclesiastical art – which for many Finns represent their first encounter with the Orthodox Church – might have a lot to do with it too.

“The origin of sacred music is the song of the angels to Jesus when He was born,” says choir conductor and composer Mikko Sidoroff (b. 1985). “That is why our sacred music is vocal music only. The human voice is the most holy of instruments; everything else is made by man.”

A thousand years of history

Orthodox Christianity came to southeastern Finland and Karelia from Novgorod in the 11th century. Seija Lappalainen, a musicologist at the University of Helsinki and herself an active singer in the Orthodox Church, gives a brief runthrough of the thousand years of the Church’s history.

“The earliest form of Orthodox chant that came to Karelia was probably of Byzantean origin. According to tradition, a Greek monk named Serge assisted by a Karelian monk named Herman founded a monastery on Valaam Island in Lake Ladoga in the 12th century. But Byzantean chant had absorbed a lot of influences from local folk singing traditions en route from the Eastern Roman Empire to the Slavic peoples and to the distant periphery of Finland.”

In the 17th century, the Russian elite acquired a strong preference for Western vocal polyphony, and the new style and its harmonies gradually ousted the old, monophonic chants. This happened in Finland too.

“The chants of the Imperial Court capell in St Petersburg became established as the norm in the 19th century,” says Lappalainen. “However, singing in parts places special demands on how large church choirs have to be and how skilled their singers. To this day, small congregations sing their services monophonically or in two parts. Since the court tradition in the past few centuries focused on harmonic variation at the expense of melody, monophonic or two-part versions of these chants sound musically rather boring.”

As the court capell tradition established itself as the norm, the old style based on the oktoekhos, a system of eight ‘tones’ or modes, began to decline and disappear. “The weekly cycle of eight tones has to a great extent disappeared in Russian and Finnish liturgical singing, which is a great pity,” says Lappalainen.

Finland and Russia

From 1809 to 1917, Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire. A lot of Russians migrated to Finland, and this naturally augmented the Orthodox population. The first Jews and Muslims migrated to Finland around the same time. Several Orthodox churches were built, the most magnificent among these being Uspensky Cathedral in Helsinki.

During the Russian era, Orthodox church services were sung in Church Slavonic as in Russia. When Finland became independent in 1917, the Orthodox Church of Finland separated itself from the Patriarchate of Moscow, and church services were translated into Finnish.

“Initially, the chants and compositions acquired from the court capell in St Petersburg were retained almost unchanged and just retrofitted with Finnish texts,” says Seija Lappalainen.

She notes that shoehorning Finnish texts into chants and compositions based on Slavic texts was by no means a simple task because of differences in word stress and syllable length. The first liturgy composed in Finland in Finnish was written by Peter Akimov (Pekka Attinen, 1885–1956) in 1936.

After the Second World War, Finland had to cede part of Karelia to the Soviet Union, and residents of the ceded areas, many of them members of the Orthodox Church, were resettled in Finland.

“But even subsequently, very little Orthodox liturgical music has been written in Finnish due to a shortage of Orthodox composers,” says Lappalainen; the few composers who have contributed to this repertoire include Peter Mirolybov (1918–2004), Leonid Bashmakov (b. 1927) and Pekka Torhamo (1938–2009).

Reform with caution

Mikko Sidoroff. Photo: Petter Martiskainen

Orthodox sacred music is known for being firmly tradition- oriented and timeless.

“Finnish Orthodox music is in four parts, tonal, harmonic, beautiful,” says Mikko Sidoroff. “Not that there is anything wrong with consonance! People come to church to focus on the essential, the service itself. Many experience challenging music as a threat.”

“This is a style that has been established over several centuries,” he continues. “You have to have respect for a tradition that goes back a thousand years. Things that work well are worth keeping.”

Seija Lappalainen also notes that the Orthodox Church is careful about cultivating its traditions and cautious in its reforms. The evolution of the Finnish language and new Bible translations have an impact on liturgical texts and thereby on liturgical music.

Not a lot of new Orthodox sacred music is beingwritten, but there are those who actively promote contemporary creations, including the Krysostomos Chamber Choir, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. Mikko Sidoroff is its conductor and also writes new music for the group.  

 “Orthodox sacred music is accessible and audiencefriendly,” says Sidoroff with a smile. “My music is consensus- oriented too, not terribly challenging for the listener. But the material I have written for Krysostomos does include features such as glissandi, whispers and microintervals.”  

 Sidoroff himself was brought up in the Orthodox tradition and has also worked as a cantor in the Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, he is careful to point out that he is not an Orthodox church musician by profession. “Krysostomos is my vehicle of expression in the realm of Orthodox sacred music, my major inspiration,” says Sidoroff.  

 The choir was founded initially for the purpose of performing the Panihida memorial service written by Sidoroff. Its recording was well received (“[the choir] delivers a beautifully poised account of the work,” wrote Martin Anderson in FMQ 2/2007) and nominated Choral Disc of the Year 2007. Subsequently, the choir has commissioned and performed new Orthodox sacred music by other composers too.  

 “In this context, we can do unconventional things and test the boundaries of the genre. It is like a laboratory for new Orthodox sacred music,” says Sidoroff. So where does Sidoroff start in writing new music without compromising the core of the tradition?  

 “My Valamo cycle, for instance (2006), is based on chants from Valaam. Some of them are more than a thousand years old. The All-Night Vigil by Serge Rachmaninov is actually based partly on the same chants.  

 I have given them a new harmonic environment. One way of updating the tradition is to go closer to the source. But of course you can just make it all up too!” But where is the go-no-further line for reform? Could one imagine adding an instrument? Sidoroff responds immediately:  

 “Then it would not be Orthodox sacred music any longer. I do not believe that instruments will ever be introduced into the Orthodox liturgy. The music does not need them, that has been well established.”  

 Liturgy carries forward  

 An Orthodox service is a dialogue between priest and choir, so the cantor’s job involves singing and conducting the choir, unlike in the Evangelical-Lutheran Church, where church musicians are generally found on the organ bench. Finland’s Orthodox parishes differ hugely in size, and it is not always easy to find singers for the church choir.  

 “You have to sing every weekend on Saturday night and Sunday morning, and at vespers during the week,” Sidoroff explains. “And then there are rehearsals. It requires real commitment.”  

 Members of the Orthodox Church like to stress that the text is of primary importance and the music is secondary. “It is all about bringing out the text, of course,” Mikko Sidoroff agrees. “The text is the source of inspiration for the music, as with any kind of vocal music.” Every bit of text in the Orthodox liturgy has its place and its function, and the purpose of the music is to carry the service forward.  

 “The combination of texts that make up the liturgy proper for the service on any given day is always different,” Mikko Sidoroff explains. “For instance, the Vigilia setting by Einojuhani Rautavaara was written in 1971 and uses the texts proper for the Festival of the Beheading of St John the Baptist in that year. As I understand it, that specific combination of texts will not be repeated in the liturgical cycle for a very long time.”  

 The Vigilia, or All-Night Vigil, by Rautavaara (b. 1928) was premiered at an actual church service, but the composer later adapted it into a considerably shorter concert version. Mikko Sidoroff mentions the work as a source of inspiration.  

 “There is nothing to say one cannot write sacred music for concert use,” Sidoroff explains. “It serves exactly the same purpose as liturgical music. There are choirs that sing in church and choirs that give concerts – both are valuable.”  

 In its tenth anniversary year, the Krysostomos Chamber Choir will be performing a total of 90 minutes of new Orthodox music. The members of the choir live all around Finland, and anniversary concerts will be given in Kuopio, Jyväskylä, Helsinki and elsewhere.  

 “I have written about an hour of music for the Great Fast,” says Sidoroff. “We commissioned music for Easter from Lauri Mäntysaari and Henri Sokka. We are also working on a Deesis or memorial service by Pekka Jalkanen. We aim to perform something newly written every year, but we are making an extra effort for our 10th anniversary.”  

 Revisiting the roots  

 The tradition of Byzantean chant is still upheld in Greece. It is wildly different from the singing practice of the Orthodox Church of Finland, with microintervals and other curious features. Is there any prospect of reviving interest in these Byzantean roots in Finland?  

 “Byzantean early music is a world of its own,” says Mikko Sidoroff. “It has its own neumic notation, and it cannot be transcribed into Western notation because of the precise interval relations.”  

 Recently, there have been efforts to revisit this ancient stratum, including academic research. Seija Lappalainen mentions a few key names.  

 “Byzantean chant has been championed in Finland by the late Archbishop Paavali, by Hilkka Seppälä, professor emerita of Church Music at the University of Eastern Finland, and by Jaakko Olkinuora, a young theologian.”  

 A collection of monophonic Byzantean antiphons with Finnish texts was published as far back as in 1957. They are very different in style from the Slavic melodic stock that underlies the Finnish liturgy. There is also a 1997 liturgical setting in Finnish based on the Byzantean tradition, written by the now deceased Protopsaltis Nikolaos Nikolaidis, who lived in Stockholm.  

 “It never became very popular. Many parishioners are put off by the ornamentation and microintervals of Byzantean chant,” says Lappalainen. “However, tourism to Greece has helped broaden horizons somewhat. I myself came to enjoy Byzantean chant when I was studying on a grant in Stockholm in 1991 and attended services at the Greek Cathedral of St George.”  

 “Byzantean chant is making a comeback,” agrees Sidoroff. “But four-part harmony has established such a firm foothold in Finland that abandoning it and adopting monophonic chant only would be extremely hard work. And would it even be worth it? It will probably take a decade or so before we see what effect the increasing interest in Byzantean chant is having on our liturgical practice.”  

 Tove Djupsjöbacka is a musicologist, a journalist and an active choral singer.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi