Music of the Doukhobors

Fundamentalist Christian sect of Russian origin. The tenets of the Doukhobors' simple faith held them apart from what they considered the idolatry, opulence, and corruption of the Russian Orthodox Church.


Doukhobors. Fundamentalist Christian sect of Russian origin. The tenets of the Doukhobors' simple faith held them apart from what they considered the idolatry, opulence, and corruption of the Russian Orthodox Church. Although the epithet Doukhobortsi (Spirit-Wrestlers) was applied to them by the church in the 18th century, many of their beliefs derive from sectarian traditions centuries older. As heretics, they were banished at various periods to distant parts of the Russian Empire, where they invariably flourished as a result of their diligence and agrarian skills. During some periods they were left relatively unmolested, but the persecutions reached such a pitch in the 1890s under Tsar Nicholas II that many decided to emigrate. Arriving in Canada in 1899, 7500 settled on the Prairies and built more than 60 communal villages in the area north of Yorkton, Sask. Internal dissension and disputes with government officials over land regulations led to a second migration beginning in 1908. Their traditional leader, Peter V. Verigin, brought many of his followers to the interior valleys of British Columbia to establish new Christian communes. Factionalism eventually split Doukhoborism into three groups: the Independents, who remained largely on the Prairies to farm individually; the moderate Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ (orthodox Doukhobors from the Verigin tradition); and the more militant Sons of Freedom. A zealot fringe of the latter group was responsible for the activities (arson, bombings, nude demonstrations) reported so sensationally in the news media. As a result, the vast majority of peaceable, innocent Doukhobors from all groups were linked in the public mind with these radical acts. However, by the mid-1970s, as the old traditions and enmities declined, a new spirit of co-operation became manifest. Younger, educated Doukhobors, working in collaboration with sympathetic elders, sought wider application of the traditional Doukhobor beliefs and modes of conduct that had worked so well in isolated communes.

Traditional Doukhobor music is exclusively vocal. The vast literature of religious precepts, known as the Book of Life, was passed on orally from generation to generation by the choral singing of the whole community. Congregational singing of the sacred texts was, in effect, the auditory manifestation of the life-style of the Christian commune. No hymnbooks or musical notation were used. The intricacies of contrapuntal and harmonic singing were passed on with the same degree of mnemonic virtuosity as the texts.

The oldest stratum of music is found in the psalms. The texts are continuous and non-metrical. Some were composed by the Doukhobors themselves, while others were inherited or adapted from earlier texts. Staggered breathing is used quite unconsciously to produce a continuous flow of sound. The tempo is slow, the melismatic style very pronounced. In one psalm, 'The Singing of Psalms Beautifies Our Souls,' it takes almost 10 minutes to sing the first five words. In Canada only the first five words of these psalms are sung; the rest is recited. One or two psalms are monodic, but most display a primitive type of counterpoint somewhat similar to early Russian Orthodox Church polyphony. More research remains to be done, but it seems likely that the style of Doukhobor psalm singing is a polyphonic development of the znamenny chant. The znamenny chant, in turn, evolved from Byzantine chants of the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries.

The more recent corpus of religious music comprises hymns of various types. These are metrical and set out in verses. A few early hymns are psalm-like but sung faster. Some have been borrowed from sects of similar persuasion - Molokans, Evangelical Christians, Mennonites, etc - but most are of Doukhobor origin. A sizeable group of hymns was composed in Canada, all in the old Russian style. The most prolific Doukhobor-Canadian poet and hymnist was John F. Sysoev. Doukhobor hymn singing is unlike the western chorale style with its SATB voice spacing and the melody on top. In Doukhobor singing the melody is central, with ancillary counterpoint or harmony above and below. Over 500 hymns and psalms have survived in Canada.

Recreational music is drawn from Russian folksong tradition. Folksongs are sung in a variety of formats: choral, solo, duet, trio, quartet. Improvised part-singing is a highly developed faculty among Doukhobors. Examples of many religious and folksong genres are found in Kenneth Peacock'sSongs of the Doukhobors (National Museum of Man, Ottawa 1970, four recordings enclosed).

Further Reading

  • Woodcock, George, and Avakumovic, Ivan. The Doukhobors (Toronto 1968)

    Martens, Helen. 'The music of some religious minorities in Canada,' Ethnomusicology, vol 16, Sep 1972

    Mealing, F Mark. 'Our people's way: a study in Doukhobour hymnody and folklife,' PH D thesis, U of Pennsylvania 1972

    Tarasoff, Koozma J. Traditional Doukhobor Folkways (Ottawa 1977)

    Klymasz, Robert B. 'Tracking the "living book": Doukhobor song in Canada since 1899,' Canadian Folk Music Journal, vol 21, 1993

    Perry, Shirley Mercedes. 'Selected psalms, old verses and spiritual songs of the Canadian Doukhobors: transcription and musical analysis,' PhD thesis, U. of Arizona 1992