Centres of Polyphony


Lithuania is the biggest out of all three Baltic countries and historically held a leading role in medieval Eastern Europe. Another interesting historical fact is that Lithuania was the last country in Europe to officially adopt Christianity in the 14th century.
Lithuania is particularly well known as a homeland of the unique polyphonic singing style known as sutartines. Although the term sutartines means “agreement”, or “cohesion”, sutartines is well known as the “kingdom of the dissonances”. To be more precise, we need to know that there are a few different styles of sutartines, based on different principles of polyphony (such as unison-heterophonic, canonic and drone types of sutartines). Among all these types of sutartines the most well-known and truly unique type is the so-called “secondal sutartines”. The most important feature of secondal sutartines is the abundance of secondal dissonances. More precisely, in this type of sutartines seconds sound almost constantly:
The technical means to achieve constant singing in seconds is very interesting. Singing in parallel seconds is always challenging for singers. So if you try to sing two parallel melodies with the distance of a major second between the parts all the time, you will soon find out how difficult this is to do.

 In sutartines the constant singing in seconds is not achieved by the parallel singing of the same melodies in seconds. Instead, constant seconds are achieved by a clever combination of the type of the melody and the type of polyphony.
Let us look at the melodic line of the typical secondal sutartines given above. The melody often consists of two sections of mostly equal length. In our typical example there are three bars in each section, making the whole melody a six-bar structure (3+3 bars). In both of these three-bar sections the melody moves on the notes of the simple triad. But there is a crucial difference in these two three-bar sections: in the first three bars we have the simple triad-based melody, say, on the notes of the triad of A-major: (A-C#-E), (sometimes only two notes out of the triad are used, as in this example: C#-E). Then, in the next three bars the melody suddenly modulates a major second up, into B-major, and now there is the same kind of melodic movement on the triad notes of B-major: (B-D#-F#). Let us look at a typical sutartines melody:
Now let us have a look what happens to this melody when it is performed in a polyphonic way. This kind of polyphony, when both parts sing the same melody, but the second part starts singing a bit later, is called canon. “This looks like a round,” some readers might say. That’s correct. Generally, the term “Round” is another, more popular English name for the same kind of musical composition when performers sing the same melody in two groups, the second group starting a bit later. There can be more than two groups, of course, and they would all sing the same melody after each other. As the first part finishes the melody, it starts singing the melody over again (at the right point, of course), and the other parts do the same. This goes on and on and on. Canons usually have no “legitimate” ending, that’s why the cohesive ending of a canon (round) is often the most difficult part of the performance. The starting moment for the second (following) group is different. Sometimes the second part joins in after just a couple of notes, more often a bar or two, but sometimes it comes even later.

In sutartines the starting moment of the second part is crucial. The second part comes in when the first half of the melody is finished and the melody is moving to the modulated section. As a result, we have two parts, singing simultaneously the triad notes of different triads ([A]-C#-E and B-D#-F#) all the time. As both phrases are of the same length, exactly when the first part moves from (A)-C#-E into B-D#-F# triad, the second part moves from B-D#-F# into a (A)- C#-E triad, so constant sounding of dissonant seconds is guaranteed.
As we can see, two tonal centres (in our case, “A” and “B”), sound simultaneously. This is a very interesting and clear case of polytonality in traditional music, obviously used long before the revolutionary use of polytonality in 20th century music by Ives, Bartok, Stravinsky and other composers who revolutionized musical-harmonic language. No wonder that at the beginning of the 20th century the singing style of sutartines, based on the constant use of sharp seconds, sounded “horrible” to some educated musicians. Some educated Lithuanians even compared this singing style to “a crocodile, singing in parallel second accords…”.
Although sutartines is actually always two-part polyphony, it can be traditionally performed by two, three or four performers. These forms of sutartines are appropriately called dvejines (“dve” means “two”, “dvejines” means “twosome”), trejines (threesome), and “keturines” (foursome). There are plenty of different types and sub-types of sutartines. Slaviunas, whose three-volume work in Lithuanian remains the most inclusive research about sutartines (Slaviunas, 1958-1959), distinguished nineteen types of polyphonic singing, and Rachiunaite added nineteen more types in her recently published first English-language book about sutartines .
Sutartines polyphony is not present throughout the whole of Lithuania. It has a rather small area of distribution – the Northeastern part of Lithuania, a region called Aukstaitia. Some elements of sutartines singing style have been found in the neighbouring Latvia as well (Boiko, 1992, 1992a).
As happens sometimes, when there is one distinctive “national” style of traditional music, it occupies the mainstream interest of scholars and leaves very little space for other research topics. This was the case with sutartines polyphony in Lithuania. Dazzled by the uniquely Lithuanian sutartines singing style (particularly the secondal polytonal sutartines), neither Lithuanian nor international scholars mention the existence of another polyphonic type in Lithuania – drone polyphony. It was Daiva Rachiunaite, the author of the recently published book on sutartines, who brought the phenomenon of drone polyphony in Lithuania to light. At the 2004 conference on Traditional Polyphony in Tbilisi (Georgia) she delivered a special paper dedicated to the drone polyphony in Lithuanian music.

Interestingly, examples of Lithuanian drone polyphony were recorded and published with the publication of the collection of Northeast Lithuanian songs prepared by A. Sabaliauskas (1916). Many other drone polyphonic songs were recorded throughout the 20th century, but they were all known as sub-types of the same sutartines style polyphony. Really, the name matters! For example, in the recent English-language book on sutartines (Rachiunaite, 2002) the examples of drone polyphony appear under the name of “collective sutartines” (styles 38, 39), and symptomatically, the term “drone” is not used in descriptions of this singing style (Rachiunaite, 2002:198-200). This unification of different forms of polyphony under the term sutartines does not mean that there is no traditional term for the “drone” in Lithuania. The term for the drone in Lithuania is tranavimas, and the performer of a drone is called tranas. Unlike the “classical” sutartines, which were always performed by from two to four singers, “collective [drone] sutartines” are performed by a big group of people (from four to twenty). Also unlike the sutartines (where the polyphony is always only two-part), Lithuanian drone polyphony has three- and even four-part examples.
The influence of European harmonic triadic style on Lithuanian examples of drone polyphony is evident. Maybe because of this, Slaviunas considered them to be a late, “new-fashioned” style in Lithuanian music. Rachiunaite expressed a different point of view on this topic, arguing that drone polyphony could be an archaic phenomenon in Lithuanian music (Rachiunaite, 2005). Interestingly, the region of the distribution of drone polyphony (eastern tip of Lithuania) is known in Lithuanian ethnography, dialectology and musicology, as the region where the most archaic elements of Lithuanian (and possibly Baltic) culture has survived. Another interesting difference between secondal canonic sutartines and drone polyphony (or “collective sutartines”) is, that the secondal sutartines style has died out (it gradually disappeared throughout the mid 19th century – mid 20th century, and now exists only in amateur and professional ensembles, mostly in cities), but drone polyphony, on the contrary, is still popular in some east Lithuanian villages (for example, in the village Nibragalis in the Panevezys region). Let us have a look at the “best-kept secret” from Lithuanian polyphonic culture – example of drone polyphony:
Heterophonic (or variant-heterophonic) sutartines with almost unison singing is another polyphonic style in Lithuania. Unlike drone polyphony, the existence of heterophonic style has been long-since recognized.
The ubiquitous contemporary polyphonic style (obviously influenced by European professional music) with characteristic parallel thirds and cadencial fifths is spread through the same polyphonic region of Lithuania (Northeast region Aukstaitia)
And finally we should say that the Lithuanian polyphonic singing style sutartines (and particularly the best-known type, the secondal polytonal sutartines) became a trademark of Lithuanian musical culture and a potent sign of national identity in the struggle against the USSR policy of Russification.
As a unique polyphonic style, sutartines has been discussed in numerous scholarly articles, and different points of views are expressed in the scholarly literature regarding the archaic features and the chronology of the emergency of this singing style. We will have a special section in the second, “comparative” part of this book, fully dedicated to a discussion of different existing points of view on the origins of sutartines.

Share it on