Let us picture a young boy named Viktor Telegin, born in Saint Petersburg in 1822. We know little about him except that he had an interest in music. It is likely that his love for song began quite early, perhaps the very first time his mother whispered a lullaby in his ear as he drifted to sleep. Viktor grew up in a strictly controlled, albeit peaceful Saint Petersburg. He was just a toddler when three thousand Decembrists gathered in the snowy Senate Square in protest. After 1826, the spirit of political uproar settled, and so Viktor’s childhood years were spent in the orderly Saint Petersburg of Nicholas I.
Despite the military control of the city, it was beautiful, filled with the astounding architecture that still awes tourists today. Somewhat surprisingly, the city’s culture flourished: Pushkin was writing, and Glinka was composing. A young Dostoevsky struggled to write for the stage. The city enjoyed distinguished musical visitors such a Berlioz, Liszt, and the Schumanns. In many ways, it was an idyllic place for a young singer to grow up. Viktor’s parents watched him grow, and soon the clear soprano voice that used to fill their home with playful children’s songs disappeared. Telegin’s voice dropped—and kept dropping.
Alexei Lvov was the Maestro of the Imperial Chapel Choir during these years. We do not know when or where he first encountered the Telegin, but we may be fairly sure that a smile spread under his prodigious mustache upon hearing the young profundo’s voice for the first time. His compositions would certainly sound wonderful with this young oktavist in the choir.
Lvov's "Thy Mystical Supper"
Telegin began to sing in the choir of the Imperial Chapel, and his voice left a lasting impression on those who heard him. Adolphe Adam, a French composer and critic living in St. Petersburg from 1839-40, wrote the following:
The singers of the Imperial Chapel … have consequently acquired an extraordinary facility for singing unaccompanied … but what gives their performances the sense of peculiar strangeness is the character of the bass voices, which extend from low A (three lines beneath the bass stave) to middle C, and produce an incredible effect by doubling the ordinary basses at the interval of an octave below them. (qtd. in Dunlop 94)
We do not know whether Adolphe heard a very young Telegin. It seems somewhat unlikely: the oktavist would have been hardly eighteen at the time of Adam’s residence in Saint Petersburg. (This would, however, explain why the basses “only” sung down to A, as Telegin later was known for singing down to contra F. Perhaps the A was all that the teenage Telegin could manage before his voice fully matured.) It is likely, however, that Robert Schumann heard Telegin when he visited Saint Petersburg years later. He went home that night and wrote in his diary that the basses at the Imperial Chapel sounded like the pedal tones of an organ (94).
Tragically, Telegin passed away in 1859 at only thirty-seven years old. He was buried in Volkovo Cemetery, his tombstone inscribed with a contra F.
I begin with Telegin because this is the first name we can associate with the oktavist voice. While the stereotypical oktavist is an older man, we may note with interest that Telegin does not at all fit this model, not having reached his fortieth birthday.
After Telegin’s death in 1859, the tradition of strong basses in Chapel Choir persisted. Rachmaninov certainly heard them in his youth, prompting him to write the low bass in his All-Night Vigil. Rachmaninov recalled that after playing the final descent of his Nyne otpushchayeshi, the conductor “Danilin shook his head, saying, ‘Now where on earth are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas!’” (Bertenssen, et. al, 191). While this anecdote is often retold to highlight Rachmaninov’s confidence in the Russian tradition of the oktavist, the interesting thing is that the incredulous conductor was certainly no stranger to the choirs of Russia. Nikolai Danilin (1878–1945) grew up in Moscow, graduated from the Synodal School of Church Singing, and later taught there. The fact that he was exasperated by Rachmaninov’s demands on his basses demonstrates that the oktavist has always been something of a rarity, even in Russia.
If we look back to the early nineteenth century, records suggest that the oktavist was more of a St. Petersburg trend simply because Russian choirs were largely undeveloped at this time. Scholar Vladimir Morosan informs us that the Moscow Synodal Choir in the early 1800s was described as “out of tune, unbalanced, and containing noticeable blunders” (85). He goes on to write:
Aside from the Imperial Chapel and Count Sheremetev’s private chapel, none of the above choirs was on a high artistic level in the first part of the nineteenth century. A Synod report dating 1835 states that the greater part of churches in Russia could not use the new four-part harmonization’s issued by the Imperial Chapel because they did not have enough singers to cover four parts. (84-85)
Accordingly, in the early nineteenth century the oktavist was more of an artistic luxury available only in places like the Court Chapel Choir.
It is tempting to imagine massive, bearded basso profundi crowding the choirs of nineteenth-century Russia, but it appears the oktavist voice was more of a localized institution. Made famous by Telegin and his contemporaries under Lvov in the Russian Court Chapel Choir, this oktavist tradition continued throughout the latter nineteenth century under the direction of Nikolai Bakhmetev and Mili Balakirev. Telegin and his successors, though as rare as asparagus at Christmas, were unique enough to inspire the next generation of composers. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Rachmaninov, Chesnokov, and others would write a number of beautiful pieces that would sustain the oktavist tradition for decades to come.
Bertensson, Sergei, et. al. Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music. Indiana UP, 2001.