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How and Why Russian Folk Music informed Russia's 19th Century Composers

Music commentary
by Antonia Shoumatoff
Mon Aug 20th, 2018

Russian Virtual Village singers

In the tradition of the Slavophile Movement, (which later included Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn), 19th Century classical composers attempted to fashion melodies based on the legacy of Russian folk song, known to be sung by peasants and villagers.  Singing in the Russian countryside was intrinsic to the seasons of the year, often celebrating the harvest, and going back to the pre-Christian era.  The unusual meter and progression of the Russian folk idiom was not easy to capture, but Balakirev, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Cesar Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov (“The Mighty Five”) incorporated these primitive-sounding pentatonic scales into their music.  This form can sound cacaphonic or even oriental to a Western ear but is intrinsic to Russian song.  Thus the sophisticated and classically-trained composers were able break away from Western music to create a uniquely-Russian classical form. 

The Slavophile movement, wanted to distinguish Russian arts away from the West by drawing on Russian rather than European culture. They glorified the simple country folk and saw them as repositories of the “Russian Soul.”  The “Mighty Five” were able to break away from what they saw as the oppressive influence of Italian opera and the tightness of Germanic musical composition.

Program Seven of “Rimsky Korsakov’s World” at Bard’s Summerscape, narrated by musicologist, Marina Frolova-Walker, featured a group of Russian folk singers called the Virtual Village Singers and demonstrated this influence by going back and forth from folk song to classical pieces.  Frolova-Walker explained that many of the classical musicians have recently been intrigued to re-discover this folk culture because the village traditions were pushed out by Western-influenced musical culture of the 1980’s.  “The villagers sing these songs because they love to sing and these songs are often not sung the same way twice,” she explained.

Even though the vocals sound coarse and even primitive, for Russians who are brought up with the words, especially of the lullabies, these songs are dear to their hearts.

The Virtual Village performers at Sosnoff Theater also wore traditional peasant costumes made from such materials as rough wool and raw linen. The men played traditional wooden flutes, and the women seemlessly interwove harmonies with each others voices. The strange sounds were infused with a passion which perhaps explains why classical Russian composers were so intrigued by them. 

One of the first groups in this vein to be discovered in the West was Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares (“The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices”) which won a Grammy in 1989 that resulted in a cult following. They were considered to be a catalyst of the world music movement. NPR ranked Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, Volume 1 as the 78th greatest album ever made by women.  Their sound is very similar to the minor-keyed renditions by Virtual Village singers.  World Music reviewer David Simpson stated in the Guardian: “The ‘mystery’ is in just how they combine diaphonic singing and dissonant harmonies to produce a breathtaking, otherworldly sound somewhere between the Muslim call to prayer and the Beach Boys.”

Even though some in the audience were startled to hear this kind of music at a classical music festival celebrating Rimsky-Korsakov, Frolova-Walker clearly made the point that it was exactly the Romanticism of this kind of music that led to a fully-Russian classical identity.