Program Seven: Russian Folk Music in the Mirror of Art Music
About the Program
I should confess that I have rarely heard such a voice: it was slightly broken and rang as if cracked; at first it even seemed a little sickly, but it also had a genuine and deep passion, youth, strength, sweetness, alongside some enticingly careless and melancholy sorrow. A true, ardent Russian soul sounded and breathed in this voice, and it could grip your Russian heart, grip the very heart-strings.
—“Singers,” from A Sportsman’s Sketches, by Ivan Turgenev
Turgenev’s description of a singing competition witnessed by a gentleman in a rural tavern gives us a good idea of how the Russian gentry encountered and approached folk songs. The gentleman, struck to the core by a “sweet and mournful” song, hurries to leave the inn in order to nurture a connoisseurly delight in his own romantic sentiments, rather than stay longer to hear merrier songs and watch the peasants dance. He is not there to learn about the culture of his serfs, but to feed his fantasy of an ideal Russian people, the supposed repository of the great “Russian soul.”
By the time of the story’s writing, in the middle of the 19th century, such encounters had been happening for at least 70 years—from the moment when simple folk began to be seen as the carriers of national identity. The philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder had helped to spark a spate of folk-song collecting in Germany, and Russian intellectuals now started collecting on their own estates, notating and publishing the results for performance in the salons of St. Petersburg and Moscow. The first published collection appeared in 1790, compiled by the scholar and artist Nikolai Lvov and arranged by the composer Ivan Prach. The fashion for folk song in Europe made this collection so popular that even Beethoven used a couple of Lvov-Prach songs in his quartets, honoring Count Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna. Late in his career, Beethoven was still interested enough to accept a commission for variations on Russian, Scottish, Irish, and Tyrolean songs, in conformity with Herder’s vision of a multicolored, multivoiced world of distinct nations.
In the meantime, Russian cultural nationalism was steadily growing. In opera and other large-scale genres, folk songs at first had a merely decorative function, or at best provided some local color. Mikhail Glinka was the first important Russian figure to realize that composers could draw upon folk song as a treasury of unusual musical idioms and as a stimulus for compositional invention. His experiments in this vein became a matter of duty for the composers of the Moguchaya Kuchka (Mighty Five), who systematically mined Russian folk songs for musical gems, whether melodic figures or unusual meters. These newly discovered devices helped them in their quest for a music that was audibly and demonstrably different from European music. The cultivation of a distinct musical path chimed well with the ideas of the Slavophiles, who believed Russia’s destiny was distinct from the West’s because it would be guided by Orthodox Christianity and a utopian idea of communal organization.
The salon versions were as remote from the peasant originals as the aristocracy and gentry were from their serfs. The rough, “cracked” voices of the peasants were replaced by smooth Italianate voices, and the semi-improvised polyphony of village singers was replaced by guitar or piano harmonizations with standard progressions. The composers of the Kuchka were no less ignorant of the polyphonic village forms of folk songs, but they wanted to change the accompaniments so that they did not simply follow standard European progressions. The resulting Russian-style accompaniments were not the outcome of research in the villages, but simply the Kuchka’s own arbitrary innovations in harmony, and sometimes they would even modify the folk melody so that it would better fit the “Russian” harmonization.
Even if Russian composers had wanted to emulate the peasants’ musical practices, the difficulty of transcribing the movements of several voices by ear, in the absence of any rule book, was enormous and defeated the most dedicated of collectors. On seeing the first collection that came close to an accurate representation of folk polyphony, Rimsky-Korsakov declared the music to be “barbaric.” His conception of the Russian folk song had been formed long before, and he had written many songs and arias according to this conception. His aesthetic sense could not have encompassed the reality of village music making, which was utterly alien to him.
At the dawn of the 20th century, collectors were able to equip themselves with portable recording devices, and the true character of Russian folk song could no longer be denied or avoided by composers. The “barbaric” sound that had disturbed Rimsky-Korsakov became a desirable quality for his pupil Stravinsky, who could soon present it in modernist works as a counterpart to Picasso’s African-mask faces. But like his predecessors, Stravinsky was more interested in taking folk song as a starting point for his imagination.
This fascination with folklore produced a spectrum of musical styles over the decades: polished and Italianate; gentle, poetic, and stylized; or deliberately coarse. At every stage, the representation of folklore in art music conformed to whatever sophisticated urban artists and intellectuals wanted of the peasantry, whether mystical or grotesque—anything but to sleep under the same roof as actual peasants and their livestock.
—Marina Frolova-Walker, Cambridge University; Scholar in Residence, Bard Music Festival 2018