Russia: Tsarist and Communist

By Anatole G. Mazour | Go to book overview

25
The Music of Russia

The people invent; composers only arrange.

MICHAEL GLINKA

THE NINETEENTH and twentieth centuries witnessed an extraordinary Russian achievement in symphony, opera, and ballet. The very names of these media declare how massive the appropriation has been from modern western Europe--of forms, theory, notation, and the like. The distinctiveness of the Russian achievement lies elsewhere, in its ingestion of a centuries-seasoned tradition of folk music and religious music in Russia. The simplest approach to Russian music as a whole is probably by way of that older folk and religious tradition, whose steady infusion into Western art forms can be traced in the works of the principal Russian composers since the eighteenth century.

As Béla Bartók discovered, the folk music of eastern Europe, including Russia, exhibits a crossing of many ethnic strains. This intermixture goes far to account for its greater interest cormpared with purer (because more isolated) folk traditions. Bartók found that peasant music has a strong tendency to preserve itself unchanged but that it equally tends to assimilate musical practices of the higher social classes as well as of alien folk strains it may come in contact with. Many a Russian folk song that can still be heard today preserves both a species of melody of dateless antiquity and a species of harmony which is many centuries old but which the peasants adopted through a series of mysterious stages from Western church music.

Influences from Roman Catholicism penetrated deep into Russia almost as early as those of Greek Orthodoxy, though how they did so remains perplexing; even so Western a custom as tithing somehow took hold in Russia as early as the tenth century. The deliberate importation of choral singing from the Roman Catholic Mass, via Poland, occurred at the apex of the Russian social pyramid in the early and middle years of the seventeenth century; but the late-Renaissance style of harmony thus imported had already become unofficially entrenched in the preceding century as adapted to Russian church chants; and much of Russian folk song surviving into the present incorporates styles of harmony (early polyphony) that prevailed in the West c.950-1400. The transmission of these styles to the vast base of the Russian social pyramid, particularly in the

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*
Chapter XXV is the work of Cyclone Covey of Oklahoma State University.

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