Academic journal article Journal of Singing

From Russia with Love, Part 1

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

From Russia with Love, Part 1

Article excerpt

I LOVE RUSSIAN VOCAL MUSIC. From my first exposure to it in the early 1980s-long before the Iron Curtain fell, before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, before glasnost and perestroika-I knew I would one day, had to someday, sing it. Nearly all classically trained singers and their teachers have heard a few of the better known songs of Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov; few know that Glinka, Dargomyzhsky, the entire membership of the Russian Five (better known as the "Mighty Handful" in Russia), Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and many others, also composed beautiful romansy for the voice.1 Appendix 1 lists the last two centuries' principal Russian vocal composers, arranged chronologically by birth date. Appendix 2 gives some excellent resources for singing in Russian, and Appendix 3 includes recommended songs of Glinka and Dargomyzhsky for beginning Russian-language singers. In this and the following two issues, I will provide a brief biography of these principal composers with a few suggestions for appropriate pieces for the novice Russian-singing performer, and show how interested singers can best approach these musical gems.

The Cyrillic alphabet proves to be a stumbling block for many of us, but those determined to tap the reservoir of this wonderful song output should not be totally deterred from learning enough of the Russian language to sing it well. There are a number of excellent resources both in print and online to help a singer learn the Russian diction basics. It is my personal opinion that a singer should study Russian diction as best as possible on one's own; to truly make the leap into the language's nuances, one must attend "diction finishing school" with a native speaker.

Russia came late to the flourishing of the arts that had been enjoyed in Western Europe for more than two centuries. The first, and perhaps most dominant reason, had to do with the fact that serfdom was not abolished in Russia until 1861 by Tsar Alexander II.2 Another valid argument for this slow maturation has to do with the fact that what we in the West call Russia is actually a continent, not a country, despite whatever nomenclature is being used to describe today's political boundaries. As such-and we see this in our own time-the various ethnic diversities that comprise modern Russian and the former Soviet Union are still vying (sometimes explosively) for autonomy and expression. Their cultural identities have been compromised for the past century under Soviet rule, and they are quick to tell you they are not Russian! They may have been politically Communist, but they are not culturally Russian, despite our Western propensity to simply call the states of the former Soviet Union "the new Russia."

Musically speaking, "the Romantic Age in the West, which witnessed the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, etc. found no parallel in Russia. The Russian song of that time belongs to the [folk-type] of song: its appeal is dramatic and direct, full of character and vivid in colour."3 Though many studied in the capitals of Western Europe, Russian composers were seeking their own identities, pursuing a unifying factor; they found this in the "vast, illiterate masses" who were bound together "by centuries of oppression, suffering, and poverty,"4 which had in time become their standard condition. Having no cultural life similar to that found in the tsar's court, they found plentiful expression in music, and in dance, with its varied hues and pulses. I noticed a very similar phenomenon when I visited Magadan, in Russia's Far East, in 1992. Drab apartment buildings all looked the same in their uniform construction and architectural boredom. The buildings themselves were in ill repair, but once inside a unit, great personal expression was manifest in the decorations and the pride emanating from the individuals who occupied them. Much had been made from little, but genuine warmth and hospitality exuded from the people inside, who were delighted to share their culture. …

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