The Russian Molokan congregation of Potrero Hill, San Francisco, California, 1938. Part of a group of field materials documenting unaccompanied singing and preaching in the Russian language collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell.
Russian Americans may include several peoples of Russian heritage, including Carpatho-Rusyn and Ukrainian ancestry, among others, whose ancestors immigrated to the United States from the former Russian Empire. When the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, many settlers chose to remain in Alaska. Consequently the largest populations of Russian Americans today are in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and California.
Common to the musical history of the many Slavic peoples of Russia are epics, lengthy narrative songs or poems about historic or legendary events, although shorter historical ballads also stem from this tradition. A ballad about the journey of a group of settlers who traveled from Arkhangel'sk to Alaska in about 1808 is found in the American Folklife Center's collections, sung in Russian and donated by John Panamarkoff (1892-1964). A excerpt of this ballad "Alaskan Promyshlenniki," is available online. As is common in the epic tradition, this song has a fairly simple, unembellished melody. This is said to keep the listener's focus on the narrative, rather than the tune.
The early song tradition in the Russian Orthodox Church was of monophonic chants performed without instrumentation. Gradually the style changed to polyphonic chants beginning in the sixteenth century. The change to polyphonic chanting met with such strenuous opposition that it was among the religious reforms that caused religious groups, called "Old Believers" for their adherence to earlier beliefs and practices, to split with the Russian Orthodox Church in about form their own religious groups beginning in 1666. In the eighteenth century the style of chanting in the Orthodox Church became increasingly influenced by the Catholic style. Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) became interested in bringing Western European styles of music to Russia, and so encouraged these changes in the church singing style. The Prussian-born Empress Catherine the Great (1729-1796) also sought to foster a wider awareness of Western European musical styles in Russia. As a result of the conflict with the official church, many "Old Believers" emigrated to Europe, and the North America, and other parts of the world.
One such group is the Russian Molokans, who split with the Russian Orthodox Church in the sixteenth century. Since this group broke with the Russian Orthodox Church early, it preserves a style of religious chanting uninfluenced by the change to a Western European style. Molokans, while adhering to many older practices in addition to singing, also had some progressive views, such as a more egalitarian role for men and women in the church. Their high regard for song is linked to its power to transform and bring about change. Molokans were not only critical of certain practices of the Russian Orthodox Church, but of its influence of the on the Russian government. Criticism of the government led to their banishment to the Caucasus region in the early nineteenth century. Between 1901 and 1911 about 3500 Molokans came to the United States with a church leader, Efim G. Klubnikin, who had prophesized that life in the Caucasus would soon become unbearable for them. Most of this group settled in California. In 1938, Sidney Robertson Cowell made sound recordings of services of the Russian Molokan congregation of Potrero Hill, in San Francisco, California. Though initially skeptical of the idea of bringing sound recording equipment into their church, the congregation voted to allow it, providing documentation of an early style of singing scripture in Russian. An example of singing a Psalm is, "Psalm 52: In that day we praise the Lord - I was the smallest brother of all." An example from the New Testament is "Matthew 18:1."
Opera was among the Western European musical traditions promoted by Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. Russian opera was not well known in America until the late nineteenth century. Russian composer Anton Rubinstein toured the United States in 1872 and 1873, stirring an interest Russian music. Russian singers were among those who came to America during the great wave of immigration during the 1890s. Baritone Albert Gregorowitsch Janpolski, for example, capitalized on his knowledge of Russian opera and folksongs to set himself apart from other opera singers in the United States. He recorded an aria from Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin for Victor in 1905. He also recorded folksongs sung in an operatic style such as "Moskow," in 1912. These artists helped to prepare the way for Russian performers who would immigrate to America in the wake of political unrest in Russia early in the twentieth century.
The Russian Revolution in 1917 came on the heels of this developing interest in Russian culture in the United States. Bernardo Olshansky, born in New York of Russian immigrant parents, was making his way as a young opera singer just as the Russian Revolution took place and American audiences wanted to hear Russian opera. He recorded songs in Russian for Victor in 1917 and 1918, such as "Romance demonha," by Anton Rubinstein.
The Revolution led to emigration of many people who had been loyal to the Russian Empire. The Bolshevik government seized control of performance institutions and schools, seeing the arts as a way of spreading their message. Performances were also subject to government censorship. These changes encouraged the emigration of many important composers, musicians, singers, and other performing artists. Among the émigrés to the United States after the Revolution were Serge A. Borowsky, Constantin Bakaleinikoff, Nina Tarasova, Chaim Kotylansky, and Nicolas Slonimsky. Russian folksongs, opera, and art song became very popular, with some singers performing more than one genre.
In this Victor recording, former Russian Imperial Army officer Serge A. Borowsky sings "Iamschick, nie gony loschadey," a song composed in the style of a folk song by Constantin Bakaleinikoff, who was trained at the Moscow Conservatory and found a new career creating musical scores for films in the United States.
Folksinger Nina Tarasova. Bain News Service, publisher. [n.d.] Prints and Photographs Collection. Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ggbain-28729
Nina Tarasova billed herself as a folksinger, performing lyric songs and ballads dressed in Russian costume. Her colorful performances and unusual repertoire brought her success, and she appeared in large venues, such as Carnegie Hall, to sold out audiences. Some descriptions of her performances from the news of the day mention the inclusion of Jewish Russian folksongs, suggesting that she may have had a varied repertoire of songs from Russian ethnic groups. In this example she performs a lyric folksong, "Vo poli cereza stoyala."
Although it was more common for Russian Jewish immigrants to record songs in English, Yiddish, or Hebrew, Cantor Chaim Kotylansky, who fled the Russian Revolution for the United States in 1920, recorded some songs in Russian, such as "Kazbek," a folksong. For more songs performed by cantors, see the article, "Jewish Song in America."
After the Russian Revolution, composer and musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky lived in Ukraine, Turkey, and France before finally immigrating to the United States in 1923. Some of his songs reflected humorously on his immigrant experience of finding his way through the musical sounds of a new cultural environment, such as Five Advertising Songs. He became widely influential in the development of modern and popular composition as a result of his musicological works, providing inspiration for composers such as John Coltrane and Frank Zappa.
Americans of Russian background typically have striven to assimilate into American society, and most descendants of Russian immigrants today do not speak Russian. But the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought a new wave of immigrants from Russia to the United States, including some singers and composers. Examples of artists who recently came to the United States from Russia include opera singer Elena Zoubareva, who records in several languages including Russian, and composer and singer Regina Ilyinichna Spektor who incorporates musical genres from her cultural background as well as those of the United States in her compositions.
- California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties includes Sidney Robertson Cowell's collection, The WPA California Folk Music Project. Select "Ethnic Groups" and "Russian Molokans" to find the recordings of Molokon church services.
- The Nicolas Slonimsky Collection, 1873-1997 is available to researchers on site at the Library of Congress.
- For more information on Russian American collections in the archive of the American Folklife Center, see the finding aid: Russia Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture.
- See more articles about Ethnic Song in America.