the role of folk-songs in the russian folk-plays

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  • The Role of Folk-Songs in the Russian Folk-PlaysAuthor(s): Lisa WarnerSource: Folklore, Vol. 84, No. 1 (Spring, 1973), pp. 38-50Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.Stable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 00:53

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  • The Role of Folk-Songs in the Russian Folk-Plays


    THE folk-theatre is generally considered to be one of the less artistically successful genres of Russian folk-literature and, indeed, many aspects of the plays bear out such a view - the rudimentary plots, the roughly delineated characters, the simple dialogue and often crude nature of the humour. Nevertheless, an examination of certain techniques used by the folk-actors to elaborate the content and improve upon the dramatic impact of their plays shows a considerable degree of artistic awareness. This is certainly the case with the use made of borrowings from other types of literature, in particular the use of folk-songs and excerpts from poetry of non- folk origin widely known and popular among the ordinary people.

    The Russian folk-plays, in general, abound in song and this is especially true of 'Tsar Maximillian',1 the most popular and most complex play in the repertoire. Here, in particular, the greater sophistication of the texts allows wide scope for imaginative embellishment.

    Even within the comparatively narrow range of the folk-play repertoire the choice of songs is extremely varied. In most variants of the play 'Lodka' ('The Ship'),2 as might be expected, one finds many robber songs and songs connected with the various periods of peasant revolt. Such are: 'Vniz po matushke po Volge' ('Down the river Volga'); or 'Ty vzoidi, vzoidi solntse krasnoe' ('Rise up, rise up, thou crimson sun'); and 'Uzh zagorelas' v chistom pole

    1 'Tsar Maximillian' was well-known throughout European Russia from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century. It consists of a number of loosely- connected episodes among which the most important are the martyrdom of the Christian Prince Adolf by his pagan father Tsar Maximillian and a series of duel-scenes between the Tsar's champion Anika and invading foreign warriors. These 'serious' parts of the play are interspersed with interlude-type comic scenes involving, principally, a quack doctor and a grave-digger.

    2 A play about a band of freedom-seeking brigands who ply the river Volga in search of booty and adventure. It is closely connected with the folk-song 'Vniz po matushke po Volge' ('Down the river Volga') and the folk-tales, legends and historical songs about the Russian peasant leaders, Ermak, Razin and Pugachev.


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    trava kovyl"'' ('In the Steppe the feather-grass caught fire') both of which have been linked with the name of Stepan Razin. In 'Tsar Maximillian', on the other hand, the military nature of some parts of the text (the duel scenes in particular) combined with the dominant role of the soldiery in producing, performing and pop- ularising the play have led to the inclusion of many soldier and Cossack songs as, for example: 'Chernyi voron chto tyv'esh'sya...' ('Black raven why are you circling...'); 'Kak vo pole polyushke elochka stoit' ('In the meadow there stands a little fir-tree'); 'Pole chistoe turetskoe' ('A Turkish battle-field'); 'Vse tatary vsbuntov- alis'' ('The Tartars have risen in revolt'); etc.

    An interesting feature of the songs to be found in 'Tsar Maxi- millian' is that many of them were originally the work of pro- fessional poets and song-writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

    These songs, which first became popular with the urban population whose tastes tended towards the sentimental, gradually penetrated to the country areas and were often assimilated into the folk-repertoire. Some were popular romances, such as the excerpt 'Pomerla nasha nadezhda' ('Our hope has died'), from the romance 'Vsyu Rossiyushku proekhal,/vse gubernii izoshel' ('I've travelled the whole of Russia, I've been to every Province'), which was usually sung after the death of Anika-the Warrior; or 'Ya v pustynyu udalyayus', ot prekrasnykh zdeshnykh mest' ('Into the wilderness I make my way, leaving behind these beautiful places'), sung when the Prince Adolf was being sent into exile. Others were derived from purely literary sources, from poems which had gained a widespread popularity among the ordinary people through the medium of the chapbooks. Such are: 'Noch' temna, lovi minuty' ('The night is dark, seize your chance'), from Ogarev's poem 'Arestant' ('The Prisoner') published in 1857 in 'Polyarnaya zvezda' ('The North Star'); 'Ne slyshno shuma gorodskogo, na Nevskoi bashne tishina' ('There is no sound from the city, all is silent on the Nevsky tower'), from a song by F. I. Glinka published in 1831 in the almanach 'Venera'; and 'Kak na lobnom meste, molodets stoyal' ('At the place of execution there stood a brave young lad'), based on a ballad by I. S. Turgenev. All three of these songs were regularly sung in 'Tsar Maximillian' during the course of Adolf's imprisonment or exile. Also to be


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    found frequently is the song 'Gusar na sablyu opirayas' v glubokoi goresti stoyal' ('Full of sorrow, a Hussar stood leaning on his sabre'), from Batyushkov's poem 'Razluka' ('The Parting'). This song was usually, although not necessarily sung by the Hussar, a character who had entered the folk-plays under the influence of Pushkin's poem 'Gusar' ('The Hussar'), which was another literary source of inspiration for the folk-actors.

    Apart from songs which constantly recur in specific situations within the framework of the folk-plays there are many others which, although found less frequently or only in isolated cases, nevertheless emphasise the influence upon 'Tsar Maximillian' of urban culture and non-folk literature. Such are: 'Otvorite mne temnitsu' ('Unlock my prison'),3 from Lermontov's poem 'Uznik' ('The Captive') (1837); or 'Khozhy ya, glyazhu ya bezmolvo na chernuyu shal'' ('As I walk, I silently gaze at the black shawl'),4 derived from Pushkin's 'Chernaya shal' ('The Black Shawl'); and 'Poekhal kazak na chuzhbinu daleko' ('A Cossack travelled to far-off-lands'),6 from E. P. Grebenka's 'Kazak na chuzhbine' ('A Cossack far from home').

    Careful examination of the texts of the folk-plays shows that in the vast majority of cases the songs, whatever their origin, were chosen not at random but for some specific purpose. There are even examples where the words of the song have been deliberately altered to correspond to the situation in the play, as in 'Ataman Churkin' ('The Ataman Churkin'), a variant of 'Lodka'. Here, the brigands, bearing out the body of their dead leader or Ataman upon their crossed swords, sing a popular song about a robber- band, 'Sredi lesov dremuchikh' ('Deep in the forest'), into one line of which the name of their own Ataman has been appropriately inserted: 'Na nikh lezhal srazhennyi sam Churkin Ataman' ('Across them lay the body of Churkin the Ataman').A

    The songs used for artistic effect in the folk-plays fall into two basic categories according to their function. There are on the one hand what one might call 'passive' songs, that is songs which

    8 This appears in the variant of 'Tsar Maximillian' to be found in A. I. Myakutin, Pesni Orenburgskikh Kazakov, Vol. IV, SPb I9o10, pp. 267-8. * Appears in I. S. Abramov, 'Tsar' Maksimilian: Svyatochnaya Kumediya', SPb 1904, p. 17.

    6 Ibid., pp. 7-8. 6 From 'Ataman Churkin' in V. Golovachev and B. Lashchilin (ed.) Narodnyi

    teatr na Donu, Rostov-on-Don 1947.


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    serve merely to emphasise a mood or heighten a moment of dramatic tension and on the other hand there are 'active' songs which are used to help on the development of the action by introducing new elements or new characters into the plot or by somehow altering the prevailing mood. I wish first of all to examine the role of the 'passive' songs.

    The emotions aroused by the folk-plays were evidently keenly felt both by those directly involved in the perfo