Add to favorite
Subscribe to our Newsletters Subscribe to our Newsletters Get Daily Updates RSS

Russian Folk Music
February 14, 2007 13:39

Russian song is enigmatic. It is so diverse and multi-faceted that it is very hard for a professional even to grasp and figure it out in one’s lifetime.


The roots of Russian folk music

Song Genres

Music instruments

Reviving traditions

Lidia Ruslanova

New Folk Wave




Zhanna Bichevskaya

Folklore Ensemble of Moscow Conservatoire

The Dmitry Pokrovsky Ensemble

Folklore Ensemble Istoki/Roots





Bely Den'

Russka Roma


Get emotions from Russian art - Book Tickets for events



('Greshny cheloveche' (Performed by Yury Strelnikov) )


The roots of Russian folk music date as far back as to the middle of the first millennium AC, when Slavic tribes settled in the European part of the present territory of Russia. Those tribes were famous for their love and mastery of music, singing and dancing, according to Byzantium and German manuscripts. It is known, that in 591 Avars' khan sent Slavic singers and gusli players as ambassadors to Byzantium Emperor. The music of Kievan Rus, the first Russian state formed in the 10th century, was not homogeneous, just like the tribes that made up this country. It included Finno-Ugric, Turkic and other prototypes besides Slavic ones. Very old are guttural singing traditions of Siberia and the Far East. Till date regional and ethnic (pre-national) traditions are evident in Russian folklore. Thus, folk singing traditions of the northern, western, southern and central regions, as well as settlements in basins of big rivers of Oka, Volga and Don, have their own distinct features. Majority of still alive folk songs have pagan roots bearing the impact of Christian rites.

Song Genres

Russian folk songs and dances were formed in two cycles: one of them is associated with calendar rites (sowing, harvest, etc.), while the other has to do with family rituals (wedding, birth, burial, etc.). More individual are lyrical songs. ('Ah ty dushechka' (Performed by Sergey Lemeshev) ) The epoch of Old Rus is characteristic of heroic ballads sensing the praises of noble princes and instrumental music (pipes, horns, tambourines and kettle-drums).

Special place in song folklore belongs to calendar song cycle; it consists of smaller cycles definitely timed to seasons and pagan festivals (often overlaid with Christian holidays). These songs are peculiar for strict regulation and rigidity of short tonal and rhythmic formulas in every cycle; they retain the oldest non-semi-tonal and narrow scales. ('Go, go, go, koza...' (Perfomed by V.Kasymova) )

Of no less old origin are epic genres, such as bylinas, skomorokh songs, spiritual verses (both oral and written) and historic songs. ('Iz goroda iz Muroma' (Perfomed by 'Zhivaya Voda') ) Authentic epic tradition has lived till date in the oral peasant folklore of the Russian North and with Don Cossacks.

The most complicated genre as to music is lyrical song and its highest type - drawling song - supposed to have formed in the 16th - 17th cc in Moscow Russia. It is associated with the appearance of the famous folk multivoiced singing of polyphonic or heterophonic types with participation of solo voices.

Rather melodically developed are also certain kinds of weeping, making part of the wedding ritual and burial weepings. They are very expressive as a result of blending ritual formulas with an individual improvisation of the performer (a woman, as a rule).

Among the latest genres are chastooshkas (short comic songs of two or four lines) ('Shutochnye chastuski' (Taped in 1955) ) and town lyrical songs (romances) that got widely spread in the 19th century. ('Eh raz, da eshe raz' (Perfomed by Alesha Dmitrievich) )

In the 19th century the musician Vasily Andreyev established the so-called Orchestra of Russian Folk Instruments. Following the prototypes of some folk instruments, not limited to authentically Russian ones only, a set of music instruments was partly restored and partly devised, able to perform complicated music compositions. Ideally Andreyev aspired to create an orchestra that would not be inferior to the classical symphonic orchestra. His activity was conducive to both the appearance of similar orchestras, spreading of the balalaika and the domra among the Russian people, and popularization of Russian folk music in this country and abroad.

In the Soviet era in the process of purposeful development of national cultures the experience of V.V. Andreyev was applied to establishment of national orchestras of other peoples of the USSR and Russia.


Music instruments


Instrumental music was of much less importance than vocal music: obviously, as a result of the orthodox prohibition to use music instruments in church. Instruments are mainly used by shepherds or as accompaniment for some dances and songs.

Mostly spread were string instruments, such as gusli (folk wing-shaped gusli date back to the 11th c.) and gudok (three-string fiddle used from 12th c, found by archeologists in old Novgorod).

The most famous old wind instruments are
doudka (or sopel, pishchalka) - end-blown flute known from the late 11th c, according to archaeological digging in Novgorod;
zhaleika (rozhok) - an instrument with one or two wooden pipes and a horn bellmouth, dating back to the 18th c.;
and kuvikly (or tsevnitsa, Pan pipe) - known from the 18th c., mainly in the Russian south.

The Old Russian chronicles also mention military trumpets (book miniatures picturing them go back to the 15th- 17th cc), hunters' horns (the same epoch) and tambourines (12th c).

As for the instruments now symbolizing Russian folk music - balalaika and bayan (accordion) - they were spread in Russia only in the 19th - 20th cc, as well as mandolin and guitar, originating in Western Europe, strange as it may seem. Read More about Russian Music instruments...

Reviving traditions

The first collections of folk songs were published in Russia in the late 18th century. Important role for professional creative work belongs to collections of folk songs arranged for vocal and fortepiano by classical composers, such as M.A.Balakirev (1866), N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov (1876 and 1882) and P.I.Chaikovsky.

The end of the 18th century already saw the appearance of first song collections. It was already clear that the Russian song inherent in countryside differed from the authors’ songs typical for towns. The point is that town culture was brought in from abroad by Peter the First. Most of the collected songs were folk songs in “western” adaptation, more apprehensible and close to townsfolk.


Mikhail Glinka

Mikhail Glinka was the one who initiated the reconsideration of Russian folk music. In the mid 19th century he composed the 'Kamarinskaya fantasy' based on two Russian songs. The composition represents a form typical for western music, but the themes are folk Russian. Thus was developed the approach to development of folk creations by methods of western culture.

It did not stop with Glinka. The 19th century marked a serious upsurge of national self-awareness all around Western Europe. Under the influence of that a union of Russian composers, called the Mighty Handful (or the Five: Balakirev, Musorgski, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Kui) appeared in the 1850s. The circle was headed by M. Balakirev, whose ideology showed clear dislike of western conservatoire education. All the composers making up the circle were musically uneducated in the western sense. Each of them had his own “earthly” profession. Musical education of composers of that age resembled the milieu of authors’ song of the 20th century. Theory was passed down from mouth to mouth.

In those times it was easy to criticize conservatoire. Russia has no conservatoire then. The first ones were founded in the 1860s by Rubinstein brothers who had studied in the west. Petersburg Conservatoire was established by Anton in 1862 (initially referred to as Music School) and the Moscow Conservatoire – by Nikolai in 1866.

However, absence of academic music education did not prevent composers of the early 19th century from creating masterpieces. Songs by unknown authors, which appeared in their authors’ performance in the 19th century, today are understood as folk songs and refer to “town” music culture. They are characteristic of active instrumental chordal accompaniment and rhymed professional lyrics, which appeared under the reign of Peter the First. Before him Russian culture did not known all those things and was not divided into that belonging to countryside and town.

Those authors’ songs were spread from mouth to mouth, since majority of population, with all its love for music and undoubted talents, was not familiar with musical notation. Authors were forgotten, but the songs lived their own life.

Nadezhda Plevitskaya (1884–1940)


Nadezhda Plevitskaya

The founder of performing genre of the Russian folk song was Nadezhda Plevitskaya. Audience in full theatre and conservatoire halls thanked her with wild standing applause. She was surrounded by hosts of admirers and ocean of flowers. She was the one who gathered, adapted and sang about 800 folk songs. Her repertoire included a broad palette of ritual, Cossacks’, village and town folk songs. Among Plevitskaya’s close friends and creative companions there were Sobinov, Shalyapin, Rachmaninoff, Stanislavsky, Kachalov, Konenkov, and others. After 1920 she lived in emigration.

The fame of Nadezhda Plevitskaya and the power of her influence on music culture of Russia was great and brought about generations of imitators.

In 1996 a newly discovered planet was given the name of Plevitskaya. ('Belilici, rumyanici' , 'Kudelka' , ' Ivanyushka' )


Nadezhda Plevitskaya's BIOGRAPHY

In Soviet times folk art was viewed in a distorted way. Paradoxical was the status of folklore and attitude to it. On the one hand they declared rapid blossoming of folk art, and on the other hand layers of traditional folklore proved of no use for the Soviet state: in the 1930s folk art was treated as remnant of pre-revolutionary kulaks culture, ideologically hostile to the new communist consciousness and an obsolete hindrance in the way of reaching the 'radiant communist future'. The worst of all were the attempts to 'update' folk art and make it serve the state cultural policy. They resulted in the official image of folk art moulded under the pressure of totalitarian state. This vulgar image, for example, was embodied in the late activity of Pyatnitsky Choir. ('Vdol po ulitse' (Performed by Pyatnitsky Choir) )

In spite of all that, folk songs were kept alive - in the outstanding heartfelt performance by Sergey Lemeshev and Lidia Ruslanova.

Lidia Ruslanova (1900 - 1973)

Lidia Ruslanova

The Queen of Russian Folklore - the title undoubtedly suits no one but Lidia Ruslanova, who revived old folk songs with her immense inner power and her marvelous vocal. It is in her performance that most folk songs are remembered by the audience of today. A strong, straightforward and stately woman, she was the symbol of Motherland for her compatriots, when her voice encouraged soldiers during the Great patriotic war and later, when she withstood the pressures of Soviet authorities and terrors of Stalinist reprisals.

Undoubtedly she contributed much to preservation of Russian folk songs, a lot of which are alive in the people's memory as performed by Ruslanova: 'Valenki' , 'Mezh vysokih khlebov' , etc.

One could only marvel at her unusual artistic intuition - so subtle and profound was her feeling of the essence of the Russian folk song and so skillfully she conveyed all its infinity and fascination.

Lidia Ruslanova's BIOGRAPHY

New Folk Wave

The 1960s saw a keen interest in 'the olden times' upsurging. The 'new folk wave' manifested in literature, composers' music, national theme in painting and cinema ('Andrey Rublyov' by A. Tarkovsky), new interest in Old Russian painting and icons, restoration of historical and cultural monuments and folklore movement in amateur music and on variety stage (Zhanna Bichevskaya). The grounds of this interest consisted not only in the awakening of national self- consciousness and search for historic roots but also in a peculiar, mostly spontaneous social protest against official stereotypes imprinted from above.

During this period there came to appear small folklore groups, often consisting of professional musicians, who aimed at precise reproduction of authentic folk style and repertoire of a certain region and made expeditions to remote villages to study from real peasant singers.



Zhanna Bichevskaya, a famous singer renowned for her peculiar 'country folk' style, has always stood apart on the music stage. Though popular, she can't be claimed a fashionable singer. Unlike anyone else, she always gives her own message from the stage, singing what is in accord with her spiritual quest, never playing up to the public.

Nevertheless, she is loved by many people whose spiritual yearning she meets, this demand growing, both in Russia and abroad. According to Mick Jagger, 'Bichevskaya is an island of true, eternal art in the ocean of modern music'.

Her influence on the popularity of folk songs can be compared to that of Joan Baez and Tracy Chapman. In the 1970s she succeeded in renewing the interest in the authentic Russian song. Her repertoire of old folk songs is quite diverse, including peasants' labour and ritual songs; comic songs and mournful songs; town songs and ballads with their disastrous passions, fervor of feelings, love and death. 'U tserkvi stoyala kareta', 'Milenky ty moi' , 'Brodyaga', 'Donskaya Ballada', 'Kazachya Pritcha', 'Chyorniy Voron', 'Matushka', 'Razluka', and so on - the long-forgotten songs revived by Bichevskaya touched the deepest chords of people's souls. Her voice imparts the genuine Russian spirit, sincerity and warm-heartedness.

Zhanna Bichevskaya's BIOGRAPHY

Folklore Ensemble of Moscow Conservatoire

When in 1977 Natalia Gilyarova, assistant at Cabinet (now Scientific Centre for Folk Music) of Moscow Conservatoire and Valeria Usacheva, student and composer attempted to sing songs recorded by them during folklore expeditions in Ryazan region, their conservatoire colleagues would look askance. Yet soon even most skeptic academicians yielded to the charms of sincere and heartfelt old peasants' songs.

The ensemble specializes in study and performance of Old Russian songs aspiring to preserve the authentic song tradition. The ensemble's concert programs include songs of various regions of Russia, gathered in village expeditions by a number of generations of conservatoire teachers and students. It's not by hearsay that each of the Ensemble members knows expedition work, as where else if not in Russian out-of-the-way villages can one learn genuine folk song manner at first hand. ('Podui Podui Pogodushka')


The Dmitry Pokrovsky Ensemble was founded by Dmitry Pokrovsky (1944-1996) - a great musician and ethnomusicologist - in 1973 in Moscow as a "living laboratory". Dmitry was one of the first musicians in Russia who felt the need to bridge the gap between the old and new musical vocabulary.

The Pokrovsky Ensemble has grown to encompass more than 2000 songs, including medieval Russian village music, religious music of the country's old and new faiths, and modern works of Russian composers.

To learn the essence of the village music, members of the Ensemble became a part of the village, experiencing the relationships, rituals, life, nature and music of the villagers. Pokrovsky Ensemble, wearing traditional Russian village costumes and performing on ancient instruments, brings the authentic folklore of Russia back to life. Some of their lively recreations of village songs, dances and pagan rituals are more than 2000 years old.

The variety of the ensemble's interests is seen in their constant collaboration with contemporary composers, theatrical directors and filmmakers. Pokrovsky Ensemble united Russian national culture traditions with contemporary musical culture. It is difficult to find another collective of singers that can conquer the audience with their original interpretation of classic and avant-garde musical compositions, having a large repertoire of Russian village music of different traditions and styles. ('Mother Russia' )


Folklore Ensemble Istoki/Roots

Folklore ensemble Istoki/Roots initiated in 1978 in Podolsk town of Moscow region has become a centre for research and recreation of cultural traditions of Podmoskovie. Since the 1980s the ensemble has carried out regular folklore expeditions in this region. Constant development of creative work of the ensemble, including research, performing and educational activities has resulted in its becoming the Centre for Traditional Culture of South Podmoskovie. The centre organizes annual folklore festival Golden Autumn in Podolsk. Not once the ensemble has been the laureate of international competitions and festivals.



Original folk group Art-trio Volnitsa gives a new sounding to well-known old masterpieces of Russian music. Their audience enjoys Kalinka, Barynia and other folk songs, as well as interpretations of classical pieces of Musorgsky, Chaikovsky and Lyadov freshly performed with balalaika contrabass, balalaika prima, bayan, a rare vocal timbre and electronic sound. Thanks to peculiar blending of old and new, bringing together classical and folk traditions, jazz and electronic sound, they are interesting to modern public in capital and province. They dare to play folk music in the way they understand and love it - without pathos and pretence, but with love and humor.('Kalinka' )



Kaliki is an independent union of singers-guslars, who have long performed together. Each member of it is a musician of professional level, aspiring for recreation of oral traditions of Old Rus. It is a secular orthodox fraternity of spiritually close people. At their concerts you will not be irritated with importunate rhythms and garish costumes. Their singing and gusli playing seems to revive ancestral memory of the olden times deep down in heart.



The RUSICHI is perhaps the only ensemble today playing the reconstructed Old Russian instruments of the 11th - 15th centuries at their concerts. Men wearing original costumes designed after traditional warriors', peasants' and shepherds' clothing, skillfully perform ritual dances on stage. Unique instruments created by the ensemble members themselves along with complete mastery of traditional Russian vocal and instrumental improvisation make Rusichi stand out among other folk groups. ('Gory Vorobjevskie' )



Karagod is another interesting folk ensemble and also the name of an Old Russian entertainment combining dance, play and song. Gifted members of the ensemble, existing for over 25 years, have restored not only the name of the old custom, but again and again bring this amusement to the modern audience.

Bely Den'

Laureate of international contests and festivals Bely Den' is the only band today performing cover versions of world pop and rock classics with Russian folk instruments. The creativity of this original group proves that eclecticism is of special interest today.

Russka Roma

Russka Roma group specializing in traditional gypsy motives was founded in 1990 by a famous gipsy musician and arranger Sakizchi. The musicians perform their own songs and create remixes of famous hits, using a wide range of modern music arrangement devices yet retaining a charming gypsy colouring. ('Yegorushka' )


Volga existing for about six years has been deservedly acknowledged one of the best ethnic and electronic bands. Volga's first album made popular interbreeding of versatile ethnic material this country abounds with and rich opportunities of computer sound.

Volga's lyrics are based on outstanding material - these are genuine authentic texts of pagan Rus enclosing unique historic stratum of the nation. Meditative sounding created by the band are close to ambient, psychedelic and even trance, though they are also based on Russian folklore polyrhythmic traditions.

Special brilliance of Volga is due to the soloist Angella Manukyan, with her heartfelt, lyrical and mystically charming voice. Ethnographer herself, Angella is in for gathering and arrangement of Russian authentic texts. She masters versatile vocal techniques peculiar of ethnic groups of Tuva, Altai, Middle Asia and Northern Caucasus. Her old interest in Russian folklore, serious study of special literature and archive documents find practical realization in various folk projects and in joint work with famous musicians such as Sergey Starostin, Sergey Klevensky and Ilya Khmyz, Richard Norvilla, duet Species of Fishes, art-group Sever, etc.

Volga's concerts are accompanied with an original video track, created by artist Roman Anikushin. Another peculiarity is exotic instruments, constructed and made by Yury Balashov.

The group has successfully toured in Russia and Europe. ('Kupalenka')



Vera Ivanova and Mikhail Manykin

Tags: Russian Folk Music Russian Music Instruments    

Next Previous

You might also find interesting:

Gala Concert of World Opera Stars in Red Square for FIFA World Cup Gusli Masterpieces of the World Musical Performed in Moscow Yuri Vizbor Russian Opera

Comment on our site

RSS   twitter      submit

Music Samples

Eh raz da eshe raz

Monuments to People  Lola Lonli  City Wi-Fi   Russian Cinema  Victor Slavkin  Obraztsov State Academic Puppet Theater  Russian industry  Russian tourism  Primorye  Gourmet Tours  Internet Zone  Maria Sharapova  St. Petersburg  Arts  Moscow  Russian sportsmen  Gas industry  Chusovaya  Russian politicians  Russian fashion  Krasnodar Territory  Film Festivals  FIFA Russia 2018  Slavyansk-na-Kubani  Russian scientists  Russian economy  Sakhalin  Russian souvenirs  Kurgan airport  Chegemskie Waterfalls  Republic of Bashkortostan  anniversary  TNK-BP  Unusual Monuments  Pop Music   the Crimea  Russian legislation  Yekaterinburg  Russian business  Elena Aroseva  New Tretyakov Gallery  Exhibitions in Moscow  Russian national colours  Business Incubator   Samara Region  Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia  Gambling Zone  Tchaikovsky Moscow State Conservatory  Russian science  Krayinvestbank  

Travel Blogs
Top Traveling Sites