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Russian Romance, the Spell of Sentimental Art Song
June 23, 2008 16:09

('Snilsya mne sad' (Perfomed by Alexander Vertinsky) )

Russian romance means intimate lyrical songs that touch the soul, it is feelings set to music, and poetry that makes one cry and smile. Romance as music genre is a traditionally Russian type of music creativity: it is in romance that the so-called “mysterious Russian soul” has found ways of expressing its passions. Just recall the famous "Ochi Chyornie" (Black Eyes)!

('Ochi Chyornie' (Perfomed by Feodor Chaliapin) )

For more than two hundred years Russian romance has been an integral part of Russian culture. Most popular was the genre of Russian “city romance”, authorial in its creation and folkloric in ways of its dissemination.

Sincerity and tunefulness of romance give it inimitable charm. Normally dwelling on feelings, especially love, romance expresses a rich range of emotional aspects. It either has or implies an addressee and thus is essentially dialogical; the participation of two lyrical characters makes it an intimate and chamber music piece.

Romance being associated with chamber music is composed for accompaniment of one instrument, mainly piano, or guitar (in Russian Gipsy romance especially) but some can also be accompanied with an orchestra. However, the major interest lies within melody rather than accompaniment varieties and details.

Boris Astafiev, a well-known Russian music critic, wrote: “Romance is a more sophisticated type of the “home”, salon song, the song that has become more intimate and sensitive in conveying the subtlest tints of state of mind - personal lyrical sensations and this is why so closely knit together with lyrical poetry. The major aim of the composer is always to express most sensitively the poet’s message and enhance the emotional tone of verses by means of music”.

('Khrizantemy' (Perfomed by Alla Bayanova) )

In romance lyrical poetry, melodious music and expressively emotional performance go hand in hand creating intimate impression, which is characteristic of chamber music in general. Poetry has more space, freedom and significance in romance than in traditional song. From the very beginning of romance as a music genre gifted Russian poets contributed to its development.

On History of Russian Romance


Alexander Sumarokov
Russian poetry of the 18th century had a typical genre of chants of various contents: from patriotic viva chants of Peter the Great’s epoch to table chants and love chants, pastoral and parody chants. Among the authors of chants there were Antiokh Kantemir, Feofan Prokopovich, Stephen Yavorsky, legendary Mikhail Lomonosov, famous Ukrainian enlightener Hryhorii Skovoroda, and well-known writer Alexander Sumarokov as a youth. The most remarkable figure of them was K. Trediakovsky, whose songs filled multiple manuscript songbooks of the 1730-1750s.

Researches point out that in creations of Vasily Trediakovsky and Mikhail Lomonosov music and poetry were not that much integrated yet. However the genre of chants and psalms required this integrity. All literary activity of Trediakovsky was closely related to music. As a child he got musical education and composed music himself. His verses were widely popular as songs and were lovingly copied into chant books, often without the author’s name, and were disseminated in all possible versions and variants. Chants and psalms by Mikhail Lomonosov were also very popular, though the scientist had little to do with music, considering it to be “low” art.

From the second half of the 18th century chants were gradually replaced by “Russian songs”, the early form of genre romance that was performed to accompaniment of harpsichord, gusli or guitar.


Maria Naryshkina
This type of song encompassed a great variety of vocal lyric pieces: idyllic, pastoral, merry drinking, love elegiac, didactic, and philosophical songs. The poets of this style were Alexander Sumarokov and his disciples, Mikhail Popov, Nikolai Nikolev, Yuri Neledinsky-Meletsky, Mikhail Kheraskov , Ippolit Bogdanovich, and Grigory Khovansky. Music for their lyrics was composed by Fyodor Dubyansky, Osip Kozlovsky, and Alexey Zhilin. Some songs are presumable said to have been composed by Peter the First’s daughter Elizabeth, famous actor Fyodor Volkov, singer Maria Naryshkina, and a well-known serf actress Praskovia Zhemchugova.

Unlike those of Mikhail Lomonosov, poetic interests of Alexander Sumarokov were often associated with music (in theatre and love lyric poetry). With the appearance of new type of lyric poetry there sprang up a new music genre - romance. The appearance of Russian romance was also prompted by French influences; however, the genre soon acquired its unique national peculiarities.

The 18th century gave a thrilling impetus to development of all art forms in Russia. At the early stages of formation of Russian national art culture in the 18th century the leading role belonged to poetic language and poets. They started mastering song and opera, and were followed by composers then. The highest achievements of music art were consecrated by the union of poetry, drama and music. It was both choir concert, and opera and lyrical chamber song.

Education of the nobility implied playing music instruments above all. Many writers and poets boasted professional mastery of performing music and played at public concerts (Gavriil Derzhavin, Denis Fonvizin, Ivan Krylov, Mikhail Lermontov and others).


Alexander Alyabyev
In the late 18th century and early 19th century romances were written by composers Daniil Kashin, Fyodor Dubyansky, Mikhail Vielgorsky, and Alexander Alyabyev to verses of Russian poets. Among those who created the major romance fund of the 18th century was the poet and songwriter Mikhail Popov. As a student in Moscow, he wrote for a democratic journal, composed stories, comedies, comic opera lyrics and verses.

In the first half of the 19th century leading Russian composers created the genre of Gipsy romance that was later developed and perfected by Gypsies on their own.

Romance was developing under great influence of sentimentalism and romanticism. A typical representative of Russian sentimentalism in poetry was Ivan Dmitriev, who as a song writing poet even outshone the fame of Nikolay Karamzin himself.


Alexey Merzlyakov
Sentimentalism and especially romanticism favoured to enhanced diversity in song creativity of Russian poets. “Russian song” was coming closer and closer to the national folk traditions. The founder of this stream was Alexey Merzlyakov, a student and later professor of Moscow University, the founder of the students’ “Friendly Literary Community”. The genre reached its acme in works by two talented poets: Aleksey Koltsov, whose life and creation have been well studied, and Nikolai Tsyganov, a peasant’s son, whose name has undeservedly fallen into oblivion. Tsyganov as a child was always on a move around Russia with his father. At the age of twenty he became an actor of a local Saratov company and toured in many Russian towns. In 1828 he chanced to be employed at the Maly Theatre where he served till the end of his life. Nikolai Tsyganov composed songs that were published as a special edition only after his death. He performed his songs to the guitar accompaniment, mainly for his friends. The songs were remembered by listeners by ear; the lyrics to many of them have been lost and probably many of the songs considered folk songs were created by Tsyganov.

Intonational roots of Russian romance lie in everyday melos and folk songs. Song and romance were enriching each other, their mutual penetration being so great that sometimes it is difficult to divide between the two. Poetry was inspiring musicians and in its turn was drawing its inspiration from music, since often verses were written to some popular beloved tunes.


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