Centres of Polyphony


Even after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russian Federation remains easily the largest country of our planet, comprising major parts of the East Europe and the entire North Asia. Regarding the sheer size of Russian Federation and the wide distribution of ethnic Russians (with subsequent close contacts with totally different cultures of Europe and Asia) it is clear that all the generalizations about Russian traditions of polyphonic singing cannot be exhaustive. We will first discuss polyphonic traditions of ethnic Russians in both (European and Asian) regions.
The study of traditional polyphony in Russia has quite an extraordinary and somewhat paradoxical history. Today Russian traditional music is widely known for its rich polyphony, but during the first few decades of development of Russian musicology (roughly the second part of the 19th century) it was mostly believed that Russian music was monophonic. Influential Russian musical critic Vladimir Stasov (1824-1906) famously declared that to verify “Russianness” of a song, the song must comply to the following two conditions: (1) it should be playable on black keys of the piano only (pointing to the pentatonic character of scales) and (2) it should be playable (on a piano again) with one finger only (pointing to the monophonic character of Russian traditional music).

The first serious blow to this unfounded generalization was the publication of the collection of Russian folk songs by Yuly Melgunov (Melgunov, 1879). Although the collection itself represented a collection of professional arrangements of the folk tunes with the piano accompaniment (therefore had not much value for representing the traditional Russian polyphony), in his descriptions of the Russian traditional singing style Melgunov was able to verbalize the essence of Russian traditional polyphony. According to his notes, Russian traditional polyphony is generally built around one main melody, sung in a large group, but it is crucial that participating voices do not sing in unison all the time. Instead they often depart from the main melody, creating interesting multipart harmonies. These “departures” from the unison happen in specified moments of the melody, and going back to the unison also happens in specified moments – to mark the most important sections of the song (like the beginning and the ending of the sections). This was actually the first description of Russian polyphonic style, today known in Russia as “Podgolosochnaia polifonia” (literary – “polyphony of subsidiary voices”). By the way, the term “podgolosok”, very popular in Russian, then Soviet, and now post-Soviet ethnomusicology, was introduced by Melgunov. In western musicology and ethnomusicology the closest term to describe “podgolosochnaia polifonia” is “variant heterophony”, although to be more precise, besides the heterophonic “thick” group singing of the melody “podgolosochnaia polifonia” also contains a very important additional, functionally contrasting part, mostly sung by a soloist higher than a main melody (see about this below).
In 1905 –1912 Evgeniya Lineva published her landmark collection of Russian traditional songs (Lineva, 1905-1912). The collection represented well-documented transcriptions of the recordings made by the phonograph. This collection proved the correctness of the Melgunov’s ideas about the character of Russian polyphony. Later studies revealed more complex character of Russian traditional polyphony. Recordings of Russian polyphonic songs on multi-channel technology (Rudneva et al, 1979) were particularly important in this regard.

Discussing different styles of Russian traditional polyphony, Zemtsovsky lists five main types:
(1) Singing in “almost unison”. In this style small polyphonic elements usually occur just before the cadences;
(2) So called “heterophonic polyphony” (or variant heterophony). This style is widespread, particularly in the northern half of Russia. Zemtsovsky points the differences of the performer’s intentions in creating this texture: in one case “the intention is monophonic, with a heterophonic result: in the second, the intention is polyphonic, and creates a heterophonic structure” (Zemtsovsky, 2000:757).
(3) Drone polyphony was maybe the most neglected among the Russian polyphonic types (possibly because of the so-called “Podgolosochnaia polifonia”, which was considered to be the “trademark” style of Russian national polyphony). Drone polyphony is present in some isolated “pockets” in the western (Bryansk district) and the southern (Voronezh and Belgorod districts) regions of Russia. There is a special subtype of drone polyphony in Belgorod district – double drone on the fifth, framing melody from both sides (from below and above). Zemtsovsky also distinguishes so-called “fake” drone, where “no one voice sings the drone, but the illusion of a drone emerges from the combination of voices” (Zemtsovsky, 2000:757);
(4) Another polyphonic type (Engovatova mentions this type as “dishkant polyphony”, Engovatova, 1989:24) involves singing in two functionally different parts: the main melody and the contrasting part. There are three regional subtypes of this type of polyphony, and the main difference between them is in differences between the versions of the accompanying (top) part. The top part has three regional versions: in southern Russia, among the Cossacks, the accompanying high voice is performed by a soloist (called “golosnik”, or “dishkant”), who sings anhemitonic tune without text” (Zemtsovsky, 2000:757); In Central Russia the top voice (“podvodka”) is also solo. In northern Russia (the most monophonic region of Russia) the top part is performed by a group as well and it represents the octave doubling of the main melody. The main melody, on the contrary, is everywhere performed by the majority of participants (both male and female) and is in fact the lower part. This part is called as “bass” or “tolsty” (“thick”) voice. M. Engovatova suggested distinguishing a version of this style – polyphony with “podvodka” (always performed solo by the alto voice) in lyrical songs with extremely wide distribution throughout Russia (including the entire Siberia, and excluding only the northern Russia. Engovatova, 1989:23-24). T. Digun wrote about the importance of the interval of the fifths for the heterophonic “beam” of the melody in South Russian tradition (Digun, 1987: 30)
(5) The most complex type of Russian traditional polyphony is three-part polyphony. This type is represented in central and southern Russia (Belgorod, Voronezh, Riazan districts and among Cossacks living in the basin of the river Don. As in most other types of Russian traditional polyphony, in this type the majority of singers perform the main melody (called bass). The second part (“golosnik”) is in fact the top voice. It represents the drone and is singing sometimes without the text. The third part (tonki golos – thin voice) is “performed by two or more women in a tense voice in heterophony with the bass voice” [“bass voice” meaning the main melody] (Zemtsovsky, 2000:757). Dmitri Pokrovsky discovered an interesting version of this polyphonic type (among Cossacks): a four functional parts, consisting of the bass, relatively independent “dishkant”, a previously unknown part that coordinates the other parts, and a fourth part “tenor”, which is singing the version of the third (previously unknown part) Out of these five main types of Russian traditional polyphony, discussed in the article of I. Zemtsovsky, written for the Garland Encyclopedia, I would like to discuss in more detail the polyphonic type #3: drone polyphony.

Drone polyphony was virtually neglected in Russia for few decades (Nikolai Kaufman wrote with regret about this in his attempt to find parallels between Bulgarian and Russian drone polyphony (Kaufman, 1968:197). Fortunately, few papers on drone polyphony in Russian traditional music were delivered as a part of the national conference “Vocal Polyphony of the Peoples of Russia”, which was held in Voronezh (one of the actual centers of Russian drone polyphony) in September 1989. The authors of the “drone” papers at this conference were O. Pashina and I. Fedorenko on Russian materials, I. Nazina on Belarus materials, and I. Zemtsovsky on drone polyphony in general (their extended abstracts were published in Russian: Engovatova, 1989). The main melodic line in Russian drone polyphonic singing usually has a narrow range (up to the fourth) and can be performed both by a soloist (which is usually a case in most drone polyphonic traditions. Fedorenko, 1989:13), or by the group (very unusual for drone traditions. Pashina, 1989:11). Interestingly, in the latter (unusual) case there is no traditional terminology to distinguish these two different parts (drone and the melody) and (possibly even as a result of this) in this particular style “singers freely move during the performance from the drone to the melody and back to the drone even within the same stanza” (Pashina, 1989:11). Pashina also mentions (as “extremely rare” though) cases, when the drone is sung by a soloist, and the melody is performed by the rest of the singers (Pashina, 1989:11).
Zemtsovsky notes that “the more complicated the polyphonic structure, the fewer the singers involved” (Zemtsovsky, 2000:757). This leads to the existence of two different types of traditional ensembles in Russia: (1) with “locked” membership (singers with more expertise and experience, performing together for years), and (2) “open” type of the ensemble, which is open to everyone to participate. Although, this type of ensemble does not usually get too big – according to Zemtsovsky, the number does not exceed eighteen participants (2000:757).

Maybe one of the most developed traditions of polyphonic singing of ethnic Russians is the polyphony of so-called “semeiskie”, or “semeiskie zabaikal’ia”, a specific group of Russians, living deep in Siberia. This name comprises reminder of two major periods of the history of this specific group: name semeiskie comes from the name of the river Seim in Belarus; and the whole name “semeiskie zabaikal’ia” literary can be translated as “people from river Seim, who live behind the lake Baikal”. Originally the semeiskie Russians come from the Central Russia. Persecuted for their religious beliefs (as “raskolniks” – literary “those who want break up”), they went from Central Russia first Northwestwards, to the territory of contemporary Belarus (then territory of Poland), and settled on the banks of the river Seim (hence the first part of their name – “Semeiskie”). Later they had to move again (as the influence and the territory of Russian Empire was expanding), so they moved from Poland to East, to deep Siberia, behind the lake Baikal (here is the origin of the second part of their name “zabaikal’ia” – “those living behind the lake Baikal”). Despite the impressive general difference in sound, semeiskie polyphonic tradition represents an extremely developed version of Russian “podgolosochni” style, where the most of the performers sing the versions of the main melody (and I must say that the differences between the versions are quite extreme in semeiskie style). As in many other Russian polyphonic styles, in semeiskie polyphony the top part is the only part performed by a soloist. Unlike the most of Russian polyphonic styles, where women play the leading role, semeiskie polyphony is performed mostly by men. Among Russian polyphonic traditions southern Russian Cossack polyphony (also mostly male) shows the closest parallels to semeiskie polyphony (Dorofeev, 1985:41). The most salient feature of semeiskie polyphonic style is the presence of large amount of sharp dissonant chords, often moving into another sharp dissonances (instead of moving into the consonances, or to the unison, more usual for the most of Russian polyphonic styles).

Ex. 2. Russia. Semeiskie from lake Baikal region. (Zemtsovsky, 1972:125)
In the 1920th Russian ethnomusicologist Gippius recorded in the North Russia “duets and trios with uniquely independent voices, but this style seems to have disappeared” (Zemtsovsky, 2000:758). Today North Russia is maybe the most monophonic region of Russia. Another unique style – two- and three-part imitation polyphony (“canon”) was recorded in one Russian village (village Foshchevatogo in Belgorod district) as a part of the wedding tradition, with the local terminology for the different parts (Shchurov, 1985:14-15).
Very specific type of polyphony occurs at some Russian rituals. This is a simultaneous singing of different songs, seemingly totally unrelated to each other (the only connection is that they both are bound to be performed at the certain moment of the ritual) (Zemtsovsky, 2000:758). Such songs sometimes are completely contrasting with each other. For example, during the wedding ritual in Russian village one can hear the simultaneous performance of: (1) a ritual lament by the bride (female solo lamenting inside her parent’s home), and (2) cheerful song, sung by the Best Men (male choir outside the house). These songs have different character, texts, rhythm, formal structure and tonal centers.
To summarize, we may say that different types of traditional polyphony is present actually on the entire territory of Russia. The only region where monophony is dominating (from the musical point of view) is North Russia, where only unison-heterophonic and octave forms of group singing had been recorded (not to forget about the polyphonic style with “uniquely independent voices”, documented in this region in the 1920s).
Out of the several different types of Russian traditional polyphony, discussed above, I suggest to distinguish two principally different groups of traditional polyphony:
(1) Group of highly developed heterophonic types of polyphony with functionally different two (and sometimes three) parts. This kind of polyphony is generally called in Russia ”podgolosochnaia polifonia” and the decisive feature of this style is the heterophonic (“thick”) performance of the main melody (often called “bass”) by the most of the singers. The contrasting high part is often performed by a soloist; This group comprise of several types (or sub-types), and is widely spread on most of the territory where ethnic Russians live;
(2) Principally different from the “podgolosochnaia polifonia” type of polyphony is drone polyphony, in which the majority of performers sing the drone (rhythmic drone with the text, or a pedal drone). The melody in drone type polyphony has a narrow range and can be performed by a soloist or by a group (Fedorenko, 1989:13; Pashina, 1989:11). In rare cases drone can be performed by a soloist as well. In some local styles the parts of the drone and the melody are not well defined (terminologically), and performers freely move from the melody to the drone and back to the melody again.
The geographic distribution of these two different types of polyphony is very different: podgolosochnaia polifonia is spread extremely widely and comprises almost the whole territory of the settlement of ethnic Russians. The distribution of drone polyphony, on the contrary, is confined to the very small isolated regions in western and southern Russia.

The Example of Russian Polyphony. Semeiskie Zabaikalia

The Example of Russian Polyphony. Ensemble “Istoki”

Russian Folk Song “balalaichka”. Ensemble “Voskresenie”

Russian Folk Song “Vdol po Ulitse Vanusha”. Ensemble “Volja”

Russian Folk Song “Ogonjochek”. Kosaks Ensemble “Russkaja Volja”

Russian Folk Song “Uj Ti Sad, Ti Moj Sad”. Kosaks Ensemble “Buzuluk”    

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