Musical surprises #19: That Russian sound is Italian

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When you think of Russian folk music, what do you hear in your head? Probably the sound of someone playing a tune on a balalaika with that heart-rending tremolo on each note, as in the beginning of the Youtube clip on the left.  How much more Russian could you get? What other country could this sound possibly represent?

Well, Italy, it seems. Far from being a technique evolved over centuries by peasants in the Steppes, this sound, and the whole concept of a folk orchestra such as you see in Russian folk music displays goes back to the 1890s and one Vasilii Andreev who set about creating a ‘sound’ for Russian folk music.  Later scholarship casts doubt on whether the ‘domra’, a staple in folk orchestras, is an authentic Russian instrument at all, and proposes that it was a new invention fashioned on the mandolin. Which brings us to that ‘Russian’ sound:

One of the most characteristic and widely copied features of the Russian folk orchestra – its rendering of the song’s melody in the form of a sustained tremolo on one string…is in fact not a Russian manner of playing at all. According to Boiko [a musicologist] it was borrowed by Andreev from the Neapolitan mandolin orchestra.

All this and more fascinating facts about Russian folk music are in Laura J. Olson’s fabulous book Performing Russia: Folk revival and Russian identity. The quote above is on page 17. And if you listen to the Youtube clip, you’ll hear one of the folk songs Stravinsky borrowed for Petrushka, sung by the Red Army Choir (see earlier post).

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