By John Helmer, Moscow

Naturally, war is about winning and losing. So there are songs to pick up your courage in advance, and songs of grief for what comes after.  There are also songs to help you forget what is happening.

Since the destruction of Russia which Boris Yeltsin and the Clinton family began, together, in 1991, Yevgenia Smolyaninova has been the songstress of sorrow, and nostalgia. In remembering what has been lost, though, Smolyaninova sings to recover and renew the musical culture. Yeltsin was tone-deaf and  dysrhythmic; his response to music was to stomp his foot in and out of time.   Smolyaninova began her career of singing what she calls the national song in the Yeltsin decade. She continues today. The question is — who now is listening?

For Smolyaninova, “certainly the audience relationship to the national song has changed.  For the worse. But sometimes I think that interest in this genre still exists, except that it lies slightly more deeply than thirty years ago. In the 1980s there was a big number of folklore ensembles, and on television a lot of broadcasts devoted to the national song. I very well remember how the Leningrad streets were filled by the participants of a folklore festival who had come from all over Russia. It was a procession that was as surprising as it was romantic.  That can’t happen now. But today there’s another possibility. Those people who were young then have now matured. Maybe, in these most recent years their understanding of the song has deepened. Perhaps their relationship with the song has changed. The song is a part of the nation, with her images and traditions. Remembering the nation’s roots is very important!”

Born in Siberia into a family of school teachers, Smolyaninova, now 52, moved to Leningrad where she trained in the classical music curriculum and piano repertoire.

She began her performing career on a theatre stage, while she searched the countryside for the words and melodies of peasant songs. “I wasn’t similar to the ethnographer specialist in folklore who goes to villages. I went to a specific person, namely to Olga Fedoseyevna Sergeyeva. And of all the equipment of the specialist in folklore I had just a dictaphone,  and a passionate desire to meet her and get to know her.  It wasn’t a casual trip. She was expecting me, and I prepared for her for several years. ”

This is Sergeyeva singing, as replayed by Andrei Tarkovsky in his 1983 film Nostalgia. This link also provides a translation of the song’s lyrics into English.


Olga Sergeyeva, 1985                                       Yevgenia Smolyaninova, 1993

A quarter of a century on, listen to Smolyaninova singing her most famous song, В лунном сиянье  (“In the light of the moon”). It is the lament of a woman who has lost her lover to a rival – the bells of her sled remind her of the wedding bells of her rival. Almost half a million people have listened to this video clip; a great many more have heard Smolyaninova sing the song in concert or on disc.  For the words, click.

Smolyaninova’s regular accompaniment is the traditional bayan (Russian accordion) and the semistrunka (the Russian 7-stringed guitar). On Russian air the sound is unique.


Igor Batalin, Smolyaninova’s manager, explains that her concert programme around the country, and in the Russian-speaking communities of the Baltic states,  is aimed to revive the taste for the traditional songs, and to renew the audience demand for them.  “There are many people in their 30s in the biggest of the concert halls. I want to promote the development of Smolyaninova in the widest possible audience because I believe it is magic. There is a kind of magic in her performances. I don’t know that there’s such a thing, the spiritual component, among her performing peers. The last Russian patriarch said Smolyaninova was a living sermon.”

Smolyaninova’s repertoire runs from the 19th century romances to traditional rural folk and Church songs, as well as her compositions to the lyrics of  Lermontov, Tolstoy, Blok, and Pasternak. There is a classical Russian tradition for the repertoire.Here, for example, is Igor Stravinsky’s Four Peasant Songs, composed in 1917 and recorded in 1988.

Just so, the German lied, French mélodie, and the English ballad were the 19thcentury arrangements  of older songs reworded and retuned for the  concert-halls and drawing-rooms of the upper classes. In London Prince Albert tried it on with lieder of his own composition for Princess Victoria during their courtship.  At their peasant origins these songs often carried tunes for dancing to. By the mid-19thcentury in Europe, they were transformed in sound and name to be performed as art songs. Schubert composed them for Germans; Berlioz for French.

To express the sorrows of the lower classes in the countryside and the city, the songs were called rembetiko in Greece; fado in Portugal. In Paris before and after World War II there were Lucienne Boyer and Edith Piaf.

Batalin says that in order to make Smolyaninova accessible now, as Russian incomes are forced downwards, her concert tickets are not expensive – Rb600 to Rb800 in the big cities, Rb300 further from the capital.  “Certainly, there are  less concerts, because unfortunately the organizers and directors are afraid that people will not come. Their fear is not  justified.”

Asked what is changing in the character of Russian audiences, he adds: “Of course, we are trying to attract young Russians, and we collaborate with a team of young musicians. But for now it is difficult to reach the young with the advertising they see.”

Smolyaninova’s next concert in Moscow will on December 9 at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, where she will perform with the Patriarch’s Choir.

Note:  the recent history of Russian music is a sorry one, and not only because of Yeltsin. If you want to hear more, start here. For the current state of Russian pop music, click.  For the problems of classical music on Radio Orfei, tune in here.

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