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Stravinsky and Russian folk music

One of the most fascinating aspects of Stravinsky’s creative encounter with folk music in Petrushka is its ambivalence. Although he drew on a long tradition by borrowing folk melodies, the way he treated them at times differed radically from all previous folk song arrangements.

Background: Folk music and national style in 19th-Century Russian music

The study of folk music played a major role in nineteenth-century Russian music. Folk tunes already appear in the operas and instrumental works of the composer considered the founder of Russia’s national style, Mikhail Glinka (1803–1857). Composers in the latter half of the century, especially the five known as “The Mighty Handful” (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov), followed in his footsteps. Not only did they use folk tunes in many of their works; two of them, Mili Alexeyevich Balakirev (1837–1910) and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908), even published folk song collections.

By the early twentieth century, however, the creative energy of the new Russian school and its heirs seemed largely spent. When Rimsky-Korsakov was asked in 1900 whether Russian music would “continue to take its nourishment from the juices of folk art,” he replied, “It’s getting harder and harder to come up with something truly original in a folk style.” 1 Just a few years later his pupil Igor Stravinsky succeeded in finding a way out of this supposed impasse by abandoning the traditional style of folk song arrangements. But Rimsky-Korsakov died in June 1908 before he could witness his student’s breakthrough.

Nikolai Rimsky-KorsakovNikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Stravinsky and Bartók – A comparison

What made Stravinsky abandon traditional forms of folk song arrangement, and what ideas and stimuli did he follow in his novel experiments? These questions are not easy to answer. Here it is revealing to compare him with Béla Bartók, a Hungarian composer born in 1881, who used folk music to develop his own modern musical language roughly at the same time as Stravinsky. Bartók often discussed his motivation and approach in articles and lectures. Stravinsky, however, kept his tracks covered. He rarely talked about his creative encounter with folk music and even tried later to conceal the Russian roots of his musical language.

Béla Bartók (fourth from the left) collecting folk songs

Another major difference between these two composers is the way they approached folk music. Unlike Stravinsky, Bartók not only took an interest in folk music as a composer, he also did research in folk music. Between 1906 and 1936, he made almost forty field trips to study the music of various ethnic groups in its original form. He even wrote down the music on location with pencil and paper or recorded it with a portable phonograph. In a lecture of 1931, he explained the enormous importance that this direct contact with “authentic” folk tunes and their cultural surroundings had on his own creative work:

“In my opinion, the effects of peasant music cannot be deep and permanent unless this music is studied in the country as part of a life shared with its peasants. It is not enough to study it as it is stored up in museums. [… ] It may be that the Russian Stravinsky and the Spaniard [Manuel] de Falla did not go on journeys of collection, and mainly drew their material from the collections of others. But they too, I feel sure, have studied not only books and museums but the living music of their countries.” 2

Stravinsky and contemporary research in Russian folk song

Bartók was not the only one to argue that folk music must be studied “on location.” In Russia, too, more and more folk music scholars from the late nineteenth century onwards took long field trips to collect folk songs directly from the rural population and to study their style of performance in great detail. The American musicologist Richard Taruskin, in his fascinating book Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, argues that this new school of Russian folk song research prepared the ground for Stravinsky’s innovative treatment of folk music.

With few exceptions, compilers of earlier folk song collections, such as Rimsky-Korsakov, made their transcriptions from isolated singers who sang the melodies to them. At a second stage, they provided the written-down melodies with their own accompaniments in a “folk song style.” In contrast, the new folk song researchers were intent on learning the songs in undistorted form wherever possible and they tried to write them down exactly as sung in their original location, which was often far away from urban civilization. On their journeys, these researchers discovered a fascinating style of multi-voice singing that until then had been virtually unknown. Here, for example, is the amateur ethnologist Nikolai Yevgrafovich Palchikov describing his experiences in a small village in the Ural Mountains during the 1880s:

“From my conversations during transcription sessions it became clear to me that the Nikolayevka singers made no distinction between single-voiced singing (that is, a song sung by one singer) and choral singing. […] A fully realized performance of a song in Nikolayevka can be given only by a chorus, and individual singers can sing only elements or parts, so to speak, of the song – the tunes out of which the whole song is assembled by the chorus. In the course of further work it came to me that the chorus of Nikolayevka peasants had its own peculiarities, namely, that none of the voices merely accompanies a given motive. Each voice reproduces the tune (melody) in its own way, and it is the sum of these tunes that constitutes that which can fairly be called ‘the song.’” 3

The study of heterophonic singing, as this style is called, was considerably simplified around the turn of the century by the introduction of the phonograph. Earlier researchers had to rely entirely on their ear and their musical memory, but now it was possible to record an accurate musical image of complex multi-voice songs. Here is one of the earliest scholars to work systematically with the new recording device, Yevgeniya Eduardovna Linyova (1853-1919), explaining its importance:

“I look upon the phonograph as an astonishingly useful notebook, which, of course, is understood best by the one who has taken the notes. I personally could never notate all the voices during performance: I notate too slowly. A song successfully recorded on the phonograph retains all aspects of its rhythmic and harmonic character.” 4

Beginning in 1905, Linyova published several influential folk song collections on the basis of her recordings. Like Bartók, she was firmly convinced that the discoveries of new folk song research could open up new directions in art music:

“It is probable that in spite of many unfavorable conditions, folk song, in the process of disappearing in the countryside, will be reborn, transformed, in the works of our composers. It will be reborn not only in the sense of borrowing melodies from the folk – that is the easiest and least gratifying means of using it; no, it will be reborn in the sense of style: free, broad, and lyric; in the sense of bold and complex voice leadings, the voices interlacing and separating, at times fused with the main melody, at times departing radically from it. A rebirth of this kind… we await in bold and interesting compositions by musical innovators, both at home and abroad.” 5

A short while later, Linyova’s vision became a reality in Stravinsky’s score for Petrushka. There are many indications that his original way of handling folk song material and his experiments with rhythm and meter were inspired by the new research into Russian folk song.

Further Reading

Richard Taruskin: Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, vol. 1 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), especially pp. 718–35.


1 Quoted from Richard Taruskin: Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, vol. 1 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), p. 718.

2 Béla Bartók: “The Influence of Peasant Music on Modern Music,” in idem: Essays, ed. Benjamin Suchoff (London: Faber, 1976), p. 341.

3 Quoted from Taruskin 1996, p. 742.

4 Quoted from ibid., pp. 727f.

5 Quoted from ibid., p. 730.