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Guide to Russia > Russian Culture



The trends that led to modern
Russian music.



Music in Russia in the twentieth century developed in a very interesting way. Romance music evolved from classical music, but led it to a new direction. In Russia in the 1920s and 30s there was the "silver age" in poetry and in romance music as well. There were two main trends in Russian romance music during this period: classical and common. Both were extremely popular and sung during dinner parties and intellectual meetings. Restaurants usually employed singers for romance performances and such performances could even be heard by commoners. Although poor people liked folk music most of all and produced it more than any other class in Russia, they still enjoyed romance traditions in music. Romance was not too different from the national folk tradition and this can explain how it spread so easily throughout the country and even abroad.

There were a lot of famous singers from the romance period, for example the most beautiful bass singer ever - Feodor Shalyapin. Of course he didn't perform in restaurants, but he liked this culture so much that he visited such places just for fun. He performed for friends and also held concerts in special halls especially for lovers of romance. Despite the fact the Shalyapin was the most recognized Russian singer of this period, he never stopped being friends with other singers who were not as well known. He always supported, according to his words, those who "popularize and approve of Russian art". Also as eye-witnesses claim, Shlyapin was an extremely sensitive person - he would sometimes cry if the romance music was nostalgic enough and performed well. Shalyapin emigrated from Russia during the worst Soviet times, but always respected and loved Russian music and especially Romance music.

Another famous singer was Alexander Vertinsky. He also sang lots of great romance songs, which were well known throughout the country. These songs were heard in rich and fancy restaurants as well as in the cheapest eating houses and bars. Thousands of Russians liked to suffer with a glass of vodka while listening to these romances and they enjoyed listening to romance even when they were happy as well. Romance songs have deep emotional meanings and involve crying, which is deeply connected with the Russian soul. In addition to Shalyapin and Vertinsky, there were numerous great singers of Russian romance such as Uriy Morfessi, Nikolay Melnikov, Vadim Kozin, Isabella Urieva, Tamara Tzereteli, Galina Grozina and many, many more. To discover Russian romance for the first time can truly be a great pleasure, especially when you are in Russia. Here you can buy all different types of records, even records with the old sound, which sound like original recordings. There are also a lot of traditional Russian romance performances in Russia, so you will have the opportunity to get acquainted with the music in a concert hall. Romance is still loved here and its traditions are well kept.

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In the middle of the twentieth century the common romance had somehow transferred into bard singing. That doesn't mean that common romance music disappeared, but bards became the new trend in this style. Bard singing was performed only with a guitar, while traditional romance was sung with the accompaniment of a piano. When bards sang they commented on common life topics like love, nature, war, friendship, tourism, sports, humor, etc. The songs could be sad, but usually not as sad as the romance ballads of previous times. However, bard songs could also be funny and full of jokes. People sang these songs everywhere - at home, at the country side, close to a camp fire, or simply in the park.

In Russian modern music history, there have been a few really outstanding names that need to be outlined. First among them are Bulat Okudjhava and Vladimir Visotsky. The first one is older and was a pioneer of the bard style in Russia. The second one lived a little bit later, but influenced the Russian bard tradition the most.

Bulat Okudjhava was born in 1924 in Moscow and died in 1997. During his long and great life he managed to achieve a lot of interesting things. He was a poet, a writer and a screen writer. He is considered to be the founder of the school of bard singing.

Being born in Moscow, Okudjhava lived there until 1940 on the very downtown street called Arbat. He dedicated a lot of beautiful songs to this city as well as to this legendary Moscow street in particular. Nowadays, one can see a monument to Okudjhava on the Arbat, which looks just like a big statue of a poet strolling along the Arbat.

During the dark ages of Stalin's rule, his father was executed and his mother was deported. Okudjhava was raised by his grandmother in Tbilisi, Georgia and then went off to defend Russia during World War II. After he returned from the war he enrolled in the literature and language department at the Tbilisi State University and started a career in journalism. In 1956 he got the opportunity to reunite with his mother and came back to Moscow. There he worked as an editor for "Molodaya Gvardiya" and "Literaturnaya Gazeta", which were two different journals. In 1961 he quit both jobs and began a career as a free-lance writer.

He was married to Olga Artzimivich and had a son. In 1997 he endured a difficult operation on his heart in the USA and then died in Paris. He is buried in the famous Vagan'kovskoye cemetery in Moscow.

Okudjhava started to write poetry early in his childhood and achieved more than 800 works of poetry, 200 of which went on to become songs. First, he tried to establish himself as a bard singer during the war, but then he went on to write songs for students. Okudjhava has touched upon so many diverse topics in his songs that it is impossible to describe them. He sang about love and beautiful girls, about students and musicians, about Moscow and other interesting places that impressed him. His records were published in Paris in 1968, which won him popularity and respect abroad. Okudjhava also wrote some songs for films, such as "Vashe Blagorodie", "Dorozhnaya pesnya" and many more, some of which were collaborated with Isaak Shvartz. To understand the Russian bard tradition it is necessary to discover Bulat Okudjhava, not only because he was the first, but also because he was poetic, intellectual and very subtle.

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Vladimir Visotsky is another great name in the bard tradition; he was always a mystery man too. Some facts about his biography became well-known only after his death. His life was full of art: he was a singer as well as an actor for the cinema and theater. His songs were extremely popular among common people. This man was incredibly talented, he could wow audiences while acting in the role of Hamlet in just jeans and a sweater in the MHAT theater in Moscow. He was an observer of life and noticed the little subtle details of the common person's life. Then he described what he noticed in all his songs, and these common people became heroes after he described them in his special way. For example he wrote and sang so truthfully about prisons and the life of prisoners that most people thought that he himself had been condemned. But in fact, he had never even seen a prison or been arrested.

He was never afraid of being an individual and expressing the way he felt. Authorities didn't like Visotsky, but people adored him. His manner of singing may have sounded crude at times and his style may have seemed too simple, but he was an outstanding person and people felt this and believed him unconditionally. When he suddenly died, no one believed that he was truly gone. It was simply too hard to imagine a life without Visotsky. On a hot day in July, thousands of people came to bid farewell to their favorite songwriter and singer, and at this point most people knew all his songs by heart even though none of his poems or songs were ever published or printed out.

Besides his great songs, Vladimir Semonivich left his fans more than just his songs; he left them a timeless love story. This store remains in the hearts of his fans and still inspires people. Visotsky was in love with a woman named Marina Vladi, a French actress and a beautiful woman. This was a true love hurricane. At first she - the famous actress - didn't pay attention to the Russian bard. But he never gave up and persisted. After many years, Marina's journals reveal that she too deeply cared about him: "we met each other and I felt like we knew each other for ages". But even so, the woman could not admit that she loved the bard. He suffered and through his songs he wrote about how much he loved Marina. One fine day, when a company of actors who were shooting a film shooting called "Suzhet dlya nebol'shogo rasskaza", Vladi accompanied her actor friends to another friend's apartment. Visotsky was there also and he greeted Marina by kissing her hand, as usual, and grabbed his guitar to play her a song. He started to sing his new songs and everyone one was amazed. This was a completely different Visotsky, one that was emotional and deep. And she fell in love with him. Marina gave him happiness and showed him the world, at the same time she also gave Visotsky to the world. And she continued inspiring him and thus he wrote some of his most passionate songs.

Visotsky's songs covered the most important life issues. Some were extremely tragic and others very happy and funny. To discover Visotsky, it is necessary to understand the Russian language, since the poetry is very deep and expressive. However his manner of singing and perfuming is also quite interesting, so everyone can enjoy Visotsky's music. During his not long, but interesting life (he died in 1980, when he was 42), Visotsky had also acted in a lot of good Russian movies - "Vertical" and "Mesto vstrechi izmenit nelzya", which are the most famous ones.

Today in Russia there are many bards and the style of song writing and singing has become very popular. Some current famous names are Tatiana and Sergey Nikitin, a couple, who sang great songs for adults and kids. Their album "Rezinovy yozhik" is very popular amongst children. Novella Matveeva, whose special voice can charm anyone, is another outstanding bard singer. Alexander Dolsky, Alexander Gorodnitsky, Alexander Galich, Uriy Garin, Galina Khomchik, Uriy Vizbor and Oleg Mityaev are all really talented artists worth noting.

The best way to get acquainted with the creative work of bards is to go hiking with Russians. So bring a tent, ask some Russian friends to take you to the countryside, and you will discover something completely new and extremely special.

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Popular vocal instrumental bands was something really special as they were artificially formed by Soviet times. Abroad there were already rock-n-roll and Woodstock; here the rock in any of its kind was forbidden. However it started to exist, and government along with the Ministry of Culture created an idea. They decided to set up and support the artificial rock bands whose music was very light and soft and whose texts were dedicated to the life in Soviet Union, or nature, or other nice things. The texts were mostly dedicated to the idea how great is life in USSR and how great people are, about friendship and love, but only about the most bright and light things in it. The members of the bands looked very nice and well-groomed. Everything about the Soviet VIA's could be awful and fake if there wouldn't be one thing. The music itself and the professionalism of the musicians made those VIA's something extremely unique and special.

There was a period when popular vocal instrumental bands were increased so fast and constantly so that in a short while there were about twenty well-known names. However just few survived during a while. The most famous names are PESNYARY, SAMOTZVETY, SEBRY, VESELYE REBYATA, POUSHIE GITARY and TZVETY. Some of those VIA's were really fake. They consisted from the Party activists who were obsessed with the Soviet ideas and communism. The others were just normal, open guys who sincerely believed in good lyrical music and performed it with the kind heart. They didn't want to popularize any of Soviet ideas, but just created music with out any protest in it. The most outstanding band from those probably would be PESNYARY. This Belorussian band had numerous hits. The songs like "Vologda", "Belovezhskaya pusha" and "Olesya" are something extremely special in the Russian music of the middle of the 20th century - something that could be called creative, heartfelt work.

Most of the others were not as good and frank, but the songs themselves were quite melodic and sweet. So to get an idea of what was that special era of VIA's the best thing to do is to take a collection of those bands on one disk and listen to it carefully. Without knowing Russian language probably all of them will sound the same to your ear. Very melodical, quite romantic and may be a little bit funny from time to time. But if you know the language it would be easy to distinguish the upright band one from the fake. And in any case the VIA's are something really interesting and typical for the history of Soviet culture. Something worth getting acquinted with.

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