Already among the Byzantine writers of the century. There are reports of Slavic prisoners, to whom little or no exercise in arms was attributed, but great skill in the sound of the gusli, the most ancient Slavic folk instrument. It is therefore legitimate to think that already in those ancient times there must have been a widespread and solid musical practice of the people; but what is more important is that it should not have died out, from century to century, despite the fierce persecutions to which popular music and musicians – considered as scandalous – were repeatedly subjected by the Church.
These persecutions begin in the century. XII, are hardened in the following by Metropolitan Cyril of Kiev who in the invasions of the Tatars wanted to see a punishment hurled by Heaven against the too many who still took pleasure in such forbidden amusements. And two centuries later we find any form of secular music forbidden, including the simple humming of any popular song. After a period of tolerance, due to the musicophilia of some tsars, new prohibitions appeared in 1636 and new penalties were applied, at the behest of the Church. Only in the second half of that century, with the penetration of European music at court, did the bonds that oppress national music become less hard.
The characters of this popular music are very varied; and it is not difficult to understand this, considering that the Russian empire came to bring together, in its development through the times, peoples and peoples who had completely different traditions and civilizations. Among the music available in today’s Russian area there is thus an immense variety, from the primitive and simple figure to the richer and more complex one; in which different figures – corresponding to different degrees of formal evolution – the characters of the different races are found.
In the steppe zone that goes from Asiatic Russia to Moscow and Kiev, the musical phrase shows rhythmic vigor and simplicity of formal structure; it moves in whole tones, usually on systems such as: do – re – mi – sol – la (- do); o: e – fa – sol – sib – do (- mib), or also: fa – sol – la – do – re (- fa). Often the phrase uses only three or four degrees, as seen in the following Votive dance (northeastern Russia):
In the south, among the Caucasians, primitive forms are also found, but of a quite different type. Here in fact we have a sort of cantillation on short basic formulas, among the most backward ethnic groups; even among the more evolved (for example among the Mingrelî and the Imeritini) a similar cantillation appears, but there is a tendency towards an increasingly elaborate melodic figure, as in the following Imeritinic chant:
Outside of these symmetrical correspondences, however, we see the song of the Turco-Tatars prefer a melody, very free rhythmically, inspired by the Arab-Persian (Magam-Prince), which is presented through a sort of passages, returns and variations from its basic formulas.
The beginning of a song by the Crimean Tatars shows how these musics are close, even under the specifically melodic regard, to those of the Persians and Arabs.
Much closer to our musical sensibility is the popular song of European Russia. As for the tonal bases, there are pentatonic ones, coming from the East, but more often those of our modern major – minor or those given by the church modes. The people sing with 2, 3 and 4 voices, but this whole does not give a proper harmonistic process: what we notice is rather a sort of free imitation that the secondary voices (podgoloski) offer to the melody of the main voice, as we can see in the following example:
And the performance alternates, in practice, similar ensemble passages with monodic passages: the monodic ones, which of course can be sung by the choir in unison or in the 8th, expose the main phrase; follows the choir, which resumes and continues the song; and this alternation is repeated until the song ends.
The singular treatment of the voices in concert, the multiform figure of the melody, the richness of the rhythmic figures have provided Russian professional composers with a set of suggestions for their personal creativity. Each generation finds in that treasure what it needs best; and it should be noted that above all dramatic composers there found the best color for their mass scenes; so much so that it can be said that much of what in their works, from those of Glinka to those of Stravinsky, surprises and enchants us, is essentially nothing more than the masterful harmonic and instrumental elaboration of a melic substance entirely taken from popular song.