The Russian Folksong at the University of Freiburg

-translated from the German by Noel Taylor

The most authentic Russian folk choir, in the opinion of many who are knowledgeable in such matters, has existed since 1930 at the University of Freiburg. The singers are students, and therefore as nationally diverse as any typical student body, and their director left Russia nearly sixty years ago in 1919. This “wonder of Freiburg” was the topic of conversation in an interview between the staff of the FUB (Freiburger Universitätsbibliothek) and the now eighty-year-old Alexander Kresling:

Herr Kresling, you possess a unique treasure-trove of Russian folk songs which you sing with your Russian choir. How did you come to learn these songs?

When and where? During my childhood and adolescence until I left Russia, that is until my twenty-first year. And where? One could say everywhere. Literally everywhere one had the chance to hear Russian folk songs: in villages, in pubs, in front of farmhouses, on estates, in the streets and in the markets of the cities, at train stations, at streetcar stops, in factories and in barracks. Of course also in schools and in choral performances at folklore concerts — but these were not truly satisfactory any more than any other so-called folk-singing at all manner of festivals by singers with sheet music in their hands, couched in a nice piano accompaniment. But in addition to all of that there were also, so to speak, spontaneous opportunities which nevertheless presented themselves again and again, for during my childhood I never let the chance to hear a folksong escape me — be it a Russian song, or Latvian, or Estonian, or Finnish Tartar, or Bashkir. But there were also, I could almost say, fated encounters of a most extraordinary nature which were of critical importance to my friendship with the Russian folksong. First among all of these was my initial childhood encounter with the folksongs of the Old Believers of Northern Russia.

When was that?

Well, I can specify the date almost to the very day: In January of 1906, just after I had turned nine years old. That’s when I was, one might say “accepted” into a group of Old Believers that otherwise kept itself particularly isolated from foreigners. The Old Believers, by the way, are the members of the largest Russian sect, which arose in the middle of he seventeenth century when many sections of the population rejected the reforms of Nikon the Patriarch and split from the State church. The first Old Believers whom I got to know closely were working-class men and women who worked in my father’s business and lived very close by in a house which my father had rented for them. All of them had come from a single village of Old Believers in northern Russia which, I later discovered, enjoyed an almost legendary fame in the whole of northern Russia because of its songs, especially its old songs, and because of its singers. Of course I had already come to know most of “our” Old Believers much earlier; I could at least recognize them, though I also knew many of their names. They would drop by on my father’s birthday, and at Christmas my father would present them with gifts. We would go to visit them on Easter for religious services at which they would sing their Easter songs.

So how was it that your, as you call it, “friendship” – with these Old Believers came about?

It happened like this: I had to go a rather long way to get to school. First I tried it with the streetcar, but it took an extremely roundabout route and was so slow — at that time it was still the “konka”, a car pulled by horses, and had such an unreliable schedule that… well anyway I just made the pilgrimage to school on foot, and since my path took me through parts of town which, though beautiful, were held to be unsafe — by the Field of Mars and the Summer Gardens — it was decided that a fifteen-or-so-year-old youth from our group of Old Believers should accompany me as a “protector”. And then it was probably around the ninth of January 1906, the first anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”, the dramatic beginning of the first Russian revolution, that we once again experienced “besporyadki” — “disorder”, as it was called in the police reports. Wild saber-swinging riders raced through the streets, and from somewhere you could also hear gunshots. My escort was hit in the leg. He was brought into a yard by wailing women, and from a bakery I telephoned a hospital. The only clinic I knew of was far and away the finest and most expensive. A hospital sledge arrived and picked up my Syerjosha. Naturally I visited him in the hospital and, after he was released, at his home. It was at this time that I first heard the “true” songs of the Old Believers: church songs at the evening services, spiritual folksongs: prayers, benedictions, legends, and then the “rasmashistiye” songs or those “reaching far back” which was the name they gave — I don’t know why — to their secular songs. Already after the second or third visit the initial almost timid inhibitions of my hosts towards me and my listening-in had been overcome. They sang, I listened. After a few weeks I began to sing along with some of the songs with which I had in the meantime become familiar (quietly, of course!); first to their astonishment, then cheered on and encouraged by them. For the whole year I was with them nearly every Tuesday (“our evenings”). Endearingly they took care that I didn’t stay too long, that is, that I didn’t arrive home too late. These approximately one and a half hours every week grew to become — I might almost say — a fixed component of my life. Just how terribly I missed these evenings I first noticed during my two semester-long winters abroad which I spent from 1909 to 1911 in Switzerland.

Beside these encounters with the Russian folksongs of the Old Believers to which I had become accustomed over the years, there were also periods of, so to speak, “peak activity”, during which I fully immersed myself in folksongs, and there was nothing in my life other than listening to songs; especially fresh, as yet unfamiliar songs. Such a peak period was a longer sojourn in 1912 in the Urals and especially in 1913 when I took a trip to the village in northern Russia which was the home town of the working men and women in my father’s business. I spent a good three weeks in this village and afterwards set off with some twenty inhabitants of this village on a pilgrimage — six weeks through northern Russia, first some 600 to 700 kilometers along the Mesen’, then along the Pinega down to where it joins the Dvina, and then the last leg of the journey upstream along this powerful river to a temple of the Old Believers. During this pilgrimage there was much, much singing; by far much more singing than speaking. In the evenings, when we came to a village, we sang begging songs for room, board, and drink since we naturally did not have any money for buying things. Then in the mornings we made our farewells with benedictions and songs of thanks. On Sundays we abstained from our wandering, and then performed “our” songs for our hosts: legends, bible songs, but also songs for circle dances or songs which were appropriate to our particular situation — about rain, heat, clouds, wind, about fatigue, yearning, about love (ill-starred love, it goes without saying), teasing songs, and whatever else. In almost every village we sang a song, in which we described our own pilgrimage — our departure, our journey, our destination; it concluded with a prayer: may our pilgrimage find a blessed resolution. This song was invented during this pilgrimage, gradually, out of originally spoken origins. Can one designate this a “folksong”? At the celebration of its fortieth anniversary the Russian choir sang this song for the first, and only time.

After returning home from this pilgrimage I needed weeks to reacclimatize myself to my former surroundings, to the completely different daily routine in the city, to normal clothing that now seemed so foreign, and even to the language after I had spent over two months speaking the old-fashioned, change-resistant Russian of my fellow Pilgrims. There were also a series of “consequences” for me. It so happened that the summer vacation had already ended before my return, and the issue of the ten missed schooldays had of course to be set straight by me alone, with no support from my parents. The result of a conversation with my teacher and the director of my school was that I had to give an account of my “disappearance” in front of my class and a few teachers who in some way or another were interested in the whole affair. A few days later, the director of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, Professor Alexander Glasunov, asked if I would be willing to give a lecture on my “musical experiences in northern Russia” to a small circle of professors and students of the conservatory; especially about the legends, which according to the unanimous opinion of Russian folksong researchers since the middle of the nineteenth century were regarded as “extinct”.

While I was being questioned in school about all the details of the pilgrimage, about the landscape, about the people, about the hospitality and my impressions of everything, the conversation in the Conservatory turned suddenly to the music: which songs we sang, how and whether these songs were somehow “rehearsed”, about the types of harmonization. I was being pelted with a terrible many questions, interlarded with technical jargon; questions that in some parts were entirely unintelligible to me, until an old friend of our family, Professor Josef Vihtol, a composer and a collector of Latvian folksongs, made these questions understandable to me in astoundingly easy fashion. Very soon there resulted a weighty discussion among my listeners, or to put it more accurately, an unfriendly dispute. I couldn’t properly listen to it, since I had to answer the questions of a few students and older gentlemen who had remained peaceful. Later when I asked Vihtol what the argument was about he smiled to himself and said: “They’re arguing about what a folksong is”. Then I was asked which of the spiritual songs I had retained particularly well and whether I might be able to sing the melody line from a few of them. But I had barely sung a couple of measures from a begging song when I was interrupted by one of the men because of the lyrics. He had never before heard a Russian like that! And when I told him that the very same expressions in just this kind of Russian also appeared in some of the legends, they wanted me to sing the legends for them. But I hadn’t retained these quite so well, since we had sung them only five or six times. This time some of the gentlemen were amazed at the course of the melody, and I had to repeat some four measures over and over again and then was asked if I might somehow indicate the manner of harmonization on the piano. Since I can’t play piano (“can’t play piano!” – the gentlemen were shocked) I was unable to do that. I suggested a Domra, a string instrument with which I was most familiar of all the native Russian instruments. But first a Domra would have to be fetched from the instrument collection. Therefore they brought me a violin, which had the added disadvantage that one cannot sing and play the violin at the same time. Then one of the students suggested that they could sing the melody, which they now knew quite well, while I added the individual harmony voices — that’s how they referred to them — either singing them or playing them on the violin. I opted for the violin, and it went better than expected; I even managed to play a few double-stops on it. “Do you know that you’re a natural musician?” Glasunov praised me, “very much so, in fact.” A student passed me some paper and a pen and pointed to Glasunov. Everybody laughed. But in spite of all my musicality there was one measure that just wouldn’t come out right, in which our two tenors on the pilgrimage had produced some sort of totally unexpected flourish — and furthermore a different one every time. Now suddenly everyone was interested only in the possible permutations of this flourish, and suddenly one of the gentlemen seated himself at the piano (it was a concert grand) and played the four measures again and again with ever-changing improvised flourishes — it was fantastic! And on the fifth or sixth one he came so close to the “true one” that I grabbed the violin and improvised my own flourish into his piano-playing.

After it was over one of the gentlemen took me with him into his office, his “cabinet”. On the way he was addressed as “Anatolii Konstantovich” and then for the first time I recognized him. It was Lyadov, the famous composer and folksong researcher, a man whom I had already held in admiration and whom I came to properly appreciate for the first time on that day. He bestowed on me a small volume of thirty Russian folksongs which he had published. By each song there was a notation showing where it originated and by whom it had been recorded. All the songs had been arranged by Lyadov “for voice and piano”. He wrote me a moving if also lightly jesting dedication in the book and switched immediately into the familiar form of address. He made a motion as if he wanted to embrace me, but then didn’t do it. But I had already positioned myself for his embrace and could no longer check my motion towards him — and so I ended up hugging him. “Spasibo, Golubchik” — “Thank you, little dove” he said with all seriousness.

I got to know the Russian folksong in an entirely different setting in 1916 during the first six months of my career in the armed forces, when along with 260 other students, freshly drafted into military service in Luga, a little town some 150 kilometers southwest of Petersburg, I was being trained as an officer of the mounted artillery. We had all arrived from different colleges in St. Petersburg, but had come originally from the farthest-flung corners of Russia. And as far as folksongs are concerned, I heard wonderful and for me entirely new Georgian folksongs from two brothers from the Caucasus (naturally, the were the sons of princes!). One brother would sing, the other would accompany him artfully on the pándura, a Caucasian string instrument. Among the wild throng of my comrades there were also several students, who because of their especially beautiful voices had been trained as church singers; two or three of them had been summoned to the post of Deacon shortly before their consecration; five or six of them had made a striking impression on somebody somewhere with their voices and had obtained stipendiums for their musical education. And in Russia, when somebody makes a striking impression with his voice, there must be something very special about him. Two of them, a bass with a voice that had earned him the nickname “Jericho”, and a tender lyrical tenor, who had already sung as an evangelist and a singer of tenor arias in a performance of the Passion of St. Matthew, came from the province of Voronesh, an area with an inexhaustible supply of native folksongs. (in one part of the region around 1950 there were 14,000 folksongs registered there!). That was of particular interest to me, because the forefathers of the Old Believers of “my” village in northern Russia had emigrated from this region at the beginning of the eighteenth century. I immediately made friends with both of the Voronesh natives. They knew many circle-dance songs and other dance songs, as well as a few wedding songs that had also been sung in my village in northern Russia, but not a single spiritual folksong, or maybe they had just a vague idea of the text.

When we were all together we sang war songs. Seldom have I heard such good singing and never so rich in original improvisation. It was interesting to witness the way in which the singers, whom I mentioned came from all regions of Russia, came to agreement on the style in which the songs should be sung. Usually we sang “po-piterski”, that is, in the Petersburg style. Sometimes it seemed to me that we had stolen our singing style from Stravinski’s “Petrushka” — or maybe he stole it from us. We also sang Russian church songs, pre-composed a cappella pieces; some I knew from singing them in school or from the services in the beautiful Kazan-Cathedral which stood across from our house on the other side of Nevskii Prospect. Naturally, we sang without sheet music, and astounding new songs would emerge, and when later I would hear these songs in churches or in concert, performed by trained church choirs and “correctly” recited, the singing seemed quite weak in parts and I might almost say academic. Great hordes of listeners often came to the large yard in front of our barracks to hear our evening services. On Saturdays, when all possible songs would be sung with still one or two hours to go before evening roll call, listeners would come in from farther outlying areas, especially from St. Petersburg. These songs included among other things teasing songs with improvised and sometimes extraordinarily ribald and objectionable lyrics, usually sung by a tenor and always down from a window of the barracks.

Of the songs you have heard, how many have you retained?

It is not so easy to answer this question. I would say only a tiny fraction, but nevertheless very many. And “retained” is a very inexact, a very flexible term. In general I would say that I have really properly retained first and foremost those songs which I have heard often, and of course especially those,
with which I myself sang along.

How many is that, very roughly?

How many indeed? The first ones I really “counted” were the wedding songs which I had — as you would put it — “retained”. That was in the autumn of 1923. At that time Maxim Gorky had lived for a long time in Günterstal. I visited him almost daily — he expected that from me. One day we came to the topic of Russian folksongs. “All the Russians know a mere dozen songs, and they all know the same dozen. Some who tout themselves as ‘knowledgeable’ know a second dozen as well. Do you mean to say that you know yet a third dozen, you great folksong expert?” By “all the Russians” Gorky meant the immigrants to Germany, but also in my experience he was right with his “dozen” theory, quite right in fact! But as far as I personally was concerned… “Alexei Maximovitch, not one or two dozen songs do I know, but three or four hundred! And therefore many, many more than you!” He gasped for breath. He always did that when he got angry, and he got angry often. “Let’s bet on it!” he said, and right away he began to name songs in wild disorder; and I did the same, of course. We both agreed that it was a boundless undertaking. “Let’s do it systematically, like your Germans would.” It turned out that the Germans would divide the songs into categories: dance songs, love songs, dirges, etc. We decided each one of us should now suggest one category and until the next day think about which songs from that category he knew. Gorky nominated factory songs, I wedding songs. “And of course war songs” he said. Fine, of course also war songs.

The next day we started with the factory songs; The score stood 20 to 6 in his favor. “You see!” he exclaimed triumphantly; but even at this point we had already had our differences, since for him any song with lyrics about how “the smoke climbs from the chimney” was a factory song. “How do you figure that?” I asked. “How can you ask?” he replied, “If the chimney is a factory chimney then it’s a factory song isn’t it?” “But what if it’s only the chimney of a little farmhouse?” “Hey, you tell me what kind of a chimney produces more smoke, a factory chimney or the chimney of your little farmhouse? And because you contradicted me this factory song counts double!” That was Gorky-logic — already very familiar to me — in its purest form. With the war songs we ended up in a tie of about 40 to 40, but in wedding songs I was far superior. To my own surprise I had collected a good 250 of them, he “only” 35 to 40. It was clear that I had won the bet, but Gorky was not the kind of man to admit that he — he! — had lost a bet, and above all one concerning things Russian.

“Well, you might know more songs,” he said, “but according to categories it’s one-and-a-half to one-and-a-half — ‘undecided’!”. By the way, he was also very untrustworthy in regard to counting. After I had named around thirty wedding songs, he began to say after every almost third song: “A nu-ka, spoi!” — “come now, sing it!”, and I had to sing him three or four measures. Naturally, he again found fault with this: “That’s supposed to be a wedding song? I have also heard it without any wedding, on a perfectly ordinary and leisurely evening!” When I came back the following day, he immediately started talking about the wedding songs again, and he was very close to speaking a word of acknowledgment to me; but it interested him, and me too, how many of the wedding songs, his also but especially mine, had ever been published. It was my opinion that the texts from nearly all of them had probably been published. “But the music?” he asked “That’s what matters more than anything else! They’re songs after all, aren’t they?” This pronouncement coming from him quite moved me. He also was suddenly moved. “So many wedding songs, and all of them ours, Russian songs. Da, nasha Rosseyushka — yes, our Rosseyushka, our Mother Russia!” and he stretched his han\
d out to me.

After a couple of days he told me that the wedding songs wouldn’t let him rest. There was, for example, one that neither of us had counted. A wedding song about the wind. I knew it though — which he was a little disappointed about. He, however, claimed to know a version of this song which was “much more beautifully sung”. And then he began to sing me the song — to my amazement in all voices. And then he explained to me how some measures must not be sung but rather spoken, very lightly, “with, you know, breath, an inhalation”. All of this, by the way, happened outside during a walk. When I got home, I immediately wrote up the song. It was the first Russian folksong that I had ever written up “correctly”, with all voices. That evening I had rehearsal with my string quartet. We rehearsed Reger’s op.74 in D minor. I had written up the voices from Gorky’s wind song for a string quartet. During the intermission I asked my bandmates to play it. It sounded very good. Exactly fifty years later, in 1973, as we in the choir were rehearsing seven “wind songs”, my choir also sang this song. It was recorded onto our “Windsongs” album.

How many songs have you collected?

“Collected” in the actual sense of the word? You mean transcribed then and there or recorded in some other way? None whatsoever. The whole time I was listening to songs, back then during my childhood, it never ever occurred to me that I would have to “retain” these songs, and it absolutely never occurred to me that I would ever “need” them for anything, for some kind of musical score or least of all for a recital. It was only during my visit to the Conservatory that people were saying that I possessed a treasure (klad), which indeed it was possible — even necessary — to protect, raise, salvage, expand. That nothing would come out of these good intentions was probably clear to me from the beginning. I had come to this conclusion even before one of the older Gentlemen — it was Alexander Skryabin — shrugged his shoulders, looked up to the ceiling and said in French “Hélas, nos intentions!” After I came home that day, I wrote out a list of all the songs of the pilgrimage — first the songs which we sang, then the songs of other pilgrims, who were journeying to the same temple of the Old Believers, and finally the songs which we heard underway in the villages. I first began to draw up the songs at the end of 1929, and specifically for the following reason: In 1929/30 Walter Eucken was Dean of the law and economics department. Since his wife had spent her childhood in Russia, the Euckens thought they might give a Russian theme to the then-traditional Dean’s party for the department fellows and their wives; that is with Russian costumes, a Russian menu, and Russian music. I was entrusted with the music, and we decided on a Russian string quartet and a few Russian folksongs which I could very probably rehearse with the students in my Russian class at the University. Probably! During the Christmas break, at our ski lodge in Todtnauberg I then began singing with some 8 to 10 male and female singers. By lucky chance all the voices were covered, and some very well, especially the Soprano thanks to a very musical and musically experienced girl, the daughter of a father steeped in the music of Bach. We first tried it without sheet music. I played each individual voice on my viola and by the end of the very first evening we had rehearsed a simple, pretty folksong with the real verses. It sounded extremely promising. But on the next day nearly each of them, especially the women, from my singing group maintained “But yesterday we sang this song totally differently!” And after a few days it became clear to me that I had to put our songs down on paper. Of music paper we had none, but with the help of some stationery (light purple!), a pen, and a ruler the shortage was relieved. When we left our lodge, we had already worked out a little repertoire of 8 to 10 songs, which we then perfected in Freiburg in point of quantity and most of all quality. We rehearsed a half-hour every day after lunch and before the beginning of the Russian class at 2:00. The Russian-style Dean’s party was successful beyond expectations and gave us the desire and the courage to arrange a real concert in the University. The Russian choir was born.

And what kind of songs were you singing now?

For the first two years I only wrote up those songs which we wanted to sing in the current semester and which were appropriate to the voices we had available. Two medical students from Poland came to the choir, one with a very unusual baritone voice came from Eastern Poland, which had a partly Russian populace, and he knew a great many Russian folksongs, and so it was very natural that our first pick of songs were ones that he and I both knew. He was a Jew and on his account (in addition to other things!) the choir had repeated and ever-growing problems under the Nazi party. But the fact that no choir member — not even the students who were Nazi party members — left the choir in the lurch and everyone sang along with enthusiasm and courage (courage in the truest sense of the word) and also that the university (especially the Rectors at that time) supported the choir as far as they were able — that was a reassuring flicker of light in such a fearfully obedient time.

In 1937 my Jewish soloist fled Germany, as did a good quarter of my choir over the following two years — many to America, four to England, three to South Africa. But back to the songs! Gradually I began to write up songs “for a rainy day”, in any case songs to be used later on; some I wrote up complete, with all voices, some I only sketched out — melody, an idea of the text, characteristic changes in the harmonies. Along with that it was necessary for me to write up songs that my choir would be capable of singing, without paying attention to whether they had already been written up or not. Only afterwards did I notice just how many songs I had retained, and also how relative this concept of “retention” is. How many times I realized that I had in fact retained a song, but not sharply enough, too inexactly to be able to write it out!

Did you have no way to jog your memory in such cases, no aids of any kind?

Oh, on the contrary I did, of course, and furthermore many kinds — first and foremost regarding the texts of the songs. In this capacity my memory proved much less reliable than for the musical elements of each song. I knew pretty much what every song was about or nearly every song, but the text, the authentic text, escaped me time and time again. But I knew that in the middle of the previous century the Germans — probably as a result of German romanticism for Russia — had collected not only Russian fairy tales and proverbs, but also folksongs; and specifically not the melodies, but only the texts. In the Prussian national library in Berlin I discovered great masses of collections of texts beyond all expectation. Thanks to falling in with a helpful and most of all very knowledgeable librarian, great stacks of these collections were sent to me by special order in Hamburg, where I was vacationing. For two months I searched the collections for those texts which had escaped me and thereby was also suddenly reminded of songs of which I had not thought in a great while.

About how many songs might we be talking about?

As a matter of fact I counted them out once. I received the collections in two stacks. And the second, larger stack contained an exceptionally interesting multi-volume collection. Then in 1957 I received volume 1, chapter 1 of this collection — an antiquarian rarity — as a gift from the director of the Moscow University J.G. Petrovskii. It contains in its 800-plus pages the texts of 2562 songs, and on a full five pages are “melody samples” from some twelve songs. The collector was named Schein, and as an epigram he elected a couplet from a completely unknown poet (unknown also to me), that runs something like: Dem Schöpfer zu danken, bin ich bestrebt — Denn ich habe nicht umsonst gelebt – (To thank the Creator I am obliged, for I have not lived in vain.) During that time in Hamburg I was very industrious and I wrote out the texts from songs which I knew, from songs which I might have recalled later, and from songs that especially struck my fancy.

How many forgotten songs were you able to recall at that time?

Well, as a matter of fact I made a sort of rough statistical approximation at that time. As far as I can remember, I recovered the authentic texts for 300 songs, and of those 300 there were a good 100 for which the music re-occurred to me, sparked by memory of the text.


You said before that by far the majority of folksongs on Soviet recordings have been arranged by “composers”. A sacrilegious question: Have you not “reworked” for your choir the material which you heard in Russia? What is the relationship like between the original and your transcription? How do they stand in terms of authenticity?

That is, well, an unfortunately very legitimate question and at the same time, I’d like to say, an academic one, which I myself have thought over often and deeply. It has many layers as well, and on the whole I could actually only answer it in a more or less academic style. However I would like to stay true to the tone of this interview and answer in our present chatty style. The question is, then: “When can one designate the reproduction of a folksong as ‘authentic’?” As far as the text is concerned, it would hardly be a problem to answer this question. But the music! Let’s consider a song which is sung by two or three women. Such a song can well be “authentically” written up or recorded on tape. Each voice can be preserved – in both meanings of this word — exactly. But now we run into the first problem: on the next day the “same” song can be sung completely differently, for example when one singer’s place is taken by another, or when a singer is added or one is missing. But even with exactly the same singers, small deviations here and there are of a surety to be expected, and I dare say, to be hoped for. My Old Believers knew songs which I would probably designate as “family songs”, that is songs which were sung within single families. Usually these were women’s songs in three voices. In Petersburg we had some women working for us at that time, two sisters and their aunt. I learned certain songs from them — among others a “spinning song” and a “mowing song”. Then when I was staying with this family for a day during my visit to “my” village in northern Russia, I asked my hosts to sing these songs for me. For the spinning song they fetched out their spinning dresses and sang; it was the same text, but a slightly changed melody and quite different harmonies. When I pointed that out they said: “yes, the girls in Piter also don’t have any spinning dresses at all, and also we’re missing our Marfusha (a girl in Piter, i.e. Petersburg, with a fantastic gentle alto voice). At first they didn’t want to sing me the mowing song at all: “We don’t mow until the week after next, and then we’ll also have our men. And the girls in Piter — don’t tell me they sang this song to you! — And without any scythes? They could do that?” It was a good thing that I didn’t have to decide then and there which version of the spinning song was “authentic”!

Other, and actually greater, problems of “authenticity” come about with songs which are sung by a choir. First of all: there is, or was anyway, no such thing as a “choir” in the Russian villages. There were men and women, young and old, who in the evenings or on Sundays or holidays came together and sang somewhere, in front of a farmhouse, in the town square, or — especially in northern Russia — in the meadows of the village, before the church or on the riverbank. And they sang with an ever-changing “cast” of singers, and furthermore with a uniquely changing “authenticity” in the individual songs. And as far as the individual voices are concerned: over vast areas of old Russia what was “normal” for a choral concert was something like this: the women usually sang in three voices, the harmonies very close. The men’s voices — yes, well Russia is and always has been the land of high tenors and deep basses. A baritone was rarely called for and — except maybe occasionally as a soloist — was difficult to make use of. The basses – well, about them one could probably say that it was their task to “carry” the choir; and what’s more when the choir was very big, or decidedly too big, then usually some kind of uniform bassline would emerge, that is the basses would generally of their own will adapt themselves to a single, leading bass singer. Completely different — again only very generally — completely different were the tenors. They were — especially in songs with a swing to them — the enfants terribles of the choir. They vanished into the highest of heights, usually almost every one according to his own taste and ability. The tenors often had the most astonishing improvisational flourishes and through this alone defined the impression the choir would make, above all the acoustic impression. As a general rule one could say that the tenors defined the acoustic color of the choir. How often I have thought of the Russian tenors when an F trumpet resounded in a Bach oratorio! Choir, orchestra, everything because of this instrument took on a completely new acoustic color for my Russian ear — a tenor color. When you then try to write down such a Russian folksong on paper, then you have to reign in the tenors, reduce them to a uniform line, in order to make the song in any way “singable”. Is that “authentic?” A further problem: the sound of the individual voices.

You mean the shrill sound of the women’s voices in Russia?

Exactly that. The women generally sing shrill. And as far as I have observed, especially when the most important thing is the meaning of the text. Then the women sing very open, with emphasized clarity of speech and very strict rhythm — and all of this is, I would say, often deliberately overemphasized. I have tried to imitate this with my choir, at least for certain songs for which such a delivery is predestined, so to speak; but that is and remains foreign and unnatural to our girls and besides that it’s very taxing! And so we’ve tried it only occasionally, but only when such a manner or singing, which after all is a kind of challenge, is really fun for the girls; for example with teasing songs.

Yes, your daughter can do it magnificently.

Yes, that she really can. We just recorded a wedding song on album in which a girl makes fun of an unmarried wedding guest who “only shoots blanks” in shrill and improvised singing. The recording couldn’t have been more successful; Of course it’s very far removed from our western bel canto ideal, which from the standpoint of a Russian farmer would be wholly uncalled for in a teasing song, for the song doesn’t have to be sung absolutely “prettily” so much as “true to form” – that’s the most important.

Once more to address the problem of “voice”. People say that you are not fond of accepting trained voices into the choir. Is that true?

Yes, trained voices can be downright dangerous to the choir; especially high voices. With deep voices it’s somewhat different. For many years we had a female voice student in the choir with a deep alto voice. She was able to fit in very well with the choir – if one disregarded her fiery and headstrong temperament. Besides, she had learned to speak Russian masterfully and had even managed to speak not only completely without mistakes, but also without an accent. She could hear just as well and could masterfully imitate voices; and when she spoke Russian — then she even imitated me! Later she got a job with the opera, first with the chorus in Bern, then as a soloist in Regensburg and now she’s in Braunschweig. A further problem: the range of the Russian voices. With women the range corresponds more or less to that of the women in Germany. Perhaps the German sopranos don’t get quite so high up as the Russians, but in the alto voice there is really no great difference; anyway in my choir I have had alto voices as deep as any I could wish for. It’s different with the men’s voices. Our tenors have to sing a good fifth higher, our basses a fifth lower, to correspond to the range of the Russian men’s voices. This is especially noticeable in songs that are sung “with bright sound” according to the Russian expression, and in this case it becomes a problem for us to render an “authentic” reproduction. And the songs with this “bright sound” — these are most of all the harvest songs in which, in old Russia anyway, it is not the harvest work that is sung about but the size, the endlessness of the field, or the relaxation in between shifts, with the longing not to return to work, but rather to go into the cool wood and there listen to the song of the birds which God created. In my youth these songs were held to be the most beautiful Russian folksongs. In the Soviet Union the preference for these songs seems to have receded since around the time of the “wood” text. For this very reason these songs created great problems for me at the beginning of my work with the choir, because I had held on especially clearly to the memory of the high tenors and the deep basses and now had to narrow down the “bright sound”. It was as if I had to spread out a wide carpet in a narrow room. I wanted to give up completely on the idea of singing these songs, but to sing hundreds of Russian folksongs without a single genuine harvest song? That seemed to me simply too paltry. And when after a concert in a sanatorium I was asked independently by three Russian patients if we didn’t also sing the song “Sultry Summer Day”, probably the best-known but at the same time for me the most problematic of all Russian harvest songs, I put myself to work on this very song. I tried to “turn it over” in my mind, that is to hear it another way than I had it in my memory. After some time I made an attempt at writing it up, for weeks on end, in 20 or 30 variations. And suddenly it seemed to work. I sang the song with a small choir that I had in Hamburg. It sounded better than I expected, at the very least not falsified. “Authentic?” In the sixties we sang around 15 of these field and harvest songs. At that time they were among the choir’s favorites. But — this just occurred to me — we’ve never recorded a single one on a record! Why should that be? I guess one could say: sapienti sat!

Herr Kresling, you have just described in detail the problems you had with some of your songs. Did you have no possibility to help yourself in some way?

Oh yes, there was help. I received valuable help from many musicians and musicologists who were friends of mine, especially from those who were born in Russia. Such a help was, for example, Professor Kurt Wolfort, musicologist in Berlin, composer, and author of an excellent monograph about Mussorgsky. We had lived together in the same house in Petersburg, he a young musicologist, I a schoolboy, and we could look into each other’s windows across a courtyard 120 meters in breadth and past the German church of St. Peter, around which the house had been built on three sides. In the same house, by the way, there lived another friend of my choir, Professor Jacques Handschin, who at that time was an organist and who later became a musicologist in Basel. And Wolfurt — he often came to Freiburg — his daughter was married here — when Wolfurt was in Freiburg he came over to our house every day for breakfast, and then sank himself in the scores of my folksongs. He always found something that — he expressed himself defensively — “would be classically wrong” — he said “would be” not “is”. And again and again he would ask “What exactly do you do to make it sound good?”. The collisions against classical theory probably resulted from the fact that I had a by no means classical style of “setting” the music — as Wolfurt put it. I described for him very approximately how I do it. I simply write out for myself each voice individually. So for example with a song in five voices I start of course with the melody line — the soprano as a rule. Then the bass for the whole song, then the mezzo soprano, then the alto, and finally the tenor. Each voice for itself, drawn horizontally and completely independently. “Without worrying about the — so to speak — vertical consonance?” He was familiar with this very tendency of the farmers of northern Russian toward “the linear” in hearing and singing. Nevertheless he was amazed that this technique “can go so far”. I told him that “if you can trust me that my farmers would treat the melody in exactly this way, or at any rate that to treat it in such a way could be entirely expected of them, then you can trust me that the resulting dissonances will find their own kind of ‘solution’ — not in a ‘classical’ way, but through further guiding of the individual voices”. Incidentally my Old Believers had the expression “Put'” — “way, path” for the individual voices, that is for the path of the line. “Ei, kakoi ty sebye tam put’ biryosh?” — “Hey, what kind of a path are you taking?” they would yell when for example one of our tenors had gotten far too far out of hand. And also this “linear” voice-leading, in which each voice sings its own melody, has great advantages during rehearsal of the songs. The lines are easy to sing and are easily remembered. This independence of the voices must be sensed by the singers from the very first rehearsal; the song must be sung freely, for without this freedom from anything prescribed — in the double sense of this word — a folksong is no folksong. In rehearsals we have always sung the individual songs completely freely — and there have been surprises: acoustical, rhythmical; surprises in volume and in the emergence of individual lines – individual “paths”. To this end it was critical that the songs unconditionally and without exception be learned by heart, even from the very first rehearsal. The choir must create the song anew each time, and if this feeling of taking part in a creation is missing for the singers, and also for the listeners, then the folksong is lost. And to return to the point of learning the music by heart: To sing a folksong from sheet music is every bit as deadly for the folksong as a staged reading would be for a declaration of love. Every time when I see choir singers with sheet music in their hands I always have the sensation: they’re not singing, they’re doing their job. They’re fulfilling what is at best an academic assignment. And as far as the Russian choir is concerned: For a good ten years we have given two concerts in Freiburg at the end of each and every semester with an ever-changing program. And we have always sung by heart; sung folksongs.

Herr Kresling, you still owe us the answer to one question: How many songs have you written up altogether? You refuse the term “collected”. In a prospectus of your choir, if I am not mistaken, the number 1200 appears.

Yes, 1200. Right after the war I realized that mice in the basement of our house had devoured bare the contents of a box. In this box I had kept, one could say, musical mementos: some 200 concert programs from my one and a half years from 1919/1921 in Berlin, over 200 programs from symphonic concerts in Freiburg, in which I took part from 1922 to 1939 as a violist, around a dozen programs from evenings of chamber music, and a pile of folksongs, most of them only roughly drawn up, and therefore not yet “finished”. More to determine which folksongs had been lost to me, I counted the remainder left in closets of our apartment. And so I arrived at the number 1200, whereby I would like to remark that the counting was a problem inasmuch as there were many songs for which I had drawn up several variants, some of them heard in different regions, some here for a women’s choir, here for a mixed choir. Also there were very many songs in Russia which came to be sung “joined” or as a refrain to another song, and therefore could be counted either separately for themselves or together with the other song as one song. So it was a very inexact reckoning.


And now perhaps to return to your question: Is this song authentic or not?… You ask about “help” which I have had in writing up my songs. With that you are implicitly asking whether a lot has been changed and/or came from me. These questions are applicable to hundreds of songs, but if you will allow me, I would like to answer with the example of a single song, an undemanding and quiet song, but to my mind an especially beautiful one and one truly inspiring in its clear simplicity. It is a women’s song from northern Russia and first concerns a river, which quietly flows and stirs up no waves. But this song is not about the river, but rather — in the symbolic language of the Russian song — about a young girl who is compared to the river, and who lives out her life in silence; and nothing is there that could bring a small wave into her life; nothing over which she could rejoice or grieve. I had heard this song in “my” village; it was sung a few times in the evenings by five girls from two neighboring families. I would have liked to sing this song in the first semesters of my choir, and furthermore exactly as I had heard it. But however much I strove to remember this song, to remember each note, so much the more did it escape me. So I finally gave up hope. But then, in 1932, I was the guest of a Russian family in a little village in the middle of Sweden. This family knew an unbelievable number of folksongs; the parents Russian ones, the children, some of whom had been born in Sweden, Swedish ones; and they possessed an entire mountain of Russian records, nearly all of them Russian piano and violin concerts, a great amount of piano music and among them probably fifty records with songs: romances, art songs, and folksongs, often wildly mixed up on one and the same record. I listened to all the records with singing; they were old, played over and over, scratched, full of hiss; the romances were tormentingly kitschy, the folksongs with two or three exceptions were abominable “arrangements” for a soloist and a choir, and always with accordion or an orchestra of balalaikas. And suddenly there was my “river” song, exactly as I had heard it; and on the record was written “Wedding song, after the transcription of K. Lyadov in 1898 in a village in the province of Archangelsk.” – that is, fifteen years before I had heard it. Naturally I wrote it up immediately — but for me it was not yet complete; something was missing, for they were only singing about the river; two women’s voices were missing, which one after the other had improvised a counter-melody to the song, and sang of the silent girl. These counter-melodies, or more properly, the style in which these counter-melodies were sometimes more spoken than sung — I’d almost like to say like Arabesques — I had retained this much better than the song itself, and so I was able to fill out my river song quite well. Naturally I hadn’t preserved these improvisations tone for tone in my memory; quite the opposite, it was like remembering the impression of the cycle of a movement, of a movement in a dance. When I wrote up these counter-melodies it was clear to me that I myself was now doing something akin to improvisation, but not to create something new or something of my own, but rather to recreate an impression from a foregone time as “authentically” as possible. What I have tried to describe with the example of this song has seldom happened to me, and yet it has reoccurred in a similar way with some other songs. Can one make the accusation that these songs are now “falsified”? I hope not! And I believe that the singers from whom I first heard the song — if they could now hear my “river song”, they would acknowledge it as their song — and the singers of the improvised voices would do the same, for these very improvisations were not fixed; they were born anew time and time again from the singers’ changing moods; something like a laugh; now a loving, now a defensive gesture.

And now I would indeed like to answer a question, that today you have put to me on several occasions. Concerning the number of “my” Russian folksongs. Perhaps I may formulate this question a little differently; not how many songs have I written up, but how many of these songs have been sung by the Russian choir. The answer: almost exactly 700 in 850 concerts. And of these 700 songs, 250 have been recorded on records; at first in mono, then from 1965 on in stereo on fifteen small 17 cm and two large 30 cm records. On cassette we have recorded a total of some 450 songs, including the 250 which were recorded on records.



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