The Beauty of Russian Old Folk Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Discover the soulful and unique beauty of Russian old folk music, from its traditional instruments to its heart-wrenching melodies.

The Origins of Russian Folk Music

The origins of Russian folk music can be traced back to the ninth century. Russian folk music has its roots in the music of the eastern Slavic people. Russian folk music has been influenced by the music of other cultures, including the music of the Mongols and the Tatars.

Slavic Tribes and the Birth of Russian Folk Music

The Slavic tribes that inhabited the regions now known as Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus were pagans who worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses. One of the most important goddesses was Veles, the god of fertility, harvest, and war. Music played an important role in the worship of Veles, and the pagan Slavs used music to honor their gods and goddesses.

As Christianity began to spread through Slavic lands in the 9th and 10th centuries, the pagan Slavs were converted to Christianity. Christian missionaries from Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) introduced Byzantine music to the Slavs. This music was used in church ceremonies and had a profound impact on the development of Russian folk music.

Byzantine music is characterized by its use of modes, or scales. The most important mode in Russian folk music is known as the Dorian mode. This mode is thought to have originated in ancient Greece and was later adapted by Byzantine composers. The Dorian mode is characterized by a minor third interval (a distance of three notes) between its tonic (first note) and mediant (third note). This interval gives Russian folk music its distinctive sound.

In addition to Byzantine influence, Russian folk music is also indebted to the traditions of other cultures that have shaped Russian history. For example, Mongol invaders introduced Central Asian musical traditions to Russia in the 13th century. And when Peter the Great established St. Petersburg as Russia’s new capital in 1703, he brought with him Italian musicians who introduced Italian opera to Russia. All of these different influences can be heard in Russian folk music today.

Russian Folk Music in the Kievan Rus’

The origins of Russian folk music can be traced back to the times of the Kievan Rus’. In those days, folk songs were primarily used for practical purposes such as labor songs or songs for entertainment and dance. Gradually, however, they began to take on a more artistic role and became an important part of Russian culture.

One of the most important early figures in Russian folk music was Filaret Kolovrat (1053-1113). A monk from the town of Rostov, Kolovrat is credited with collectings and compiling many traditional Russian folk songs. He is also said to have introduced the concept of singing in rounds, which is still a common practice in Russian folk music today.

Kolovrat’s work was continued by other important figures such as Alexander Nevsky (1220-1263) and Ivan Susanin (1581-1612). Susanin is especially famous for his role in defeating Polish troops who were attempting to invade Moscow. His story is commemorated in the popular folk song “Ivan Susanin’s Farewell,” which tells of his sacrificial death in the swamps near Staraia Russa.

Russian folk music underwent a significant change in the late 18th century with the rise of Romanticism. This new movement placed emphasis on emotion and imagination, and many Folk musicians began to compose their own works based on traditional tunes. This trend continued into the 19th century, when composers such as Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) began to fuse Folk music with Classical influences.

One of the most important figures in 20th-century Russian Folk music was Vasily Andreyevich Zolotaryov (1889-1939). A self-taught musician, Zolotaryov collected over 10,000 Folk songs from all over Russia. He also helped to popularize balalaika playing with his highly skilled performances on the instrument.

The Characteristics of Russian Folk Music

There are many different styles of music in Russia, but Russian folk music is a genre that is dear to the hearts of many Russians. This type of music has been around for centuries and has been passed down from generation to generation. Russian folk music is known for its beautiful melodies, its rich harmonies, and its wide range of emotions.

The Instruments Used in Russian Folk Music

Most of the folk music played in Russia is done so with the use of traditional instruments. These include the balalaika, gusli, and zhaleyka, among others. The balalaika is a triangular shaped string instrument that is plucked, and is possibly the most iconic Russian instrument. The gusli is an ancient instrument that is similar to a harp, and the zhaleyka is a type of trumpet.

The Melodies of Russian Folk Music

The melodies of Russian folk music are characterized by their use of pentatonic scales. This is a five-note scale that does not use half steps, or semitones, between the notes. The result is a very distinct sound that can be heard in much of Russian folk music. This type of scale is also common in folk music from other parts of Europe, including Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.

The Lyrics of Russian Folk Music

Most Russian folk music is vocal and anonymous. The songs are usually simple and repetitive, and often tell stories of everyday life. Many of the tunes are thought to be hundreds of years old, and were passed down orally from generation to generation.

The lyrics of Russian folk music often deal with topics such as love, nature, history, and religion. The melodies are often catchy and easy to remember. Many of the songs are meant to be sung while performing a task such as working in the fields or taking a journey.

Instrumental folk music is also popular in Russia. The most common instruments used are the balalaika (a three-stringed instrument), the accordion, and the bayan (a type of accordion). Folk music is often played at festivals and celebrations. It is also common to hear folk music played on the radio or TV.

The Influence of Russian Folk Music

Russian old folk music has been around for centuries, and it has had a profound impact on the music of the country. The music is known for its unique melodies, which often tell stories of love, loss, and hope. The music is also known for its beautiful harmonies and intricate rhythms.

Russian Folk Music in the Modern Era

Though it may seem that Russian folk music is a thing of the past, it has actually had a significant influence on modern music. Russian composers such as Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev were heavily influenced by folk music, and they incorporated its elements into their own works. In fact, many of Prokofiev’s most famous works, such as the “Peter and the Wolf” suite, would not have been possible without the foundation of Russian folk music.

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in Russian folk music, both within Russia and abroad. This has been due in part to the increasing popularity of world music, but also because many people are beginning to appreciate the beauty of Russian old folk songs. Thanks to this revival, we can now enjoy Russian folk music in its purest form, and appreciate its unique place in the history of music.

Russian Folk Music Outside of Russia

Though Russian folk music has been exported and imitated to some extent throughout Europe and even the Americas, its influence has been felt most strongly in countries of the former Soviet Union, where many Russian folk songs and dances have been adapted to local taste and become part of the traditional culture. In some cases, such as Azerbaijan and Georgia, this process began in the 19th century when members of the Russian imperial court visited these countries and were impressed by the native music. The first known collection of Azerbaijani folk songs, for example, was compiled by a Russian officer in 1859.

Georgian folk songs also became popular in Russia, and many were collected by Nikolai Vladimirovich Gavrilov, a general in the Russian army who served as governor of Tbilisi (then known as Tiflis) from 1858 to 1868. Gavrilov’s collection, which was published in 1869, was one of the first to be printed in Georgian script. It included both vocal and instrumental pieces, many of which were adapted for piano. Some of these adaptations were made by the composer Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, who included a number of Georgian folksongs in his orchestral suites Caucasian Sketches (1894–1901).

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