Historical Songs

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Folklorists apply this term to certain Russian oral epic songs tracing to a later period than the type of the bylina and dealing with known historical persons and events. Although Soviet specialists attempted to find earlier examples, the historical song as people know it most probably arose in Muscovy in the sixteenth century; the first clear examples have to do with the reign of Tsar Ivan IV but appear to have been composed somewhat after it. Historical songs are typically shorter than the bylina but continue many features of oral epic composition, including prosody. In place of the larger-than-life bogatyr, the hero of a historical song is often a common soldier or cossack. In this folklore genre from a relatively late period observers have one of their best opportunities to see how historical events became adapted and transformed in the minds of simple Russian people. What they produced were imaginative, poetic treatments of problems, persons, and happenings.

Two outstanding songs concerning Ivan the Terrible and known in many collected variants are those called "The Conquest of Kazan" and "The Wrath of Ivan the Terrible against His Son." Both stress the dangerous anger of the tsar, which may explode suddenly like the gunpowder that breached the wall of Kazan during the Russian siege of 1552. In the second instance it is turned against his own son, a tsarevich whom he suspects of treason. The offending parties have to be saved by a third person who risks his own life by speaking up to the tsar and is the real hero of the song. Historians have tried to associate "The Wrath of Ivan the Terrible against His Son" with the sack of Novgorod in 1570, but the imperfect fit with history brings out the fact that songs often embodied only a popular conception of the spirit of events. Ivan IV emerges as both a fearful and a respected ruler.

Seventeenth-century historical songs include themes associated with the Time of Troubles: the supposed murder of Tsarevich Dmitry, a lament of Ksenia Godunova, the rise of pretender Grishka Otrepiev, the assassination of Mikhailo Skopin-Shuisky. Stenka Razin's reputation naturally inspired a number of songs later in the century. From the eighteenth century, there is a cycle about Peter the Great that depicts him as a people's tsar who mingled with the common folk. A development from the historical songs were the so-called cossack songs and soldier songs, usually still shorter and sung rather than chanted. Although examples of historical songs are claimed even from the mid-nineteenth century, the genre was clearly dying out.

See also: bylina; folklore; folk music; music


Chadwick, N. Kershaw. (1964). Russian Heroic Poetry, reprint ed. New York: Russell & Russell.

Stief, Carl. (1953). Studies in the Russian Historical Song. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde & Bagger.

Norman W. Ingham

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Historical Songs

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Historical Songs