9.0. The Red Army Choir. The immortal tradition of Russian music
This is a very large topic, too large to be compared with army choirs from other countries. The official choir of the USSR army was founded in 1928 and is an exemplary military institution that plays pages of music people adore. It is quite possible to claim that folk-singers like the histrionic German-born Ivan Rebroff are not the only ones to have been part of the Eastern artistic scene. In fact, when the Italian songwriter Toto Cutugno, who is very popular in Russia,88 was touring in Moscow in March 2008 with his hit L'italiano he did not have charming girls around, but rather twenty-two brave boys, all of them singers of the Red Army Choir. Although it is not clear to me whether Cutugno asked for these singers or they were imposed by the tour organization, it is anyhow striking that they accompanied him in many other concerts.89 Their presence also accompanied the performance of Russian pieces that are famous abroad as well, for example: Let's Go! (Давай!), also known by the dull title In una radura assolata [In a sun-drenched clearing]. I still remember Le luci del crepuscolo [The sunset's lights], its strophic structure alternating soloist and choir, and its very dramatic rallentandos and accelerandos that make that song sound like a late-1900 operetta's aria.
88 Cutugno performed in Russia since 1980 (fifteen concerts in Moscow and other fifteen in Saint Petersburg in the same tour) and also in France, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the United States, Israel, Iran, South Korea, Georgia, Moldavia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Estonia, and Rumania. His songs have been extremely successful thanks above all to Miguel Bosè, Mireille Mathieu, Dalida, Ray Charles and others. As of 2011 he had sold 95 million records around the world. This information was given during an episode of Domenica In (RAI1, 09/09/2011) hosted by Lorella Cuccarini. Source. Archive S. M., Florence.
89 Video from a TV program of the PTP-Планета channel (Moscow, March 2008). Source: YouTube (last accessed 11/07/2014). Other video documents show both Cutugno singing in Moscow (twenty concerts in one tour), Saint Petersburg and other towns over the years and the Red Army Choir accompanying him in several occasions, including the 2013 edition of the Festival di Sanremo (an Italian national song competition) where Cutugno was guest of honor. Source: YouTube (last accessed November 2014).
In recording anthologies, the 'official' pieces (those for which many hearts are still beating) are a minority. For example, in the CD I cori dell'Armata Rossa,90 vol. 2, the only composition that directly recalls the pomp of the ex-USSR is the Canto dell'armata sovietica.91 In order to find more pieces of the kind (e.g. the anthem of the Soviet Union or the The Internationale sung in Russian) one should instead listen to such CDs as National Anthems of the USSR and Union Republics or One Hour of Music — Soviet Communist Music.92 Otherwise, one can watch other videos such as those featuring the soloist Elena Vaenga (Елена Ваенга) who, wearing a uniform, sings with the Red Army Choir and a 20-piece orchestra. There are many female soloists who wear a uniform (in some cases the skirt is quite short), for example the ballerina Anna Kochanova (Анна Кочанова) who, in a 2013 video, pirouettes on the notes of Katyusha (Катюша). Among many videos dedicated to these interpreters I will recall here only the Concerto delle canzoni "Anni di guerra" (Концерт "Песни военных лет").93
90 Red Army Choir [EN].
91 Song of the Soviet Army [EN].
92 Source: Apple iTunes, mp4 and Archive S. M., Florence. Notice that the second to last piece of the CD comes from the film The Hunt for Red October, interpreted by Sean Connery (dir. John McTiernan, music Basil Poledouris, prod. Paramount-Mace Neufeld-Nina Saxon, 1990). Source: Archive S. M., Florence.
93 Source: YouTube, from a TV broadcasting of channel 100TB, with no date but, presumably, not much earlier than 2010 (last accessed 10/07/2014). Archive S. M., Florence.
Now, a clarification seems to be necessary. I will not intentionally touch the political aspect partially connected to these shows for at least two related reasons: 1) (I will say this with no diplomatic purpose) the apparently 'mandatory' political context is misleading because what stands behind the popular success of these shows is a sort of nostalgia (Ностальгия). I do not think that it is a nostalgia for the glorious past (although it could also be); I think that since that feeling has multiple and inexplicable nuances, the kind of nostalgia I am talking about here belongs to a transcendental world, whereas any political thinking is implicitly immanent. Countries that had and maybe still have different kinds of nostalgia are those that in the name of colonialism carried out horrible, unpunished slaughters. Massacres and massive, continuous robberies carried out by people who very hypocritically imposed a different religion to the one professed in the regions they conquered. Unlike many European nations whose wealth comes from the exploitation of other nations, the Soviet Union did not commit those crimes, but other perpetrated more recently in the name of Stalinism. As I said, all this, though, has nothing to do with the way nostalgia is understood here. Nostalgia is physiologically unknown to the younger generations, whereas after a certain age it is a feeling shared by most human beings along with the shadow of death. 2) Even for a radical anti-fascist as I am, there may be some nostalgia for some songs that were born during those twenty years of dictatorship. I will make a couple of examples: the first is Passione (1934), with lyrics by Libero Bovio and music by Ernesto Tagliaferri and Nicola Valente ("Te voglio… Te pienzo… Te chiammo… / Te veco… Te sento… Te suonno… / È 'n anno — 'nce pienze ch'è 'n'anno? — / ca stu' occhie nun ponno / cchiù pace truva").94 Heart breaking... The second example goes back to WWII. It is In cerca di te by Eros Sciorilli and Giancarlo Testoni, successfully interpreted by Nella Colombo. Just a few verses from the refrain are sufficient to generate an unspeakable feeling that for convenience we call nostalgia: "Sola me ne vo per la città / passo tra la folla che non sa, / che non vede il mio dolore, / cercando te, / sognando te, / che più non ho / ... ."95
94 In Neapolitan dialect: "I want you… I think of you… I call you… / I see you… I feel you… I dream of you… / It 's been a year — can you believe that it's been a year? — / And these eyes cannot / find peace anymore."
95 "I wander alone in the town / I pass through the crowd that doesn't know, / that doesn't see my pain, / looking for you, / dreaming of you, / whom I don't have anymore / … ." Names and dates come from Gianno Borgna, Storia della canzone italiana (Bari: Laterza, 1985), and Gianfranco Baldazzi, La canzone italiana del Novecento (Rome: Newton Compton, 1989). Source: Archive S. M., Florence.
With regard to traditional Russian songs, a particular mention goes to Kalinka (Калинка), a song composed by Ivan Larionov (Иван Ларионов) in 1860. This is one of the most beloved and more variously interpreted songs. As it is known, in the 'standard' version the tenor solo part is replaced with the choir's cresc./acc.: "Калинка, калинка, калинка моя! / В саду ягода малинка, малинка моя!/ (Soloist): Ах, под сосною, под зеленою, / Спать положите вы меня!…" In a live SVT1 television recording posted on YouTube the ununiformed soloist exceeds beyond any musical logic in prolonging the F4, the second note of its part. The show includes also a very mixed corps de ballet with young girls wearing traditional costumes, a group of Cossacks and another group staging a sword-fight. This rapid switching among visual events is accompanied by the choir and orchestra with usually three to seven accordions that stress the popular intentions of the show. They interpret a medley of the most known excerpts from such famous tunes as Dark Eyes (Ochi Chernye - Очи чёрные) sung by a uniformed baritone of the choir. However, quite soon a group of young girls with neither uniforms nor traditional costumes enters the scene. Instead, they wear sneakers and short skirts. Just after a few members of the ballet mimicked a circus number, another group of eleven military drums, some bass drums and cymbals in parallel rows performs something that looks identical to a tattoo.
It is now the right time for the entrance of two rock singers: the t.A.T.u. — Julija Volkova (Юлия Волкова) and Elena Katina (Елена Катина) — who, while moving provocatively, sing one of their hits: Not Gonna Get Us. All this occurs while the members of the Red Army Choir shyly try out some hip shaking. Meanwhile the disimpassioned group of military drums deployed on both sides of the stage accompanies the rock girls. At this point six white spurts with a clear priapic meaning (we saw already some both in a tattoo and in some Rieu's performances, but there are more to come) raise high above the stage. A pink tank and a fighter plane made of papier mâché are placed on both sides (maybe the show took place under the pavilion of a big circus). Although they are clearly a fake, are they perhaps used to remind the audience that the transgressions are only for the moment being and behind the most risqué skirts is the Red Army?
In 2008, in some performances at the fireworks festival in Cannes, Kalinka was interpreted by a mixed choir along with the show of a corps de ballet very in line with Russian traditions: Cossacks' Herculean force and ballerinas' biscuit grace96 in traditional costumes. Again in Cannes, the same choir sang the Marsellaise; thus, it is not hard to notice in this 'gift' to the French audience an endearing technique that André Rieu uses when visiting Italy and other countries whose audiences are not so easy to seduce.
96 Referring to the biscuit porcelain or kaolin (already known in China for hundreds of years) in use in France and Austria from the XVII to the XIX century. Here it is a metaphor employed to describe the skin of particularly neat, almost fake-looking girls, hence made of porcelain.
It is really remarkable to see how both tradition and innovation mingle and how traversal genres are nowadays very frequent. But this is not all. By listening to Kalinka and the many forms of interpreting it, I think, for example, to the version by three Hungarian violinists: three girls in white pants and corsets (the central one shows some virtuosity in playing the melody and tries out some musical/erotic movements). The group could recall some female Celtic violinists whom I will mention later. In any case, one can notice that trios and quartets composed of young attractive female players who revise the Classical repertoire in a rock fashion are already an international trend. They usually accompany a very well-known melody from the Western Classical repertoire with a disconcertingly repetitive and simple drum-set ostinato. A couple of examples of such groups are Gracia (two violins and cello) and the above mentioned Bond (a 'classic' string quartet). The latter are very attractive, no doubt, but are also a bit vulgar and, in fact, are guests of Rieu's orchestra (...and of the Royal Albert Hall in London!).97 As we can see, the 'parental' bond, that is, the circle created by the same protagonists and solutions in different performance areas, comes again full circle.
97 Source: YouTube (last accessed Nov. 2014).
The conclusion is: even the kind of show that is probably the most connected to a conservative military tradition tends to ‘modernity’ by blending forms and genres. With regard to this, I recall the medleys, the circus costumes and the dance movements, the spotlights that sweep quickly above the audience, the typical rock concert devices, the white spurts whose allusive power I have already commented upon, and the synchronization of light effects and rhythm. I finally recall also the multiscreen projections showing close details of the performance and abstract or symbolically patent images like a diabolic face or a pair of birds while sharing affection with each other. These various, but symbolically simple elements represent the beginning of a more informal approach to some military traditions, starting with the group of uniformed youngsters playing military drums and preceded by a group of girls wearing blue skirts and red corsets. However, their unequivocally contemporary movements looked ‘de-dramatized’ by the circus acrobats, but the cameras did not pay attention to them.
Russian Folk Songs - Red Army Choir (Хор Красной Армии), "Kalinka", "Katiusha", "Dark Eyes" by Aleksandrov Red Army Choir and Dance Ensemble Military Music School, Gipsy Theatre Roman - Live Eurovision Song Contest 2009.
Sources: YouTube (last accessed Nov. 2014);
Archive S. M., Florence.
CD I cori dell'armata rossa vol. 2. Boris Alexsandrov & The Red Army Choir, online recording, Apple iTunes Store, 1988. No other available data.
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.
CD National Anthems of the Soviet Union and Union Republics, online recording, Apple iTunes Store, FSUE Firma Melodya, 1996. No other available data.
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.
CD 70th Anniversary (Special Edition), The Red Army Choir, online recording,
Apple iTunes Store, 1999. No other available data.
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.
CD The Best of Red Army Choir, online recording, Apple iTunes Store, 2002. No other available data.
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.