Musical folklore of the Belorussian Polessye
Zinajda Mozejko i Inna Nazina
The folklore of Byelorussia is a mixture of various traditions. The use of local musical instruments is still taught. Byelorussian music has developed under particular historical, geographical and social conditions.
Southern Byelorussia used to be called Polessye because of its particular natural environment. Polessye is a vast swamp area situated mainly in the basin of the Pripyat river and its tributaries. The region is mostly covered with fir forests hence its Russian name (less means forest). Historians, ethnographers and art experts consider Polessye to be of a particular ethnographical interest. The region is often called "the land of legends, fairy tales and songs".
The vastness of space, the boundless meadows and impenetrable forests, had an influence on the people and their music. Singing in the open air has been common practice here since very early ages. The musicians used to sing near their villages, on the meadows and in the woods. This is why they describe their songs as "meadow songs" or "forest songs," according to the places where they used to be performed.
Two sometimes overlapping basic traditions can be recognized in the music of Byelorussian Polessye. The first had its origin in the early culture of the territory when it was first occupied by eastern Slavic tribes (6th - 8th cent.). Tribal unions, called Dregoveech, Rodemeech and Kriveech, formed the basis of the Byelorussian nation. The territory of the Dregoveech tribe comprised the whole present region of the Byelorusian Polessye. The name Dregoveech recalls the nature of the area. In old Russian "dregva" and in Byelorusian "droogva," means "swamp."
Many of the ancient songs of Polessye are connected with field cultivation, domestic rites, the seasons and the work in the fields. From the earliest times agriculture has been the basis of the economy of the eastern Slavs. The seasonal cycle includes winter songs (Christmas carols and New Year's songs), spring songs (the call of spring, spring pageants and processions), summer songs (midsummer-eve songs, harvest and haymaking songs), autumn songs (praise of autumn, harvest of the spring corn). The connection of songs to particular seasons links them to ancient rites and customs. This relationship is felt in the performance of the melodic types in chants which have a symbolic meaning. A chant may group different themes related to work and life, as well as to ancient pagan rites connected with sun-worship and personified aspects of the natural world. Because of their varied melodic components, the subtle nuances of intonation, the untempered scales and the well defined harmonic structures, these simple melodies have a strong power of evocation. All the elements of the musical language, rhythms, ornaments, timbres and delicate semi-tones are well coordinated. In spite of their small ambitus, these chants can be heard from a long distance, thanks also to the long-drawn basic sound which concludes almost every melodic phrase. The domestic-rites' cycle includes songs connected with the most important events of life: birth, marriage (wedding songs),and death (funeral laments).
These songs are very similar to the seasonal and ritual ones. They also have a symbolic meaning and a great power of expression. Particularly important in the family rites are the wedding songs linked to theatrical ritual events of a wedding ceremony. Unaccompanied melodies and heterophonic chants, frequently with an element of bourdon, are typical of the ancient style of the agricultural and domestic ritual songs.
Changes in the diffusion as well as the style and themes of the songs can be observed in the musical life of contemporary villages. New conditions of work and life, and the influence of professional music on the rural population through the mass media have considerably limited the traditional creative areas of what used to be the only sphere of artistic expression of the people.
Ritual singing and magic incantations, that find no more social soil on which to flourish, survive only today in the memory of a few singers belonging to the older generation. They appear as living relics of a past spiritual culture. Other types of ritual songs are now sung as a sort of a game. Former working songs and laments often assume a playful character.
Another type of songs in Byelorussian Polessye originated at the time when the unity of the Byelorussian people was formed (14th - 16th centuries) and in the stormy times of Cossacks' and peasants' uprisings (16th - 18th centuries). These include lyrics and epic poetry such as carters' and haulers' songs, Cossacks' songs, epic songs related to war events and elegizing the leaders of the peasants' uprisings.
There are also recruits' and soldiers' songs as well as love and comic songs. These differ widely from the songs originating from the older strata. Every lyric has its own individual melody. In these songs, the long-stretched melodies, sung in the medium of the voice, are characterized by open strophic forms.
A background polyphony is also a typical element of these songs. The most popular form of polyphony is built on diversified low voices. The main melody is sung by the chorus as a background, while a high-pitched solo voice develops a kind of counterpoint.
All the types of folk instruments known in Byelorussia are found in Polessye:
- The wind instruments include pipes, fife, pastoral trumpet, horn, accordion and clarinet;
- The stringed instruments include violin, double-bass and balalaika;
- The percussion instruments include big drum and the Turkish tambourine;
- The idiophones include rattle-box, cymbals, flappers and spoons.
The violins, the wood-wind and the percussion instruments are those mostly used in the popular music of Polessye.
There are in practice two types of performance: the solo performance and the ensemble performance. The solo instrument can be a violin, a pipe, a pastoral trumpet or a horn; the ensembles consist mostly of 2,3,4 instruments of one or more types. Percussions are compulsory. The instrumental music of Polessye, as well as the whole Byelorussia, is always connected with music and singing.
Zinayda Mozeiko and Inna Nazina