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An Odd Musical Custom In Remotest Russia


[EDITOR's NOTE.—Some years ago Mme. Eugenie Lineff toured America with a company of Russian peasant singers, affording American music lovers one of the most unique experiences we have ever had. In the following, which is a part of a paper she read at the International Musical Congress, held in London, she relates some experiences with the Doochobors, one of the most interesting of the sects in Russia. Many Doochobors have emigrated to Canada with the view, it is said, of escaping the more rigid laws of Russia. They live in a great plateau in the Caucasus seven thousand feet above the level of the sea. They are religious zealots almost on the verge of fanaticism. Since they have produced a communal organization where poverty is practically unknown, and since they oppose war to the extent of burning all war-making weapons that come to their hands, their religion must have elements that some of the militant nations might well observe. The following is a description of a musical religious ceremony that took place in a wild cave carved out of side of a wooded mountain.]

DURING the festival I saw for the first time the ceremony of brotherly kissing—a custom which is repeated by the Doochobors at every prayer or service, in imitation of the ancient Christians. The singing began with “the eight beatitudes.” An elderly woman with a strong voice commenced the verse with deep feeling, and then it was taken up by the whole congregation. The strict singing, the earnest faces, the peculiar impassioned steadiness of a deep religious sentiment, made an impression not to be resisted. Sometimes one could hear sobs in the vibrating sounds of the melody. Yet a hidden power was also felt in the tune. When the prayer was over the people began to move. The whole mass divided into two rows, men and women opposite each other.

A new psalm was started, and the ceremony of kissing began. The first two men of the row grasped each other’s hands as a token of spiritual bond, and, having shaken hands three times, gave each other a brotherly kiss; then they bowed to one another, and made a bow to the women standing opposite. The next pair did the same, and so they continued to the last pair of the row. Then the women proceeded and performed the same ceremony throughout. During the ceremony the singing of psalms was continued by the whole community; when it was over, the ground was covered with beautiful white felts brought from the furgons, and several pieces of hand-made linen cloth were spread over them. Plates and eatables were brought out and put on the improvised tables, and a good many samovars appeared. Tea was now poured out, upon which an elder intoned a psalm, and the whole community took it up. Thus the meal began.
On our way to the sacred cave in the morning the young people who drove us in their van had sung chants and psalms. The same was done when we returned to Orlovka. It was arranged that the next day we should begin to record the psalms. When, however, on the following day I went in the evening to the appointed house, I guessed by the altered disposition of the singers, the host, and the crowds in the streets, that something had happened. It appeared that several elders did not approve of the recording of their psalms by the phonograph, and the young people, in spite of their desire to sing, did not feel inclined to oppose the wishes of the elders. So the recording could not take place. All next day passed in negotiations and doubts. The singers were anxious to have their songs recorded, the elders obstinately withheld their consent. At one time I thought that all my journey from Moscow (over 2,000 miles one way) would come to nothing with regard to the Doochobors’ singing; but as luck would have it, the chief, P. P. Verigin, arrived during the night. After my explanation he took great interest in my idea, persuaded the elders to give their consent, helped me in every possible way to do my work, and sang himself with the best group of singers.

The Doochobor psalms, which are based on the Gospels, are exceedingly interesting by virtue of their melodic and polyphonic construction. Moreover, they are of a sombre character compared with the singing of the Molokans. The melody of the Doochobor psalms does not flow like the melody of a folk-song or like a Molokan tune. Owing to the slowness of the tempo, the custom of the Doochobor singers is to spread one syllable over several sounds, and to give a peculiar accentuation to the most expressive words. This is done by the Doochobors very forcibly. The performance rises from piano to an immense crescendo, as the singing of the psalm progresses. The text of the Doochobor psalms is only partly taken from Holy Scripture. Their psalms are composed by several generations of Doochobors, and are sung from memory; no written or printed copies were allowed up to the present century.

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