A Brief History of the Cossacks and Cossack Choruses
Part I: Origins of the Cossacks
In the fourteenth century, to escape the tyranny and oppression of rich land owners, serfs fled to the wild lands (the Steppes). Far out of reach of their former masters, they could live free. As time went on, many others joined them. Though the origin and meaning of the word “Cossack” is unclear, there are two meanings that seem plausible. The first, which I believe is of Turkish origin, means “a brigand on horseback”; the other a “lightly armed warrior on horseback”.
The Cossacks became a warrior people not by choice, but by necessity: being on the Steppes, where they settled, they were constantly attacked by Tartars, Mongols, and other marauding tribes. This forced them to develop the skill and art of war. They would have preferred to live in peace, but this was denied them.
Though of humble beginnings, the Cossacks evolved into a people with noble qualities. Being the vanguard in many of Russia’s wars, they developed their own fortifications, military camps (Stanitsa) and schools, both military and secular, where the art of war, history — both Cossack and church — was taught. With the passing of time, many thought of them as being the protective shield of Mother Russia. This developed to the point where the Tsar was watched over by two rings of Cossacks, an inner circle of Kuban Cossacks and an outer circle of Don Cossacks.
Part II: Cossacks After the Revolution
After defeating the Czarist white guard one of the first things the Bolshevik/communist government did was close the churches in all of Russia. The churches, not being used, fell into disrepair, some being looted while others were vandalized and denigrated. Some were even used as stables. The holy Russian Orthodox Church to the Russian/Cossack peoples was the soul of Russia and the backbone of life. All Cossack units were disbanded to try to force them into the Communist mold and were forbidden to teach Cossack history or culture. They were looked down upon and generally treated as second class citizens. None of this was pleasant to the Cossacks suffering under the oppressive regime.
When the Germans invaded Russia (the Soviet Union) in June of 1940, though not having any great love for the Germans, but remembering and still grieving the butchery, murder and slaughter of the white guard Cossacks at the hands of the Bolsheviks, after the revolution, the Cossacks decided that working with the Germans would be the lesser of two evils. They thought and hoped (naively) that by joining forces with the Germans they could destroy the Communist regime and make Russia a better place.
Not only Cossacks, but an entire Russian (Soviet) Army, commanded by A.A. Vlasov — one of Stalin’s favorite generals, with an army of a million — also defected to the Germans. The Germans, fearing both the Cossacks and Vlasov’s army, used them only for guard duty and very little actual fighting. After the war, Vlasov and his army were repatriated to the Soviet Union where Vlasov and eleven members of his staff were executed, while the rest were sentenced to the gulag labor camps in Siberia for ten years or more.
The Cossacks who were camped outside of Linz (Lienz) in Austria fared little better, and were led to believe, by the British, that they would join with the Allied forces and attack the Soviet Union, driving out the communists. They were told to come to the British compound for a meeting with the British general staff. Cossacks told their wives to keep their suppers warm, for they would be home before nightfall; but as the trucks carrying the Cossacks approached the compound, it was clear there was something wrong: there were British soldiers with rifles at the ready lining both sides of the road. The trucks carrying the Cossacks drove into a barbed wire stockade and they were forcibly interned, and later repatriated by Great Britain to the Soviet Union, in what is now referred to as the Betrayal of the Cossacks at Lienz. Those who could escape did; the remaining were sent to the gulags. In the James Bond film, Goldeneye, Bond is informed of this betrayal. Bond (Pierce Brosnan), referring to Great Britain, replies, “NOT EXACTLY OUT FINEST HOUR.”
In retrospect, not using the Cossacks and Vlasov’s army may have cost Hitler and Germany the war. If Hitler had turned the Cossacks and Vlasov’s army loose to fight the Red Army, it would have amounted almost to a civil war, with brother fighting brother, and Russian fighting Russian. This would have extended the war one to two years. Hitler kept speaking of wonder weapons. It wasn’t until after the war ended in Europe that the Americans found out that the Germans were several months, if not weeks, from having an atomic bomb. With three atomic bombs, Hitler most probably would have won the war in Europe, dropping one on Paris he would have devastated France and forced capitulation. A second bomb on England would have devastated her, leaving Great Britain of only the resources of a far-flung empire to continue fighting. A third, on Moscow, would have shaken Russia (the Soviet Union) severely, but the seemingly endless supply of manpower, the great expanse of Russia, and the steadfastness and willingness of the Russian people to fight and die for Mother Russia would have kept her in the war.
After communism fell and the Soviet Union disbanded, the scars left by the indoctrination and brainwashing of the communist was (and is still) strongly felt by the Cossack peoples. In the Kuban, there were people that didn’t know they were Cossacks, and had to be told. Even more astonishingly, there were those that, when told they were Cossacks, were embarrassed and ashamed.
In the Caucasus, the Terek Cossacks are making great strides in regaining the old traditions. They are teaching Cossack history in their schools. They are also putting great emphasis on religious education, to the point where Mother Russia and the Holy Russian Orthodox Church are as closely entwined as they were before the revolution of 1917. Terek Cossacks, in tcherkeska, on horseback, patrol the outer areas, giving a sense of security and tradition to the people.
A Brief History of the Cossack Chorus
When and where the first Cossack chorus was formed is lost to the mist of time, but it is certain that it was formed in the stanitsa, long before the advent of radio and television, to sing the Divine Liturgy on Sundays, at funerals, and to celebrate high holy days such as Easter and Christmas. Books were rare at the time, and the spartan existence of the Cossacks did not allow them time to learn to read. In the evenings, the Cossacks would gather to pass the time and entertain themselves, and would sing folk songs and ballads. This was the norm for centuries. Not until the Russian Revolution forced Cossacks into exile to wander the world did the Cossack chorus become world famous.
After the revolution, the churches in Russia were closed by the communist party. This deprived the people of a place to learn to sing and eventually led to the loss of a choral tradition. The powers that were in Russia (the Soviet Union) didn’t realize — nor did they care — that the school and tradition of Russian choral singing lay deep in the roots of the mother Russian Orthodox Church.
Though lost within Russia, the choral tradition survived and flourished outside of the Soviet Union in various Cossack choruses. For more than 60 years, the choruses of Kostrukoff, Jaroff, Schlouch, Ignaiteff, Ivanoff, Horbenko, and others were the keepers of the grand tradition of Cossack choral singing.
For more than 30 years, the Cossacks in Russia have been trying to reestablish a tradition of choral singing. If they are trying to continue in the grand tradition, they have woefully failed. Kostrukoff, Jaroff and those mentioned above have no successors, legitimate or otherwise; they stand alone and apart, representing a time, tradition and virtues that are all but gone from the world of today.
The recordings of modern Cossack choruses in Russia have almost nothing in common with the grand tradition of Russian choral singing, as exemplified by Kostrukoff, Jaroff, and others. These modern choruses utilize male and female singers, and are often accompanied by folk instruments whereas the grand tradition uses only male singers who sing a cappella. The arrangements of these Russian choruses are also weak and ineffective, while the voices, for the most part, are primitive, showing little to no vocal training. The final result is singing devoid of culture and refinement.
It has not been easy or pleasant for me to write so disparagingly of the efforts being made by my brother Cossacks in Russia but, in all honesty, I could do nothing else. In spite of all the gloom, and lack of intelligent guidance and direction, there is one Cossack chorus whose singing shines out like a beacon, leading those who would back to the grand tradition: the Ural Cossack Chorus. The conductor (I do not know his name) conducts with sensitivity, artistry, and good taste. The chorus itself is cultured, refined, and well disciplined, showing more than ample vocal training. The tenor voices are young and fresh, the baritones and basses are weak — not because they don’t sing well, but because there are not enough of them; were they to add three or four baritones and three or four basses, they would have a fuller, richer and more vibrant sound as the baritones would add warmth and roundness, while the bass would add the depth that they are sorely lacking. A final word: I cannot praise the conductor highly enough for not trying to force the music into preset parameters, but letting it flow freely and find its own expression. If the chorus would add sacred music to its repertoire, and perhaps occasionally sing in churches, they would be continuing in the grand tradition, and would also show other Cossack choruses how to find and reestablish this grand tradition.
I add three recordings of the Ural Cossack Chorus — Lezginka, Serenade, and Lullaby — for the reader to judge if my assessment and recommendations are valid.
What caused the demise of the Cossack chorus in America was not the lack of good singers, but their high financial demands and the dislike of being away from home for seven to eight months at a time. In the Russian Orthodox Churches within 75 to 80 miles of me, there are enough good singers to form several good Cossack chorus, but it would take a small fortune to do so and would have to be handled by someone like myself, a dinosaur who knows, and was a part of the grand tradition.
I add four pieces of my sacred music. The first, “Under Your Tender Mercy We Flee” is dedicated to the memory of N.F. Kostrukoff. The second, “The Hymn to the Cherubim” is dedicated to the memory of A.V. Savchuck. The third, “Eternal Memories” is dedicated to the memory of P._. Myhalik. The fourth, “The Lord’s Prayer”, is dedicated to the memory of I.V. Assur. I hold the copyright on these pieces, but my sacred music was not composed for financial gain: it was composed for the glory of God and, if sung in church to help the worshiper find the calm and inner peace to help him or her to commune with the power we call God. If anyone finds merit with any of the pieces and would like to sing them in church, feel free to do so. I only ask that my name be shown as composer. For those who are not familiar with notation of the tenor voice, they should be aware that the tenor sings an octave below the written note so, if played on the piano, the tenor parts (the right hand) should be played an octave lower to have the proper sound.
Looking at the music, one may think “who can sing such high notes?” In Cossack choruses, any note above the staff, from G upwards, are sung in falsetto. In one of his arrangements, S.A. Jaroff required his soloist to sing the F above high-C.
I highly commend the Holy Mother Russian Orthodox Church in this time of an ever-shrinking and changing world, for its steadfastness in keeping the tenants of the Bible and disseminating the teachings of Christ and his disciples. In this modern world of cults and splinter religious groups vying for the minds, souls, and FINANCIAL SUPPORTS of the masses, the Russian Orthoddox Church has preserved, unadulterated, and perpetuated Christianity at its finest and by so doing, leading its faithful flock, without fear, into an uncertain and perhaps perilous future. The Western church, as opposed to the Eastern (Orthodox) church, has shown a chain of musical development going back as far as the contrapuntal masters of the sixteenth century, starting with Palestrina, Byrd, through Bach, Hayden, Mozart, Bethoven, Shubert, Brookner, and others, to the present day. The Russian Orthodox Church has shown no such development, though a chain of fine and great Russian composers, such as Bortniasky, Lvov, Tchaiskovsky, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Archangelsky, Rachmaninov, and others, have composed much fine and great music. Because of the style and technique they use, their music langers and is mired in the tradition of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Only Rachmaninov, in the earliest twentieth century, tried to bring the music of the Russian Orthodox Church into the then-modern era. One has to remember, that music of the church has nothing to do with religious belief or church dogma. The function of the choir in the Orthodox Church is twofold: first, to sing the proper response and appropriate hymns; second, to beautify the service and make it a spiritual experience for the worshiper. In my church music, without sacrificing the integrity or spiritual depth of the music, I try to bring a freshness and bring the music into the modern era. I do this by using more modern idioms, such as chromaticism, altered chords, modulations, and contrapuntal devices.