Tuesday, 27. September 2022

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The cradle of the Choir: Northern Russia

During the years before the first world war, Alexander Kresling, the son of a pharmacist from St. Petersburg, came into contact with the so-called Old-Believers. Their forefathers had protested against the reformation of the orthodox church under the patriarch Nikon in the 17th century, leading to a hierarchy of zar and clericals and, in consequence, were severely persecuted. Settling in the most remote parts of the Russian territory, they preserved an archaic culture, which has vanished elsewhere. Alexander Kresling stayed in these villages for quite some time and collected their songs, mainly in the Old-Believers villages in the northern part of Russia. After the October Revolution he left Russia and arrived in Freiburg in 1921 where he worked as a lector for Russian language at the university. While doing this he began to rehearse some of these Old-Believers' songs with interested students, and soon after that, on January the 30th 1930, the newly founded Russian Choir performed its first concert. From then on A. Kresling conducted the choir for 47 years. During this period there were many performances in Germany as well as abroad, and 15 records were recorded.

Sung Tradition: To Listen to what Others are Singing

Although the choir performed mainly in Freiburg and Southern Germany, it also regularly travelled through the rest of Germany and the neighbouring countries, like Luxembourg, France and Switzerland. For five times the choir travelled to the northern and middle part of Italy. Usually the lyrics of the performed songs are translated into the respective mother-language during the concerts, and in addition further explanations are given to facilitate the understanding for the audience.

Furthermore the choir presents so-called "Russian matinees" every year, that focus on different facets of the Russian culture, by performing a mixture of songs, readings and exposition:

Poets: Puschkin, Gorkij, Zvetajeva, Mandelschtam, Tschechov, Jessenin

History: Onslaught of the Tatars, Boris Godunov, Baptism of Russia, Prehistory of the October Revolution, Conquest of Siberia

Everyday Culture: Wedding ceremonies, Culture of the Siberian peoples, Architecture of the Old-believers, Religious beliefs, Icon Painting

A substantial collection of pictures, dia-positives, literature and recordings is accessible for the preparation of these matinees and reveals the background of the songs.

Living "Bridge of Songs" instead of preserving of traditions

In the August of 1991 the reforms of Gorbatchov made it possible to let the first official concert trip to the former soviet union take place. On invitation of the university of Irkutsk and the Burjatian government this journey lead the singers of the Russian choir of Freiburg as far as to Siberia. The choir not only visited the cities of Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude but also the villages of the Semejskie-Old-Believers in Transbaikalia, near to the frontier of Mongolia. This visit showed fruitful: during the following years the visits of three of the Siberian choirs to Freiburg were organised and realised, and a close contact with the Old-Believers' ensemble "Sud'binushka" (meaning 'little destiny') of Tarbagataj arouse: the so called "Bridge of Songs". Songs were exchanged, friendships developed and the partnership of the choirs culminated in the autumn of 1996 in a joint concert trip throughout the whole of Germany.

For our Siberian friends this bridge of songs is of great importance: Encouragement in the times of overall decline in the ex soviet union, revitalisation of their own culture, as some of the spiritual folk songs have been exterminated during the times of Stalin and new self-confidence. For the singers of Freiburg this contact offers a unique enrichment of their singing experience by a confrontation with the primordial, powerful way of singing of these people and a protection against complacent exoticism.

Another step on this way was a meeting of the two choirs in Italy in the summer of 1999. In August 2000 it was again the choir of Freiburg who travelled to Siberia: A trip of three weeks to Irkutsk and Tarbagataj included visits of many villages in Burjatia, in the south of the lake Baikal and strengthened the friendships and made promising new contacts. Hopefully these bonds shall be continued and intensified by counter-visits during the years to come.



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