In front of the lofty pillars and gleaming organ inside Dwight Chapel stand some twenty young, tuxedoed men arranged in a two-tiered crescent. Watching them expectantly is an audience of Yale undergraduates, graduate students with small children, and elderly men and women whispering in Russian or Ukrainian. A moment later the audience falls silent as a pure, solemn chord fills the Chapel. The sound, full and mysterious, is built of a deep, broad bass note supporting a middle baritone, with a bright tenor floating above. This is the sound the audience came to hear. Even those of us who do not speak Russian understand that this sound is meant to praise the Eternal.
It is the sound of the Yale Russian Chorus, a group of singers and intellectuals struggling to hold its ground against the backdrop of a changing world and a changing university, all the while making beautiful music.
For over fifty years, the Yale Russian Chorus has shared the beauty of Slavic choral music with tens of thousands of Americans and Russians. The Chorus has helped preserve religious and folk music of the 17th and 18th centuries once banned as ‘dissident’ by the Soviet regime. Far from dissolving along with the Soviet bloc at the end of the Cold War, the Chorus continues to bring the haunting liturgical music and humorous, spitfire folk songs of the Russian steppes into the present day. Many members speak no Russian, but they are still touched by the stunning, alien harmonies they sing. The music speaks for itself: in “Satrpialo,” the choristers’ voices swell and speed up to the precise clip of a rider spurring his horse to reach the girl he loves. In a slower folk song, “The Volga Boatmen,” the sorrowful chant of peasant laborers builds to a powerful peak, then fades as the men pull the barge into the distance.
The Chorus was founded in 1953 almost by accident. One week, the Yale Russian Club, a coterie of students who met to discuss Russian politics and culture, invited Denis Mickiewicz, a Russian-born student from the School of Music, to speak about his country’s folk tunes. The charismatic émigré who had fled the Soviet occupation of Latvia, didn’t care to “speak” with the undergraduates about his musical heritage, but instead showed up with a guitar, mimeographed records of Russian folk music, and two bottles of vodka under his arm. The academic gathering became a rousing chorus of Slavophiles. Despite their lack of formal training in the genre, the men readily belted out the potent harmonies.
Though they started out small and “pretty scruffy,” as one alum, Harold Hille (YC ’66), recall, as time went on the passionate Chorus could afford to be choosy. In 1959, over a hundred students tried out for the group. With the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the number of students taking Russian at Yale had leapt from 11 to 110. The Lucy-Zarubin Agreement promoting US-Soviet cultural exchange had also just been signed, allowing the Chorus to embark on its first tour of the USSR in 1958. The Yale Russian Choristers had begun their career as musical diplomats sans portfolio.
During their first tour of the USSR, the 18 Yale men gathered each day in a public square and began to sing African-American spirituals for roughly twenty minutes in an effort establish themselves as a definitively American singing group. They then switched to Russian songs. Immediately, eager Russians would interrupt them, curious about these American kids who sang ancient Russian folk and sacred music. Despite the danger of conversing with foreigners, the Soviet citizens could not contain their wonder. A corner of the Iron Curtain had been raised, and both sides peered through curiously and critically. Soviets demanded to know how Americans espousing the ideal of liberty could allow racial segregation to persist in their country. On one occasion, a Chorus member crumpled up his draft card and driver’s license and left them in the public square to prove that US citizens could move freely without papers.
The Chorus returned to the Soviet Union the following two years, but Mickiewicz, after receiving hints that the Soviet government might not respect his recently-acquired American citizenship and arrest him for alleged “war crimes,” chose not to tour in 1960. Soviet citizens did not go unscathed by the group’s presence either. The Chorus would return to find that organizations whose members they had met in past years had been dissolved; former contacts had simply vanished. The Chorus knew their movements were being tracked and later learned that the secret police regularly questioned everyone seen speaking to them. “The Soviets were getting more and more determined to block real cultural exchange,” recalls Hille. “They wanted to manage it, and we were like gypsies,” itinerant and irritating to the officials. Hille laughs a bit grimly, remarking, “we were there as tourists, kids, and we didn’t really know about consequences.”
Though naive about Cold War reality in the Soviet Union, these self-appointed ambassadors took their work seriously. According to Hille, “We were really loyal US guys and were trying to do our bit for democracy, for the freedom of thought that we read about in school.” The United States government declared itself thrilled with the Yalies’ efforts. Then-Senator Hubert Humphrey wrote in 1960: “The Yale Russian Chorus has done a most effective job in communicating the American message to the Soviet people…the only tragedy is that we don’t have ten or fifty or a hundred choruses such as yours.” The State Department may have had more than just a passing interest in the effectiveness of promising, young Russian-speaking men. As late as the 1980s, after a concert at the White House, the Chorus was asked to report on their observations of Gorbachev to the government.
The Chorus had a cultural mission in the United States as well. On their return from the Soviet Union in 1958, the New York Times featured their picture on its front page and the “Today Show” invited them to discuss their experience in the USSR. During Spring Break the Chorus would drive to California and back, singing concerts daily at colleges and the occasional Russian Orthodox church along the route. They opened their shows with lectures on their observations of Soviet society. The Chorus, Hille contends, wanted to bring “Russian and Eastern European issues to Americans and keep the issues alive, to try to put a human face on their struggle.”
Hille, who still organizes the two-hundred-person reunions of Chorus alumni, and who speaks a dozen languages, took that humanizing mission to heart, first working as a translator for the United Nation, and then as a professor of Russian at Yale. Brian Carter (PhD ’92), another alum who continued to sing with the Chorus while working at Yale, has a slightly different—but no less impassioned—view of the Chorus’ political role. “In 1968, we were singing revolutionary songs, and we meant it, we were really dissatisfied,” he says. “It was the Vietnam War years and May Day.”
During this era of activism, the Chorus successfully mixed politics with serious music. In 1962, they won first place at an international choral festival in Lille, France. During the same tour, in Berlin, they sang at the spot along the Berlin Wall where Peter Fechter had been shot trying to flee to the West. Then, in 1963, Soviet agents detained Yale professor Frederick Barghoorn on charges of espionage. When both the university and the State Department refused to confront the USSR over the matter, the Russian Chorus decided to get involved. “We started raising hell,” Hille laughs. They organized a letter-writing campaign and managed to convince the American Organization of Professors to protest to the State Department. After 14 days of confinement, Barghoorn was released.
But 1963 saw losses for the Chorus as well. That year, Mickiewicz left Yale to begin his career as a comparative literature professor. With no native Russians left to ensure authenticity of singing or interpretation, the Chorus clung to the traditions its founder had left behind. However, despite frequent shifts in leadership, it remained much the same organism throughout the Cold War, driven by the emotional interpretations and cultural agenda instituted by the former director.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia ceased to compel as much student interest as it had before. Furthermore, the end of the Cold War brought with it a flowering of traditional choruses in Russia, thus rendering the Chorus’ role as cultural preservationist obsolete. As the group’s political relevance waned, so, in turn, did several of its traditions. In 1995, students of the Russian Chorus stopped relying on student conductors, a custom instated following the departure of Mickiewicz, by inviting early music expert Mark Bailey (YSM ‘89) to serve as permanent artistic director. Bailey had recently graduated from the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale and was teaching music at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York. Dissatisfied with the trend of interpreting Russian choral music with the rough gusto of peasants, Bailey was determined to bring a more European refinement to the group. Raised in Ukraine, Bailey had grown up surrounded by music, and, as a child, sang in his grandmother’s choir at the local Ukrainian Orthodox church. Bailey’s connection to Slavic culture is as deep as the repertoire itself. “I’m conducting Russian marching songs and my great grandfather was in the Czar’s Army,” he says with a smile. In an era when interest in Russian culture at Yale is too casual to make student conductors a feasible option, the members of the current Chorus are grateful for a consistent musical mentor.
Bailey takes a different approach to the music than that of his predecessors. Carter observes that Bailey “drills his choir as though they were singing Brahms: they are very professional, in a fine West European concert choir mode.” Their clear, open harmonies, however, come at the price of the old boisterous masculinity of Mickiewicz’s days. Bailey also began to change the Chorus’ repertoire, ending the decades-old tradition of allowing alumni to sing in any rehearsal or performance. Alumni who graduated before 1995 felt as though someone had changed the lock on the door to their own home. Carter, who had sung regularly with the Chorus for nearly three decades, does not want to “steal” the Chorus from the current students. “On the other hand,” he says, opening his palms, “I miss it! I miss being able to drop into a rehearsal and sing songs I know.” Like many Russian Choristers of the past and present, Carter and Hille, men with no formal musical training, valued their chance to sing in a serious and vibrant ensemble. Thanks to the Yale Russian Chorus, Carter says with wonder, he, as a “rank amateur,” has sung five times in Carnegie Hall. “It’s a high,” Carter says. “You lose yourself as part of this organism making these beautiful sounds.”
The pre-1995 alums still meet annually, and remain as raw and shirt-ripping as ever under the baton of Maestro Mickiewicz, who continues to conduct them. The Alumni of the Yale Russian Chorus (as they designated themselves after a legal tug-of-war with the group on campus) still perform reunion concerts at Carnegie Hall and other prestigious stages. Membership is at least four hundred-strong worldwide, and at least two hundred former Choristers show up to each reunion. Among them are former high ranking State Department officials, ambassadors, and a former US Solicitor General who now teaches at Yale Law School. An offshoot group of alumni continue to perform professionally as the chorus Slovyanka in San Francisco. This winter, past choristers will fly to New Haven from around the world to celebrate Mickiewicz’s 80th birthday with three days of rehearsals, recording sessions and performances. Shortly thereafter, Mickiewicz will fly to Moscow to deliver a lecture on “Khoristoria,” the documentary history of the Yale Russian Chorus.
Despite an active alumni life, many older alumni remain unsettled by the new Chorus’ heightened musicality and de-politicization. For Hille, the former UN translator, the Chorus was a way to fulfill Yale’s mission for its “students and graduates to become active in the world, to play a role, be involved in decision making, get involved in some of the fights that were going on out there.” In 2005, Hille asked the Chorus to help raise campus awareness about the Orange Revolution in Kiev, and, more recently, about the war in Georgia. Speaking like a concerned parent, Hille remarks that the older alumni “are puzzled by the current group, how different they are musically, and what they see as the reason for doing this.” In the past, he says, that reason was tied to a “sense of what being a concerned and engaged individual meant, and I would love to see that resurrected.” Acknowledging the changed political scene, he adds, “I think nowadays, in order to have an equivalent experience, you’d have to have an Iranian chorus or a North Korean chorus…some group that’s demonized in the American press.”
Current chorus members sympathize with these indictments. They lament the slackened energy, the lack of political conscientiousness, and the loss of songs like the foot-stomping “Kalinka,” (a favorite on Soviet tours). At the same time, the students echo Hille’s observation that the world is a different place. “Russia and Eastern Europe are no longer ‘the Second World’,” says Ian Randolph (YC’10): Russian issues don’t claim campus attention, and the Chorus is no longer a political organization; it’s a singing group.
This art they defend vigorously. Nicholas Villalon (MED’10) stresses that Bailey preserves expressive spontaneity by urging the singers to understand the songs through music and text. Randolph, with no previous musical training, is grateful to Bailey for transforming him into a semi-professional singer. He loves the music, and speaks with relish of how the singers “bite into the weird dissonances, the weird-sounding chords.” For current Chorus President Adam Haliburton (YC’10), the Chorus satisfied his wish to be part of “something a little more elevated, classical, liturgical.”
Yet the question remains: without the Cold War, why is there still a Yale Russian Chorus? Some, like Hille, believe the group is not long for this world, and are resigned to let it die peacefully. But the current Chorus members are not so morbid. As long as the group has a permanent director, and is not too tied to a shifting student population, it seems that the Chorus, a Yale tradition, is likely to survive.
While the Chorus sometimes struggles for its footing here at Yale, the group continues to perform semi-professionally to great acclaim around the US. Their 1996 commercial album was placed on the New York Times “Critic’s Choice List,” and the singers hope to record another such album this year or next. Their political presence has shrunk, but the music remains powerful. Randolph believes the Chorus is “more than just a curiosity…I think there is a really deep soul to our music.” The Chorus has also adapted. Rather than singing to American students, it often books Orthodox churches and sings for Russian expatriates who have little opportunity to hear their native music. After a concert in California in the late 60s, Carter says a bearish Russian man with tears streaming down his face told the Chorus that Mother Russia “lives again in your hearts.” Even now, it is not unusual for the current group to provoke tears and equally profuse gratitude on the part of their Slavic audiences. The Chorus also continues to tour. Haliburton has arranged concerts in Connecticut and New York, at Harvard, and even a performance with the celebrated Slavic choir Capella Romana. Moreover, the President has tried to increase recruitment by sharpening the Chorus’ image with magnificent banners and public exposure. Villalon suggests the Chorus might retain singers better if its repertoire changed more often, while Randolph hopes the Chorus can become a “larger musical personality” by holding more free campus performances. Ultimately, however, the Chorus suffers from two chronic troubles endemic to Yale groups—low membership and limited leadership, two conditions that tend to exacerbate each other. Every graduation rocks the boat, especially when the President, the primary organizational figure, prepares to leave.
Yet the music itself has staying power, and each year, new students join. The answer to the Chorus’ survival lies deeper, all the way back to the Yale Russian Club’s transformation into the Yale Russian Chorus in 1953. Why were these men not content just to talk about Russian music and culture? The founder has an idea of the reason. “Much of the mythology of the songs is universal,” explains Mickiewicz in his thick accent. “The woes and joys of love are universal…hard fighting is, alas, also universal.” These themes are not generational, nor is the joy of singing determined by political bent. In truth, the interaction between the Chorus’ singers and its music has changed very little since 1953. Carter joined the Chorus in 1969 after hearing the Red Army Chorus playing in a dorm room he happened to pass. Villalon remembers randomly picking up a CD of Russian vespers in high school. He heard a “shockingly eerie and haunting” sound he could not forget. Randolph is also inspired by the sound. When Bailey tunes the Chorus carefully, Randolph says, “We get these really nice sonorities where the overtones come out. The chords almost make me believe in God.”
Image: Alumni sing in Woolsey Hall at the Chorus’s 50th anniversary concert. Courtesy of the Yale Russian Chorus.