Amongst the native art groups that were scattered over the world by the dramatic 20th century, the greatest popularity in prewar and postwar Europe, and beyond, was obtained by the famous choirs conducted by Oleksander Koshetz (1875-1944), Serge Jaroff (1896-1985), Nikolay Kostriukov (1898-1966), Dmytro Kotko (1892-1982), and Nestor Horodovenko (1885-1964). Thanks to them, audiences on different continents had the opportunity to enjoy the achievements of the Slavic choral culture, in the midst of which Ukrainian singing stands out with its specific beauty and melodiousness. That is why they were eagerly invited by conductors of various emigrant choirs, which emerged at the time in France, Germany, Czechoslovakia and other countries.
Until very recently there was scant information about the Don Cossack Choir, which used to “make the whole world go crazy” according to one of its contemporaries. This is not surprising, as the former Communist system forbid mentioning this extraordinary artistic group in any publications for decades. There was one more reason for long-time ignorance. It was immensely popular abroad in the 1920-30s, which was a period when the Soviet power cruelly fought the church and traditional choral culture, largely represented by sacred music. It was also severely forbidden. Just like clergymen, former church choral singers were sent to the camps. Few of them returned.
The choir’s repertoire included many church songs, which were always performed during the first act of the concert. This was how Jaroff emphasized the spiritual nature of the national singing tradition. His large archives have preserved a caricature, where Stalin is depicted closing his ears in order not to hear the choir singing.
In those years South Russian Cossackhood together with its rich musical culture was eradicated by the repressive machine. The recordings of the choir that were released abroad were half-legally spread in Soviet times among a small circle of real connoisseurs of choral singing. This unique music group is still scarcely known, with the exception of a narrow circle of professionals.
Only in late 1990s did Jaroff’s choir come back to its homeland and receive proper honors. In particular, a large stock of gramophone recordings of the choir, concert billboards, and photos were collected by archpriest Andrey Dyakonov, the dean of the Annunciation Church on Vasilkov Island, Saint Petersburg. Moscow music critic Svetlana Zvereva took great pains and conducted long negotiations with the owner of the conductor’s home archive in order to persuade him to transfer numerous materials about Jaroff and his legendary choir from the US (nearly 3,000 items), which are now kept in the Glinka Central Museum of Music Culture. Collections of sacred music works and Russian folk songs performed by the choir, were released several years ago by the Russkaya Lira Publishing House (Saint Petersburg), and producer Igor Matvienko, Moscow Branch of the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius and other spiritual centers of the Russian Federation.
Serge Jaroff was not a Cossack. He was born in 1897 (according to some data, 1896) in Makaryev, Kostroma Province of Russia. Since his early age, he proved to have an impeccable ear for music. After receiving his education he became a professional musician. In 1917 he graduated from the Moscow Synode School, where he had been taught by Aleksandr Kastalsky, Pavel Chesnokov, and Nikolay Danilin. These school’s graduates included not only highly-educated choirmasters, singing teachers and choristers, but composers of sacred music, too.
During the Civil War, Jaroff joined the third Don division of General Fyodor Abramov, and it was here that his life intertwined with Don Cossacks. Jaroff saw with his own eyes the horrors of the fratricidal war and the cruelty of the new power implemented by Bolsheviks.
In late October 1920, General Pyotr Wrangel started evacuation of the Voluntary Army from the Crimea. Thousands of people boarded on 126 ships and went to Turkish coast. On coming there, the refugees split into three groups. The Don Cossacks found themselves in an internment camp near Constantinople. The conditions were extremely difficult: Cossacks were dying of exhaustion and disease. They had to live in barracks, which did not have roofs whatsoever, and in dugouts. All their misfortunes were crowned by homesickness, despair and uncertainty about their future. They found relief only at the evening-song led by the regimental priest.
To boost the fighting spirit of the refugees the command of the camp, located in the Turkish town Cilingir, decided to organize a Cossack choir that would take part in liturgy. Officer Jaroff took this job with immense enthusiasm. In a couple of days the conducter selected 30 professional singers from amongst the Cossacks. The rehearsals started. There were no scores at hand, so the conductor had to restore them from his memory. Jaroff introduced a strict discipline in the choir and kept to it throughout his work as conductor. He had a temper, but his adherence to principles and high strictness to singers produced great results. Soon the choir became known worldwide. It made its debut during the St. Nicholas’ Day public prayer, on Dec. 19, 1921, which is considered the date of foundation of the Serge Jaroff Don Cossack Choir.
After some time the choir moved to Greece, where it settled on Lemnos Island. Later the Russian ballet dancer Tamara Karsavina helped the singers move to Bulgaria. The conductor wanted to find a place, where they could stay for long. He was offered to move to France. He had to cross Austria on his way there. In Vienna Jaroff encountered the director of a concert agency, Heller, who remembered him as a little boy from the Synod Choir, which toured Europe at the time. The choir was auditioned, and the result surpassed all expectations. July 4, 1923, it gave an immensely successful performance in the Hofburg Imperial Palace. This historical concert was the first of many triumphant performances of the Don Cossack Choir throughout the world.
In 1924, it performed its first concerts in Germany (Munich and Hamburg), pursuing with concerts in Belgium, Holland, Great Britain, and France (1926). Its hundredth concert was held in 1928 in Budapest. The choir performed in royal palaces, before such monarchs like Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria, English King George V, Christian X of Denmark, and Gustaf V of Sweden. The choir had given a total of 1,500 concerts by 1930.
It had toured across different continents by 1939, when the World War II began. Although the choristers moved to the US in time, they could not receive American citizenship for quite a while. The choir made very successful tours across Mexico, Cuba, South and Central America, Canada, India, and South Africa. All its concerts enjoyed full houses. The choir performed many works encore, at endless demands of the delighted audiences. It has played in several Hollywood films.
In 1945 it gave a concert in Frankfurt am Main, where it performed before the American occupation troops and General Dwight D. Eisenhower's staff. The following year it made a week-long tour across Japan. Jaroff’s choir was the first art group to perform in the emperor’s palace before the emperor. The same year the choir gave extremely successful performances in Australian cities.
Jaroff put all his powerful inborn talent in his work with the choir. In this he seemed impervious to tiredness. He achieved extraordinary coordination with slight movements, filling the sound of each piece with dynamic energy. The conductor succeeded in making the voices of his singers sound in unison. And, despite the wondrous harmony of their singing, the voice of every artist was not lost. The unusual artistic originality of this matchless choir was made by the fact that men’s voices were within the range of a mixed choir. Jaroff was the first to introduce this innovation into the choral practice. There had been no one to do this before him. The singing of high tenors, who sang falsetto, and low bass singers (octavists) was especially beautiful.
The original timbre, of fullness and purity of the sound, was achieved by the fact that a part of the choir sang with closed mouths. Thanks to this, the conductor essentially broadened the scope of his work. With his sensitive heart he could penetrate the inner meaning of the performance and produced it with the help of facial expressions and pithy gestures. He conducted only with the help of his head, eyes, and fingers.
He was taught to gesture this way by Sergey Rakhmaninoff, who is known not only as a composer and musician, but as a brilliant conductor, too. Generally, the polyphonic choral scores of songs were rich and complex, with flexible dynamics following the words in a sensitive manner, but the specific adornment to the Don songs was descant. According to one researcher, when performed by the high male vocals of Jaroff’s choir, it resembled the voice of a lark in the steppe, flying up rapidly over the voices of those whose singing entwined into the complex ornament of the choral fabric like a bright thread.
Domestic and foreign critics, as well as professional performers, assessed the performance mastery of the unique choir highly. Rakhmaninoff was fond of this choir and frequently supported Jaroff in his innovatory arrangements and original interpretation of his works. Feodor Chaliapin, who was a great connoisseur and performer of Russian songs and sacred music works, properly assessed the mastery of the choristers’ singing.
He also sang in several concerts jointly with Jaroff’s choir. Arrangements were made and such noted composers of choral art as Konstantin Shvedov, Alexandr Grechaninov et al. composed works specially for him.
Annually, the choir went to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Spain, and Holland, and Scandinavian countries for the whole concert season. Its performances took place not only in palaces or big concert halls, but also in cathedrals and churches, always crowded on this occasion. In many countries the press wrote laudatory reviews to the grandiose concerts given by Jaroff’s choir, which were also broadcast on the radio.
The repertoire of the group was made up of over 1,000 sacred music works, both domestic and foreign classical works, and folk songs. Ukrainian choral art also had an important place. Jaroff especially liked to perform with his choir the sacred concerts of Artemii Vedel, Dmytro Bortniansky, Kyrylo Stetsenko, the melodies of the Kyiv Cave Monastery, Christmas carols and Old New Year Ukrainian songs arranged by Mykola Leontovych (Oh, the Jerusalem bells started to chime early, On the river Jordan), Ukrainian folk song That gray cuckoo started to cry, and other works. Thus, this artistic group was promoting the high music culture of our talented people throughout the world.
Over 300 singers sang in Jaroff’s choir. In the initial period of its activity it included up to 70 singers. The choir featured many Ukrainians in different periods. Especially wonderful singers included bass octavists Nil Reva, Mykhailo Vilkhovy, Heorhii Tymchenko, baritones Arkhyp Levchenko, as well as Leonid Luhovsky and Ivan Khlibka.
At the beginning of the choir’s activity, it did not have a stable lineup, those were native Don Cossacks. Thereafter the choir accepted emigres, who came to Western Europe in the 1920s and after the World War II.
They gave 250 concerts a year, or even more. Not all singers could regularly move from one country to another, losing contact with their families. Thus, they needed zealots who would never part with the choir. Those included Jaroff and several other singers. In the last decades of the choir’s activity its lineup included 25 people, whose voices were strong enough to substitute even a much bigger group.
In 1962, 11.5 million recordings of Jaroff’s choir were released (2.5 million were released in Germany only). A German UMG Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft established a new special prize to award with the best music groups annually, the Golden Gramophone Award. The first Golden Gramophone Award went to Jaroff and his choir. Throughout the period when the choir was conducted by Jaroff, it gave nearly 10,000 concerts in many countries of the world.
It went on tours until 1979, as long as the legendary maestro was strong enough to perform. Jaroff died in quite an old age on Oct. 6, 1985 in Lakewood (New Jersey), located near New York City. Today there are two Don Choirs named after Serge Jaroff, in Germany and the US. They are conducted by his students.