Slavic Song in New York Hills

A Russian musical family's journey from Czar's palace to the heart of the Adirondacks

THE exhibit looked very interesting but it was not one upon which I initially had expected to spend much afterthought. The display was one of gorgeous Russian costumes, most of them in the fashion called Vladimir. Historically, the town of Vladimir and its surrounding region, about 150 miles outside Moscow, was an important area; its princes were instrumental in throwing off the Mongol domination of Russia which followed the invasions of the khans of the Golden Horde during the 13th century. The Franklin County Council for the Arts is housed in a former woolen mill, and cheek by jowl with these exotic splendors is a workaday Adirondack exhibit of the products of the old Ballard Woolen Mill whose slogan was, ``All Wool and a Yard Wide.'' The incongruity of the Russian exhibit was increased by my understanding that there were few, if any, Russians living in the area. Intricate, traditional Russian dress

The Vladimir style highlights its ancient Russian heritage. Characteristically, the woman's garment was a sleeveless jumper with a square neckline. It fell fairly straight from a wide embroidered band bordering the neck and has a decorated front panel. Moderately full sleeves of a thinner white undergarment covered the arms. The headdress was a stiff miter-shaped crown tied with bows in the back. Sometimes the face was shaded with a partial veil of a sort of white fishnet. An ample gauzy veil, also white, flowed from the open crown over the wearer's shoulders and arms.

The examples in the museum rooms of our local Arts Council's precincts are of colorful velvets and satins, all of the pieces beaded and embroidered with a theatrical richness and an intricacy that defies description. There are also men's jackets and curious helmet-like caps as well as some fur-trimmed outfits for boys. Costumes that belonged to a prince

The story behind the costumes is implicit with history, adventure, and romance. In 1834, a son, Dmitri, was born to the princely Agreneff family. Instead of spending his youth being princely - with whatever vices and virtues this might have entailed - he mingled with the serfs on the family estates. Serfdom was the next thing to slavery - the serfs could not leave the land on which they were born and worked without compensation. If the land was sold, the serfs were sold along with it as part of the deal.

Prince Dmitri must have heard and loved their work songs and the songs sung at their village fairs and festivals as they observed births, marriages, and deaths. Musically inclined and doubtless provided with an aristocratic and musically sound education, young Dmitri Alexandrovich (as he would have been customarily called in Russian) collected, wrote down, and arranged the haunting folk melodies. The Csar confers a special title

The prince is credited with preserving the poignantly beautiful ``Song of the Volga Boatmen.''

His work came to the attention of Czar Alexander II, who came to the throne during the Crimean War. The conflict had been precipitated by his irresponsible father; Alexander immediately negotiated a peace treaty.

Alexander II was also interested in the plight of the serfs and he decreed their emancipation in 1861. He invites comparison with the contemporary Kremlin leadership in that he embarked on a program of modernization and reform. After liberalization came vociferous dissent, especially among university students; the arrest and prosecution of those dissenters were followed with terrorist bombings. One of the bombs found its mark - the czar. But in happier times, Alexander listened to Prince Dmitri's folk music and bestowed upon him the title ``Slaviansky.''

The title the Czar gave him is untranslatable, but it seems to denote something like The Very Slavic One or, perhaps, The Preserver of Slavic Heritage. At any rate, he was so proud of the title that he preferred it to his family name of Agreneff. From chorus to conservatory In 1858, when Dmitri Alexandrovich was only 24 years old, he founded the Slaviansky Russian Chorus. The chorus took the songs of the humble serfs to the whole world in concert performances. The prince received many honors from various countries.

He also organized, built, and maintained a conservatory in Kiev which provided free musical education to talented students who could not otherwise even dream of such a thing.

All this took money, as Slaviansky's work spanned 50 years. When his considerable personal fortune was not enough, he sold off two of the family estates. He was held in high esteem by the two succeeding czars, and when he died he was buried with royal honors.

Photographs of Slaviansky show a handsome, heavy-set Russian aristocrat. In one he wears a dark jacket brightened by a collection of medals and decorations on his chest. Another photo shows him in a magnificent fur-trimmed damask costume; his cuffs and cap are encrusted with jewels. This very princely garb may be a stage costume or, conceivably, one worn to an imperial ball for which the Russian court was famous. Princess Margarita Slaviansky

Dmitri's 12th and youngest child, Princess Margarita Agreneva Slaviansky, was the one to whom he entrusted the chorus and his treasured music.

Margarita was a musical prodigy who appeared a soloist in her father's concerts when she was very young. She married one of the czar's generals but continued her interest in music by conducting and teaching voice in Moscow. Although her husband was killed during the Revolution, she was not only spared but was placed in charge of preparing choruses for concerts during Bolshevik state occasions.

In 1926, two years after Stalin had seized power, she was permitted to make a concert tour throughout Russia. Margarita makes her way to US

In Siberia, she defected with her only daughter, Mara, into China. No doubt this period was filled with adventure and uncertainty as they made their way down to Shanghai. There they were able to obtain Chinese passports with which they came to the United States.

In New York City, Margarita rebuilt the Slaviansky Russian Chorus, which again became world famous. There were command performances at Buckingham Palace and the Vatican. She also received innumerable decorations and honors.

In 1958, the Slaviansky Russian Chorus celebrated its 100th Anniversary in a concert at Carnegie Hall. Margarita's daughter was her assistant conductor as well as a soloist, as she had been to the prince. After Margarita died in New York in 1964, Mara continued to teach voice until she married a man who lived in the Adirondacks.

So it was that this bit of Russian musical history came to rest in these small, rugged mountains halfway around the world.

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