By Sweet Sound of Sunrise

Think of typical folk music. And when I say folk music, I don’t mean protest songs from the 1960s. I mean Eastern European songs about the life of a soldier, women, and the country so old and familiar that everyone who speaks the language knows the lyrics. Then, pick a folk song you like and make it gratuitously epic by amassing a choir of men with powerful voices – and uniforms, of course – and make it sound like you’re about to march into battle. Now do it in Russian.

That’s the easiest way to describe the music of the Red Army Choir.

The Alexandrov Ensemble, more popularly (at least to slavophile history geeks, a.k.a. my friends) known as the Red Army Choir, has unclear origins, but it has been around since it began touring the Soviet Union in the late 1920s. The following years saw it evolve into a 300-member choir for three voices from its humble beginnings as a small group focusing on military songs. It soon began to receive international recognition. In 1937, it won the Grand Prix at the Exposition in Paris, France. The choir also toured extensively to entertain Soviet troops during the Second World War.

Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov conducted the Red Army Choir until his death in 1946, when he was succeeded by his son Boris. When Boris retired in 1987, Igor Agafonnikov took his place until 1994. His successor, Victor Federov, has been conducting the choir ever since.

One of the ensemble’s more noted soloists is the still-active Leonid Mikhailovich Kharitonov, who was particularly noted for his solo in the 1965 video for “The Song of the Volga Boatmen”.

The song is a traditional shanty depicting the hardships of barge-haulers, or burlaks, on the immense Volga river in Russia. They were extremely poor members of the peasant class whose work pulling barges became largely obsolete following the Industrial Revolution. It is said that the song was inspired by Ilya Repin’s famous realist painting, Barge Haulers on the Volga, pictured above.

Song of the Volga Boatmen – The Red Army Choir

Since it was first popularized by Feodor Chaliapin in 1902, the song has gone beyond its original incarnation as a Russian folk song. Glenn Miller’s cover topped Billboard’s Best Sellers List – this was long before the Hot 100 – the week of March 15, 1941.