Cheremis music is closely related to several bodies of both folk and primitive music in Europe and Asia. It is difficult to classify as either folk or primitive on the basis of its stylistic features alone, because it holds several of these in common with Eastern European folk music as well as with the music of primitive peoples in various parts of the Soviet Union. On the basis of the culture as a whole, it would probably be necessary to classify the Cheremis as primitives because of the only recently acquired literacy of the Cheremis. To decide definitely on a classification of Cheremis music as either primitive or folk is not, however, essential, since in modern comparative musicology or ethnomusicology substantially the same methods are used to describe both folk and primitive music. Both areas of music are, after all, dependent primarily on oral tradition for their continued existence, a fact which sharply distinguishes them from music based on written tradition. Some music notation has been introduced to the Cheremis in recent decades, and a brief discussion of one of its special systems is included in Sec. 7 of this study.
It is the purpose of this monograph to describe the style of Cheremis music, to compare it with those of some surrounding peoples, to review some previously formulated theories about the historical position of Cheremis music, and to draw a few independent conclusions of a historical nature.
The materials used for this study are primarily those in the publications by Lach, Vasil’ev, Palataj, Četkarev, Suvorin, Smirnov, and Ešpaj. They have been supplemented by about thirty songs recorded by the author at Indiana University in 1952, sung by a native Cheremis, Iwan Jewskij. The total number of Cheremis songs (including variants) available in print or manuscript is well over 1,000. Of these, about 230 are in Lach’s study, a total of about 300 in the various works by Vasil’ev, 46 in Palantaj, 190 in Četkarev, 240 in Suvorin, 100 in Smirnov, and 80 in Ešpaj. The remainder are in small collections, largely consisting of arrangements for piano and voice; and other, largely nonscholarly, publications. We may say that the available source material is considerably better for Cheremis music than for the average tribe of primitive or folk culture. The statistics given here are based on 1,075 songs.
Scientific study and discussion of Cheremis music are somewhat less easy to find. Lach includes a few general and comparative statements in his work, but Vasil’ev, Palantaj, and Suvorin do not. Četkarev, in a lengthy introduction to his anthology, presents the Soviet point of view in regard to Cheremis folk songs and instrumental music. Četkarev gives some descriptions of instruments, musical culture, and song-texts, but his statements about music itself are few, and subject to criticism from several points of view. Smirnov also includes a short, informative preface to his collection. Nikiforov, in his excellent and detailed study of Cheremis instruments, gives a history and critique of research in Cheremis music, and a general introduction on the scales.
Articles by Szabolcsi, Kodály (Sajátságos Dallamszerkezet), Krohn, and Aptriev are concerned with special problems. None of the publications attempts to give a detailed musicological description of the Cheremis style at large, and none of the publications (with the exception of a short bit in Bartók’s Hungarian Folk Music) on Cheremis music is in English. The present study is thus an attempt to fill two gaps: to give a comprehensive picture of Cheremis musical styles, and to make material on Cheremis music available in English.
Whereas the examples in the body of this study are largely quotations from published and manuscript sources, those in Sec. 8 are transcriptions of songs recorded by the writer, with their texts integrated wherever possible. The question of the reliability of the published transcriptions enters here. Since there is no way of checking the sources against original recordings, one must rely on external features for evidence. Transcriptions with rather detailed markings exhibiting the ever-present irregularities and deviations of primitive music from Western standards are usually the most reliable. With this criterion in mind, the writer has found no transcriptions which seem to match in accuracy those of some of the scholars who originally developed transcription techniques, such as Béla Bartók, E. M. von Hornbostel, and George Herzog (see Nettl, Music in Primitive Culture, pp. 42-44). In the available material, the best transcriptions are probably those of Lach, and those in the anthology of Četkarev. The latter, however, are suspect, because many of the songs are provided with accompaniments, which means that the original melodies may have had to be modified in order to conform to Western theoretical standards. On the other hand, since Cheremis music agrees in style with some European folk (and thus also cultivated) music, one should perhaps not expect to see in its transcriptions the kinds of differences between it and Western music theory and notation which one encounters in more removed styles, such as those of the American Indians. The songs in various arrangements, such as choral and orchestral, also cannot be considered as reliable as the scholarly collections, because they have of necessity been made to conform with Western European music theory, and thus may have had to be changed in scale and rhythm.
The vast majority of the available pieces are vocal. Četkarev and Smirnov include some instrumental music, and the descriptions of instruments are available in several sources. Most of the song material is relatively old, having been recorded before the formation of the Soviet Union. However, Četkarev, Smirnov, and Ešpaj complete the picture with presentations of songs recently acquired by the Cheremis, songs which have evidently undergone changes in recent decades, and songs with “Soviet” texts whose music is in the older style.