The Skomorokhi

Copyright 1997 by Elizabeth Lear

Novgorod was the largest and richest city in Russia from the 12th to the 15th centuries after Kiev was conquered and divided. Its relatively sheltered location protected it from much of the Tartar invasion, but it survived in style during the occupation of Russia primarily by submitting themselves completely to Tartar rule. They paid tribute, did homage to the “Tartar Tsar”, and admitted Mongol tax-gatherers. In return, Novgorod was spared and became a merchant city and a great center of the arts. Russian art and literature flourished.

Music was important in Russian daily life - ceremonies, receptions, festivals and hunts all were occompanied by music. It was a popular pastime of the nobility despite the church’s attempts to ban secular music. Some nobles became patrons of musicians, even composing bylini or playing instruments themselves. The byliny (also written as “bylini”) were epic songs loosely connected with actual people or events, though much embellished with fantasy. Byliny is a term coined in the 1830s, and translates to “what happened”. The peasants continue to call these songs starina, which means “what is old”.

The skomorokhi were known as minstrels, but they had many talents. They were also clowns, mummers, buffoons, actors, dancers, acrobats, puppeteers, magicians, animal trainers, and creators of epic songs and tales. They were ultimately described as umeltz - a versatile person.

Skomorokhi were skilled and resourceful artists popular in all levels of society. They participated in every national festival, and their presence was required at family celebrations. Their place in society can be traced back to roles in pagan rituals and plays. They often used masks in these performances, and were said to have magic powers. Eventually, they evolved into the role of buffoon.

Old pagan festivals were replaced by Christian ones, but pagan customs still had a part in them for a long time afterwards. At each great festival, Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and Transfiguration, there were special church services. There were also songs, dances, and social gatherings with special food. The prince was expected to open his doors to the city people for banquets at which the people were entertained by musicians and jongleurs.

Skomorokhi were documented in Novgorod as early as 1036. An ancient bylina mentions skomorokhi being honored at Prince Vladimir’s banquet in Kiev. They were also accepted at Ivan’s court - he had them brought to Moscow from Novgorod, and employed them to satirize the boyars.

This fresco shows several skomorokhi wearing jester costumes and performing instrumental music, dancing and acrobatics for the royal court. The costumes are described as Byzantine, and one theory is that these were visiting Byzantine minstrels who would influence the rise of local jesters in Russia.

Skomorokhi are mentioned in folk songs, proverbs, and adages. One proverb, literally translated, is “Don’t teach me to dance, I am a clown myself.” “Clown” is not a good translation into English for this because of our preconceptions of what a clown is. An equivilent of this would be “bringing coals to Newcastle”.

The church frowned on the skomorokhi, issuing condemnations, interdictions, and warnings against their “sinful plays”. These plays, of course, attracted the common people and left the churches empty. Church literature even likened these entertainments to the devil. They also disliked the fact that skomorokhi played instruments like the gusli, the gudok, and the domra, since only trumpets and drums were sanctioned by the church - all other church music was vocal only at this time.

Skomorokhi preserved and created folk music. They traveled the country and were welcomed wherever they went, but they did not have social rights and the protection of the law unless they became attached to a noble household who would act as their patron.

Yet they gained social status in Novgorod. They had legal rights and were respected as citizens. They lived in special areas of the city, and passed their skills and arts on to their children.

Skomorokhi in that city developed the Russian puppet show, which has singing and instrumental music in it. The characters have only slightly changed over the centuries, and survive in the present in the masks of Petroushka.

Gusli playing was developed in Novogorod, and some who showed great talent in the playing of the gusli often ended up immortalized in bylini themselves.

Some skomorokhi became very wealthy and famous. Sadko was a gusli player who lived in the 12th century. He was noted as a wealthy merchant who built a stone church at his own expense, but he’s primarily known as the subject of bylini that praised the power of his music-making. One bylini goes so far as to recall the Orpheus legend.

Vasili Buslayev is another real person who became the subject of a number of bylini. He lived also lived in the 12th century, and in addition to being a noted gusli player he was a posadnik, a vice-regent of the Prince of Novgorod.

The skomorokhi also developed a sort of short story comic bylini, bylini-novelly, based on humorous family situations, deceived husbands, social satire or skomorokhi pranks.

One bylini from Novgorod is titled “Pro Gostya Terentishcha”, which means “About Guest Terentishcha”. Terentishcha is the name of the wife of a foreigner, and the song is about the skomorokhi helping the husband discover that his wife is unfaithful. They also make fun of his “jingling money bags”.

Skomorokhi ballads have short lines, simple melodies, and rapid tempos. They also wrote comic dance songs called peregudkas which had lively tunes and precise rythmns.

The period of 1598-1671 was one of internal turmoil in Russia. There were peasant revolts, Cossack uprisings, a dissolution of folk customs, and a decline in traditions that was reflected in the songs of the time. Folk songs became full of discontent and began to glorify popular leaders who fought for the common people. Bytovye , songs of everyday life, were often parodies set to church music tunes.

“Songs of the Freemen” romantically described the life of runaway slaves on the steppes who became Cossacks. There were satirical songs, aimed at religious and political authorities, about laziness, hypocrisy, and other bad traits. There were songs about the desire for personal freedom.

Skomorokhi remained an integral part of the Russian culture until the late 17th century when a schism started within the Orthodox Church. The schism was partly for religious reasons and partly for political. The Patriarch of Moscow, Nikon, and the Tsar wanted to remove from the Russian Orthodox Church any differences from the Greek Orthodox Church, despite the Patriarch of Constantinople’s decision that local churches were allowed their particular customs as long as the purity of Orthodox teaching and dogmatic truths were maintained.

But Russian traditionalists had been told for centuries by their own ideologists and visiting Eastern Patriarchs that the Russian Church was the “sole remaining stronghold of true faith in the world”. Now they were being told that instead of their church being a stronghold of piety, it was full of foolish errors that needed to be eradicated. The Council of 1666-67 not only condemned the old church books and rituals, it also denounced the decisions of the Church Council of 1551 which had been seen as canonic law for a hundred years. The new Council also sought to destroy the independence of local religious communities and bring them under the influence of the Moscovy church.

This is the time when the people known as the “Old Believers” (Raskolniki) left the church. They refused to accept the “corrected” versions of the music, prayers, and rituals. They were excommunicated from the Church for refusing to give up the practices they viewed as an inseparable part of the Russian Orthodox way of life. Thousands of Old Believers are said to have immolated themselves during this period or were burned at the stake.

Skomorokhi, the minstrels and buffoons, also declined in the second half of the 17th century. They were banished from Moscow in 1649, labeled as “heralds of discontent” and “the embodiment of paganism”. This had a great deal to do with the popular songs of revolt that were making the rounds of the country. The Patriarch of Moscow ordered the destruction of all folk instruments in the city, which were burned by the cartload on the riverbanks.

Cast out and hounded, some skomorokhi turned to vulgarity and some to thievery. Many fled to the far north with their families, and the skomorokhi bylini that have been collected and recorded came from that area. Those songs are still performed to this day.

The numbers of skomorokhi dwindled even further in the 18th century, and they were gradually replaced by Western-influenced professional musicians. But Skomorokh-based name and place derivisons are still evident in some areas of Russia, like the surname “Skomorochov”. They have never been forgotten in Russia because of the rich legacy they left behind.