Can Popevkas Be by Borodin? On the Appropriateness of Use of the Term Popevka Regarding the Music by Composers of the Modern Era


The author examines the application of the Old Russian term popevka to the music of different epochs and traditions — such as plainchant, musical folklore and the Russian music of the 19th century. The term came back into use in the 1840s thanks to the researchers of Znamenny Chant. In 1904, Stepan Smolensky substantiated the application of the Old Russian theory of popevkas to folk songs. His idea of “melodic patterns” (in other words, thesaurus of musical intonations) was evolved by ethnomusicologists during the 20th century. From the middle of the century, the term popevka was often applied by musicologists to works by Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov and especially Borodin, in spite of the absence of any fundamental theory that could be used for studying popevka thinking of Russian composers, any methodology of research work, any means of discovering of popevkas in this or that work. The given article contains the definition of such melodic patterns, following both Old Russian music theory and music folkloristics. These patterns are anonymous and derived from an oral tradition, so there is a finite quantity of such patterns. Several examples are specially chosen from Borodin’s music to demonstrate how could popevkas function inside an alien musical style: in the conditions of homophonic texture, harmonic tonality, and measured rhythm. As it becomes clear, so called “popevka thinking” could be simulated by using of “wandering mode”, harmonic varying, changing and mixed meters, melodic phrases composed of invariable nucleuses and changeable prefixes. The thematic material is usually adopted (of folklore), or stylized. Evidently, the aforementioned system is relevant to the Russian music of the second half of the 19th century. In the music of other styles and art movements, both the sources of borrowed melodic patterns and means of simulating the context (musical texture, harmony and meter) are most likely different.