Serge Jaroff and the Don Cossack Choir: The State of Research in the 21st Century

by Donna Arnold
University of North Texas
AMS-SW Conference, Spring 2015
University of North Texas

Poster Abstract

Still beloved by many ardent fans, Serge Jaroff’s Don Cossack Choir was once considered the best choir in the world. Founded at a Turkish concentration camp in 1921, it drew members from Don Cossack regiments deported by the Red Army after the Russian Revolution. Jaroff, a detainee who was a choir-school graduate, became its conductor. Arranging repertoire from memory, he surprisingly transformed thirty-six promising amateurs into a technically-brilliant world-class unit. Once liberated, they went on to concertize worldwide, achieving unimaginable long-term success. Without a country and forbidden ever to return home, they all attained U.S. citizenship in 1943. Bolstered later by new recruits, the choir gave its last concert in Paris in 1979.

Jaroff’s concerts, sung in Russian, consisted of his intricate arrangements of Russian Orthodox liturgical music, art songs, and traditional songs. Superb octavists and falsettists defined the choir’s signature sonority. Jaroff’s restrained but demanding conducting style, characterized by intensely expressive rubatos and dynamic changes, became legendary. Its emotional impact rendered language barriers irrelevant.

For nearly sixty years Jaroff and his choir garnered millions of fans, sold millions of records, and inspired countless rave reviews, but received almost no scholarly attention. That situation is slowly changing, but impediments abound. This poster session will elucidate the current state of Jaroff research, which is complicated by the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of many of Jaroff’s personal effects years after his 1985 demise. It will also cite urgent research lacunae.