On the 25th of December 2016, in a single plane crash, en-route from Sochy, Russia to Syria, perished 1/3 of the world-renowned Aleksandrov Ensemble. This is tragic loss and a strong blow against Russia, against the singing ambassadors of Russia abroad and a bright symbol within.
As a tribute, I translated the following 2008 documentary, titled “The Singing Weapon”, which is how Winston Churchill referred to it after listening to its performance during the 1945 Yalta Conference in Crimea. If it is a weapon, then this ensemble is a “weapon” of peace unity and accord, which it brings with song and dance to all peoples.
The complete English language transcript of the film is below:
This is a unique footage, made during the first recording of the Anthem of USSR.
The whole country was intended to hear the Anthem on the radio on the night from the 31st of December to the 1st of January 1944.
In complete secrecy, the ensemble directed by Aleksander Aleksandrov – the composer of the Anthem, was preparing to perform it.
Late at night a phone call is made to Kremlin:
The Anthem does not sound as it was wanted by the “Leader of All Times and Peoples”
Stalin aborts a meeting and a few minutes later enters the Central telegraph building,
which housed radio studio during the War.
He ascends to the machine room, and summons Aleksandrov to him.
‘Aleskander Vasiljevich, I wish that out people listened to the Anthem as if at a church service,
Or have you forgotten that I know something about it. I have studied at a Seminary, after all.’
Aleksandrov replied simply:
‘And I, Iosiph Vissarionovich, was the last regent of the Saviour Cathedral Choir.’
‘Performing Anthems is my profession.’
“Hail, created by the will of the peoples,”
“united and mighty Soviet Union.”
“The Singing Weapon” – Aleksandrov Ensemble
It was the British PM Churchill, who called this ensemble for the “singing weapon”,
when he heard it during the Yalta Conference in 1945.
He joked that the allies did not need to open the second front,
if the Russians had such a secret weapon.
Twice “Red Banner” decorated, Aleksandrov Academic ensemble of dance and song of the Russian Army.
When you say that you work in Aleksandrov Ensemble, many shake their head,
some openly say that they don’t know.
And yet, when I bring friends,
they come from the concerts under strong impression, saying they are floored.
Song “Smugljanka” is performed.
Both the country and the world have many military ensembles.
But it was this one that was acknowledged as the best man’s choir of the 20th century.
People of not the highest military decorations,
the members of the creative collective, which got the highest merits of the country.
If you ask anybody abroad,
what is Russia, what they associate with Russia,
they’d say it’s “Kalinka”, it’s Bolshoj, it’s Mariinskij Theatre,
it’s St. Peterburg, it’s Moscow, it’s Aleksanderov Ensemble.
London. The traditional annual Week of Russian Culture
made the headlines mainly due to participation of Aleksandrovites.
We were invited to the BBC studio and asked to perform something.
We had little time, compressed timetable, so needed choose something quick and merry.
And we performed “On the Sunny Glade”
“On a sunny glade, cocking his brow,”
“a young fellow plays about love on a harmonica.”
There is a high note there.
I turned it into fermato so that it would be longer and more beautiful.
And once we performed this, the host jumped up, raising his arms,
saying, yes, this is exactly what we needed. What they wanted –
a Russian, Soviet, song that captivated everyone, who was in the studio.
“Play and tell yourself, harmonica,”
“how that dark-eyed girl drove me crazy.”
This song is recognised from the very the first accords not only those who were through the Great Patriotic War.
Children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren of the front-soldiers understand what power it gave to the people at that terrible hour.
The war has just started, when the director of the Red Army Ensemble Aksander Aleksandrov
already asked the Minister of Defence that the collective was sent to the front.
He by chance saw the newspaper with the poem of Lebedev-Kumach.
Aleksandrov immediately realised – this is what needed right now.
A song-appeal, a song-symbol.
The yet to become legendary “Sacred War” was written by the composer in 4 hours.
(1978 footage) When he came to the rehearsals, he wrote on the blackboard
the score of those song. There was no time to print – time was short.
Comrades wrote down the notes and the words and quickly learnt them by heart.
And on the second day we already performed this song at the Belorusskij train station.
“Raise, the huge country,”
“Raise to the battle till death.”
“With the dark Fascist force.”
“With the accursed horde.”
When we finished performing it for the first time, there was such a deathly silence.
He said, we exchanged glances with the grandfather. What happened, maybe it did not pass?
“Let the righteous fury.”
“Boil up as a wave.”
“The People’s War is going”
“The Sacred War”
The director became simply scared. How can this be? The song is not taken in?
All stand silent.
At that time it seemed like 5-6 or 10 minutes passed… Maybe only a minute.
And then came the storm of applause, “hurrah!”
Solders demanded that it be performed again and again.
It became a concert of one song.
“…death to the violators, robbers, torturers of people.”
And so the troops were departing to the front with it.
And later the whole Soviet people sang it.
“Raise, the huge country,”
“Raise to the battle till death.”
By the end of the 80s, the totalitarian regime was collapsing and much became revised.
Back then there appeared articles claiming that the song was written in 1916 by a russified German.
All that turned out to be groundless artifice.
No hoaxes managed to stick to the song.
She defended herself.
And still, in every performances of the ensemble, the “Sacred War” is invariably heard.
I can tell of an episode in Poland, when we did not perform “Sacred War”.
The audience demanded from us to perform “Sacred War” at the end of the concert. Normally we perform it at the beginning.
And we were not allowed to leave the stage until we performed it.
The ensemble travelled the whole world with this song.
It sounded in the most unexpected places:
From Presidential palaces to the hot spots.
But in May 2007 it sounded at an absolutely improbable place:
In the layer of the possible enemy, as they would have said in the times of Cold War.
While touring Belgium, the ensemble management got an outlandish idea:
To perform, where not a single artist from Russia previously performed.
At the NATO headquarters.
The decision was reached during 3-4 days,
that Aleksandrov Ensemble can perform at NATO.
The hall, dimensioned to 350 people was crammed with an audience of about 2000,
wishing to see what the Russian artists in military uniforms are capable of.
You had to see the faces of those people. NATO.
We anderstand that there are different people there, with different attitude towards Russia,
different attitude towards army.
But one had to see how they in a common impulse applauded and cried “Bravo!”
The next day all newspapers came out with almost identical headlines:
Russians took NATO without a single shot.
NATO… There was no special feeling of “enemy’s layer”.
They are pleasant, kind guys.
They with pleasure took CD that we were giving away.
And they took not one disk, but 5-6 – must be for the whole family.
People at NATO applauded several encores of “Victory Day”.
While 60 years ago, in June 1945,
the Soviet Foreign Ministry receives an official letter from the US State Department
inviting the Aleksandrov Ensemble on a tour.
Stalin is for it – let them travel to the allies.
The military band receives foreign currency
And so that they would look presentable in the harsh post-war time,
the are provided with funds for new shirts, forms, even nightgowns.
This unique document shows that the decision was taken at the Political Bureau level.
On mid-summer of 1945, Truman learns about the invitation extended to the Red Banner ensemble.
World War II was not yet concluded,
but the revision of its outcome was already in the works.
In a few weeks, the American nuclear bomb would be dropped on Hiroshima.
Cold War would start in 2 years.
Therefore Truman personally cancels all the concerts of the best performers of the country-victor,
including there performance at the White House.
The Senate supports this decision, producing a strange excuse:
They proclaimed that not a single man in Soviet military uniform would set foot on American soil.
Then Moiseev’s Ensemble was sent, while the first was planned to be The Red Banner Ensemble.
A little later the Ensemble was offered to come, but on the condition that they would perform in civilian clothes.
Aleksandrov was categorically against.
“We are the Soviet Army Ensemble.
Let the ensemble of the capitulated army perform without uniforms.”
The ensemble would perform at the White House. Some 45 years later.
And the military uniform would not be scaring anyone.
The first lady of USA, Barbara Bush, was among the audience.
She said that she’d gladly serve in Red Army.
She liked so much both our uniforms and our sound.
“On a horn, on the drums, on an accordion.”
“We are never downcast”
“We always play with a spark”
“We are musicians!”
It is hard to count how many invitations the ensemble received
from the highest people of various countries.
Aleksandrovites were welcomed by all: from presidents and royalties
to the Pope of Rome.
There not such large men’s, and especially military, choirs anywhere in the world – it’s unique.
“Be well, our country”
“The fatherland of great ideas”
The foundations to the famous ensemble were laid at the end of the 20s.
In a small room of the Red Army house, a few amateur performers decided to create a musical collective.
Aleksander Vasiljevich Aleksandrov, professor of the Moscow Conservatory, was invited the director.
Already then, he was a renowned choir conductor and composer.
On the 12th of October 1928, 8 singers, 2 dancers, accordion player and a reader
gave their first performance before the leadership of the Red Army.
The performance was so well-liked, that in a few days the collective was enlisted into staff,
and was given an official name:
The Ensemble of the Red Army Song of the Central House of the Frunze’s Red Army.
While already in 1935, by the decree of Central Executive Committee,
they become the “Red Banner Ensemble of the Red Army Song and Dance of the Soviet Union”
Aleksander Vasiljevich went all his life towards the creation of this ensemble.
He was born in 1883
in the village of Plahino of Ryazan governorship, in a peasant family.
The whole village was of a singing kind. Everyone sang there.
They lived in a kilometre from the church,
where his parents serviced, and in the evenings they’d often gather and sing.
Young Aleksandrov was lucky – he was taken to study to St. Peterburg by a relative, who sang in the choir of the Kazan Cathedral.
It was there that the future composer and choirmaster studied the examples of the church singing.
Later the talented youth is admitted to the court chapel.
Rimskij-Korsakov would speak thus of him during the admittance exams to the St. Peterburg Conservatory:
“Such talent must not perish.”
Aleksandrov did not abandon his work at a church choir until 1922.
He learned all the finesse of the vocal trade there.
In 1918, Patriarch Tihon, who has now been canonised,
invited Aleksander Vasiljevich to be the regent of the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow.
And he was the last regent of the cathedral until 1922.
Aleksander Aleksandrov devoted most of his life to the Moscow Conservatory.
He created there the Choir and Conducting Department.
Being a thoroughly civilian man, he would long hesitate to take the position of a director of a military collective.
He said: “I am not a military man, how can I conduct a military ensemble?”
They said to him, then you’ll be a military man, to which grandfather replied:
“I cannot be any less than a general.”
“You’ll be a general, then,” Stalin then said to him.
On the 19th of February 1933
the ensemble performed for the first time at Bolshoj Theatre for the country’s leadership.
Stalin and Aleksandrov met in person.
Since then the Red Banner Ensemble performed in every single concert for the government.
A.V. Alaksandrov is the only artist, who was accepted into the Party at the Political Bureau level.
In 1937 the Red Banner Ensemble goes to the International Fair in Paris.
A curious event did happen.
185 performers went to France using currency,
which was left unspent after MHAT’s tour of the France.
We didn’t sell tickets for the first concert – no one knew what we were.
It was a new artform.
But after the concert the whole Paris was abuzz about the ensemble,
that there were queues, people stood in them over night, all tickets got sold and re-sold by speculators.
Instead of the planned 6 concerts, the choir gives 15.
The receive Gran Prix, and are met as heroes in Moscow.
The international acclaim of the collective started from this tour.
Each tour abroad turned into a special mission.
Once after a concert in Paris, Marina Vladi came backstage.
She told performers: “Thank you for the memory of my motherland”
When we were in Paris in the 60s,
Vinogradov, the Soviet ambassador to France,
put it very beautifully an well, saying:
“Dear comrades, what you did today is priceless.
A hundred ambassadors would not be able to do over a year, what you did today during the concert that I attended.”
During this same tour, Aleksandrov was approached by the secretary of the Communist Party of France,
and asked to audition a girl from a worker’s family.
The young singer was so liked by the Soviet performers that they asked her to sing with them at the concert.
And a few years later her name would be known by the whole world: Mireille Mathieu
Now the star of the French song herself invites Aleksandrovites to her concerts when she visits Moscow,
And it is considered a good luck among the international artists to perform together with the Red Banner Ensemble.
You need to imagine, China all there on the other side, this is Amur river, a boat sails by,
and the twice Red Banner decorated Academic Russian Army Ensemble of Song and Dance of Aleksandrov
“On the border clouds drift by low.”
“The sombre land is enveloped in silence.”
“By the high shores of Amur”
Performing with the stars at the most famous halls of the world
is an honourable and responsible work for these artists.
However, they view touring of the military detachments as their duty.
The ensemble was created for the Army, after all.
This Army changed names through the times,
but her main spectator remained the same: a soldier.
You go to the concerts for the soldiers with some hightened
desire to work and get great pleasure from it.
They like to go, where people have it the hardest, where life is most difficult:
To the most remote divisions, detachments of the Russian army,
Meeting this famous performers is a breather for the soldiers.
A Red Banner Ensemble performance at your division is the best memory from the service.
Stay in line. I will pass by.
That, furthest on the right.
“And for me – that girl in beige trousers in the first row”
Aleksandrovites have been to all hot spots.
They give more than 100 concerts each year in Army divisions.
Sometimes in places, where no other artist been before.
First 14 hours by plane, then god knows how long in a bus, then maybe you get a chance to sleep or maybe not,
and then you come out to the people and you sing for your compatriots.
Letting them know that they are not forgotten in these god-knows-where garrisons.
Aleksandrov Esemble is an artistic division of the Russian Army.
But besides the repetitions and concerts, as suited for the artists,
they have also a real military life.
Like the rest, they go to drills, take the Oath.
At one time, Boris Aleksandrov wrote cantata “To You We Swear, Fatherland”
It is the only in the world work, where the Oath is performed to music.
How else can that be, when the collective is created by the Army?
It’s created by the Army. The people.
1987, Canada Hokey Cup.
At all tours abroad, the artists knew that they were the ambassadors of their country.
Therefore the State Anthem is only performed by the Aleksandrovites.
Year 1987, The Canada Cup in Quebec.
The complete Red Banner Ensemble, choirs of Canada and USA are on the ice.
Our country’s Anthem sounds first.
The hall is for 18500.
And when we finished performing the Soviet Anthem,
people in the hall stood up and as one, maybe 10 minutes, maybe more, were applauding and greeting.
They didn’t give a chance to perform the Anthems of the other countries – of Canada and USA.
Aleksandrovites would remember this performance of the Anthem just as the unforgettable first performance of the “Sacred War”
And what would be later said about this Anthem.
that it was stuttering…
And started to pervert the music to try to remove these “stutters”
While, on the contrary, by these 1/16th he emphasised the sounding of each word.
Attention, Quebec is speaking and showing.
Aleksandrovites always brought luck to our hokey players, just like on that memorable day in Canada.
They could not even imagine, that they would not be performing this Anthem for almost 10 years.
At the beginning of the 90s, Aleksandrovites felt especially acutely how the fate of the ensemble coincided with the fate of the country.
Just like the rest, they suffered in incursion of a sub-culture.
In the “Perestroika” frenzy, the Red Banner Ensemble was declared to be a “symbol of totalitarianism”.
Aleksandrov Ensemble’s songs were attempted ditched from the ship of “modernity”.
I felt this steam roller: they tried to change the repertoire, introduce some pop-singers,
Remove songs: “Why do you still perform ‘Sacred War’ and ‘Kalinka’ and ‘Nightingales’, everyone is tired of them…”
It was not an easy time. Hard. But we persevered.
Because we were on the right creative track.
The most difficult trial for the Aleksandrovites of those years, was to not fall for the temptation,
and not to adapt to the steam of tastelessness.
Even though they were rehearsing in a house with a leaking roof.
Even though there were few concerts.
But they sounded the repertoire that was created over many years,
those songs, that were beloved by the people.
Time made these songs eternal.
“What is the starting point of Motherland?”
“From the cherished bench by the gates”
In the end of the 80s, the unchanging leader of the Red Banner Ensemble, Boris Aleksandrovich Aleksandrov.
He lead the collective for 40 years and contributed to it not less than his father.
Aleksandrov senior groomed him to take over.
However, after the abrupt death of the ensemble’s creator in Berlin in 1946, there were other contenders.
Back then, yet again Stalin intervened into the fate of the ensemble.
There were many contenders. He said: “What is the question? Aleksander Valiljevish has an excellent son,”
“his assistant, and he should continue his father’s work.” (Interviewed: Evgenij Aleksandrov, grandson of the founder)
In 1948, 2 years after his father’s death,
Boris Aleksandrov arrives with the ensemble to the half-ruined Berlin.
The concert is performed under open sky as no hall would have room for such an audience.
All were expecting “Sacred War”.
But a song that would become the calling card of both the ensemble and Russia for the years to come.
Victor Nikitin was the first performer of “Kalinka”.
A tradition appeared abroad to give the performer of the song a title of “Mr. Kalinka”
Still, in each country he had a specific honorary: Monsieur, Señor, Pan.
Evgenij Beljaev became the unsurpassed performer of this song.
The song and the title is carried over in the ensemble from generation to generation.
Boris Aleksandrovish Aleksandrov preserved and multiplied the golden repertoire of the collective.
He discovered and raised a row of soloist,
who were oft-times more popular, that the pop artists.
There names are not forgotten in the ensemble.
“Ask those soldiers”
“Who lay under the birch trees” (“And their sons will answer…”)
Vadim Ruslanov – a young and promising actor of the Vahtangov Theatre preferred to go over the the ensemble.
He became the the first performer of the song “Do Russians Want War?”
“Do Russians Want War?”
“Do not cry, girl, the rains will pass”
Ivan Bukreev had a rare voice.
No one could measure with him in humorous songs.
During a tour to Cuba, his performance was so well-liked by Fidel Castro, that he asked to give an extra concert.
For his breathtaking bass, Aleksej Segeev was called “Shaljapin in military uniform”.
The most famous composers of the country: Solovjov-Sedoj, Novikov, Hrennikov, Dunaevskij
brought their songs first and foremost to the Red Banner ensemble.
Here there door is always open also to the beginner composers.
It was the Aleksandrov Ensemble that gave life to the song “Victory Day”
“This Victory Day is permeated by gunpowder smell”
When Tuhmanov brought this song to the Red Banner Ensemble,
and I know this from Uncle Boris,
the whole commission gathered to audition the song,
and all started whispering between themselves, trying to find flaws,
while Boris said, I am taking it, it’s a good song and it will have a great life.
Eduard Lobkovskij was the first performer of “Victory Day”
Boris Aleksandrov always remembered his father’s words:
“If there is no choir, there will be no ensemble.”
His work with the choir always reminded of a sacrament.
He got from the musicians seemingly the impossible.
Found incredible colours.
Defined fine nuances.
Created powerful polyphony.
Even the professionals could not always decipher the secret of the sounds.
Of course, there is the finesse of engaging of different voices,
Reduction of the sounding, which is achieved by separate scores sounding quieter and quieter
and then at full strength!
“Let the soldiers sleep a little.”
“While tomorrow there again will be a battle,”
“That’s how it’s predestined by fate”
“That we depart without having loved enough” “From our wives from, our fields.”
The best choirmasters of the world tried to crack the mystery of Aleksandrov’s
Three forte and four piano.
A choir is famous exactly for sounding like a single chord.
So that there are no “tails”
You know, a song may sound,
the conductor cuts off, while someone is still sounding
That’s called to “leave a tail”.
And the audience hears it all. It’s terrible.
Many tried to imitate them,
tried to create similar collectives,
not only in out country, but also abroad.
But there never appeared the second Red Banner.
One must live by music in the ensemble.
The title of “Mr. Kalinka” is held by Vadim Ananjev.
“We’ve all been challenged many times”
“By battles and marches”
“We, from a soldier and to a Marshall”
“Is one family”
Right from the inception of the ensemble, a strictest professional selection is imposed.
Even many well-known artists did not pass the test.
Many youths come here nowadays, but not all become Aleksandrovites.
There are no accidental people here.
I personally fell demand and lack of air time on radio and TV
I want that these songs would sound more
because a song creates an emotion, which
can manifest in some good deeds towards your country,
towards your friends, towards your loved ones.
This is such song that can change a person.
“Lived easily and simply, but now I became grown-up”
“I got summons, but don’t be sad, my bride,”
“don’t miss me guys, I am off to become soldier”
“And I promise we will meet again”
“And meanwhile, and meanwhile”
“Await my letters from the regiment”
“One, two, left”
A person may not know what he’s up against, when coming to listen to the Aleksandrov Ensemble”
‘Just for entertainment…’
‘Let’s go listen to them’
‘What’s this ensemble’
But when the finally encounter it, this avalanche,
this something completely indomitable,
then a person would first get a light shock,
and then, at that moment starts the re-education of the person, a kind of rebirth.
Review of his tastes, maybe even, moral guides,
because this repertoire is simply immortal.
“Become my universe”
“Revive the silenced strings”
‘Chose 50 most brightest adjectives,
insert them before “The Ensemble of the Soviet Army”,
and you will get the impression about its performance.’
A quote from an English newspaper.
The words of praise are addressed both the Red Banner in general,
an to its three components:
Men’s choir, unique orchestra, and the dance troupe.
Almost all dance pieces, are the face of the ensemble,
In what sense. For example we have Zaporozhje Cossacks.
They are the golden fund of the ensemble.
Aleksandrovites are not just a singing weapon, but also… a dancing one.
While in songs the ensemble created the reference standard of a choir performance,
the choreographic group of the ensemble demonstrated what a military dance should be.
Despite the famous and beloved repertoire,
one cannot say that the ensemble lives on old achievements
They seek and find new forms of self-expression,
while not retreating from the ensemble’s traditions,
from its unique image, that was created over the decades.
Here we managed to use a new form for our performance:
During its 80 years, the ensemble never performed on the street,
that is, marching like orchestras do.
The Red Banner Ensemble marched down the central 2km long central street of Quebec.
200.000 people welcomed Russian soldiers, who carried not threat, but song, peace and accord.
There stood thousands of people,
and of course, we felt pride, when we marched down that street and they applauded.
We felt pride for the country, for our Army, because they applauded our armed forces.
We often speak nowadays about the information wars,
but few of us speak of information peace.
I think that we have a very strong weapon.
Stronger than any steel, stronger than hundreds of diplomats – the Aleksandrov Ensemble.
Exactly 60 years later, it was the Aleksandrov ensemble,
that recorded the reference record of the Russian Anthem.
The song “Sacred War”, yes, is probably a visiting card of the ensemble,
however, I think the most important thing for any state is the Anthem.
The Anthem starts here, from the very first folders. Here it is.
The Anthem of the Soviet Union, under number 00
In other words, the most important, the very first song.
Score of the Anthem of USSR.
The Anthem was very hard-gained, and it simply
should not have been removed. Mihalkov is a fine fellow!
He wrote a new text, which became a rather neutral text.
And it speaks about our Motherland, about her greatness.
In the West, the Alksandrov Ensemble is often referred as one of the main trademarks of Russia.
However, the word “symbol” is closer to our hearts.
The symbol of Russia.
The musical emblem of our culture.
Without service, without faith,
without the energy of soul and talent, without honesty, a symbol cannot possibly exist.
“Russian troops march shoulder to shoulder”
“And let the military path is not an easy one”
“We shall faithfully and truthfully serve Russia”
Already in the far away 30s, the director of the ensemble, Aleksandrov, dreamt of a children’s choir group.
Today, young Aleksandrovites already perform at concerts.
And it is not so important if they will become real performers,
if they will make it into the famous Red Banner Choir,
for already now they learnt the most important thing from the ensemble:
to love great music, to love Motherland.
“O Russia, for ever you’re strong sacred country!”
“O Russia, for ever the land that we love!”
“The fame that is great and the will that is mighty –”
“So be they thy treasure in ages to come.”
“Praised be our free Fatherland, –”
“Cent’ries-old union of brotherly peoples,”
“Popular wisdom given us by ancestors.”
“Praised be our country! We’re proud of thee!”
“Over valleys and hilltops”
“A division was advancing forth”
“So as to take with battle the Pacific coast -”
“The stronghold of the White Army”
“The glory of those days shall not be silenced.”
“It shall never dim.”
“Partisan divisions were taking towns.”
“Partisan divisions were taking towns.”