Folk songs

Folk songs. The song is one of the oldest and most prevalent forms of folklore. It unites a poetic text with a melody. The poetic imagery determines the character and emotive quality of the melody. Songs usually have a well-defined strophic structure: all stanzas are set to the same melody as the first stanza. Each stanza is often followed by a refrain. Folk songs are usually monodic choral songs, but Ukrainian folk songs are exceptional for their rich polyphony. The folk songs express the common experience of the Ukrainian people: all the important events in life from the cradle to the grave are accompanied by song.

By their content and function folk songs can be divided into four basic groups: (1) ritual songs, such as carols (koliadky and shchedrivky), spring songs, songs about nymphs (rusalka songs), and Kupalo festival songs; (2) harvest songs and wedding songs; (3) historical songs and political songs, such as dumas and ballads; and (4) lyrical songs, such as family songs, social class songs, and love songs (such as ‘Povii vitre na Vkrainu’ [Blow, Wind, into Ukraine] or ‘Oi, ziidy, ziidy, iasen misiatsiu’ [Rise, Bright Moon]). Chumak songs (such as ‘Oi, u poli krynychenka’ [A Well in the Field] or ‘Huliav chumak na rynochku’ [A Chumak Caroused in the Market]), recruits' and soldiers' songs (such as ‘Ikhav kozak na viinonku’ [A Cossack Was Going Away to War]), wanderers' songs, and cradle songs belong to separate groups. Together these genres of folk song encompass the variegated life of the Ukrainian people. The universal content and the artful clarity of expression of Ukrainian folk songs account for their survival for many centuries. In many songs—historical, social—the epic and lyrical elements form an organic unity.

In Ukrainian folk songs nature manifests human emotions. Poetic parallelism is one of the oldest devices of the lyrical song. In later songs the parallelism of contradiction is found. In lyrical songs poetic images or symbols are very common. Bird symbolism is very popular. The eagle or falcon is the symbol of manliness, power, beauty, courage, and freedom. The dove symbolizes feminity. The sea gull is the symbol of the suffering mother. Many symbols are derived from the plant world, for example, the viburnum tree represents the girl, and the oak represents the boy. In songs similes predominate: a girl is compared to a star, a red viburnum tree, a pine tree, and a poppy; a boy is compared to an oak, a maple, and a pigeon. Favorite tropes of the Ukrainian folk song include the standard epithet, repetition, antithesis, hyperbole, and metaphor. A vehicle often employed in lyrical songs to express emotion is the dramatic dialogue. In some folk songs assonance, alliteration, and onomatopoeia are also used.

Folk songs have provided inspiration for many Ukrainian composers, such as Semen Hulak-Artemovsky, Mykola Arkas, Mykola Lysenko, Mykola Leontovych, Stanyslav Liudkevych, Kyrylo Stetsenko, Yakiv Stepovy, and Heorhii Maiboroda. The famous Russian composers Peter Tchaikovsky, M. Glinka, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Sergei Rachmaninoff collected, arranged, and used Ukrainian folk melodies widely in their works.

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Petro Odarchenko

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 1 (1984).]

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