Chechen Music

Чеченская музыкальная культураMusic is one of the longest-established arts. It has been seen as the language of the human soul, feelings and passions since times immemorial[1].

Since its inception, music has been a divine gift to man. The magical power of healing is ascribed to it.  According to beliefs of the Antiquity, music is present in Nature, in the harmonious accord of its parts. Music not merely pleases the ear with delightful tunes and expresses human feelings—it also transmits the elemental sounds and informs about what has happened. Thus, there is a Chechen tale of a despotic prince who says he will pour melted lead into the mouth that brings him the tidings of his beloved son’s death. A craftsman makes a musical instrument of three strings whose heart-rending tune tells the prince of the tragedy. This folk tale transmits the reverent public attitude to music and musical instruments. 

Music not only personifies the popular spirit but also helps the people to survive at tragic times.

This idea received its most inspired treatment in the Chechen legend of Tamerlane and the illancha bard[2]. According to tradition, cruel Emir Tamerlane brought an innumerable host to the Chechen land, which he gave to fire and sword. Chechens fought staunchly for their land and freedom—yet the enemy was stronger. Tamerlane conquered the plains and forced survivors to flee to the mountains. When a general was reporting to Tamerlane that the Chechen land had been subdued, the merciless conqueror asked: “Have you taken the pondur from Chechens?” “No,” was the reply. “Then, they have not been conquered,” Tamerlane said.

The musical scale reflects ethnic mentality and indicates all spiritual and ethical changes. A new basic scale shows that profound structural changes have come to the ethnic mentality, in fact, to give birth to a new ethnos.

Chechen folk music divides in four basic parts—the ladugIa yish instrumental programme music, the doshloin yish marches performed by cavalry en route, the khelkhar yish dance tunes, and the yish and illi songs.

Chechens used string, bowed, wind and percussion instruments. The concertina was brought from Russia in the 19th century. The accordion joined it later.

Instrumental programme music often required only one instrument—the three-string dechig-pondur, the bowed adkhoku-pondur, the zurna wind instrument, the reed pipe or the concertina. It was sometimes performed in an ensemble of the dechig-pondur and the adkhoku-pondur, the dechig-pondur and the pipe, or the concertina, the dechig-pondur and several percussion instruments.

дечиг-пондурInstrumental programme music expressed sublime lyrical feelings, as can be seen from the names of folk pieces: Home-Sickness, The Ancestral Land, High in the Mountains, My Caucasus or To My Beloved.

Marches were played on wind and percussion instruments. There were also cavalry and infantry marching songs whose rhythm set the pace en route. Captain Ivan Klinger, a Russian officer captured by Chechens, recorded the notation of one such song in an East Chechen village in 1847[3].

Dance tunes widely diversified in tempo and melody due to the extraordinary richness of Chechen dancing culture. Triplets intersperse with duplets in folk dances. Tunes that start at a slow or moderate pace often get faster, passing step by step into a whirlwind of rapid movement. Highly original are sudden shifts of the strong beat breaking the rhythmic structure of the dance. No less specific is the change of harmony in the offbeat.

Chechen folk dance tunes often change pace, the hexachord being replaced by triplets or a mixed metre[4].

Chechen song culture is no less rich and versatile. It includes the illi epic heroic songs that extol feats of valour, loyalty, love and friendship, and are usually recited to the dechig-pondur; nazmash religious canticles, usually sung without instrumental accompaniment; yesharsh songs on most diverse themes; uzamash vocal improvisations; and belkhamash ritual songs—in particular, lamentations.

“The different scales, modes, melodic structures and harmonies of Chechen folk music have much in common between themselves. The Dorian mode is the principal. The Mixolydian and the Phrygian occur far rarer. There are no chromaticisms and augmented seconds, characteristic of the music of other Caucasian peoples.

“The structure and function of Chechen folk harmonies are extremely original, with many salient features.

“The Dorian tonic triplet of D-F-A is functionally connected with the unsteady triplet of C-E-G. These basic triplets occasionally replace the tertian tone with its supertonic or subtonic auxiliary tone—D-E-A or D-G-A instead of D-F-A, and C-D-G or C-F-G instead of C-E-G. These chords occur in the final movements as suspended tertian.

“The public view these chords as established. They occur in the crucial parts of music pieces, and often finish folk songs and dances.

“Modal harmony is occasionally extended with a third triplet chord a second above the tonic. In this particular instance, it is E-G-B. Such triplets usually occur in cadence idioms.

“Chechen folk music also uses triplets with a tertian tone substituted by a quartal chord. Thus, the inverted D-G-A turns into A-D-G, D-E-A into E-A-D, etc.

“The chords of a second and a fifth or a fourth and a fifth can be also regarded as inversions of quartal not tertian chords. Chechen folk vocal and instrumental pieces use quartal chords rather frequently, e.g., the quartal chord of G-C-F-inversion-C-F-G or D-G-C-inversion-C-D-G, etc.

“Quarter-tones often occur in Chechen folk music, where they play the part of the third in the classic tertian harmony. Chechen instrumental and, even more so, choral pieces frequently use parallel quartal variations. Many folk songs and dances also end with a fourth.

“The gradual sequential descending structure is characteristic of Chechen folk tunes—just as an alteration of triplets and duplets.

“Three-voice songs and dances usually have the basic tune in the middle voice, framed in the fifth and, rarer, sixth.

“The sustained fifth, with its unique sound, is very characteristic. Chechen folk music also uses changing metres. Thus, the Dorian mode is interspersed with the Phrygian in Sadykov’s Dance, with C flat replacing C natural.

“Many folk songs start with sudden ascension to the seventh, which has not appeared in Chechen music by chance—this interval includes the extreme sounds of the quartal triplet, i.e., two fourths. This proves once again that Chechen folk harmony bases on the quartal not tertian triplet.

“Characteristic of Chechen songs are stops at one sound, usually in the beginning, and occasionally with a fermata”[5].

Муслим МагомаевThe three-string dechik-pondur is one of the oldest Chechen folk instruments. Its elongated body is cut of one piece of wood, with a flat top plate, a curved back, and frets on the neck. The tailpiece frets of old instruments were made of string or animal sinews. The dechik-pondur is played like the balalaika, with fingers of the right hand striking the strings in a down or upward movement, tremolo, clang or plucking. The sound is soft and rustling. The first string is for the G of the one-line octave, the second E and the third D, also of the one-line octave.

The adkhoku-pondur, a bowed instrument of three or four strings, has no shorter antecedents. It has a semi-spherical body with a neck and a leg, and a bow shaped as the archer’s weapon. The player holds the instrument vertically, supporting the neck with his left hand and resting the leg on his left knee. The sound resembles the violin. The first string is tuned to the one-line octave A, the second E and the third D.

Chechens know another bowed instrument—the chondarg.

Chechen folk wind instruments include the zurna, the reed pipe and the horn. Cavalry on the wartime march was always accompanied by the zurna and the drum.

The Caucasian concertina is the best-known of the Chechen keyboard wind instruments.

The vota, a cylindrical drum, usually played with wooden sticks and occasionally with the fingers, is indispensable in a folk orchestra.

The zhirgIa tambourine is no less widespread.

Chechens used several dozen instruments of diverse character and sound a mere hundred years ago. They are lost irretrievably now, and even a majority of their names have gone into oblivion.

Though Chechen music culture is several millennia old, its professional study started as late as the middle of the 19th century.

The first notation of Chechen songs, of 1847, was made by Captain Ivan Klinger, a Russian officer who spent several years in Chechen captivity. Leo Tolstoy later recorded the lyrics of two Chechen songs in Russian lettering according to his Chechen friends Sado Miserbayev and Balta Isayev. Afanasy Fet made their fine translations into Russian. He admired their philosophical profundity.

Many Russian researchers—mostly military officers with academic interests—were recording excerpts from Chechen folk songs throughout the 19th century.

Abdul Muslim Magomayev, the grandfather of renowned Soviet singer Muslim Magomayev, was the first Chechen to receive professional musical education.  Born into a musician’s family in the Chechen village of Starye Atagi in 1885, he finished the Grozny municipal school in 1899 to enrol in the Transcaucasian Teacher-Training Seminary to study liberal arts, the history of music, and playing the clarinet and the violin. He made his first essays at composition there.

Abdul Muslim graduated from the seminary in 1904 to return home but had to go to Azerbaijan fairly soon as he could not find employment in Grozny—it was prohibited to a man of Muslim belief to teach Christian pupils there.

All his later work was closely connected with Azeri music.

One of the foremost Azerbaijani composers, he wrote numerous works that became classics—suffice to mention the operas Shah Ismail and Narghiz, and the operetta Khoruz-bei. Magomayev never forgot his antecedents, and amply drew on Chechen folk music.

Professional studies and recordings of Chechen folk music started after the 1917 Revolution.

Moscow composer Alexander Davidenko recorded several dozens of tunes in Chechen villages in 1925 to publish their collection under the title of 30 Chechen Folk Tunes Arranged for the Piano for Two Hands, and 30 Chechen Folk Tunes Recorded by A.A. Davidenko.

Georgi Mepurnov made an inestimable contribution to Chechen music culture. The Soviet press of the 1930s described him as “the first composer, orchestra conductor and pianist of the Caucasian highlands”.

As soon as the Chechen Autonomous Area was established, Mepurnov set up a band affiliated to the regional police office. It was the first Soviet band to play Chechen music. After studies at the Moscow Conservatoire, Mepurnov returned to Chechnya to become a prolific composer and community activist. He established a music studio for Chechens and, in 1936, the first-ever Chechen folk orchestra.

Умар ДимаевMepurnov adapted folk plucked and bowed string instruments for the orchestra. Dechig-pondurs were grouped in piccolos, primes, seconds, tenors and basses, and adkhoku-pondurs in primes and seconds, in the manner of violins.

The orchestra also included the concertina, the zurna, the pipe and percussion. Its concerts enjoyed tremendous popularity in Chechnya-Ingushetia and far outside it.

The gifted composer and conductor arranged a vast number of Chechen folk tunes for the orchestra, the piano and other classic instruments—in particular, North Caucasian Mountain Sketches, the Dadizha lullaby, the Berdykel Dance and the Urus-Martan Dance. His numerous original works also based on Chechen folk music. He wrote backstage music to Said Baduyev’s play Alkhan-Kala, a music poem dedicated to the 10th anniversary of Soviet power in Chechnya, and the Mountain Group Dance.

Nikolai Rechmensky and Alexander Khalebsky made vast efforts to study and preserve Chechen music heritage. The latter was the artistic director of the State Song and Dance Ensemble of Chechnya-Ingushetia for many years.

A folk lore collection complied in 1959 comprised 66 tunes of old and new Chechen and Ingush songs and dances recorded by Evgeni Kolesnikov, Alexander and Mikhail Khalebsky, Salman Tsugayev and Nikolai Rechmensky[6].

Soviet Russian composers notably contributed to Chechen and Ingush music by works drawing on folklore—Alexander Davidenko with his Chechen Suite, Marian Koval with Stunt-Riding, and Nikolai Rechmensky with his Suite for the String Quartet on Chechen-Ingush Themes. Alexander Khalebsky, Merited Actor of Chechnya-Ingushetia, wrote a symphonic suite on Chechen-Ingush themes and many choir pieces. He also recorded and arranged numerous songs and dances.

Umar Dimayev, the author of more than 30 original works and several hundred arrangements of folk tunes, was one of the first Chechen composers whose music based on Chechen folklore.

He started as a child performing musician, and had become one of the best-known concertina players in Chechnya by the age of 15. The adolescent virtuoso was a living legend. His music not only made austere men laugh and weep aloud but also had a healing power. Umar was appointed solo performer of the National Theatre orchestra in 1929, when he began work as composer.

He won the first all-Union folk instrument players’ contest in 1939.

In 1941-1945, during World War Two, he wrote many patriotic songs and instrumental pieces, and played in itinerant music companies performing at the front, in military hospitals, at railway stations for units dispatched to the theatre of war, and for workers in the rear.

In 1954, Umar Dimayev became solo performer of the Chechen-Ingush Song and Dance Ensemble. During his work with it, he wrote his best-known music pieces—a dance dedicated to Mahmud Esambayev, the Chechen-Ukrainian Friendship Song, and Two Friends’ Dance. The composer stood at the cradle of the Chechen-Ingush Philharmonic Society, was active on the television and the radio, and recorded and arranged many folk tunes.

It is hard to overestimate Dimayev’s contribution to the musical development of Chechnya and the entire North Caucasus.

His work determined the development of North Caucasian folk music for decades ahead. He gave it a new lease of life, and eternalised it in his arrangements and original works.

адхок-пондурAdnan Shahbulatov, representative of another trend, stood at the cradle of new Chechen music, rooted in European classics and pops.

He developed an interest in music classics very early in life. Chechens were deported when he was a child of seven. Adnan and his parents were exiled to Kazakhstan. He learned to play wind instruments in a school music circle. That was when he wrote his first tunes. At the age of 19, he wrote a song dedicated to the 1957 Moscow Festival of Youth and Students, which was first performed at the Alma Ata Conservatoire.

Adnan joined Lev Shargorodsky’s class at the Chechen-Ingush Republican Higher Music School in 1958. He worked prolifically when a student, and wrote a cycle of songs to Russian and Soviet poets’ lyrics, and small instrumental works—Variations for the Piano on the Themes of a Chechen Song, and In Our Mountains symphonic suite.

Adnan joined Professor Genrikh Litinsky’s class at the Gnesin Music Institute, Composition Department, in Moscow in 1960, to work even more fruitfully than before. He wrote many symphonic and piano pieces, and numerous songs.

The song was Shahbulatov’s favourite genre, to which he owed popularity with hundreds of thousands of music-lovers in Chechnya and far outside it. Top-notch Soviet performers—such as Iosif Kobzon, Nina Isakova, Lyudmila Senchina, Lyudmila Simonova and Movsar Mintsayev—sang his songs. The composer worked for many years in a brilliant tandem with singer Movlad Burkayev.

Adnan Shahbulatov opened a new page in the history of Chechen music as he raised it to a new level by combining classics with folk tunes, and bringing Chechen and West European traditions together. He gave Chechen tunes a European form thus to make them part of the world heritage.

Umar Beksultanov is one of the best-known Chechen composers. He developed an interest in music very early in life. He was active in amateur performances at secondary school—he sang, danced and played the bugle in the school band. After finishing the 7th form in 1953, Umar entered the Frunze Music School in Kirghizia. After graduation in 1959, he enrolled in the Leningrad Conservatoire, which had educated such of the foremost Russian composers as Peter Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitry Shostakovich.

The symphonic poem Gamar, a piano trio and the vocal cycle Setting off on a Journey to classic Persian verse were his first major compositions. He wrote them as his Conservatoire graduation works.

Beksultanov received his degree in composition in 1964, and joined the symphony orchestra of the Chechen-Ingush Philharmonic Society as performer. He also taught the theory of music at a higher music school, whose director he became later. Teaching went hand in hand with prolific composition in many genres—the Heroic Symphony, the oratorio to Nurdin Musayev’s verse The Road of the October Revolution, a concerto for the piano and the orchestra, Vainakh Sketches, the My Motherland suite, several preludes for the piano, piano variations to Chechen folk themes, backstage music for the theatre, and children’s ditties and instrumental pieces.

Composer Said Dimayev, Umar Dimayev’s son, was born in 1939. He finished the Grozny music school in 1963 to go on to the Gnesin Music Institute, Composition Department, in Moscow. After graduation, he became a music teacher and composer.

Said Dimayev was appointed artistic director of the Chechen-Ingush Philharmonic Society in 1970, and later the chief conductor and artistic director of the folk orchestra under Chechnya-Ingushetia’s State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting.

A versatile composer, he was known for numerous songs, symphonic and chamber pieces, music for films and stage productions, and children’s music.

An excellent arranger, he remade his father’s tunes, published in the collection A Hundred Melodies out of Umar Dimayev’s Hands in 2001.

Singer and composer Ali Dimayev, Said’s younger brother, is one of the best-known Chechen musicians today. Growing in professional musicians’ family, he loved music even as a baby. When he was studying the piano at secondary music school, Ali established The Vainakh, the first Chechen rock group, known for fine renditions of The Beatles’ songs, and songs by Chechen and other Soviet authors. Ali was conscripted as soon as he finished the Grozny Higher Music School in 1974. After he was demobilised from the army, he headed the folk orchestra under Chechnya-Ingushetia’s State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting, and became a prolific composer. Ali Dimayev’s songs To My Friends, Cherish Mothers, and A Dancing Sketch are greatly loved in Chechnya and far outside it.

The Zama rock group, which Ali set up in 1981, is known for a daring blend of the latest rock with old folk tunes. Ali Dimayev started singing his own songs solo several years ago.

The Chechen State Philharmonic Society was established in 1936 to make a tremendous impact on Chechen music culture. A symphony orchestra affiliated to it was established the same year under David Besler, a professor of the Grozny Higher Music School. Vladimir Rayevsky, Merited Art Worker of Chechnya-Ingushetia, led the orchestra in the 1970s-80s, and Alash Edisultanov, People’s Actor of Chechnya-Ingushetia, in 1990-95. The orchestra was the first to perform Chechen folk music arranged by classic Soviet composers. Alexander Davidenko wrote his Chechen Suite, Marian Koval Stunt-Riding, and Nikolai Rechmensky the Suite for the String Quartet on Chechen-Ingush Themes at that time. Alexander Khalebsky, Merited Actor of Chechnya-Ingushetia, wrote a symphonic suite on Chechen-Ingush themes and many choir pieces, and recorded and arranged numerous songs and dances.

Foremost performers were soloists of the Chechen-Ingush State Philharmonic Society—dancer Mahmud Esambayev, People’s Actor of the USSR; singer Maryam Aidamirova, Merited Actress of Russia; singer and composer Valid Dagayev, People’s Actor of Russia; singer and composer Sultan Magomedov and folk music populariser Schita Edisultanov, both People’s Actors of Chechnya-Ingushetia.

A new generation of performers appeared in the early 1980s, and has won tremendous popularity in and outside Chechnya—folk singers Imran Usmanov and Apti Dalkhatov, pop stars Tamara Dadasheva, Zelimkhan Dudayev, Maryam Tashayeva and Lisa Akhmatova (the first Chechen rock pop singer), composer and performer Ramzan Daudov, rock star Islam Gelgoyev, and pianist Amarbek Dimayev.

The Illi song company, affiliated to the Chechen-Ingush State Philharmonic Society, was established in 1979.  Schita Edisultanov, People’s Actor of Chechnya-Ingushetia, was its founding director. The company brought together Imran Usmanov, Magomed Yasayev, Ilyas Abdulkarimov, Sultan Pashayev, Kamaldi Gambulatov, Suleiman Tokkayev, Magomed Uzhakhov, Biluhajji Didigov, Ramzan Chakarayev, Maьlkh-Aьzni Azieva, and the Aidamirov sisters—Malika and Aimani. Its renditions of Chechen folk songs were deservedly popular in Chechnya and far outside it.

The Chechen Philharmonic Society suspended work in 1999 with the warfare.

Today, it is active in reviving music in the republic.

The Illi men’s folk company, the Zhovkhar women’s choir, and the Bezaman Az, Rayana, Expansia and Lamankhoi companies have resumed their work.

A folk orchestra of the Chechen Philharmonic Society has recently started concerts, and is great success.

[1] Основы теории художественной культуры. – СПб., 2001.- с.8 (208)

[2] The illancha is a folk bard and reciter.

[3] Фольклор: песенное наследие. – М, 1991 (Folklore: The Song Heritage.Moscow, 1991). – с.245.

[4] Айдаев Ю. Музыкальная культура //Чеченцы: история и современность. – Москва, 1996 (Y. Aidayev. Music Culture // Chechens: Past and Present.Moscow, 1996) – с.298


[5] Айдаев Ю. Музыкальная культура //Чеченцы: история и современность. – Москва, 1996 (Ibid). – с.298

[6] Айдаев Ю. Музыкальная культура// Чеченцы: история и современность. – Москва, 1996 (Ibid). – с.298


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