Russian Language Blog

Sing-a-long with Khan and Igor! Posted by on May 8, 2013 in Culture, History, language

I’m not much of an opera fan — because most of them, in my opinion, have maybe 5 or 10 minutes of musically entertaining sections heavily padded with hours and hours of shouting and warbling. The typical opera is like one of those pop-music albums that contains exactly ONE hit anyone wants to hear again, plus 10 instantly forgettable “B-side” numbers, plus 3 or 4 dance remixes of the one song for which you bought the album. Perhaps only футбол can rival opera in the sheer quantity of “Nothing Interesting Is Happening Right Now” that it offers to spectators.

And yet — a few operas do have their moments, and for me one of the most spectacular examples is the Половецкие пляски (“Polovtsian Dances”) section from 1890’s «Князь Игорь» (“Prince Igor”) by Александр Бородин (“Aleksandr Borodin”). It only runs about семь минут, but they are an AWESOME seven minutes.

In this YouTube video, it’s performed by a massive theatre company with everyone приодетые в блестящих средневековых тряпках (“dolled up in glittery medieval ‘threads'”), and it’s quite a spectacle!

Admittedly, I really had trouble understanding what they’re singing, at first — all those operatic voices sort of blend together into a indistinct tra-la-hah-lah that’s difficult to decipher, especially in a language that isn’t my native one. (Soprano voices, in particular.) But after just a bit of Googling, I found the written lyrics for this section. And it’s wierd how the sounds that had been meaningless траляля, труляля start to magically crystallize into intelligible Russian words once you’re able to read along while you listen! But before we get to the sing-a-long lyrics…

A Bit of Backstory from Medieval Rus’

Borodin based the opera’s libretto on a 13th-century East Slavonic epic poem known as «Слово о плъку Игоревѣ», which is typically translated as “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign.” The poem describes a rather disastrous military raid led by the Slavic prince Igor Svyatoslavich in 1185 against the Polovtsian army of Khan Konchák — which ended in the slaughter of all but a dozen Russian warriors, and the capture of Prince Igor.


Even though Igor’s military campaign was a flop, the epic that recounts it is revered for at least two reasons: First, from a linguistic standpoint, it’s a rare and valuable record of what ancient East Slavonic looked like before it began to be influenced by Old Church Slavonic (which belongs to the South Slavic group). Second, from the standpoint of Slavic nationalism, the poem urges the princes of Kievan Rus’ to cease their constant in-fighting and unify against the incessant attacks by various Turkic peoples. Little did the anonymous author know that the fearsome татары (“Tatars” or “Mongols”) would come riding into town just a few decades after Prince Igor’s death and kick the butts of everybody in the region, both Slavic and Turkic!

Who were these Polovtsians? Половцы is simply the Slavic name for a bunch of nomadic Central Asians who called themselves “Kumans” or “Cumans.” Their periodic raiding and pillaging of Kievan Rus’ started around 1060 and continued for almost 200 years (until the Tatars showed up uninvited). Our knowledge of Kuman/Polovtsian culture is a bit scanty, but we know that their language belonged to the Turkic group; they were evidently rather light-haired (at least compared to other Central Asians); and in Igor’s time they were still pagan, although in later centuries, some assimilated to Islam and others to Christianity.

As for the хан (“khan” or “king”) named Кончак, don’t make the mistake of thinking he was a total bad guy. Despite the constant hostility between the Russians and the Polovtsians, they would occasionally form ad hoc military or political alliances. In fact, Konchak and Igor were сваты, or “co-fathers-in-law” — the pagan khan’s daughter was in an arranged marriage with the Christian prince’s son!

So, the Половецкие пляски segment that you see in the video clip is from end of Act 2 in the opera — the wounded Igor is technically a POW in the Polovtsian camp, but Konchak has intervened on behalf of his son-in-law’s dad, and is playing the part of a gracious host in hopes that the Kievans will agree to some sort of truce.

The lyrics (and their translation)

In the first section, entitled Пляска девушек (“Dance of the girls”), we hear a chorus of невольницы (“slave maidens”), who address their song as «ты» and urge it to “fly away on the wings of the wind,” back to their long-lost homeland on the far side of the Caspian Sea. (Hmmm, can you think of another classic Russian tune where the singer addresses her own song in the imperative, and tells it to fly to some distant place?)

Anyway, practically everyone will recognize the melody, which was ripped off (via the Broadway show Kismet) and turned into the 1950s pop standard “Stranger in Paradise”. Here it is with a line-by-line translation — click and drag on the pink lines to see the English:

♪♫ Улетай на крыльях ветра
Fly away, on the wings of the wind,
Ты в край родной, родная песня наша,
You [fly away], our native song, to the region of our birth.
Туда, где мы тебя свободно пели,
To where we sang you in liberty,
Где было так привольно нам с тобою.
Where you and we were so free.
Там, под знойным небом,
There, under the sultry sky,
Негой воздух полон,
The air is full of bliss,
Там под говор моря
There, under the murmuring of the sea,
Дремлют горы в облаках. ♪♫
The mountains half-slumber in the clouds.

Incidentally, I’m really not sure why the next-to-last line has под говор (accusative) instead of под говором (instrumental) — since it’s hard to see how the verb дремать (“to be drowsy”) conveys motion, even in a figurative sense. Perhaps one of our native speakers can shed light?

Anyway, some very athletic dancing by the male slaves follows, and all the frenetic leaping and banging of kettle drums leads us into a bombastic, Carmina Burana-ish chorus that begins at around 03:40 in the video clip. In the opera’s score, this part is rather unimaginatively titled Общая Пляска (“General/Collective Dance”), but “Khan Konchak, Superstar!” might be a better title. The key verb in this section is definitely славить — “to glorify, to sing the praises of”. If you close your eyes, you can almost imagine Ricardo Montalban’s minions singing this to William Shatner:

♪♫ Пойте песни славы хану! Пой!
Sing songs of glory to Khan! Sing!
Славьте силу, дочесть хана! Славь!
Glorify the might, the honor, of Khan! Praise him!
Славен хан! Хан!
Glorious is Khan! Khan!
Славен он, хан наш!
Glorious is he, our Khan!
Блеском славы
In the gleaming of his glory
Солнцу равен хан!
Khan is like unto the Sun!
Нету равных славой хану! Нет!
There are none equal in glory to Khan! None!
Чаги хана славят хана…♪♫
Khan’s slaves praise Khan!

And as the Polovtsians are singing their lungs out in praise of Mr. Fabulous, Konchak offers Igor a beautiful slave-girl as a party favor from one сват to another — though with a string attached, of course! It starts around 04:40 in the video, and basically turns into a duet by “Konchak and the Khan-ettes”, as the невольницы sing back-up:

♪♫ Видишь ли пленниц ты
Do you see the captive-girls
С моря дальнего?
From a distant sea?
Видишь красавиц моих
Do you see my beauties
Из-за Каспия?
From beyond the Caspian?
О, скажи, друг,
Oh, say it, friend —
Скажи только слово мне!
Say only a word to me!
Хочешь, любую из них я тебе подарю! ♪♫
If you want, I’ll make you a gift of any one of them!

If you’re wondering what happens next — well, Igor eventually makes a heroic escape by digging a mile-long tunnel with a teaspoon and swimming through the rat-infested sewers crawling under a loose tent-flap and jogging away. (Konchak isn’t exactly holding the prince in maximum-security conditions — after all, they’re both blue-blooded noblemen, and in-laws on top of that!) After arranging for the ransom of other Russian chiefs still in Polovtsian hands, Igor goes back to his job running the princedom of Novgorod-Sverensk, arranges more political marriages for his kids, and eventually dies around 1201. It’s unclear what happens to Konchak, but as we know, the fortunes of the Kievans and the Kumans alike went into decline after the Tatars showed up!

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  1. Fizmat:

    I was never able to decipher opera lyrics either, but the music is instantly recognizable. Maybe some old movie used this melody, or it is just _that_ popular.

    We studied “Слово о полку” in school. It sure is a unique literary relic.

    >под говор
    Looks good to me. Accusative for direction, instrumental for location only work for literal location. Сидеть под шатром, идти под шатёр, гулять под горой, идти под гору. But here it’s used to describe background noise. Под шепот прибоя, под стрекот кузнечиков, под перестук колес (поезда), под крики чаек, под стук дождя, etc. As usual, I don’t know what really is the rule here, I can only give examples. It’s most often used with sleeping, falling asleep and resting for some reason.

    >скажи только слово
    I’m not convinced there is a specific “string” attached. In English an article would probably provide a hint here. “Just say a word” vs. “just say the word”. Am I correct?

    It’s quite possible Konchak just shows his royal generosity, in the sense of “you don’t even have to expend a lot of energy to ask, one word is enough”. Probably with expectations that the gift would make Igor owe him (or he just wants to be friends).

  2. David Roberts:

    Very enjoyable post Rob. Of course I have an answer to your question:
    (Hmmm, can you think of another classic Russian tune where the singer addresses her own song in the imperative, and tells it to fly to some distant place?) – I wrote an analysis of this song a few years ago and I more or less know it by heart. The key lines are:

    Ой ты, песня, песенка девичья,
    Ты лети за ясным солнцем вслед.

  3. samonen:

    >под говор

    I understand the accusative as conveying the idea of direction, or in this case, gradual change of consciousness, kinda moving from one thing to another, so the дремать is not static. I cannot explain this, really, and I’m not a native speaker of Russian, but a construction conveying the same idea can be used in my native language Finnish as well, very often in poetry, e.g. when the poem is about someone dying/”falling asleep” in(to) the murmur of the native lands’ forests or something like that.

    Here is a line by Ivan Bunin fromдремать:

    Ночью в полях под напевы метели дремлют, качаясь, березки и ели.

  4. Rob:

    gradual change of consciousness, kinda moving from one thing to another, so the дремать is not static

    Thanks, Samonen! This makes sense to me in light of Fitzmat’s comment about this под construction being used with verbs related to sleeping/resting.

    P.S. Прикольный аватар!

  5. Irene Kwasha:

    Oh thank you so much, I have really enjoyed playing and listening to the music, and looking at the dancers, it is the BEST video I have ever received, and I am so happy. Irene