In sound and on stage, one of the most enduring legacies of the 1917 Russian Revolution was the development and dissemination of folk orchestras—literally, orchestral ensembles modeled on the western European symphony but comprised of modified traditional instruments. These orchestras and their choral analogues became emblematic of musical socialism: new, modern but culturally distinctive performance vehicles for the new socialist states. Drawing upon the University of Illinois’s unique archival resources, this exhibit demonstrates the history, dispersal, and overall legacy of the Soviet folk orchestra in Russia and other parts of eastern Europe and Eurasia through displays of representative instruments, photographs, scores, and recordings. Central to the exhibit are instruments and ephemera associated with UI’s own Russian Folk Orchestra, established in the 1970s by the late professor emeritus of jazz John Garvey (1921-2006). The Illinois RFO is one of a handful founded at midwestern institutions during the late twentieth century; its presence on this campus is an indirect outgrowth of the cultural policies and exchanges triggered by the October Revolution, and an exclusive aspect the University’s history and longtime, internationally renowned, scholarly and artistic engagement with the Russian, eastern European, and Eurasian region.
The University of Illinois Russian Folk Orchestra was founded in 1974 by John Garvey, who had joined the University’s Walden String Quartet in 1948 as its violist and in 1959 established the university’s jazz band program. In 1969, the jazz band toured the Soviet Union as part of the State Department’s cultural exchange program, and Garvey developed a keen interest in Russian folk music. He later returned to the USSR to study Russian folk music traditions and purchased additional folk instruments that he used to establish the Illinois Russian Folk Orchestra. The Illinois ensemble eventually served as a model for other American universities’ Russian folk orchestras by providing open depoliticized educational spaces for students to pursue their interest in Russian folk music traditions. This exhibit of folk instruments, photographs, and music provides visitors with a general introduction to Russian folk music traditions and culture that were promoted by the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution and the folk musicians who immigrated to the United States after WWII. It also acknowledges many of the talented musicians who performed with the University of Illinois’ Russian Folk Orchestra under Garvey’s direction between 1974 and 1989 and reveals a forgotten part of the University of Illinois’ musical past.
Part of a series of events in the 2017-2018 academic year in connection with the "1917: Ten Days that shook the world / 2017: Ten Days that shake the campus" initiative