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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Nineteenth-Century Russian Gypsy Choir and the Performance of Otherness

  • Author(s): Scott, Erik R.
  • et al.

As Russia’s nineteenth-century Gypsy craze swept through Moscow and St. Petersburg, Gypsy musicians entertained, dined with, and in some cases married Russian noblemen, bureaucrats, poets, and artists. Because the Gypsies’ extraordinary musical abilities supposedly stemmed from their unique Gypsy nature, the effectiveness of their performance rested on the definition of their ethnic identity as separate and distinct from that of the Russian audience. Although it drew on themes deeply embedded in Russian— and European—culture, the Orientalist allure of Gypsy performance was in no small part self-created and self-perpetuated by members of Russia’s renowned Gypsy choirs. For it was only by performing their otherness that Gypsies were able to seize upon their specialized role as entertainers, which gave this group of outsiders temporary control over their elite Russian audiences even as the songs, dances, costumes, and gestures of their performance were shaped perhaps more by audience expectations than by Gypsy musical traditions. The very popularity of the Gypsy musical idiom and the way it intimately reflected the Russian host society would later bring about a crisis of authenticity that by the end of the nineteenth century threatened the magical potential of Gypsy song and dance by suggesting it was something less than the genuine article.

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