Jaroff, Serge Alexeyevich
- Donna Arnold
(b Makaryev, Kostroma Province, Russia, 20 March/1 April 1896; d Lakewood, NJ, 9 Oct 1985). Russian émigré choral conductor, founder of the Don Cossack Choir. He studied at Moscow’s Synodal School of Church Singing, and afterwards joined a Don Cossack regiment in the Russian Civil War. Defeated by Bolsheviks and exiled from Russia in 1920, his regiment was interned at a miserable camp near Istanbul. Ordered to found a choir to raise morale, he arranged repertoire from memory and, remarkably, transformed 36 amateur singers into a world-class ensemble. Once liberated, the Don Cossack Choir began a high-profile international career that spanned six decades.
Its concerts, sung in Russian, comprised Russian Orthodox liturgical works and folk, traditional, and soldier songs. Jaroff arranged most of the music. Conducting with minimal hand movements and penetrating facial expressions, he evoked extremely expressive rubatos and dynamic changes that enthralled audiences. The Don Cossacks were particularly renowned for their brilliant technique and superb octavists (whose vocal range extended to an octave below the bass) and falsettists. Jaroff’s unusual inclusion of falsettists was crucial to the choir’s compelling signature sonority and made mixed-choir masterpieces from the Russian canon feasible. Extra-musical factors, especially the very short Jaroff’s strict control of his Cossack giants, fascinated and delighted their fans.
The choir toured extensively in Europe from 1923 on and in the United States from 1930 on, achieving widespread fame. Banned from Russia forever, the members were Berlin-based, but legally without a country. As war threatened in Europe, however, Jaroff relocated them to the United States, where they attained permanent-resident status in 1936 and citizenship in 1943. By then several outstanding professional singers from the émigré population had replaced departing original amateurs, resulting in deepening artistic maturity, as certain of the choir’s recordings from the 1950s attest.
Throughout their history, the Don Cossacks enjoyed extraordinary success. They routinely drew large audiences, garnered glowing reviews, made iconic recordings, and appeared in films and television specials. They performed over ten thousand concerts on six continents, last touring in Europe in 1979. In failing health, Jaroff disbanded the choir in 1981. Its official successor, the ‘Don Kosaken Chor Serge Jaroff’, debuted in 2001. Based in Germany, its conductor is Wanja Hlibka, Jaroff’s youngest soloist from 1967–79.
- E. Klinskiĭ: Sergi︠e︡ĭ Zharov i ego Donskoĭ kazachīĭ khor [Serge Jaroff and his Don Cossack Choir] (Berlin, 1931; Ger. trans., ed. E. Klinsky, I. Minsky, and Studiengruppe ‘Don Kosaken Chor Serge Jaroff’, 2015, as Vierzig Don Kosaken erobern die Welt; Don Kosaken Chor Serge Jaroff 1921–2015)
- E. Klinsky: Vierzig Donkosaken erobern die Welt: S. Jaroff und sein Donkosakenchor, trans. A. Rohne-Lelukévicz and H. Matthes (Berlin, 1933)
- S. West, S. Jaroff, and W. Flustikoff: ‘The Original Don Cossacks and the Music of the Don; an Interview with Serge Jaroff’, Etude, 41/11 (1943), 706, 758–9