Earlier this year, and I have forgotten why, it was suddenly important for me to know how to spell Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. In no time I found myself on Wikipedia scrolling down a list of ‘Significant Russian Composers’. As I descended from the ‘A’s, apart from the sheer numbers – there were well over four hundred names – I was struck by the absence of women. Then, at the foot of the list, the proportion improved significantly with the entry of ‘Mariya Zubova (1749–1799)’. And so this story began.
Zubova was born in Saint Petersburg, a rich and thriving cultural centre and the home of Russia’s Catherine the Great. In addition to being an outstanding leader, an intellectual and a patron of the arts, Empress Catherine, who reigned from 1762 – 96, was also a tireless ‘feminist’ who founded schools and universities for girls and young women both in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. In keeping, she promoted women at her court and Mariya Zubova, a singer and composer, was amongst those she championed.
While on the web, it wasn’t long before I was listening to ‘I am Banished to the Desert’, a composition by Zubova recently recorded by Anne Harley, a Canadian soprano. The song was a delight – gentle, melodic and strangely contemporary. And it had another most unexpected feature. Here was an 18th century Russian folksong that had an uncanny resemblance to the Welsh folksong Watching the White Wheat that experts date back to the same period.
My discovery of the Welsh folksong is a story in itself. In March 2011, out-of-the-blue, I received a most wonderful recording of Watching the White Wheat. It was sent by Andrea, a friend and former work colleague. I knew she sang in a choir, but this was on another plane. She sent me the recording as she felt that I might like to hear it too. Her unaccompanied voice was pure and delightful and in the higher notes was tingling (Bugeilio’r gwenith gwyn). I played it over and over again and soon knew it by heart.
As soon as I heard Mariya’s composition almost a decade later I wrote to Andrea telling her of my discovery and by return she told me how she had found Harley’s recording on the web and that listening to it was a joy and a surprise. We soon struck a deal – if I could send her an English translation of the words, she would learn the piece and record it herself. Whether she would sing it in Russian or English would be decided later, but either way she would need to know what the words meant.
Over the next four months a lot went on. My wife Rohan, who is learning Russian, took on the job of translator. She found the original Russian text on the web and with her teacher translated what transpired to be a rather sad story and one close to the Welsh original. While the Russian story tells of a grief-stricken young women separated from her lover by being banished to a desert; the Welsh song is about a woman who is separated from her lover and dies of a broken heart.
Andrea, using the original Canadian recording, made a notation of the tune (see illustration), learned the tune and the words in both Russian and English and then began building the song. It soon became clear to her that it would have to be sung in Russian and for that she learned pronunciation from a Russian-speaking friend.
Last week the finished version arrived and with her willowy and wonderful voice that manages to reflect the Russian melancholy of the original, Andrea’s recording of ‘I am banished to the desert’ is sublime (click on ‘desert’ to hear for yourself). Hers has been a most amazing work.
This blog tells of a wonderful adventure which all started because of my poor grasp of spelling. The discovery of Mariya Zubova and her compelling composition was a real pleasure. The fact that every character in this story is a woman gives me added satisfaction and that the story crosses three centuries and as many countries is an additional bonus. It would be nice to think that there was enough cross border communication in the 18th century that the two songs might have influenced one another. After all, Saint Petersburg has always seen itself as Russia’s cultural gateway to the west. Finally, hearing the way Andrea interprets and then sings Mariya’s song crowns it all.
The illustration shows a photo of the staves with a notation written by Andrea when she was learning the tune of ‘I am Banished to the desert’ from Anne Harley’s recording.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Andrea, Anne, John, Rohan and Vivien.