Our tea that day was very special. It was a warm and sunny afternoon and we decided to eat in the garden. When Rohan’s Russian teacher arrived the table was already set with a spread that included home-made biscuits and an apple tart baked for the occasion. Masha, once a teacher of Russian in Novosibirsk, emigrated to France over a decade ago and for her, Russia was never far away.
She was relaxed, we laughed a lot and our time together sped by as we swapped stories and shared experiences. We also discussed matters Russian. We talked about the challenges of learning French and Russian, according to Masha, Russian is the easier; about the problems that the pandemic caused her when she tried to go to Novosibirsk for a holiday – she had not been home for six years; and the advantages of being bilingual – both her children speak French and Russian fluently.
Then conversation turned to music. I knew that, as a child, she had spent seven years at a Music Conservatory where one of her particular interests was singing. In the end, however, she plumped for a career in teaching.
Later on during tea, I asked if she sang much now, was she for instance a member of a choir of expatriate Russians living in Brittany? With a face that told of disappointment she replied that no such choir existed and that forming one would be too difficult. She added how much she missed ‘table songs’. My ears ‘pricked up’ and I asked her to explain, but for some reason table singing was so everyday that conveying it to an outsider was for her difficult.
We learned that all over Russia, particularly in the countryside, when sitting round a table for a meal and if the mood was right, partakers would often break into song. As she spoke I pictured guests celebrating the food and drink that had been consumed and, half jokingly, picked up my empty cup and, in my best voice, serenaded it aloud along the lines “Oh beautiful cup, your warm and soothing contents were so enhancing.”
Well, I had clearly missed the point! In Russia, songs are sung at every opportunity and their subjects cover anything and everything – there are songs for harvesting, ploughing, marching, recruiting, even songs for prison inmates. In fact there are books of songs for guests to sing around the table. Singing starts spontaneously, may involve any number of refrains with guests joining in if they so wish. If an instrument is handy, there may well be some accompaniment. Then it is back to eating. It is a wonderfully rich tradition, indeed, as Masha pointed out, while in her country there are a myriad of songs to be sung around the table, in France and England there is just the one – “Happy Birthday”.
I asked her if she would sing us one now. She looked thoughtful, did not say “Yes”, and for a good minute sat silently, wrapped in thought. This impromptu request was challenging – if she was to sing she had to be sure that she could remember all the words and that her choice would be suitable for a garden.
In the end she agreed and had decided to sing “So Many Golden Lights” (see illustration) which was originally from a film sound track. It was her second most favourite – she was worried that her number one would have been too loud and might disturb the neighbours. She last sang this song at a meal almost twenty years ago and, while singing it now was one thing, it was also clear that a song with such memories carried emotion.
She turned towards us, transformed her elfin figure into that of an imposing ‘performer’, took a deep breath in and for five minutes, well five verses, she enchanted us with a feast of a most beautiful alto voice. Soft or loud, her once-trained classical voice was pure and rich. Hearing the sound of a Russian song wafting across the flower beds added a touch of the surreal. At the end Rohan and I applauded, and in response she told us how she still often practised alone at home. To my ears her voice will have lost little or nothing.
Her singing was a special topping to a lovely afternoon tea. Next time Rohan is with Masha it will be as student and teacher. For me, it was a moment that sealed a friendship.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Masha, John, Rohan and Vivien.
The illustrations shows the score and lyrics of the first lines of “So Many Golden Lights”. It is taken from a book of Table Songs published in Russia.