Since October, I’ve been singing in a choir here in Samara. I’ve sung in choirs before at school and university, but they were very different from this.
Firstly, they were far less serious – all very amateur. Although this is technically an amateur choir too, the standard is very high, and I sometimes find it hard to keep up. We rehearse three times a week for 2 and a half hours each time, which on top of everything else I do can be quite exhausting!
I’m glad I do it, though. It’s been a great opportunity to meet some more Russians, practise my pronunciation (nothing helps you learn a foreign language like singing songs in it), stretch my musical muscles, but also to learn a lot about Russian attitudes from music in general, to the second world war, to religion, to recent ongoings in the Crimea, something I really hadn’t expected. As this year we have mostly been singing Russian songs, each with its own cultural associations and attachments, I’ve learnt about them as we go along.
We’ve done a variety of concerts – we sang a festive mass in Samara’s main concert hall in October; performed the national anthem for Russia’s “Constitution Day” in December; most recently, we sang songs from the Second World War, in anticipation of Victory Day on the 9th of May.
Thinking about our repertoire, I was reminded of a question a Russian friend recently asked me – what do I think the differences between a Russian sense of humour and a British one are – because the first thing that came to mind was our ability to take any desperate situation and make a sort of self-depracating or fatalistic joke out of it.
I think British wartime songs are a prime example of this – “Hush, Here Comes a Whizzbang”, “Bombed Last Night, Bombed the Night Before”, etc. The other members of my choir were nothing less than shocked when I told them that humour and sarcasm were a key element in British wartime songs. For them, war – particularly (but not exclusively) World War II (called “Великая Отечественная Война”, or “The Great War for the Fatherland” in Russian) – is a sacred topic, where humour has no place, understandably, as a) the USSR suffered more fatalities from the war than any other country and b) under Stalin’s rule, sarcastic, unpatriotic songs had no place in a wartime repertoire. I was struck by the way in which people even in my generation feel personally affected by this; in the choir and the audience there was a distinctly patriotic ambience during both our Constitution Day and our Victory Day concerts. People were very solemn, some stood up, some even cried, especially during a song set in the Crimea…
Anyway, I’ll let you judge for yourselves – here’s a video (well, two videos, actually) of our Victory Day concert.
(I’m afraid the sound quality isn’t great, not sure if that’s the fault of the choir or the video equipment…! And in case you’re wondering, I’m the one on the second row who keeps messing up the lyrics)