Today I visited my Mother’s house after church. I had stayed late for a rehearsal of the big piece we’re performing in April, namely Ernest Bloch’s Sacred Service.
It’s funny how things sometimes seem to follow patterns, whether in reality or in our minds.
At church, our music director David Warrack is teaching us music sung in Hebrew. For everyone at today’s rehearsal, that means we’re singing phonetically without much comprehension (except when we encounter hallelujah or amen). We’re making music, trying to make sense of words that normally would be a foreign language. The piece by Bloch becomes an inter-cultural bridge. While that may seem odd, it’s how people learn oratorios, operas, songs written in other languages; part of the task is to dig into the text, to properly learn what the text means, its context and how it is to be pronounced. It’s a wonderfully seductive process, because one never gets to a point where one knows too much. An Englishman learning Shakespeare or a German learning Bach will always have more they can learn, so you can imagine that newcomers will have that much more to discover. In the meantime, a text such as Bloch’s score is a magic carpet, taking us into a whole new world.
Need I mention that the intention of the organizers – who are bringing together choirs from different faith communities—is to encourage inter-faith encounter? The conversation across faiths (where each faith represents a discursive community, a complex network of codes & symbols) is by definition a cross-cultural experience.
Later, at my Mom’s there i was, doing the same thing. Now of course that may sound odd. Isn’t a son from the same culture as his mother? Yes and no.
A song my Mother heard recently on the radio moved her to reminisce about an experience from long ago, taking her back to her youth. Songs are funny that way, instantly taking us into reveries & memories in the past.
My Mom suddenly remembered a song she heard on another radio, long ago in Budapest during the first days after the Russians arrived in Budapest. She was wondering if I could help her to identify the tune. She sang it for me in Hungarian, and i persuaded her to let me record her singing it (it sounded pretty good by the way!). The song was a romantic Russian song being played in Budapest on the radio in 1944 or perhaps 1945. I got the impression it was the equivalent of a “hit“ at the time.
But wait. A Russian song embraced by the Hungarian populace? as a “hit”? That seems unthinkable given that the words that usually pop into my head when I think of “Budapest” and “USSR,” are words such as “uprising”, “revolution” or “tanks”.
My mother told me a story that might explain.
During the worst part of the Second World War–when the Nazis and Soviets were fighting it out, often on the soil of other nations– people hid away, fearful, endangered. Of course the way she described it was simply as a horror.
And then one fine day, the bombardments stopped. Curious, my mom and her family & neighbours emerged from their bunkers & basement hiding places.
As they came to the surface, the locals encountered men in clean white capes, who said
“Baratajim, ne feljetek, felszabitani jöttunk. Nincs töb háború.”
Those are Hungarian words, spoken by Russians in unlikely clothes. After a bombardment, starving people emerge from their bombed buildings to find reassuring men in beautiful white telling them exactly what they dreamt of hearing? Talk about a theatrical moment!
What did these mysterious men in white say?
“Friends, be not afraid. We came to liberate you. There’s no more war.”
I can’t help remembering the arrival of the Martians on Earth in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks. The translator device says “we come in peace” moments before a Martian fries the symbolic dove of peace with a raygun, first blow in a pre-emptive attack on humanity.
And just like the Martians, the Russians seemed to be saviours to the populace of Budapest, freeing them from the Nazi occupation. In time this would change. But in the first blush of liberation, the Soviets enjoyed a honeymoon period.
In time the honeymoon would end. But at the beginning, if there was to be a dialogue, if there was to be peace, every effort was made to understand one another. Anything less is doomed to failure.
The unlikely “hit” on Budapest radio began with the following lyrics:
Szol az egyik a másiknak
Ne busulj Tovarisch
Minden lány elfelejt rendesen
— mindent el visz a viz
One soldier confides to another, pessimistic about love. The populace of a demoralized city likely could relate to the heartbreak of soldiers long separated from their sweethearts at home.
I found it astonishing to find that fourth line, which translates as
“the water takes everything away”.
In our service today, we read from Psalm 32 (whereas the phrase in the Russian song is completely serendipitous, the psalm was likely chosen because it resonates with what we’ve seen on TV and internet this week after the earthquake & tsunami in Japan) :
“Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
will not reach them.”
I will try to find a Russian song with similar lyrics to the one I quoted above. I seek the one sung in Budapest back in the 40s, when everyone was ready to believe that they came in peace. Just because the search for peace hasn’t yet been successful doesn’t mean we should stop looking.
I’ll let you know if i find it.