Sunday, June 16, 2013

Novella Matveyeva and her Greensleeves.

Novella Matveyeva. Photo by Al Silonov.

Greensleeves in Russian.

Bard (бард) is the Russian term for singer-songwriter, a folk singer who writes their own lyrics and sings, usually to acoustic guitar. I understand that the English word bard is now archaic and never used to describe a modern singer or poet. In Russian it is still in circulation. (Wikipedia on bardy, with a list of the best known names.)

The term appeared in late 1950s - 1960s at the same time as Russian poetry was having a phenomenal renaissance that coincided with the folk-song revival in the US. Another Russian name for this genre is author's song (авторская песня). 

Bards (барды) often performed on stage alongside 'proper' poets to packed audiences, including full stadiums. They sometimes became well-known and had their songs sung all over the Soviet Union, in tiny kitchens and by the bon-fires, well before their songs were broadcast, released on records or published. 

The new striking feature of the bards' output was the Bob Dylan-like blend of the deeply personal with that of  'great social and political import.' Some of them were fiercely patriotic, others were anti-regime dissidents.

One poet singer stands out in that great generation — Novella Matveyeva (Новелла Матвеева, wiki about her), whose piercing romanticism and inimitable child-like voice I can only roughly compare to Kate Bush. She started writing and singing in the 50s and her songs were all over the country with people not even knowing who the author was. Her first LP record only came out in 1966. She now has dozens of records and poetry collections behind her.

Matveyeva, who will be eighty next year, is still working. It is reported that she is preparing her version of Shakespeare's sonnets in Russian.

One of her best known songs is the ballad  'A Girl from the Tavern' ("Девушка из таверны"), better known for its opening line "Любви моей ты боялся зря" ('You shouldn't have been scared of my love' .) The music is a slightly changed Greensleeves tune. The first stanza practically goes as a quote from Greensleeves but on the second the melody scatters and stumbles in a typically 1960s folk-song manner. И если ты уходил к другой, she starts, and then continues или просто был неизвестно где as though it is one extended line that disregards the rhythm.

The lyrics is a reverse version of Greensleeves, it's not a song of a man's longing but a young girl's bitter but contented lament about the man who she loved and who apparently ignored her. 

'And when you left to see someone else, or simply were no one knows where,
For me, it was enough that your raincoat hang on the nail.'
Then he leaves for good and

'I was just happy to see the nail in the wall where your raincoat used to hang.'
This is not the end,
'Something terrible happened at home, they pulled out that nail. 
Well, I was just happy that from the nail a small mark was left there.'

These lines are simply heart-breaking. (My literal translation)

Full Russian and English texts of the song are here. I am publishing extracts below the video. It is not clear who translated the ballad into English. Matveyeva's lyrics are all over the internet but I am not sure about the copyright, so I put only two opening stanzas and the last one here.

In the first YouTube clip Matveyeva sings 'A Girl from the Tavern.' And in the next is a 1965 video of her singing another popular ballad 'Once There Was a Little Boat' ("Жил кораблик")

Любви моей ты боялся зря -
Не так я страшно люблю.
Мне было довольно видеть тебя,
Встречать улыбку твою.

И если ты уходил к другой,
Иль просто был неизвестно где,
Мне было довольно того, что твой
Плащ висел на гвозде.
И в теплом ветре ловить опять
То скрипок плач, то литавров медь...
А что я с этого буду иметь,
Того тебе не понять.


For naught did my love frighten you -
Not so fiercely do I love.
It was enough to see you here,
To greet your smile with my own.

When to another you had gone,
Or simply wandered who knows where,
It was enough that your coat remained
Hanging on a nail.
And on warm winds to catch once more
The violins' weeping and the trumpets' brass,
And what I get from all this,
You'll never understand.

And finally, in this clip The King's Singers perform Greensleeves at the BBC Proms:

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