Who are the Don Cossack Choir?
With the appetite of someone who’s had plenty to drink and little to eat; night after night Dad took over the kitchen. There’d be the coal range to stoke up, then white bread to get out of the cupboard, butter and cheese from the fridge. Cigarette smoke would be in the air, and cups of tea were used to wash down slice after slice of bread with lashings of butter, reinforced by wedges of cheese. My father would be centre stage telling yarns, which I’d often heard before. From time to time one or other of my brothers would walk in and help out with demolishing the bread and cheese. Mum would be in bed, recovering from her months in hospital with tuberculosis.
‘That man.’ Dad would shake his head in disbelief. ‘That a man could sing like that, when he was dying from TB!’ He was thinking about the Don Cossack Choir member he watched singing the solo in Monotonously Rings the Little Bell, a searingly melancholic piece of Russian folk music.
In 1926 my father heard the Don Cossack Choir perform in Christchurch. He was eighteen years old. He remembered their singing for the rest of his life.
Their records were among the first purchases to be played on the stereo that was bought at Rotorua in 1958. We quickly became familiar with the mix of bravado, exuberance and extreme yearning expressed through their singing.
Historically the Don River Cossacks were mercenaries for the tsar, among other things. As a result of the Russian revolution and the victory of the Red Army, by 1920 large groups of Cossacks found themselves refugees in Turkey. It was here that Serge Jaroff, a young lieutenant, who had received musical training in Moscow, decided to get some of his men singing to raise morale. His group of a capella choristers gathered a repertoire of Russian folksongs and religious music, and sang their hearts out. In exile they sang songs of home, in the best tradition of all the songsters who long to be back where they belong. Their growing fame transported them via Europe to the United States. Performance took them everywhere around the world, except back to their homeland, Russia.
In 1926 Dame Nellie Melba invited the Don Cossacks to sing in Australia, and it seems logical that they would have visited New Zealand at that time. Dad did hear them perform. At intervals he would tell again, his memories of the concert. As often as not, he would talk about it when alcohol had loosened his tongue. He could proclaim at length; most often it seems now, when I was sitting at the kitchen table trying to do homework or swot for exams during my fifth and sixth form years at Grey High School. In other words, when I needed to be doing something other than listen to him. I just can’t imagine my saying, ‘Dad, I’m busy swotting,’ back then.
As a child, Dad was sent out to do the gardening with his younger brother Alan each week during class singing. He told us kids that as a joke, but I’m not sure it ever really was. Every so often he would croak out a line or two in a drab monotone.
‘I look for zee angel, but zee angel are so few,’ or ‘gone are ze days, when my heart vas young and gay’ and then wander off to the garden chuckling to himself. Things were always good when he felt like chanting, ‘I had a little dog and his name was Ben, he had nine tails and jolly near ten … and he chased them round the room … with a broom’
In my book, to be allowed to sing regardless of quality is a basic human right. People who feel they are superior about singing in tune or time around the house disgust me. Many a fight would start during the dishes. We’d be singing then someone would pipe up. ‘That’s not the right words.’
‘They are so!’
‘Hey Mum.’ And there is instant escalation.
‘Sara Sue I’m sad and lone—‘
‘Hey I was singing!’
‘You were not !‘
‘Evening shadows leave me blue, when—‘
‘I told you. You don’t know the words.’
Next thing there are tears, someone flounces out — and it is all over the words of a bloody song no one knows for sure. And that’s me, sounding just like my father after a few drinks. I never remembered the words, and trying to sing at the sink was not worth the fuss and bother. Anyway, Dad was told he couldn’t sing, yet he admired the singing of some performers with passion. The Don Cossacks, and Joseph Schmidt were heroes, and perhaps Paul Robeson one of the great bass voices of the twentieth century. What they held in common was voice quality. And Dad saw their singing as politically subversive for one reason or another.
Joseph Schmidt was born a Rumanian Jew in 1904. Because he was only 150 centimetres tall, he was denied the chance to become an opera singer of note. A great lyric tenor, his voice perfectly suited the new medium of radio and microphone use as broadcasting developed during the 1920s and 1930s. He trained in Berlin, and gained international fame for his concert performances. Later on his fame grew as he starred in a number of film musicals.
My father would have become familiar with his voice through radio more likely than film, and from 1958 when a record player appeared in our home, there was a Joseph Schmidt record to listen to, a 45 r.p.m. extended-play disc that featured A Star Fell From Heaven plus three other songs, possibly including Tiritomba, which I learned in standard 3 or 4 at Welbourne Primary School, New Plymouth.
After establishing his career and international fame (despite the rise of fascism), Schmidt spent the war years trying to find a safe haven in Europe. I can remember my father telling me Schmidt was put in Auschwitz where he died. After a few drinks at the pub, during my teenage years, Dad would arrive home thoroughly stirred up.
‘How could they put a voice like that in a gas oven?’ My father would say with anguish in his voice, overcome with the enormity of existence. My father’s exclamations on those late evenings were as much about him as Schmidt. For me, the pain of this still carries an emotional punch. Yet, the funny thing is, he didn’t know the facts.
In 1942 Schmidt was interned in a Swiss refugee camp, although he was well known and possessed an American visa. In November of that year he died from disease and exhaustion. In 1960 we didn’t own computers to Google the facts of any biography we chose. Joseph Schmidt with the amazing lyrical tenor voice was not gassed by a Nazi in a concentration camp. Effectively his life was terminated by a petty Swiss bureaucrat who feared being seen to do anything that may offend the Nazi regime. An anonymous rubber stamp was not given to the Jewish Schmidt allowing him passage to the United States. Although the principle was spot on, Dad got it wrong.
In the paradoxical world of his own existence Dad would seldom have actually listened to the singing of these voices while I was growing up. Most often the radio was commandeered by older brothers or sisters, listening to hit parades or the Goon show, or Life with Dexter. Regardless Dad became more and more deaf as the years went by, physically and quite possibly socially. I wonder if the clamour was more than he could bother with. Often enough, he’d sit silently in company, having turned off the hearing aid he wore from his fifties till his death at ninety.
I sympathize with the deafness. My own world changed radically when, close to sixty, I got hearing aids. Now I also joke, about being able to wake in a quiet world, and having use to technology if I want to hear. Music I thought I knew had whole sections of violin, or similarly high pitched instruments playing notes that I had no idea existed. Something like the beginning of Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams was beautiful music — but I didn’t know how beautiful. Only with hearing aids am I able to hear the first few delicate bars of a solo violin or the final section. Listening to the human voice had its fair share of problems as well, so I’m not surprised that Dad just gave up trying. So many people mumble, speak without facing the person they’re talking to, or in some other way are indistinct in speech. It can be difficult enough anyway, even with the aids stuck in your ears like corks, as if they are keeping your brains from falling out.
Not long ago I came across The Best of the Don Cossack Choir, absolutely by chance. There it was, tucked in an unlikely carton of records from which we were invited to take any we desired. This scrap of vinyl, a twelve inch LP had belonged to the recently deceased father of a friend. In mint condition, it appeared to have never been played right through. I couldn’t wait to get home with my find. We’d recently bought a turntable to play the old records we still had stashed away in cartons. Listening, what took place I wasn’t quite prepared for — the power of these voices, their ability to communicate emotion.
My old man, his late night harangue sessions, his helplessness in the face of his anguish, his anger at injustice, the remembered sound of his voice welled up, echoing in the room with the singing from the Don Cossack Choir. Dad is ten years dead. I am unable to let him know how moved I was to hear this singing again. Perhaps the voices evoke what music could do for Dad.
He was a country boy working in the city. He would have been confronted by their voices, singing with that palpable longing for what has been lost. Back in 1926, listening to the songs coming from that stage in Christchurch where he was working as a railway cadet, something had been stirred in Dad. Two dozen exiled Russians dressed in drab black uniforms sang for something which they could never farewell; their families and childhoods, their livelihoods, and most of all, their homeland, Mother Russia and the black soil of the land through which the Don River swept. One young man in their audience recognized something. Jack White, by eighteen years of age, had seen enough of life to recognize loss and longing when he heard it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pat White is a writer and artist who lives in the Wairarapa. He was a student in the 2009 MA in Creative Writing at the IIML. At present he is on the Robert Lord Cottageresidency in Dunedin, and is to be the 2010 Randell Cottage Writer in Residence. He is working on a biographical work on the life of Peter Hooper, West Coast author and conservationist.