Birthplace of ‘Moscow Nights,’ Moscow

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How the river moves, yet doesn’t move
All turned silvery by the moon
How a song is heard, yet isn’t heard
In these quiet evening times

“Moves, doesn’t move.” “Heard, isn’t heard.” Sounds like life. Or that old Russian joke my late friend Anatoly Agamirov once told me: “It’s like this – either someone stole a coat or someone’s coat was stolen.” In other words, something happened, we all know that. But what it was – nobody knows.
Rather like the writing of the classic Soviet song “Moscow Nights.” But, see? Right there we’ve bogged down in problems already! The name of the song is ‘Podmoskovnye vechera,” which means “Suburban Moscow Nights” (sort of), or “Nights Outside of Moscow,” or, even more correctly, “Evenings in the Areas Lying outside of Moscow proper…” You get the point. That’s why we call it “Moscow Nights.”
The stories surrounding this little song with such a big impact are filled with such paradoxes and imperfections. One involves the plaque honoring the fact that lyricist Mikhail Matusovsky (1915-1990) lived in the building at 15 Sivtsev-Vrazhek in the Arbat district of Moscow. It says right there on the plaque, “Here was born the song ‘Moscow Nights.’ Author M. Matusovsky.” Well, yes, you see – they are fudging. “The song was ‘born’ here.” So was it written here? According to most sources – no. It would look like the song was actually tossed together in a hurry when Matusovsky was kicking back at the dacha with his friend, the composer Vasily Solovyov-Sedoi (1907-1979) one lazy summer in 1955. According to the legend, neither of them wanted to do it – they were tired and it was hot and the commission was for a rush job. A documentary film about athletes needed a song, like, right now. They had no ideas, they really didn’t care about some documentary film, but – as the story goes – they figured they could use some extra cash, so they agreed to write the song. They pulled it together based on an old melody Solovyov-Sedoi had once discarded, while Matusovsky apparently wrote new words that reflected the languorous summer they were passing so pleasantly.
So there’s that catch – did Matusovsky write the song at his dacha in Komarovo? Or did he write it on Sivtsev-Vrazhek in Moscow? Or was it a case of him having some ideas that he’d tossed together at home that he now pushed into action? – thus the notion that “Moscow Nights” was “born,” rather than “written” at this location in Moscow…

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But that is hardly the last catch involving this song that virtually every single individual who knows anything about Russia knows and, probably, loves. Cliche that it has become, how can your heart not melt when you hear that once-discarded melody and those tossed-together-at-the-last-minute words? The fact of the matter is that it might have happened that nobody would ever have heard it. When the songwriters delivered their product, the producers hated it. They wanted to replace it with another, but there wasn’t time to commission a replacement – they had to deliver their film. Then they asked a popular singer to sing it and he hated it so much that he refused. He reportedly said, “All those ‘moves, doesn’t move, heard, isn’t heard.’ What the hell’s that supposed to mean?!” So, really scrambling at this point, the producers asked Vladimir Troshin (1926-2008), a relatively unknown actor at the Moscow Art Theater, to sing the song. He, like the authors, probably figured, hey – I can use the extra cash, and he sang it.
And BOOM!!! Instant classic. Instant fame. For now and evermore. This song has worked its way so deeply into the grain of the Russian consciousness that the vast majority of people think it is a folk song. It sounds like one, actually. That makes sense. But, in fact, it belongs to two reluctant authors who delivered it to unappreciative producers who had to maneuver past unwilling singers to bring it to us. You can listen to Troshin’s original version on a YouTube video. And, to give you something to follow along with, here is an edited version of the the translated lyrics as provided by blokh on lyricstranslate.com.

In the garden, not a sigh is heard
All is gently stilled ’til dawn
If you only knew what they mean to me,
These peaceful Moscow nights

How the river moves, yet doesn’t move
All turned silvery by the moon
How a song is heard, yet isn’t heard
In these quiet evening times

Darling, why do you stare suspiciously
With your lovely head bent low?
How hard to speak, yet not to speak
Of what weighs heavy on my heart

Ever brighter, now, shines the rising sun,
So darling, please, do be kind –
Keep them in your heart – as I will too:
These Moscow summer nights

Oh, and one more thing: “Moscow Nights” was originally intended to be a song about Leningrad – “leningradskie vechera”… That is why the song in Russian is about the evenings in the “Moscow outskirts” (podmoskovnye) rather than in “Moscow” (moskovskie)… The meter wouldn’t have fit.

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