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Everything about Maria Mordasova shouts joy. That face, that voice, that attitude, that entire life (or, most of it… read on). Here is a woman whose first job as a girl was as a milkmaid. The first job she took after moving to Voronezh when she was around 20 was at a garment factory. Nothing at that time pointed to the fact that she would soon be one of the most famous and beloved stars in the Soviet Union. Well, except for one thing – that voice. It was a voice that was made to sing Russian folk songs and chastushki – those quick-witted, comical little run-ons of life observations. She made them sparkle and ring out with a perfection that may never have been matched. Give a listen if you’re interested – I dare you not to be smiling within seconds.
Despite what I said just above, folks in her native town of Lower Mazovka, near Tambov, knew she was special. Like her mother Praskovya – the best singer of folk songs in the area – she was a favorite at public gatherings and celebrations and festivals. The legend is that, even when she was still a girl, she would entrance audiences so that they would not let her leave the stage and she would perform for them until morning.
Yeah, maybe a legend. But where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And there certainly was fire in Mordasova’s voice and her manner of delivery. When she sang it was like she was unleashing a volcano of pent-up Russian energy. Hers was a voice that could fly like an eagle over birch woods, fir forests, and grassy meadows. It was a voice that could embody those very Russian images.
Mordasova was born February 14, 1915, and she died in Voronezh September 25, 1997. After winning the plaudits of a talent show in her hometown in 1938, and, apparently, escaping a bad marriage, she moved to the big city of Voronezh. A few years later she was instrumental in founding a folk music ensemble in the village of Anna. This happened in late 1942, a time that was very dark in the Soviet Union. The war at that time was taking a horrible toll. Surely, the founding of a joy-filled folk group would have pleased the authorities, and one assumes they had plenty of help. With Mordasova’s voice in the lead, they deserved it.
In fact, Mordasova’s first big break as an entertainer came in January 1943, shortly after Voronezh was liberated from the German army. She and her group performed at the celebrations and it brought her national attention.
Mordasova married the accordionist Ivan Rudenko in 1945 – it is his accordion you hear on most of her recordings – and as soon as peace was declared, they and their ensemble set out on a tour of the entire Soviet Union, bringing light, joy and hope to a nation ravaged by death, destruction and hopelessness. I mention all of this in a tone that helps explain why this singer’s fame and popularity spread so quickly and so deeply.
One gets a feeling for Mordasova’s impact on a nation in a paragraph from one of the online biographies in Russian:
“New collections of songs and chastushki, recordings on records, recordings on the radio, and articles in the newspapers appeared regularly. Maria Nikolaevna’s song lived in her heart. It was her manner of speech, her gift of communicating with people. Everyone knew Mordasova, from small to big. And she was welcome in any house. Her songs have always been welcome!”
When I mentioned to my wife Oksana that I was going to write about Mordasova, she struggled to make the connection at first, but, relying on the instincts of her cultural upbringing, she immediately said, “Oh! That’s something great! That’s something huge! It’s from my childhood. I’m not sure what. But I know it’s huge!”
As it turned out, Mordasova spent 30 years singing with the Voronezh Folk Choir, and, later, the Regional Philharmonia. She traveled over all of Russia and much of the world, bringing her self-styled understanding of the Russian spirit to those who were interested.
Aside from her incredible singing style, however, Mordasova was also a brilliant writer and an important collector of folklore. Many of the songs she sang she either wrote or had collected herself. The site mentioned just above informs us that she wrote over 300 of her own songs. The heart and soul of the kind of song she sang was wit, humor and brevity. In “Everyone Has Young Husbands,” she sings, “I have a young old man for a husband…” In “Heartbreaker,” she sings, “My face is very pretty and I stole a handsome man from you, now go ahead, you beauty, just try and steal him back…”
One source informs us that losing the joy of the stage brought the singer serious complications. “Maria Mordasova left the stage in 1982 and began writing her memoirs. Leaving the stage seriously undermined Maria Nikolayevna’s mental health. She began to experience depression and nervous breakdowns. In 1994 she became an honorary citizen of Voronezh. September 25, 1997, 82-year-old Maria Mordasova died of a hemorrhage in the brain.”
The plaque we gaze upon today hangs on the wall of a relatively nondescript building located at 8 Lenin Square in Voronezh. (I hate to say this is uncertain information. Net sources do not agree on the address – my photos show that the next door building is No. 9, and that is where the Mordasova Museum is now located. But the address of her home is alternately given as No. 6 or No. 8 in various sources.) The official order to erect the plaque was issued April 20, 1998.